April 29, 2020

DIY Home Solar and the Informed Shopper

DIY solar

René Voss lives in Northern California and spends his workdays as an attorney focused on natural resources law for non-profit organizations. In the spring of 2018, René turned his passion for renewable energy and environmental activism into action by going solar. Unlike most homeowners, however, René designed, sourced, and installed the solar system on his house. Armed with a knack for research and an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering he received in 1986, he completed his solar installation and documented his experience in painstaking detail. René shares with us his philosophy, motivations, and journey as a do-it-yourself (DIY) installer.

Enphase: Congratulations on the release of the 2020 version of Build Your Own Solar Panel System In 2020: A practical step-by-step guide to designing, sourcing, and installing a rooftop solar panel system using Enphase Energy microinverters. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts about the project. You don’t call yourself a professional author, so maybe you can start by talking about what motivated you to write this book.

René Voss: Thank you! On a philosophical level, I wrote this book because of my desire to contribute to helping accelerate our world’s transition towards a sustainable future powered by clean, renewable energy. On a much more boring or pragmatic level, I wrote this book because I couldn’t find a simple guide to solar when I wanted to build my system. Solar technology has evolved to the point at which professional teams can install a full system in a matter of hours. That is certainly to the credit of the training, practice, and professionalism of installation teams. I was also convinced that the evolution of solar hardware and components had made the installation process much safer and simpler than it once was.
Enphase: Did you install your system with the goal of writing a do-it-yourself guide.
René Voss: Not at all. Portions of this book, however, started as the notes and research documentation I kept for my installation. When the inspiration to write the book struck, those sections had practically already written themselves during the process. I found the confidence to write this book because I discovered that my DIY solar project was not at all as challenging as I initially thought it would be. If I was able to do this, pretty much anyone can.

Enphase: Why have you published an updated version of the book every year since its release?

René Voss: Outside of providing detailed instructions and tips for the planning and installation phases, the book includes prices and references to vendors for every component used in the reference system, pretty much down to the last bolt. Since component manufacturers and retailers change their products and prices over time, and some go away entirely, those sections must be updated for the book to remain current and useful.

Enphase: On the day you pushed the ‘publish’ button, who did you think would buy this book? Did you have an audience in mind? Were you surprised by who your audience turned out to be?

René Voss: Well, I’m an attorney, I love nature and the outdoors, but I mostly drive a desk at work. My undergrad engineering degree is also several decades old now, but I consider myself to be among the many ‘I can do that’ homeowners in America. I wrote this book for the ‘I can do that’ homeowner who has replaced the disposal in the kitchen sink, who has upgraded a few light fixtures or maybe even installed a home water filtration system. From what I can tell, this is the primary audience. This book, however, has also been picked up by people who want to know more about what to expect when a company installs solar on their roof.

Enphase: Can you tell us more about that second group? Are they just reading for fun?

René Voss: I’ve not had in-depth conversations with all my readers, but the feedback I’ve gotten and the conversations I have had revealed that the ‘information reader’ is looking for a better understanding of the solar installation process. Many times, these folks are homeowners who are in the process of selecting a professional installer or are working with an installer to size and design a system. Given the importance of energy and relative size of the investment, these homeowners read the book because they want an independent, follow-along guide for their solar journey. This surprised me at first, but it makes sense.

Enphase: You wrote the book on DIY solar using Enphase microinverters, and this is the Enphase blog. We have to ask: why Enphase?

René Voss: I thought you might ask that question, and I want to be mindful here not to sound as though I’m a member of the Enphase marketing department. I’m not. When I decided to go the DIY route for my solar system, I had to pick an approach and technology that would make up for my limitations. I am not an electrician, I have no experience designing wiring schemes or layouts for solar systems, and I did not want to create a maintenance problem for myself. I loved the idea of getting into the details and on the roof for this project, but I did not want to keep climbing up there to fix or replace things. Given those criteria, I had to find a technology or platform that made system design simple, required minimal amounts of electrician-type work, and offered rock-solid reliability over the long term. Enphase microinverters met these criteria.

Enphase: Have you been satisfied with your decision to go with Enphase microinverters, both in terms of the book and as a homeowner?

René Voss: Well, the fact that I keep updating the book should be a strong indication that I feel I made the right decision by going with Enphase. When I answer this question as a solar homeowner, I have to say that the number of advanced features I got ‘out of the box’ with Enphase would have probably been beyond my ability to install or configure easily, if at all. Examples of these functions include rapid shutdown and compliance with other solar requirements, dead-simple system commissioning with the Enphase installer app, and per-panel solar production as well as household energy consumption monitoring that just works when you switch the system on.

Enphase: What about while you were on the roof and doing the actual work, does anything about that experience stand out?

René Voss: There are several points I could make here, but there are two that stand out for me. It’s not an overstatement to say that most of the wiring with Enphase microinverters is like using USB cables on a computer; it’s plug-and-play. I avoided a lot of anxiety about potential, or likely, mistakes because the system was so easy to use. Second, and this is important for both the installation and any future maintenance I do, my Enphase microinverter-based solar system does not expose me to the risk of a shock from high-voltage DC electricity. That goes for both on the roof and down at the wiring box. A quick disclaimer: always follow all safety precautions in the book, because contact with household-voltage AC electricity can and should be avoided.

Enphase: Do you plan on writing more books about solar or related topics? Has life as an author tempted you to step back from your law practice? 

René Voss: I don’t plan on giving up law at this time, but your question brings up a more complex topic. First, I assume that by the time this interview is published, the threat of viral infection running roughshod across the globe has, unfortunately, not yet have faded into memory. The energy sector, which includes solar, has been given the ‘critical’ designation by state and federal authorities, which generally means that the solar industry can continue to operate. Given this, as well as reader feedback, I am looking at producing a similar book for do-it-yourself ground-mounted solar arrays based on Enphase technology. Beyond that, I see Enphase Ensemble technology combined with the Enphase Encharge storage systems as a path to resilient, grid-agnostic solar + storage, all in a tidy, one-vendor package. I believe that the American spirit of independence and self-reliance will continue to extend into the mainstream of home energy, and I’d love to help people on this journey as well.

Enphase: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?

René Voss: I’d like people to know that I wrote this guide to DIY solar from a non-technical perspective (my own) for the non-technical reader. And while I am proud of this book—it would be dishonest to say that I don’t have some level of emotion tied up in its success—I am not dependent on book sales to eat or live. I’m not in it for the money, as they say. My goal is to empower the reader with the information required to do something to offset their carbon footprint significantly.

Enphase: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us, René!

René Voss: Thank you as well!

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