Once you have decided to go solar, the first challenge will be choosing the right installer. Because solar is a competitive but specialized field, you will find a great deal of conflicting information. But don’t worry, this often confuses even the savviest of homeowners.
Turning to “neighborhood” websites or social media for recommendations only provide half of the informations and, you can never be sure (in fact, you can be certain) that some of the information is biased (i.e. the referring source is related to the recommended party). Plus, you never know if the recommending person has the same perception of cost, quality, or timing (the 3 factors in judging any service provided).
Does Your Home Qualify?
We have seen, far too many times, someone recommend a service professional for one task, based on their experience in a completely different task. This is a ever-growing problem. Our top recommendation is to collect multiple bids and try to obtain as much information as possible. Do this up front and seek ways that help you accomplish this task as efficiently as possible. You will have to save energy in order to focus on making the final decision (not the first round of filtering).
In 2015, a national polling company released data that showed 30% of all homeowners believe the hardest part of any home improvement projects is simply finding the right person. You are not alone is researching this topic and solar is no exception to this rule. Because the solar industry is so complex, it is often hard finding the correct information and that is what we are hoping to help you accomplish.
In the U.S., solar energy began to gain popularity in the late 2000’s. Prior to that, renewable energy was a niche market and, if there were a small handful of installers (by handful, maybe 2 or 3) in an entire market, it was probably “crowded”. During this time you could usually call the panel manufacturer and ask for an installer. The industry was so small that the network of installers were actually connected from coast to cost. One could literally ask someone in Massachusetts for a recommendation in Florida. Chances are they would know someone!
Once solar began to grow, the industry became more complex and changed. Regarding the actual installation of solar, it is not that complicated. Any qualified contractor who is experienced and comfortable working on rooftops can probably “fake” their way to powering up the system. But that is probably not what you are looking for, because we all want to have the system installed properly and be the most efficient system possible. The installation methods rely on the simple principals of roof construction and if the contractor understands this, he can handle the equipment install.
Most problems occur in the design and electrical portion of the installation, and that is why you first need to make sure your solar installer is a specialist. As you are likely aware, solar panels produce DC power and require inverters to invert (*not “convert”, technical jargon) the energy to AC (which is what you home uses). We also know that panels require sunlight but, do you know how shading or orientation can effect output? These are questions that you average contractor may not fully understand but an experienced solar installer will take into consideration- almost by nature. You need to make certain that the installers you review, at a minimum are groups who understands all of the issues involved in designing, installation, and maintaining an efficient solar energy array. Remember, your panels could be powering your home for the next 30 years- efficiency, design, and even aesthetics should be topics any good installer speak with you about, from the beginning.
In order to help you on this topic, we have put together the following items that we think will help. You have to first use your knowledge and intuition, the same skills that are implemented when hiring any home improvement professional. Then consider the complexity of solar and how to insure that you hire the right pro. But don’t worry, with proper guidance you can find the right installer who will make sure the array you purchase is the best one for your unique home, and goals.
- First, in your research of solar (especially solar incentives) make a list of requirements regarding the contractor by your local municipality. Many grant, rebate, and even permitting processes require various training or licensing. Some state’s have solar specific license requirements while other use 3rd party verifications (such as NABCEP or manufacturer certificated). Visit dsireusa.org for a full list, also contact your local City or County and ask to speak with a permitting specialist.
- Collect a list of solar contractors that meet these guidelines. You can ask for recommendations from family or neighbors but make sure to check several sources and verify all licensing and certifications. You can also use a website that aggregates this data in order to make sure that any biasses will be countered from different sources.
- Once you have a list, contact each installer and ask for an estimate. Sometimes an installer will like to perform a site visit however true professional solar installers can use aerial images and engineering software to give an accurate estimate to start (trust us, even the smallest of installers should have this capability). You want to use this step to filter out substandard installers and obtaining up front information before a site meeting. This will also help you avoid having to endure several sales pitches and make the initial cut of contractors with minimal effort.
- After receiving the first few quotes, review the information. Take note of the equipment choices, experience, pricing, and availability of each contractor. Then, rank each according to your own preferences.
- Contact the top 2 or 3 respondents and ask for a final estimate. Be sure to discuss the equipment choices with each and if you have a preference, ask the installer to revise his estimates using your preferred equipment. A site visit is usually required during this step and it is good for you to begin establishing a face to face relationship with your installer.
- After receiving the final evaluations, make a list of the top factors in your decisions and evaluate the proposals on each of the recommended categories. Your list should include:
- Services Provided
- Services Provided is an important topic. You want to find out what services are included in the contract. This should include permits, change orders, registration of SRECS, Utility Interconnection, etc.
- Regarding Price, do not automatically accept the lowest price. In fact, we recommend first choosing the highest ranking solar installer from your evaluation and then negotiate price with that specific person.
7. Finally, find out if the installer offers any financing or credit options. Even if you plan on paying for the system in full, some installers have special incentives such as interest fee financing to provide funding until rebates are obtained, etc.
Hiring a solar installer can seem like a daunting task at first. Although we discussed how the industry has grown, it is still small enough that you can obtain good information from various sources in your local area to double check everything. Luckily, most homeowners who have already had solar installed, are passionate solar enthusiast and are happy to talk about their experience. The important task is to speak to as many homeowners as possible and make an evaluation that works best for you and your own goals. Go with your feeling and enjoy the process- most of us did!
Filtering Questions (our cheat sheet):
- Are you focused on Solar Energy Alone?
- Do you have State Licensing and what are you insurance limits?
- Do you have any 3rd party certifications (manufacture or industry)?
- How many individual installs have you done in the last year (6 to 8 is adequate)?
- How much solar energy have you installed?
- How long does your typical install take?
- How many equipment manufactures do you work with?
- Can you provide 3 references that I can speak with our drive by?
- Have you ever had a home improvement complaint against you?
- Who designed each system?