How To Hire a Solar PV Installer

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You have decided to install a solar PV system for your home or business. Now what? There is more to hiring the proper contractor than just getting free quotes. Here are some questions to ask yourself and some resources so you can do your homework and begin generating your own power!

Research and interview all the potential installers in your area, no matter how small an outfit. I live in a very small and limited (solar-wise) community, so I called to businesses almost 100 miles away.

Ask  Your Solar PV Installer About Their Business

  • How long have you been installing solar? The longer they have been in business, the more installations they have done and more experience they have. They will understand the obstacles, should any arise.
  • How many installations are off-grid? Grid tied? All PV was off-grid with massive battery banks until net-metering became popular and more cost effective. (Net metering is when you connect your solar PV system to your local utility, and they pay you for electricity you produce but do not use.) An experienced installer will know how to do both types of installations.
  • Are you licensed, bonded and insured? This is what you ask ANY contractor you hire! Solar installers should have NABCEP certification (North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners). From their site:

‘Designed to raise industry standards and promote consumer confidence.’ This certification is not required, so if installers have been in business for a long time, they may find this step unnecessary. In that case, check references, and make sure they are licensed in your state.

  • Do you have any judgments against you? Call the Better Business Bureau or the Consumer Affairs Office to check. It’s a good idea to find this out before rather than later (I speak from experience!).

Questions About Services and Obligations, to Which the Answer  Should Be “Yes”

  • Do you give free estimates?
  • Do you conduct a site survey? Do I need to be present? They should do a site survey, and I highly recommend being there. It’s a great time to ask questions.
  • Does your company design the system and purchase materials? If they know the system inside and out, they will be better qualified to install and maintain it. Some installers give you a quote, then outsource the rest. You want the one company to do the entire job.
  • Do you know the building code and inspection requirements. Do you obtain the permits? Find out what permits are needed.
  • Are there any financial incentives? Do you do the necessary paperwork? Do you offer financing? Each company should know the current state and federal incentives offered. You can check yourself at DSIRE. If they offer financing, ask how much they would need for a down payment, how long you can take to pay it back and what their interest rates are. Ask for the total cost after it’s paid off.
  • Will the contract include materials, start and finish dates, price and the payment schedule? Yes, it should include all of them.

Do a Cost Analysis

Your system needs to be sized based on your needs. The installer has software to determine this. S/he will also be able to figure out your ROI and how quickly your energy savings will pay for the system. Ask about and research the materials each installer uses. Components vary in quality and power output. You want the best and most powerful! Ask about warranties. Expect a 10-year warranty on an inverter and 20-25 years on the solar panels. The company should also give you at least a 5-year warranty on their service, as well as for roof and electrical damage.

Compare the Bids You Get

Ask a lot of questions! It is crucial that the bids be on the same size and style installation. The size will be shown in watts (W), and the cost will be shown in dollars per watt ($/W). All the bids must be expressed in either AC PTS (Alternating Current, Performance Test) or DC STC (Direct Current, Standard Test Conditions. Again, each bid must be for identical situations for accurate calculations and comparisons.

Do not cut corners with a cheap bid.  If you need to save money, get a smaller system that you can add to later. Quality over quantity rules. If you are confident the cheapest installer is the best with the best materials, good customer service and great references, then, by all means, hire that company.

Check references!

Ask for the contact information of past customers. People love to talk about their home improvement projects! Find out if you can drive by their home to see their PV system. Maybe you will get invited in so they can talk about it! Inquire about customer service, if there have been maintenance problems, and if the cost analysis was accurate.  Did the company live up to their service pledge and your expectations?

Most important – hire a professional! I can vouch for this! Prompt customer service, transparency, documentation and patience are signs of a reputable company. If your best interests are not theirs, find someone who wants a happy customer.

(Thanks to Tor Valenza aka @SolarFred, at UnThinkSolar.com for his input!)

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.