9 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?
So, now you’ve made your 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. If you’ve ever hired a contractor to do a major home renovation, you probably already know most of the steps you need to take to hire somebody for solar.
Now what? How do you choose the best solar installer? Here’s 9 tips that will help guide you to a good decision:
- Get in the right mindset
- Don’t rely on solar price comparison sites
- Get more than one quote
- Never select a company based only on price
- Prefer local companies that have been in business for a long time
- Be wary about review sites
- Check that your contractor is licensed
- Ask about warranties
- Meet your contractor in person and use this checklist
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, say, buying a LEGO Harry Potter Hogwarts Castle set (6,020 pieces!) on Amazon. But it’s also less work than remodeling your kitchen. So just 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, because the Chevy Malibu from one rental company is pretty much going to be just like the Malibu from another, and if you happen to not like the car you only have to live with it for a weekend. 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 heavy 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.
Don’t rely on solar 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 possible 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.
Watch and learn from HGTV
Do you ever watch those renovation shows on HGTV? In every episode the contractor finds ridiculous things, like a previous contractor removed a load bearing wall, or there’s a city of termites living in the floor. It’s dramatized for TV, but the basic principle is true. Contingencies happen, not all of which can be foreseen. The best way to protect yourself is to get a professional to assess the project in person before you can get an accurate price.
Buying solar is the same. A lot of companies will say that they can provide you a quote simply by analyzing your home from satellite photos. It’s true that a contractor can use software to calculate your roof pitch, roof orientation, and shading from satellite photos, and by also knowing the climate, they can estimate the power generation of a system. (This is how The Solar Nerd calculator works). However, it’s impossible for satellite photos to tell you about problems that are lurking.
Pitfalls that cause 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. 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. While a conflict like that would be annoying, it would tell you that you need to ask more questions of each contractor to understand what their reasoning is. If you have a basic understanding of these technical details, you’ll be better equipped to know if a contractor is making the decisions that are in your best interest.
Never select a company based only on price
Everybody likes to save money. 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 entirely 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.
Prefer local companies that have been in business for a long time
When you use The Solar Nerd to get a quote, we prefer local companies 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. 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.
However, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t work with one of the big national solar companies. Depending on where you live, they may be your best option. Because they have serviced thousands of customers, they have a long track record of work that you can research. In addition, because of their scale, they may be able to get products at a lower price than smaller companies.
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 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 the Further Reading section below for more about this issue.
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.
In addition to the mandatory licensing, you also want to ensure that the solar installer is NABCEP board certified. This is an optional industry certification, but having it is another check that the company is properly 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 - 25 years is typical.
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.
Meet your 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 person you meet with won’t be able to answer all your questions on the spot, and they may 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 installer 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.
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.
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.
The estimate should list the price of individual components and labor: modules, inverters, racking, labor, electrical work, and other costs should be itemized.
The contract should indicate exactly when payment is due, and what the payment schedule is (if any).
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.
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 if this is covered by the
Ask about labor and component warranties. (Read the warranty section above for a list.)
Discuss the details of the solar panels, inverters, and racking system. (Read the next article in this series for a crash course.)
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.
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.
Find out how you will monitor the system output. This will either be a display on the inverter, or a website or smartphone app.
Ask if there is recommended system maintenance. If your roof needs repair, find out labor charges for removing and reinstalling the hardware.
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.
Bonus questions! (Lease or PPA)
If you’re getting a lease or PPA, there’s an additional set of questions you should ask. Read our article on solar purchasing to learn more.