10 tips on how to pick a solar company
Finding a great company to install your solar panels can be intimidating. Follow these tips to help make the right choice.
There are a lot of solar companies out there. How do you choose?
People get a little nervous about picking a solar installer because solar technology is unfamiliar to many. 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 you tell a good solar installer from a bad one? What questions do you ask?
First thing: don’t be afraid! In many ways, hiring a solar contractor is much the same as hiring for any home project. Don’t be intimidated by the technical nature of solar: with some due diligence and the right questions, you’ll be fine. This guide will help.
Here are 10 tips that will help you find a good company and avoid the bad ones:
Get in the right mindset
Many people have experience hiring a plumber or electrician to take care of small jobs around the house, or even a general contractor to do a major home renovation. But most people have no experience with solar. Where does one start?
Hiring a solar installer is more work than finding a plumber to fix a leaky faucet, but less than remodeling your kitchen. So be prepared for a little legwork, but it’s really not that bad.
The general process is similar to hiring any contractor: do your background research on the company, understand the product you’re buying, and read the contract carefully. You’ll have some decisions to make along the way.
You’ll want to meet the company in person (although since the pandemic, this may be a virtual meeting), and have a checklist in hand so you remember the things to ask. This site has a couple lists for you.
Don’t rely on solar price comparison sites
There are companies out there that want make the home solar buying process a little bit like picking a flight or a hotel. We think this oversimplified approach is bad for the consumer because it emphasizes price over everything else.
It might be okay to just go with the cheapest option if you’re renting a car for the weekend. After all, one rental Toyota Corolla is the same as any other. But a home solar array is a sophisticated system with many different components that must work together seamlessly. The installation process also requires coordination with your utility, permitting from one or more local authorities, and paperwork.
A good solar installer will coordinate all of this, leaving little for the homeowner to do. But with a complicated process going on behind the scenes, there are many opportunities for an installer to screw up. If one company is offering rock-bottom prices, you should ask yourself what corners they might be cutting.
Another disadvantage of online-only solar shopping is that it encourages people to gloss over the important details of the equipment that you are buying. If you ignore the equipment and focus mainly on price, you might end up with a system that doesn’t work as expected.
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 proposals and credentials of the companies you are evaluating.
For example, one shady practice to watch out for is being told that your house is great for solar when it really isn’t. An unethical company might fudge the production numbers to make them as optimistic as possible, or ignore shading problems that lower the production of your solar system so much that it will never pay for itself.
A good company will tell you that your roof needs fixing first, or that your house doesn’t get enough sunlight for solar panels to make sense. They would rather walk away than sell you a system that isn’t going to work properly.
But a less scrupulous company just wants to make the sale. So if you get three quotes, and two companies tell you that solar isn’t going to work while the third tells you to go for it, you should probably go with the majority opinion.
Having multiple quotes also lets you compare different equipment choices and installation approaches.
For example, one of the underappreciated details of a solar installation is how the racking is secured to the roof and made to be waterproof. Solar installers have varying levels of experience, especially when it comes to more challenging roofing materials such as clay tile. A botched solar installation can compromise the waterproof integrity of your roof, causing thousands of dollars in damage that could wipe out any savings you achieved by going solar.
Because of this, it’s important to ask your installer what methods they use to make sure that it doesn’t start raining in your living room after the installation is done. If one contractor is dismissive and gives vague answers, while another patiently gives detailed answers to all of your questions, that’s one way to tell a good contractor from a poor one.
There are plenty of other questions you should ask. See the checklist at the bottom of this article for some tips.
Never select a company only on price
Everybody likes to save money, but don’t save money on your solar photovoltaic system by automatically 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 compare the proposals and do your research on the companies.
Conversely, going with the most expensive installer doesn’t guarantee higher quality either.
Avoid leases and power purchase agreements
The biggest solar installers, such as Sunrun and Vivint Solar, usually don’t want to sell you a solar system. Instead, they tend to push you to rent one 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.
This is a complicated topic and an important one, because a high percentage (about a third) of homeowners choose one of these financing programs. To cover this issue in depth we wrote a whole article about leases and power purchase agreements, including individual reviews of Sunrun and Vivint Solar.
