Finding a great solar panels company to install your solar panels can be intimidating. Follow these tips to help make the right choice.
Choose solar panels company
There are a lot of solar companies out there. How do you choose?
If you’ve read our Solar Panels Installation Manual from the start, you’ve made sure your is house energy efficient. You know more than you ever thought you would about the electric grid and the carbon footprint of solar panels versus fossil fuel power plants. You’ve done the math and figure that you’re going to save thousands of dollars over the next two decades if you install solar. And you know how you’re going to pay for it all.
Time to find an installer.
People get a little nervous about picking a solar installer because solar technology is still unfamiliar to a lot of people. Pretty much every homeowner has had to call a plumber at some point, but solar… that’s something most people have never dealt with. How do make sure that you find the best contractor?
Step one: don’t be afraid.
In many ways, hiring a solar contractor is much the same as hiring a contractor to do any home project. Don’t be intimidated by the technical nature of solar: if you do some due diligence and ask the right questions, you’ll be fine. This guide will help.
Now what? How do you choose the best solar installer? Here’s the tips that will help guide you to a good decision:
Get in the right mindset
We don’t want to scare you or anything, but just be aware that buying solar is more complicated than. But it’s also less work than remodeling your kitchen. So be prepared to do some work, but it’s really not that bad. Just go into it with the right frame of mind.
You are hiring a contractor. You’ll need to carefully review a contract and make a couple decisions, but not nearly as many decisions as if you were redoing your bathroom or kitchen.
On the other hand, there are some companies out there that want make the home solar buying process a little bit like picking a flight or a hotel. We think that this is bad for the consumer for a number of reasons.
First of all, this approach emphasizes price over other important considerations. It’s okay to just go with cheapest option if you’re, say, renting a car for the weekend – one company’s Toyota Corolla is the same as a Corolla from any other. But solar panels are a product that are going to last you 25-30 years. Workers are going to come to your house and bolt a lot of equipment to your roof. It’s a major purchase, so it’s important to really understand the details of the product before you make such an important decision.
Second, it encourages people to gloss over the important details of the equipment that you are buying. You might be prone to do this because solar can involve an intimidating number of technical aspects like watts, voltage, AC/DC, efficiency ratings, electric meters and monitoring systems. But, we promise, you don’t need an engineering degree to figure this stuff out.
So don’t just make your decision on price. Consider the quality of the contractor and the contract details.
Don’t rely on solar panels price comparison sites
Imagine that you want to do a big home renovation. You’re going to make your dream kitchen! It’s going to look just like the magazines. So you come up with a wish list of things that you want to have: shiny stainless appliances, granite countertops, a big island, wine fridge, that sort of thing. Oh, because you’ve got an older home where everything is a little bit crooked, you want the contractor to tear everything down to the studs and also install a new floor.
Then you come across a website that promises to give you an accurate quote for all of this, just by filling out a form. No phone calls. No contractor will even come to your home to take a look around. Would you trust a quote like that?
No, obviously not. If you’re doing a kitchen remodel, a competent contractor needs to make a site visit so they can identify problem areas that will cause labor or materials costs to go up. Are there structural aspects to the space that will make the work more difficult? Is there electrical or plumbing work that needs to be upgraded? Is there a chance that your floor tiles have asbestos? All of these things would cause your estimate to go up, but none of them can be identified without a person coming to your home.
Problems that cause solar costs to go up
Solar panels and racking are heavy and last for decades, so a good contractor will need to evaluate the condition of your roof. Is the roofing material and decking in good condition? Do you have roof drainage issues that need to be addressed first? What is the size of your current electric service panel, and will it handle the additional load? Do wiring or circuit breakers need to be upgraded? Do you have landscaping that will cause shading problems after a few years’ growth?
Nobody on the internet can promise an accurate quote for your solar project if they don’t come to your home to assess these kinds of things. A lot of people don’t like sales calls. That’s understandable. But for a project like a solar installation, you have to make an exception. In this case, you’re going to get a phone call, and somebody is going to come to your house. This is a good thing.
Get more than one quote
Just like with your dream kitchen project, you need to get multiple quotes. This is not only to get a fair price, but also to compare the different materials, warranties, and credentials of the companies that you are evaluating.
For example, one of the most important details of a solar installation is how the racking is secured to the roof and waterproofed. Ask the contractor exactly what methods and materials will be used. What is the fastening system, and what flashing and sealants are used to waterproof it?
Or, maybe one installer insists that microinverters are the only way to go, while another contractor says that they would use string inverters for the project. In that sort of situation, you need to be prepared to ask each contractor why they selected one type of equipment over another.
Never select a company only on price
Everybody likes to save money, but don’t save money on your solar photovoltaic system by simply going with the cheapest quote. There are real differences in equipment and installation quality . While it’s very possible that your best installer will also be the cheapest, you can’t know until you closely evalulate the details of the contract and materials.
Conversely, going with the most expensive installer doesn’t guarantee higher quality either.
Avoid leases and power purchase agreements
The biggest solar panels company installers, usually don’t want to sell you a solar system. Instead, they tend to push you to rent one instead using financial products such as solar leases and power purchase agreements (PPAs). These financial products result in higher profits for them, and a lower financial return for you.
There are a number of reasons why these financial products are often bad for consumers, but one of the key reasons is the inclusion of escalator clauses that automatically increase your cost of electricity every year, even if the utility company holds their prices flat. In addition, many of these large national installers have poor reviews and have even faced lawsuits by state governments.
