Solar PV (photovoltaic) power is attractive to many people because we have abundant sunshine in South Africa and solar panels are relatively simple, reliable devices that last a long time without the need for much maintenance. So once installed, you can reliably generate power whenever the sun is shining, which is quite often.
Also, faced with unreliable electricity supply from the national utility that is increasing in price at an alarming rate, the case for solar power becomes somewhat stronger, if only to ensure that one’s basic power needs are under one’s own control.
Solar power currently costs about the same as the council/utility supplied electricity it replaces over the life of the system (for systems that include batteries). But you are essentially paying for all that electricity up front, instead of spreading the costs over a number of years. So it can be difficult to afford.
One way to try and keep the costs down to manageable levels is to install the system your self. Especially if you take an incremental approach and start small. That way you can tackle the project in a series of small steps which might suite your budget as well as your abilities. You can also “try out” the idea of solar power on a small scale and see whether it suites you and your family.
What Does an Installation Entail?
A domestic solar system usually comprises of the following main elements (please read the brief article in the link box below for more detailed information):
- Solar panel array that is mounted on the roof or on a suitable frame.
- A charge controller or MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracker) which controls the charging of the batteries using power from the solar panels.
- A bank of batteries.
- An inverter which converts the energy stored in the battery bank into conventional 220V AC which can then be wired into your existing house DB board.
The only part of a solar installation that an enthusiastic handy layman will need professional help for, is the connection of the inverter into the existing house DB board, and any re-wiring of existing AC circuits in the home. For that a qualified electrician will be required.
But the rest of the work can be done by yourself relatively easily, which basically includes the following:
- Mounting the panels on the roof (this is the only moderately difficult part, but with modular mounting racks and specialised brackets, its probably not that difficult, depending on your roof type).
- Placing the batteries into a suitable rack or cabinet and connecting them together.
- Mounting the Charge Controller or MPPT onto the wall near the batteries.
- Mounting the Inverter onto the wall next to the MPPT.
- Running the solar cable from the panels to the MPPT.
- Connecting the MPPT to the battery bank and the Inverter.
If you have a small system, with one or two panels and a few batteries you should be able to complete the task in a weekend!
Once your system is all installed, it just remains to get an electrician to make the necessary connection between the inverter to the relevant breakers in your DB board, as well as install any extra breakers such as earth leakage breakers.
Pro’s Of Doing it Yourself
So why bother doing it yourself?
- You save on the installation cost, which for small systems becomes disproportionally high because a professional is going to charge a minimum amount, regardless of the size of the system, because a lot of the work remains about the same even if the system size is small. So for small systems, the overall cost can be reduced dramatically by doing most of the work your self.
- You can make sure the system is installed exactly the way you want it to be.
- You can control the quality of the installation to your own satisfaction.
- You can gain the necessary knowledge for future larger installations that you might have in mind.
- You can gain the necessary knowledge that will enable you to maintain the system yourself, without needing outside help.
Con’s of Installing Yourself
- Some people might not want to spend the time and effort and prefer that someone else does the work.
- You need a small amount of technical ability, but not very much.
- Concerns that you might make an expensive mistake and cause damage in some way.
- Concerns that you might lack vital knowledge.
- Safety concerns (working at heights or electric shocks etc.)
Most of these concerns can be addressed by thorough preparation, being careful, as well as being honest about your technical abilities, or getting help from a mate.