Prefer local companies that have been in business for a long time
Be wary of brand new solar companies that have been in business for only a couple years. The more experience a company has, the better. You can find this out by asking the company, checking the BBB, or sometimes by looking up the company online on the state licensing board.
Experienced companies are better not only because they are more likely to be technically competent, but they are also more likely to still be in business if you need warranty service years later. Some states like California have a more mature home solar market, in which case it’ll be easier to find companies with 10 years of experience or more. If you live someplace like the Midwest where the solar industry is newer, you might have to settle for companies that have been in business for only a few years.
Note: if you use EnergySage to get online quotes, they only require that their companies have 3 years of experience. In contrast, The Solar Nerd looks for companies with least 10 years of experience, if possible.
Read online reviews, but be careful
With online reviews, a good place to start is the Better Business Bureau. The BBB differs from other online review sites. It collects consumer complaints about a company and works to mediate the complaint between the customer and the company. A complaint might identify poor practices by the company, or it simply might be a misunderstanding between the client and the company, so be sure to read it closely to understand whether it represents a concern. A listed complaint may also be resolved or unresolved. Resolved complaints are less of a concern, and it’s also inevitable that a larger company that does a large volume of business, no matter how good the company is, will eventually have some dissatisified customers. The BBB also allows users to post more traditional reviews, but those are not mediated by the BBB.
It’s worth looking up the company on other online review sites, but take those reviews with a grain of salt. Online reviews are a less reliable indicator of quality, and are susceptible to manipulation. In particular, avoid websites that have a history of “pay-to-play”, which includes popular sites such as Angies’ List and ConsumerAffairs.com Also be careful to avoid websites dedicated to reviewing solar companies, as they also have a history of pay-for-placement. We think that Yelp and Google reviews tend to be a little more trustworthy than these other sites.
Check the Further Reading section below for more about this issue.
Check that your contractor is licensed
The Interstate Renewable Energy Council maintains a web page where you can look up the solar licensing requirements for your state. Some states require specialized solar installer licenses, while others will let a contractor install solar panels with an electrician’s license. In some states, a general contractor’s license is fine. There are even states where no license is required at all. Check the IREC site, but read it closely because solar photovoltaic installation (for generating electricity) usually has different licensing requirements than solar thermal (for hot water).
If a license is required, ask the company for their license number because many states, like California, allow you to verify licenses online.
Online license databases might report only minimal information, such as whether a license is current and valid. Others, like California, have more detailed information including reportable license violations by the company. Be aware that violations differ in severity, and having a violation on record doesn’t mean that you should automatically reject that company from your list. If you have concerns about a reported violation, don’t be shy about asking the company to explain it.
In addition to the mandatory licensing, you also want to know if the solar installer is NABCEP board certified. This is an optional industry certification, but having it is another check that the company is well qualified to do the work.
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 installer 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 as long as 25 years.
- 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. Both Tesla’s Powerwall and Sunrun’s Brightbox come with a 10 year guarantee.
Walk away from high pressure sales tactics
Many honest and reputable solar installers incentivize their sales staff with commissions, so it’s not automatically a red flag if the sales rep you’re meeting with is working hard to make a sale. But high pressure sales tactics are a different matter, and a sign that a company is putting sales volumes ahead of quality.
What are high pressure sales tactics? A good case study is Vivint Solar, which was so bad that they were actually sued by the Attorney General for the state of New Mexico. Here are some examples of things to watch out for:
- Door-to-door or telemarketing sales, especially those that prey on the elderly
- Pushing the customer to go with “no-money-down” financing schemes (leases and PPAs)
- Encouraging the customer to quickly sign a contract instead of letting them carefully study it on their own
- A company tells you that solar will be great for your home while other companies tell you otherwise
Check out the BBB complaints for the big national installers such as Vivint Solar, Sunrun, and SolarCity (Tesla) to see more examples of bad sales practices.
High quality local solar installers aren’t trying to become huge national companies, but prefer to stay local and emphasize high quality work. This is why The Solar Nerd goes with local installers, and will never refer you to the big national companies.
Bonus tip: handy checklist
Here’s a list of questions to ask any solar installer that you are considered. Be sure to also read our article on how to evaluate the solar quotes you get.