While solar energy systems could one day be used all throughout the country and far more frequently than traditional power systems, residential customers figuring out how to go solar may find the task incredibly daunting particularly with so much information available. Keeping informed on current solar trends and as well as local and state solar rebates are some of the most important things to keep in mind when analyzing whether solar is right for you. Above all, finding out what solar installer is right for you can make all the difference in the world. Below are some tips on how to find the right solar installer to help lower your electric bills as well as some additional items to be wary of when you are in the preliminary stages of your selection process.
1. Certification: The best, and possibly easiest way to check to see whether a solar installer is qualified, is to check with the National American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, or NABCEP. While there are other organizations that certify solar installers, the NABCEP is probably your best bet in terms of the quality of work offered from their certified installers. Not only do they have their potential installers pass a rigorous set of tests, but prior to receiving their certificate an installer must also have two years of experience in solar system installations.
Certification is not the only thing that sets apart some solar installers from other, in fact, it is not uncommon for many installers to have no certification at all. This could be due to a few different circumstances: (1) the solar installer has enough experience to feel confident and competent in their abilities to install the system, therefore knowing it is unnecessary to pay extra money to get “certified” or (2) they previously took classes and educated themselves at a solar institution.
In the case of solar installers that claim to have enough experience to do the job without certification, it is important that you ask them to provide you with as many references as possible (including references from when they were just starting out). This will be helpful for not only gauging how much experience they have, but also possibly giving you some insight as to the quality of work that they hold as standard. It is also important to ask about the range of solar systems they have installed, and how many of those are similar to the system you are hoping to use. This will give you some substantial evidence as to their level of experience and help you decide whether or not they are qualified to do the job you are asking of them.
For those solar installers that have taken courses at a solar institution, make sure that the education and training they received was from an established solar institution. Some of the better known institutions include the Solar Living Institute, and Solar Energy International. In addition to this training, they should have had hands-on experience from NABCEP certified teachers. It is not uncommon for customers to ask to see this qualifications, in fact it is encouraged, so don’t be afraid to do it.
2. Licenses/Insurance: The last thing anyone wants is to be at the receiving end of a liability claim due to an accident during installation. Should an accident occur, most solar installers have general liability insurance, workers compensation insurance, and a contractor’s license, all of which are designed to protect you for anything that could happen while they are on the job. More often than not, if a solar installer does not have these basic protections or is not willing to verify that they have them, you’re probably safer choosing a different company.
3. Online Ratings: If you’re not already familiar with the Better Business Bureau (BBB), this is a non-profit organization that’s main goal is to assist consumers by providing them with fair, accurate ratings of companies and how they hold up when it comes to doing their business. They compare businesses not against other businesses, but against their own standards of the integrity of a company and the rating they give reflects that analysis.
While it hasn’t been around for as long as the BBB, and is not a non-profit organization, Yelp.com can also be a helpful tool. This website allows users to give their own ratings of a company, along with a paragraph or two detailing the experience they had with them. This can also be useful in finding solar installers near you since the website gives you the highest rated companies nearest to your location.
4. Subcontracting: Subcontracting can be a slippery slope when it comes to solar installation. If your solar installer subcontracts any of their work, this may not be the right choice for you. You may trust your solar installer, but a downside to subcontracting is that you probably will not get to meet the subcontractor until the day installation is set to begin, and this could lead to unforeseen problems. If your solar installer considers subcontracting some of their work, it is recommended that you check to see if the subcontractor is NABCEP certified as well.
5. Location, location, location: Where the solar installer is located in relation to the building you are having work done on can play a huge role in the success and ease of your solar installation. The closer they are to your location, the better. Not only can this help to decrease some of the costs of the installation, but it can also result in the installer being more knowledgeable of local building codes and solar rebates, which is always a good thing. In addition to this, if the installer works in the area then they will know more about what you need in terms of local weather conditions and maintenance plans, and this can save you a lot of money down the road.
6. Payment & Service Options: It is essential for you to make sure that whatever solar company you decide to go with is able to show you explicitly what the payback and monthly savings on your electric bill will be. Keep in mind how much of your electricity needs will be coming from your new solar system as you factor this into your decision process (a solar system that provides 50% of your power needs will probably be cheaper in the long run than one that provides 90%). Remember, the solar installer is working with you, not the other way around, so try and request multiple competitive bids for your solar system with a few different companies to see which one can give you the best deal in terms of quality and cost.
On-going maintenance for your solar system is another important thing to keep in mind; is it included in the cost of your system or will there be an additional charge for it? Your solar installer will have the answer to all these questions when you speak to them about the cost. They should also be able to tell you about different financing options, such as outright purchase, leasing, power purchase agreements, and can tell you how these different options will impact the savings you receive on your bill every month. Installing solar systems is a big investment, and a long time commitment, so don’t settle for anything less than what you’re completely comfortable and happy with.
7. Brands Used: Unless you’re willing to risk some potential problems later on in the life of your solar system, do not let yourself get roped into being a science experiment for your installer to try new solar systems on. It is important that your installer is familiar and comfortable with the brand being used and the methods of installation, and more importantly you have every right to know why your installer specifically prefers the brand being used. Once again, the NABCEP can prove to be a great tool for giving you information on what brands your installer is certified to use.
8. Warranty: Because it is such a big investment, it is crucial that your solar panels come with a warranty. A solar system can take anywhere from 5 to 10 years to pay for themselves, in a manner of speaking, so any warranty less than 10 years is something to be wary of. The system itself should also have a warranty of 20 to 25 years, with a 5 year time frame for your installer to mend any malfunctions free of charge should something be damaged or malfunction.
9. “One Stop Shop”: While this is not a necessary thing to look for when deciding on a solar installer, many have found that choosing the route of the “one stop” solar installation company can be very beneficial to costs and ease of installation as a whole. The way it works is simple: choose a company that can do all the necessary steps, from the beginning consultation to the final electric hookup, without having to call upon outside sources to get anything done for them. This is more convenient both for you and the installation company because you can cut out a middle man by going directly to the source of the installation and they in turn can expedite the process of getting the work done. Often times the solar installer can even pass along solar component savings to you because they do the entire job themselves and supply all the necessary parts and equipment.
10. Get Help Finding Solar Installers: The beauty of the Internet is that it can help to eliminate much of the guess work that went with finding solar installers in the early days of solar development. With websites such as Solar America, you can get matched to pre-selected and highly recommended solar installation companies by simply providing basic information on your location and the project you would like to have done. Results come back to you within minutes, or at the most 1-2 business days, and qualified installers can begin the process of bidding on your project within days.
With all these points in mind, what the final decision ultimately comes down to is you. Your overall impression of each solar company has a huge impact on the choice you make. Remember, this is just business, so don’t feel bad if you end up turning down one company for a company that has a better “feel” to you. It is your investment and your money that is being used to make it happen, so you need to be as happy and confident in the installer you select as possible. Be satisfied with how quickly they respond to your questions and how they answer them, no matter how trivial the question may seem. You should always feel at ease with the people you are working with rather than feeling pressured by them to make a hasty decision. They should be more than just people working for you, they should be people working with you to help make sure that your investment into solar is painless, long-lasting, and financially worthwhile.