So you are interested in going solar, but you don’t know who to turn to. Do you hire the first company that knocks on your door? The following are some questions you should ask yourself when deciding which contractor you should chose to provide and install your solar array.
How long has the company been installing solar?
Solar has evolved over the last couple of decades, with rapid acceleration occurring in the past five years. As such, it is growing and changing very rapidly. New solar companies are popping up all over the place. When choosing a solar provider, it would be wise to make sure they have plenty of experience. Newcomers to the game may not have had time to see the progression of technology and be able to advise you where solar is “heading.” They may not be up to date on state legislation that could impact your ability to use your solar array to the fullest in the future. In this expanding industry, experience counts!
How many jobs have they completed? How many solar panels have they installed?
Would you want to take your car to a mechanic that just picked up a wrench? Likewise with any contractor. Make sure the company you chose has plenty of experience installing the type of array you are considering. The more jobs and the more panels they have installed, the more likely you are working with a professional organization that can overcome the complexities of designing an array, pulling permits, working with the electric company to ensure compliance and lastly installing your equipment.
What do their customers say about them?
Do your homework! Ask around, check the Better Business Bureau, google solar reviews and the company’s name and see what others experiences have been. There will usually be some negative remarks on line. After all, it is rare that a company can make every customer happy every time. Reviews will give you an idea of the type of company you are dealing with. Also see if they are members of any organization, professional and/or civic. Companies that continue to grow relationships and professional development, usually care about their customers and the perception of the value they provide.
Will I be able to contact their customers to get a first-hand assessment of their work?
Like any contractor, it is important to check references. If the existing customer is open to the idea, ask if you can see their solar array. Don’t be afraid to ask them plenty of questions, such as these listed in this article. Ask if the installers were professional and picked up after them selves. Ask if the sales people were pushy? How did the company overcome complications? Did they deliver the project on time and at budget?
What experience do they have working with the utility companies in your state?
Most solar arrays installed are “Grid-Tied” arrays, meaning that the customer sends excess power production back to the grid, essentially using the electric company as a giant battery. (Look up Net Metering for a better explanation of this.) Solar companies have to work with the customer, as well as play nice with the utility company. In most states, the utility company has to authorize a solar array to connect to their grid. All other things being equal, if the company you chose hasn’t worked with the electric company in your area, there may be unexpected delays and complications.
What is their rating with the Better Business Bureau (BBB)?
Again, do your homework. Solid well established companies know the value of having a relationship with the BBB. Do a quick search on the website www.bbb.org. The more complaints you find, the more you should look for another company. If there are only a few, check to see if the company has resolved the issues and addressed the customers concerns.
The modern equivalent of the BBB are reviews online. Following are popular web locations to find reviews:
Google: go to google and type in the company name. In the right column is the google information on a company, along with reviews that have been entered
Do they have multiple resources available if I have specific questions about technology, materials, options, etc?
A responsible solar company will have knowledgeable staff, literature, manufacturer and distributor contacts, business web sites with links to important information, etc. If they don’t, what will they do if there is an issue or complication? Back to the auto mechanic analogy: Just because your friend has tools, it doesn’t mean he knows what he is doing when it comes to putting a new alternator in your car.
Is solar/renewable energy their only focus or do they also do ‘something else’?
If you put solar in wrong, it can burn down your house. Do you really want a roofing contractor messing with your electrical systems? Do you want your telephone guy fixing your car? Although the physical act of mounting solar panels to a roof can be straight forward, there specific procedures required to ensure you don’t have leaks, you meet building and electrical code and obtain the utility company’s approval.
Do they have opportunities for Financing?
A well established company will be able to advise you on the best way to pay for your solar array. This should include two or more reputable financial organizations that can provide the financing for this investment. The company you chose should also be able to provide specific and accurate information about how long will it take for the array to pay for itself, what is the return on investment, are there tax incentives at the local, state and federal level, etc.
Do they demonstrate how they arrived at their stated production estimate?
You can’t just take the wattage of a panel and expect it to create that much power all year. That rating is derived under factory test conditions, which is not “real world.” Things like the direction panels face, the geographical location of the array, shading, average temperatures and smog levels all impact how much power your array will generate. The provider you chose should be able to show you how they came up with the production of the array. If they didn’t account for the direction your panels face, maybe they haven’t yet learned how important it is. If they didn’t consider Solar Insolation values by utilizing tools such as NREL’s PVWatts Calculator, they may be guessing. You can use PVWatts ( http://pvwatts.nrel.gov/ ) to double check your proposal. It is very user friendly and enables you to check the contractor’s numbers. If your results and theirs don’t match, ask them why. If they can’t, maybe you should move on . . .
Can they provide a Solar Production Guarantee?
Unfortunately there are plenty of stories about a solar contractor promising that the array they will install will offset all of your electrical needs, and then finding out a year down the road that you still have to pay the utility company for half of what you are using. There are contractors that often over-promise and under-deliver. To ‘weed out’ less than reputable contractors, ask them if they have a Solar Production Guarantee? It should cover the production of the array, within 5% of what they said it would produce. Some years your array will create more energy than other years, because some years are sunnier than others. If the company won’t give you a Guarantee, are they the best value?
Written by Troy Bracke, December 2017
Troy is a solar professional with Michigan Solar Solutions. He has been in the industry since 2015.