Home Plug-and-Play DIY Solar Kits, Install Smart

We had an interesting conversation about home plug-and-play DIY solar kit with a customer from Florida this week. The Floridian was asking about our DIY home solar kits with micro-inverters and could he just rig a plug that just connects via an outlet. This is not an uncommon question and when the inquiry was directed to me to answer I wrote him back and told he no, we would not recommend him to do that but rather, he has to run conduit etc according to National Electric Code (NEC) with an AC disconnect, get a building permit and secure an interconnect agreement with his local utility.

The answer to the home plug-and-play DIY solar kit question seems routine and straight forward to me. I promptly pressed click and sent off the e-mail. About an hour later he wrote back to me and said he was not trying to circumvent the building code but read in an article where a company intended to sell a home solar DIY plug-and-play kit that was designed to do just that.

When I started reading the article, I thought they must be talking about a home solar kit that is portable and stands alone off-grid. But no, sure enough there is was. The product is advocating setting up the system and just plugging into the home wall outlet. I have to say I was a little shocked. The author did not do his homework because if he would have called a code official from any major jurisdiction around the country, I am certain they would have advised that this would not have been not only illegal, but highly dangerous on many levels.

As much as we hate the burden of building permits and criticize the bureaucracy and cost that hinders building, there are some very sound reasons for most of the code behind the permits. Building codes have evolved from many years of practice, usually where there was a structural failure or fire. Electrical codes are put in place for the sake of safety not only for the homeowner but also the fire department and others.

It is illegal in most areas in the country to back feed solar onto the grid without the permission of the local utility. I honestly don’t know what the fine would be, but I do know that permanently installing a home solar kit that connects with the grid without a permit is a serious violation of the national building codes.

Are legitimate solar companies really advising homeowners they can do this with no problems or consequences? As I looked closer the answer is so. Anyway, here is the article we were directed to. I will let you decide for yourself. In the meantime, we are going to keep advising homeowners to follow standard building practices when installing their home solar DIY kits, get a building permit and work with your local utility securing an interconnect agreement.

From NY Times Green Blog – For eco-conscious homeowners who have considered a solar system for their rooftops but have found the cost and complexity daunting, Clarian Power thinks it has an idea.

The Seattle-based clean tech start-up is developing a “plug-and-play” home solar kit called the Sunfish that will generate clean solar electricity for the home. “You bring it home and plug it in, just like a refrigerator, and it will cost about the same,” said the company’s president, Chad Maglaque.

Today’s typical roof-mounted solar power systems start at $1,000 and go up from there depending on the amount of electricity generated and the home’s location. The bigger and more expensive systems can meet most of a house’s energy needs and even put electricity back on the utility grid, essentially turning the meter backwards.

A contractor usually installs the solar power system and turns it over to the homeowner in ready-to-use condition. An electrician will connect the system to the home’s electric panel through an inverter, a device that converts the DC power generated by the solar panels to the AC power used by lights and appliances.

Clarian is hoping to simplify this process using its patented micro-inverter, which does not require a dedicated panel or circuit. In fact, they say that a handy homeowner can set up Sunfish in less than an hour without the need for a contractor or electrician.

The company expects to retail a starter kit with one solar panel for $799. The system can handle up to five solar panels with the purchase of add-on kits, which would bring the retail price to $3,000 to $4,000.

Plug the Clarian micro-inverter, which they call the “power module,” into any electric socket in your house, typically an outdoor outlet. Connect to five solar panels to the power module. The panels can be mounted anywhere on the house with the best sun exposure. Finally, plug in the kit’s circuit monitor into any outlet, and Sunfish will start feeding solar-generated power directly into the home’s electrical system.

Sunfish will be Wi-Fi-enabled so the homeowner can monitor the system performance using desktop software like Google’s Power Meter. As a safety feature, the circuit monitor will shut the system off if the utility grid power goes down.

Clarian does not expect the Sunfish to satisfy all power needs for the average home, which the federal Energy Information Administration estimates at 920 kilowatt hours per month. The largest Sunfish kit, with five solar panels, will produce 150 kilowatt hours per month, according to Clarian’s estimates.

Still, with a starting price of $799, Mr. Maglaque hopes to hit a sweet spot where a homeowner’s desire to reduce home energy bills will match his or her budget. “This is about slowing the meter down and having an impact,” he said, “not getting the meter to run backwards, because if that’s your goal it’s going to cost you $30,000 to $40,000, which not many people can afford.”

Whether Clarian’s Sunfish catches on or not, industry watchers like Dave Cavanaugh, a senior analyst with Pike Research, applaud the effort. Innovations aimed at reducing home energy use will play their part, he believes, as the United States upgrades its antiquated energy grid system to the so-called smart grid.

“Products like this are a good first step to get people to use less energy from the grid and begin thinking about how they can use energy more efficiently,” he said.

Before the home solar kit can reach the market, however, the Sunfish components must go through Underwriters Laboratories testing to certify they are safe for home use, a process that Mr. Maglaque admits it is not trivial.