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10 Tips to Finding a Great Solar Installer

Whether you buy solar, lease solar, or go with a PPA company, you’ll need to find an experienced installer. SolarFred.com is not an installer referral site, but an independent solar advocate’s guide to affordable, quality, residential solar.

First, consider that solar is a relatively young industry. The boom times have come now, however, which means that many people are currently training in good solar schools to meet the growing demand. That’s the good news…and the cautious news. Because as much as people are filling training centers, it means that there are a lot of fresh graduates. Fresh grads may be very talented and have many years of experience in roofing and/or as an electrician, but not solar. With those thoughts in mind, here are 10 tips to evaluating a quality installer.

  1. NABCEP is great sign. NABCEP is right now the best national standard certification program going right now. I’m told by hard core solar dudes that passing the exam is equivalent to passing a kidney stone. Think of the NABCEP test like the Bar exam for lawyers. To get the full certification, not only do you have to pass the test, you also have to have at least 2 years of hands-on experience in solar or a related field. So, at least one person on staff should have a full NABCEP certificate (not an intro one.) How to find a NABCEP installer? Click the NABCEP link above for a list.
  2. Remember that the sales consultant will usually NOT be NABCEP. The NABCEP guy knows how to play safely with electricity. He will officially design and inspect your system and probably be a part of the crew on your roof. Sales consultants are more about pre-inspecting your roof orientation, shading on your roof, explaining the various ways to finance your system, and giving you an estimate.
  3. If not NABCEP, then go with experience. Especially in such a young industry in a big country as ours, not everyone can be NABCEP. Some pros say they don’t want to waste their money on something they’ve been doing for a decade. If this is the case, the company should be proud to give you references of their recent installs. Talk to these home owners. Make sure they’re satisfied. Ask the company how many homes they’ve done. Ideally, I’d feel comfy with someone who’s installed panels on at least 10 roofs.
  4. Classes. If not 10 roofs of solar experience, 3 years of electrical and roofing experience each, with the installer having at least 2 intensive hands-on solar class from an institution like The Solar Living Institute, Solar Energy International, or a local Electrician’s Union. Generally, these hands-on teachers are all NABCEP, so they’ve learned from the best.
  5. Licenced, Bonded, and Insured in your State. In addition to these solar classes, the company should be insured for any accidents, and have a contractor’s licence, as well as worker’s compensation insurance.
  6. Check with your city and/or State. Often, to receive solar rebates, solar installers will have already been vetted and approved by your city and/or utility and/or state. If there is such a list, and your solar installer’s company isn’t on it, ask them why not.
  7. Get 3 quotes and don’t settle for the lowest price over experience. You’re dealing with the roof over your head here and electricity for your home. It’s probably worth it to pay extra for the more experienced guy. $1000 dollars less may mean thousands more in repairs for leaks or blown inverters down the road. So again, go with quality over price. That being said, if they’re all experienced, insured, etc, with helpful salesman, then go with price, naturally!
  8. Check withe Better Business Bureau. See if there are any complaints with company or the owner of the company. Contractors will always have complaints just like any business. You can’t please everyone. But if there are more than three or four in a young solar company, hmm…
  9. Check and Read Warranties. Solar panels are generally warrantied from 20 to 25 years, but typically last longer. The inverter, the other key component to a solar system, should also be warrantied for at least 10 years. In addition to these parts warranties, the installer’s installation workmanship–including roof repairs–should be at least 5 years.
  10. Compare estimates. The Estimate should tell you what your payback is going to be and your monthly savings compared to your current electric bill. Also, make sure that all proposals are going to offset the same amount of electricity; i.e. all should give you estimates for solar offsetting 70% of your electricity needs. Go with 90% if you want to be 90% on solar and 10% on the utility. Naturally, a 90% proposal is going to cost more than a 70% estimate. Also, some companies include free monitoring and maintenance of your system, while others charge. If you’re buying through home equity, be prepared to pay for another inverter in 12 to 15 years. If you’re considering a solar lease or a solar PPA, often the maintenance and inverter replacement are included, but sometimes not.

Finally, go with your gut. I know that sounds odd, but if you’ve done your homework above, and you feel like the salesperson has been helpful in answering your questions, that’s a better sign than the guy pressuring you because a sale ends at midnight. Hopefully, with these guidelines in mind, you’ll choose a great solar company that makes a profit, but also gives you a great deal with quality service and support.

photo: flickr/jsbarrie

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One thought on “10 Tips to Finding a Great Solar Installer

  1. Jamie says:

    Hey Solar Fred! IREC, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, has a process for determining the quality of new training schools. As newer installers get involved in solar, they work for recommendations and could be a less expensive option for going solar in the beginning. They obviously are hoping to leverage their first successful installations into businesses so giving them a shot to do a great job should be an additional idea for going solar. Cheers! Jamie

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