s a future solar owner, you almost certainly have a lot on your plate: finding a reliable installer, costing out, planning, and so much more. Yet many people find bureaucratic red tape the most tedious of all the challenges. If this struggle seems relatable to you, fret not! This guide will help you navigate solar permitting and explain what approvals your photovoltaic system might need.
But before we go any further, here’s an important caveat: requirements for solar panels may vary considerably depending on your location, and some of the permits listed below may not be required in your case. So it is always better to consult your installer; they will provide all the info you need to set up the panels in compliance with all applicable regulations.
Local government solar permits
First, you need your solar panel system approved by an Authority having jurisdictions (AHJs), most commonly state or municipal authorities. Sometimes you will need to obtain solar permits from several local government departments.
The authorities are responsible for your PV system’s compliance with the codes and standards. It is done for safety reasons: solar panels are a rather heavy structure placed on the roof that produces high voltages, so any violation of standards poses risks for both solar owners and other residents.
Typically, the installer will apply for all the necessary permits on behalf of the homeowner. The application package includes detailed documentation on the solar energy system, such as a site plan, panel layout, electrical diagram, and solar system specifications.
Once the application is approved, you can finally install the panels. When everything is ready, an authorized officer will inspect the solar system to ensure it complies with safety codes. Now let's look at these codes in more detail.
Building permit for solar panel installations
A building permit is mandatory for all solar panel installations across the United States. You apply for this permit to the local building department – an authority that operates under building codes and approves all residential and non-residential construction.
Building codes outline basic construction standards, including standards relating to PV panel installations. The main codes in the U.S. are the International Building Code for commercial buildings and the International Residential Code (IRC) for residential buildings. While not legally binding per se, the codes can be adopted into a law by relevant governmental authorities.
Local building codes are updated every several years, which means the requirements for solar panel systems can change periodically. However, there are several core criteria for PV installations, which are outlined below.
- Roof condition
First and foremost, your roof has to be strong enough to carry the weight of solar panels. Most newer buildings have well-designed, sturdy roof systems that can support the array. Still, older roofs are more likely to deteriorate, and overloading them with panels is extremely dangerous.
So if your roof shows any signs of aging or damage, such as sagging, cracks, or loose shingles, you should have it repaired or replaced before applying for a solar permit. Besides, if your roof warranty expires earlier than the PV system warranty, consider redoing the roof before going solar to avoid removing and re-installing the panels in the future.
- Non-combustibility and wind load resistance
Solar system elements are exposed to intense sunlight and inclement weather conditions, so they must be highly durable. While the panels pose an exceptionally low hazard, mounting systems, frames, and cables are usually combustible. Besides, some roofs can also contain flammable materials such as polystyrene foam insulation, so the authorities must assess the combustibility risks of a future PV installation on a case-by-case basis.
A solar energy system is periodically exposed to extreme wind and snow environmental loads during hurricanes or snowstorms. For this reason, the evaluation procedure also includes calculating the wind pressure solar panels can withstand.
A building permit requires waterproofing of the solar installation base. It is usually done by applying waterproofing products (for example, rubberized asphalt or bituminous membrane), as well as sealing and installing roof drains.
Solar electrical permit
Depending on where you live, you may also need to obtain an electrical permit. The main set of guidelines here is The National Electrical Code (NEC) – a reference standard for the safe installation of electrical equipment and wiring. The code describes its primary purpose as “practical safeguarding of persons and property from hazards arising from the use of electricity.”
Solar panel systems are covered in Article 690, which includes, among other things, circuit requirements such as maximum voltage and circuit sizing. The code also states that the panels (with a few exceptions) must be protected against overcurrent with special protective devices listed for use in solar energy systems.
Renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, offer sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels, reducing carbon emissions.
Installations with DC circuits with a maximum voltage of 80 volts or more must feature an arc-fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) or other equipment that provides equivalent arc-fault protection. Rooftop systems also must include a rapid shutdown function. Additionally, NEC lists permitted wiring methods and dictates that all solar equipment must be labeled and marked with the ratings of voltages, currents, and maximum power.
Solar permit from the fire department
In some areas, homeowners also need a green light for solar installation from the local fire department. Firefighters may want to ensure that your PV panel system complies with the International Fire Code (IFC) and a fire code developed by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
The rules demand access and specify minimum spacing to provide emergency access to the roof. According to the codes, when setting up the panels, the installer must create pathways of a certain width and provide for smoke ventilation opportunity areas.
HOA permit for a solar panel system
Homeowners living in neighborhoods governed by Homeowner Associations (HOAs) may face additional challenges. HOAs can set their own restrictions, denying residents the ability to install solar panels.
In some states (for example, California, Arizona, and Colorado), policies prevent HOAs from limiting homeowners’ ability to go solar. But even if you live in a state with unlimited access to solar, you should still follow the specific local rules. For instance, in many areas, HOAs can’t deny installing solar panels but still have the power to forbid you from placing them on the front of the building if they don’t fit the neighborhood’s aesthetic.
Utility approval for solar panel interconnection
Before installing the panels, a homeowner must also get permission to connect their solar energy system to the local grid —a process called “interconnection.” They submit an application for interconnection to the utility company, which studies the project to assess its potential impacts on the electric grid.
After your solar system is installed and checked by the local authorities, a utility representative will come to conduct their own inspection. If all the requirements are met, you can finally start generating energy with your photovoltaic system.
Solar permit fees
Permitting costs largely depend on where you live and the size of your solar panel system. The total fee for residential PV systems in the U.S. is typically between $300 and $500. But note that most installers include all permitting, interconnection, and inspection fees in their solar quote, so you won’t need to pay them separately.