For the homeowner who planning to go solar, the most important decision that you will make is the solar installer you choose to work with.
Because of this, I give plenty of tips on how to pick a solar installer company and a 20 point checklist to use when comparing solar quotes. These are invaluable tools to have when you’re looking at several quotes and aren’t sure how to choose between them.
But how about asking the question from the other angle? That is, what are some of the things that bad solar installers do that tell you to start looking for a different company?
The first thing to remember is that interviewing a solar installer is a lot like the process of hiring a home contractor for a major renovation. Just like remodeling your kitchen, a home solar array will cost thousands of dollars, so take your time to find a company you’re comfortable with. If the company smells funny, move on and find someone else to work with.
Here’s a list of things that are warning signs that you’re dealing with a sub-par solar company:
The home solar installation industry is booming, which means more competition for your business, especially if you live in a state like California.
Solar companies have to spend a lot of money on sales and marketing to get your business - so-called customer acquisition costs. In 2019, customer acquisition costs are about 9% of the total system cost. That means if your total system price before rebates was $20,000, the installer had to spend $1,800 on sales and marketing to land you as a customer.
That’s a lot of money, so it’s easy to see why some companies use aggressive sales tactics to try to get more business from their sales team.
Aggressive sales tactics could mean repeat door-to-door visits or telemarketing calls, or sales people that keep bothering you even after you’ve told them that you’re not interested.
This is a red flag because better companies don’t need to be so aggressive. Solar installers that have been in business for a long time and have a good track record in their community tend to get more business through referrals and positive word-of-mouth.
Door-to-door sales isn’t necessarily a bad tactic, but if you have a sales person who won’t take no for an answer, you should ask yourself why the company is so desperate for your business.
Would you ever accept a quote from a contractor to renovate your kitchen if the contractor never set foot in your kitchen? No? So why would you do that with a solar installer?
There are companies out there that do online-only quotes. They’ll ask you for your address and use satellite imagery from a source like Google Maps to put together a proposal without ever having met you face-to-face.
Apart from the obvious problem that a contractor needs to actually inspect the site to give an accurate quote, this online-only approach is a tactic that has been employed by companies like Sungevity, which imploded in 2017.
Sungevity put cost-cutting ahead of the customer. (Read some of their employee reviews on Glassdoor for interesting insights.)
Signing a contract for a solar installation with a company you haven’t met in person is a recipe for disaster. If you find a company doing this, avoid them like the plague.
Did a solar installer give you a quote with a nice looking proposal that has a schematic of your home, a list of the equipment, and your projected solar production? That’s good, but did a technical person visit your home, or was it only a sales person?
If the only person that came to your house was a sales rep, but they’re asking you to sign a contract, don’t do it.
Using our kitchen renovation analogy again, a good contractor will come to your home to look at your kitchen but, critically, also go into your basement so they can do a technical evaluation of your current plumbing and electrical work. Let’s say the new kitchen you’re planning includes a fancy electric wall oven. But what if your contractor didn’t bother to look at your electrical panel? You might get a nasty surprise in the middle of the reno when you’re told that you need a new electrical panel at an additional cost of several hundred dollars.
The same type of thing can happen with a solar installation. Hidden roof issues and electrical issues are some of the things that can’t be identified on satellite photos. It requires a person with a technical background to visit, and that is usually not your sales rep.
However, it is possible, especially with smaller locally-owned companies, for a technical person to also do some sales work. If your sales rep makes this claim, be sure to ask for proof that they are licensed according to your state’s requirements.
Similar to the first point, if you meet a sales rep in your home but they’re giving you the hard sell, that might be a sign of a desperate company, which is never a good thing.
A reputable company wants you to be a satisfied customer for life and will not sell you a photovoltaic system if they know it’s not going to be a good investment for you.
The best way to sniff this out with a company is to work your way through this checklist for comparing solar quotes. If the company doesn’t give you straight answers but instead skirts the question and goes for the hard sales tactics, that’s a big red flag, and a sign that you should drop that company from your list.
Solar installers make more money when you install your solar system using a lease or power purchase agreement (PPA) instead of buying the system yourself outright.
While the company will have a large outlay at the beginning, a lease or PPA agreement provides them with a steady source of income for a couple decades.
But the reason why it’s profitable for a company to own the system and rent it to you is also the same reason why it’s more profitable when you own the system yourself.
While there are certainly some situations where it makes sense for a person to use a lease or PPA, in a majority of cases it makes better financial sense to either pay cash for a system or borrow the money using a home equity loan. By going this route, the profit that would otherwise go to the solar installer will stay in your pocket instead.
For many companies, especially large national installers, leases and PPAs are key to their business strategy. Because of that, a company may push hard to discourage you from purchasing your system.
If you get that vibe from a company, that’s a sign that they’re not looking out for your best interest, and you should move on.
There are some solar companies that are actually just marketing companies, and subcontract out the installation work to another company. While there’s technically nothing wrong with this, it can lead to problems down the line when it comes to a warranty claim.
It can also mean quality problems if the company doesn’t consistently use the same subcontractor but instead works with a number of different companies. The company might get great reviews online, but if they change subcontractors, you could have a very different experience from past customers.
Be sure to ask who will be performing the installation work, and if they use subcontractors for any part of the work.
A good installer will explain exactly what equipment is being proposed, why they selected it, and what the pros and cons of the different equipment choices are. If they gloss over this part of the sales process or, worse, don’t list in the proposal exactly what the equipment is, go with a different company.
The equipment choice is one of the most important parts of the project, and one of the places where the customer can make a key decision that will affect the success of the system. Don’t accept the idea that it’ll be too technical for you to understand. (Read our guide to help get a handle on it.)
There’s a lot of products where not buying name brand is a perfectly good way to save money. Supermarket brand toilet paper? Go for it. No-name solar equipment? That’s a lot riskier.
This is especially true of inverters. If your installer is suggesting that you use ”Bob’s Excellent Microinverter 2000”, it might be a sign that he has a relationship with Bob or maybe got a deal out of the back of a van. With inverters, stick with the major companies. This is important for future warranty service: you want a degree of confidence that the company will be around in 10 years to service the product if necessary.
However, one place where it may be a good idea to save money by going with a less expensive supplier is with the solar panels themselves. Premium, high-efficiency solar panels cost more, but it may not be worth it. Read my article on finding the best solar panels to learn more.
If it feels like your questions are being dodged, that’s a clear sign that you’re asking something that the company is uncomfortable with. Or they might give you an answer along the lines of, “You don’t really need to know that, and here’s why”.
If you find yourself in that situation, just move on and find a different company.
Your contract with the installer is what protects you as a consumer from substandard work and shady companies. Take the time to read it carefully. If there’s anything in it that you don’t understand, you should expect the company to explain it to you in clear terms. This is especially true when it comes to the warranty terms.
When in doubt, get a lawyer to read it over.
This article isn’t meant to scare you, but be aware that the explosion of interest in home solar means that a lot of companies are getting into solar installation, and not all of them are great.
This list will help you make sure that you’re working with a solid, reputable company. If you start off by using The Solar Nerd for getting solar quotes, you should know that a lot of the legwork for screening companies has already been done for you.