Photovoltaic Tutorial:

Step-By-Step Guide to Going Solar

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11. Prepare and submit a construction permit application.

As mentioned in the last step, you may want to secure a construction permit from your local building inspection agency, and clear all other regulatory hurdles before purchasing home solar components and services. If you hire a licensed contractor to do the installation, it will be his or her job to apply for the permit. Any grid-tied PV system also requires a "utility interconnection agreement" from your utility company. (This was explained back in Step 2.) If you belong to a homeowner's association, don't forget to contact that entity to see if it has any requirements that apply to your project.

While every authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) has a set of do's and don'ts, its own forms for you to complete, and fees to pay, most states have enacted solar access laws to preclude anyone from throwing too many obstacles in your way. If you think you're being treated unfairly (or price-gouged on fees), you should research your rights and contact the necessary regulatory agency for relief. In some cities and states, a solar nonprofit group may be able to help. (Check our Links page for a list of organizations.)

Application and forms package

Permits are time-sensitive and expire after several months. So hold off submitting your application until you're sure about your project and the components you want to use. You should also know who's installing the system, if not yourself, and the time frame for construction. For instance, if you live in a place where the winters are cold, or the summers are hot, or spring brings lots of rain, you'll need to plan accordingly. (Remember, the federal tax credit is set to expire in 2016, so make sure you disperse all your payments by 12/31/16.)

As in the case of a licensed independent contractor, if you decide to let a solar company do the installation, it will handle the permit process (and just about everything else, for that matter). Regardless, you should stay informed and participate as much as possible in the site survey and shade assessment, system design, parts selection, mounting locations, work scheduling, and any other aspect of the job that interests you. As the homeowner, you have the right to approve or reject any decision about the products used, where they're placed around your property, and an expectation that work will be completed within a reasonable time frame. If you have any reservation, do not sign a contract or hire an installer until every aspect of the project is clear and (preferably) expressed in writing.

For a permit to install a residential PV system, the package you submit to the plans reviewer should include the following items:

You should be able to download all the spec sheets from the internet, so you don't have to buy the equipment before submitting the application. Any spec sheet not available online can usually be requested by email or phone from the manufacturer or a supplier that sells the product.

When you add a PV system to an existing home or other structure, the construction generally falls under the category of "retrofit", "renovation" or "remodel". On the other hand, if you want to build a house or structure that will hold a solar array, your project may be classified instead as new construction. In this case, the permit application is more complex. Besides the other PV requirements, the code authorities will want to see complete architectural plans for any proposed structure.

For the more common retrofit scenario, building inspectors are mainly concerned about three things:

Site Plan

To install a solar electric system in an existing home, you'll submit one drawing or layout called a "plan view" or "site plan". This is the same as a top or birdseye view of the property. The plan is typically prepared from data collected during the site survey you performed in Step 4.
A computer-generated drawing. On a plan views, this drawing should appear inside a border, with a box on the right side providing the site address, contractor and other details.

Don't worry, most local building inspectors don't require that your plan view be drawn to scale. For the ordinary retrofit of an existing home, just try to draw everything in a roughly proportional way. It should also be an accurate reflection of the reality on the ground. If it isn't, the building inspector may fail the inspection when he or she comes to visit.

Specifically, the plans reviewer will be looking for these things:

Here's a DIY plan view quickly cobbled together in Photoshop from a hand drawing placed inside a standard template. (Consider it more of a draft than a finished product.) Your site plan can be produced by an assortment of means, although an AHJ will prefer something prepared on a computer. If you simply hand draw your plan with pencil and ruler, then label items with an ink pen, your submission will scream "Amateur!" andl invite greater scrutiny than would normally be allotted.

If you'd like to learn a computerized drawing app, there are several freeware choices you can download online. A popular app called Google Sketchup is not free, but there is a free trial period and instructions for its simplest tool, Layout, which should get the job done.

If you don't want to learn a new program, simply draw the physical layout, component boxes and dimensions by hand, using a ruler and good-quality drafting pen. Then scan the drawing (or take a digital photo of it) and load the image onto your computer. Now you can open an application like MS Paint or Photoshop and plop it into an 8 1/2" X 11"box with a landscape orientation. Here's a site plan template (from Solar ABC's) you can use as a border around the drawing. (If ihis PDF doesn't open, try the JPEG version.)

Once your objects and lines are in place, type in all the labels ("Main Panel", "Chimney", etc.), or copy and paste them from the budget you prepared in the last step. Don't forget to include the address of the site location somewhere on the document, as well contact information for whoever is supervising the installation. Add a section, "General Notes" off to one side of the drawing, and type in all the details that won't fit on the drawing.

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The Solar America Board for Codes and Standards provides a model set of permit forms to expedite the approval process for smallscale home PV systems. It includes a site plan template.Your AHJ's may or may not allow you to submit some of these forms as a substitute for their materials.

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Electrical Diagram and Ratings Sheet

From the perspective of the utility company and building code inspector, the most critical submission in a permit application is the electrical diagram and component ratings. The diagram can be a simple one, so long as each item is labeled and associated with the required specs.

To give you an idea of what the reviewers expect, here's a sample circuit drawing and ratings sheet. This is known as a one-line drawing. It was compiled in Photoshop from a lot of existing images and little charts that were cut and pasted from various sources. If you're lucky, your building inspector may provide a template, which you can scan into your computer. If it doesn't exactly match your circuit, you may to have to cut, paste or copy elements until it does. Just give the AHJ what it wants to see - no more and no less. This usually includes:

You have the option of submitting the diagram and ratings on separate sheets of paper or on one sheet. For a simple residential retrofit, you can use 8 1/2" X 11" paper.

Homeowners associations (HOA's) have their own permitting process. Often, their primary concern is with the appearance of the solar array. A symmetrical and balanced use of the roof, with the wiring tucked neatly beneath the racking, is usually a must. An HOA may also require modules with black frames rather than silver or chrome. In addition, the plans reviewer may demand a full set of 11" X 17" plans, professionally produced by a licensed contractor. Try not to get on the bad side of these folks, but also keep in mind that the group may not unlawfully impeded your decision to go solar.

As soon as you receive your permit from the building inspector, and approval from any other AHJ, you'll be ready to move forward on the project.

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Continue to Step 12... (Install your PV system.)

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