Solar panels just keep getting less and less expensive, and this is good news for homeowners. The cost of solar power is getting to be more in line with the cost of getting your power from the traditional grid, and tax incentives can even push this over the edge in some areas. However, before you get too excited, you should have a licensed electrician in to discuss what work will be required to get your shiny new panels working in harmony with the rest of your home. The cost of the additional work will have a major impact on whether your home is ready to efficiently make use of solar power, or if you should continue to wait for technology to improve.
Electrical Bypass System
An electrical bypass system is required if you will maintain your connection to the traditional power grid to use when your panels aren't generating power. Because batteries to store excess power for nighttime use are prohibitively expensive, this is the most common route that homeowners take. Most power companies require that this system is put in place by a professional, even if you plan on doing the rest of the work yourself. Any local electrician should be aware of local requirements, but you can also check with your power company just to be sure.
The reason for this requirement is safety. The bypass will shut off the power from your panels if there is a power outage. At first this seems silly—why would you go without power when your solar panels are a perfectly good source of it? Unfortunately, allowing your home to run off power during an outage would allow some of that power to leak back onto the grid. This can cause serious issue to workers who are trying to restore the power. They are only able to work safely if they know that the power to their section of lines is completely off. By allowing your system to send power into the grid, you are preventing their safety measures from being effective and this can cause serious injuries.
If your area suffers frequent outages, or you simply want to be able to keep the lights on during an outage, discuss this possibility with the electrician. While they can get quite expensive, there are systems that will not only shut off power during an outage, they will allow you to manually disconnect your house from the grid. This allows you to keep power running in your house while maintaining safety measures for repair crews.
Solar panels generate a type of current that most items in your home cannot use. Rather than buying all new appliances (which would be prohibitively expensive), most people install a power inverter into their system in between the panels and the rest of their home. This device "translates" the power into something that your devices can use safely. It can also help regulate the current to ensure that, even without additional help from the grid, your devices are always receiving the correct amount of electricity.
Unfortunately, inverters aren't cheap. Other than the panels themselves, the inverter is going to be the most expensive part of the installation, and might even cost more if you are only doing a few panels. With so much of your investment on the line, it is worth the extra expense of having this professionally installed. Your electrician will listen to your overall plan (maybe you are only want to do a few panels for now and install more later), and ensure that your inverter is properly sized and installed.
It would be nice if installing solar panels was just a matter of attaching them to the roof and plugging them in. Maybe someday this will be the case, but for now there are a few steps you need to take to get there. Having a professional guide you through the process will go a long way towards ensuring that you get your money's worth from your solar panel installation.