Do-it-yourself (DIY) solar power systems can save thousands of dollars in the long run, but it will cost hundreds to thousands upfront, depending upon your needs and how extensive you want to go in reducing your carbon footprint. Building or installing your own system will jump start you on the road to understanding future maintenance needs of alternative energy and life off-the-utility-grid or on a grid-tied solar photovoltaic (PV) system.
On average, a 1,500-square-foot home will consume 10,000 kWh of electricity per year. This, of course, depends on how conservative the household is with such appliances as a refrigerator, hot water heater, iron and space heaters. A heat-based appliance is not a friend to the pocketbook. "Appliances account for about 17 percent of your household's energy consumption," says the U.S. Department of Energy.
Know Your Load
A few DIY websites are useful resources to help you on your way with a project, whether it is a full-blown off-grid solar PV system or just getting certain appliances off your utility bill. Know your load and what percentage of that load you expect the PV system to handle. If you are on the grid, your utility company can help you determine your average usage. Go back at least 6 months and through at least one winter month.
Some sites claim you can build your own panels. Be careful when venturing this path. Kyocera and Uni-Solar are reputable solar panel manufacturers (see link in Resources). That would be a good place to start your research. You will also need deep cell storage batteries (if off-the-grid) for when the sun is not shining, a controller to regulate power flow from PV panel to batteries, an inverter to convert DC into AC, disconnects and grounding equipment.
Tools and Tips
Check with your Department of Land and Planning to see if you need a building permit. Also, if you plan to connect your PV system to the grid, check with your utility company for rules and stipulations.
Panels should generally face the noon sun based on the latitude of your location. Often, that means the southwest sky in the southern United States. A solar tracker would offer maximum exposure for panels.
A full blown off-the-grid system can cost about $25,000 when you tally the power panels, deep cell battery bank, inverter, cables, sturdy wiring, harnesses, mounting poles, brackets, power meter and power booster. Deciding whether you want a 12-volt system or a 24-volt system is another consideration.
Other Clean Energy Options
Wind power and hydro power are other alternative energy options to research. Securing a home loan for a good system may not be out of reach and is fast becoming an asset when reselling real estate. Keep your utility bills to compare before and after savings and show added value in the event of a home sale (see link in References). Keep project receipts for rebates and tax credits.