Remember when you were a kid and you always had to ask Mom or Dad permission before doing anything so you wouldn’t get your bottom smacked? Boy, you couldn’t wait to grow up so you could do anything you wanted to do! Then you grew up and found out you still had to ask permission to do things. Bummer.
Building your own solar power system might well require you ask permission in the form of getting permits or filling out paperwork. On the other hand, it may not. I want to go through some examples, today.
Let’s start with some examples where you may do it yourself without a permit. We’ll start with some ridiculous examples like those little solar sidewalk lights. No permit, but it is solar. A more useful project would be a solar motion detector light for the corner of the garage. You actually get to use tools for that!
Let’s get a little more serious now. Do you have a boat? Sailboats and cruisers are a huge market for solar. I read the cruising forums and lots of folks are doing their own and there are some pretty serious systems. Heck, my expedition boat is 100% solar powered, even the galley. There are no permits involved, but the Coast Guard may come aboard, as they sometimes do, and they will want to see things safe. Your insurance company may require a survey, too. Use cables made for marine service, non-rusting hardware, lash down the batteries and protect things from the fingerpoking!
In fact, that general advice might be good for ANY kind of solar installation that you do. Use the right wire, make it look orderly and workmanlike, make it safe. Inspectors look for the scary-looking stuff, so don’t make it scary.
Motorhomes and RVs are another good place for DIY solar. The roofs may have vents, fans, skylights and antennae, but there is usually enough room up there to put in a good bit of solar. Mounting on offsets can allow for more solar, but may present an issue with wind lift. Besides, RVs tend to be pretty tall to start with. We have the notorious 17th Avenue Bridge in Pensacola, which has been the end to many an 18 wheeler and RV, so why tempt fate with added height? Keep it low. Know what the structure is, too. You want to get your bolts into something that will hold. A friend’s very large rig has a roof that is basically molded styrofoam covered in sheet metal! In a case like that, use lots of screws. On that rig, we considered using solar laminates (panels without the frames) bent to follow the curves and held in place with greenhouse channel. Because of all the other things up there to dodge, a mosaic of smaller panels might be the key to getting the most watts on the roof. Watch the weight, too. You don’t want to get it top heavy and go tipping over ! As long as your panels don’t come flying off, nobody will say a thing about permits for your RV power project.
Another RV project would be to have a portable setup. I know guys who go to big outdoor shows in their RVs. If they can find a shady spot, they will. Some set up panels on a stand away from their shade and can run fans and charge phones without ever having to fire up the noisy generator.
Are you a farmer or rural dweller? On the farm, most places I have seen, you are pretty much on your own when it comes to structures or electrical. I have all kinds of little solar projects for water pumping, lighting a shed, and even a major power plant that IS the shed. The smallest installation is a 10 watt panel bolted to back fender of a seldom-used tractor. I ran out of barn space, so it is rusty and faded, but, by golly, it’ll start when I need it. My neighbor Glen has some 10 watt panels I have swapped to him for welding or other favors. They are all over the place, keeping batteries topped up on equipment he doesn’t use a lot. A super low-cost farm project would be to have a small module and 12v LED light bulb for a tractor shed, using the battery in the tractor. Kill two birds with one stone, keeping the battery hot and having a light in the shed.
Now, let’s talk about permits and inspections. In most places, I can’t go out and install solar at your house because I am not a licensed contractor. You, however, as a homeowner, can probably get a permit to do your own work. We’ll talk a bit more about this in a moment. The job of the inspectors is to make sure you do a project safely and don’t kill anybody or burn your house down. That, having been said, you will sometimes find an inspector who is a bit of a tyrant and you will find inspectors who are nice guys that will work with you and help you out. There was a time when the inspectors in our county were very, very ….ummmm, well let’s just say the county had to issue them guns so that We The People wouldn’t kill them! Things have changed for the better and we have a bunch of good folks, now.
I can give two examples of the kinder, gentler inspectors. Stan has been building his “hunting camp” for years. His homemade solar and wind power system is a little dodgy, but works well and he is involved in a first class upgrade. Someone mentioned his place to the Inspections Department, which had previously failed to notice it, owing to its remote location. The inspector inspected and then declared that since there was no Certificate of Occupancy, he had no jurisdiction over the project.
Tom built a large outlaw system in his barn to power his house. He later confessed his sins so that he could go grid-tie and the inspector was nice as he could be, willing to work with Tom on bringing things up to code.
So, back to your permits, you need to go to the Inspections Office with a plan and not a vague idea. If you have a couple of ways you can go with the project, sketch them out and go and ask the inspector’s advice before finalizing things. Show respect and let the inspector know that you know who’s the boss. (Hint: it ain’t YOU!) The biggest way to cause yourself trouble is to go in with an attitude. You’ll get one back right in your face. When I built my house, I pulled all the permits and dealt with all of the inspectors. Each one may have some little quirk and may gig you on something just to let you know they are paying attention. Anything they noted, I corrected and then took to them before and after photos so they wouldn’t have to come back and crawl under the house or in the attic. That courtesy was returned with a quick sign-off on the job.
Note that in many areas, the inspectors are in the office very early for a short while and after lunch for a short while and in the field, inspecting, the rest of the time. Call ahead to discover their hours. Don’t be first in line. Let the pros get their business done and that’ll leave you more time for your consultations.
The most paperwork intensive system I have seen is Mike’s. South Carolina and Duke Power had a heckuva rebate program that would more than pay for the hardware if you shopped the right places. There was a lot of paper for the rebate program. Then, the structure over his barbecue area had to have a structural analysis to insure it wouldn’t fall over with solar panels on it. He got a licensed engineer to sign off on it. Then there were the electrical permits, which were pretty basic, and the paperwork for grid-tie, which had to be signed off by a NABCEP certified installer. THEY can be hard to come by, even with all of the solar activity we have going on these days. Things went well, though the NABCEP thing caused some delay. All that was left then was the IRS tax rebate form, which is easy and requires only receipts and no NABCEP or permits. Come to think about it, Mike may have come out ahead on the deal!
To sum it up, there are plenty of solar projects you can do without anybody’s permission. If you are going to attach it to your home, then you probably will need a permit, but as a homeowner, you can usually get one and do the work yourself. Just assure the inspectors you are competent and show them some respect. Asking their advice on how they might do a particular thing is something they usually like. John’s crew at Sun Electronics can help you with the system design, so you can go to the inspectors with a plan.
By: Neal Collier