Prefer local companies that have been in business for a long time
When you get a quote, we prefer local solar panels company that have been in business for a long time and have a strong presence in the community. Quite often, these are electrical companies that have decades of experience that have added solar installation to their portfolio.
One reason is the obvious fact that a company doesn’t stay in business for decades if they do lousy work.
But the most important reason is that in order for a contractor to honor their labor warranty with you, they need to still be in business. The labor warranty, which is separate from a manufacturer’s warranty, could be 5 to 10 years long, and even more with a few companies. With the explosive growth of residential solar across the country, a lot of new companies have sprung up overnight, especially in states like California. A company that has been in business for only a couple years might do great work, but running a company profitably for decades is a different skill than installing solar panels. Your best chance of having a company be around to service your system years from now is to pick one with a long track record. Be wary of brand new solar companies that have been in business for only a couple years.
Be wary about review sites
If you are independently doing research on solar installer companies, be selective about the review sites that you use. You’ll find sites, including ones that specialize in reviewing solar installers, that allow companies to appear as featured companies in their listings in exchange for a fee. This is a controversial practice , one we think that is misleading to the consumer.
Which sites should you trust? Start with the BBB.org, which contains both reviews and a platform where consumers can file complaints with the Better Business Bureau, and companies are able to respond. Google Local Business is another site we think is reliable and doesn’t offer paid placement. A few years ago, Yelp was accused of extortion , but the class action that followed was dismissed, and we think the company answered the controversy reasonably.
Fake reviews are a different issue, and one that is more difficult to address. For this reason, we recommend you start with BBB, which uses human reviewers to check submissions.
Check that your contractor is licensed
The first thing to do is understand what type of license is required by solar installers in your state. The Interstate Renewable Energy Council maintains a website that lists what is required. Be aware that licensing for solar photovoltaic (PV) may differ from the requirements for solar thermal (which is used for hot water heating), so read carefully.
Once you know what the requirements are, you can ask your contractor for their license so that you can look it up at your state’s licensing board. California and Nevada, for example, make these databases searchable online, and also tell you how long the license has been active and whether the contractor is bonded. Check online to see what your state provides. Many companies list their license number right on their website, so you can do this check in just a few minutes. Never work with a company that is not properly licensed.
Ask about warranties
There are many different components in a photovoltaic system, and each is covered by a different warranty from their manufacturer. It’s crucial that the installer fully explain each one.
The solar panels company should provide a warranty of the workmanship and components of the system, and cover the labor and replacement costs of any failing components.
Photovoltaic panels have their own warranty, and often this is specified in two parts: one warranty covering materials and workmanship, and another warranty period covering their power output. Solar panels normally degrade over time, producing a little less power each year. (This degradation should be less than 1% per year.) The panel warranty will certify that it will continue to produce a given percentage of the original power output after a number of years. A 25 year power warranty is typical, and the product warranty should be at least 10 years and is sometimes long as 25.
The inverter system is a critical part of the system, and will have its own warranty period. 10 to 25 years is typical.
The racking system needs to hold up to potentially extreme weather for a couple decades. You want to make sure it has a strong warranty – at least 20 years.
Are you getting batteries? It’s a pricey component, so be sure you know what the warranty is.
Meet your solar panels company contractor in person and ask a lot of questions
We mentioned already that you should always have a face-to-face with your potential solar installer, right? Once you have an actual human person in front of you, that’s the time to ask some important questions.
Sometimes, the first person you meet with won’t be technical and can’t answer all your questions on the spot. They might need to consult with other people on their team. That’s okay. Just be sure that all your questions are clearly answered before you sign a contract.
Solar panels company interview checklist
If you haven’t already checked that the installer has the proper licensing for your state, now is the time to do so. Also ask if their installers are NABCEP certified.
- What incentives are available?
Use our calculator to find out about major incentives, but your solar installer may know about other local rebates. Be sure to understand if the owner receives the credits, or if the installer does and passes them onto the customer.
- Net metering
Confirm if net metering is available to you, and make sure that you clearly understand how it works. (You can read our article What is net metering? for a primer.
- System cost breakdown
The estimate should list the price of individual components and labor: modules, inverters, racking, labor, electrical work, and other costs should be itemized.
- Payment schedule
The contract should indicate exactly when payment is due, and what the payment schedule is (if any).
- Site plan
You will receive a site plan that visually indicates the layout of the system components on your home, which includes the placement of the panels, inverters, disconnect switch, and meter.
- Production estimate
The installer will give you an electricity production estimate for the system in a year with average weather. Compare this with your average usage, and make sure that you are happy with the system output.
Ask about labor and component warranties.
- Component selection
Discuss the details of the solar panels, inverters, and racking system.
Systems that are tied into the grid will require approval from the utility company, and possibly an inspection. Ask about the requirements and timeline of these.
Your local code may require an engineering structural inspection before work begins, and an electrical inspection after work is completed. Ask what is required and when in the project timeline they occur.
- Utility meter install
Your interconnected pv system will most likely require that your utility company install either a new bidirectional meter, or a second meter alongside your existing one. There may be a fee charged for this. Be sure to ask.
- System monitoring
Find out how you will monitor the system output. This will either be a display on the inverter, or a website or smartphone app.
- Post-install maintenance
Ask if there is recommended system maintenance. If your roof needs repair, find out labor charges for removing and reinstalling the hardware.
- Manufacturer warranty service
For component failures that happen after the installer’s warranty, ask about the process for making a manufacturer warranty claim and having the component replaced.
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