Working With a Solar Contractor

It’s easy to find local solar installers with a web search. Make a list of four or five names located near your zip code, and then call them up for estimates. Or, look at the websites operated by the major solar leasing companies.

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SolSource team installs a PV array on a garage roof in Denver. Seth Masia photo.

Solar energy technologies are simple, but installing an array is a complex job, calling for both for technical expertise and ability to navigate the thicket of permits and incentives to get your project approved and financed. Choose an installer in much the way you’d choose a contractor for any major construction project. Here are some things to consider:

  1. Is your installer eligible for the state or local incentives you want to use? Rebates often are paid only to projects installed by approved personnel. The State of California approves rebates only on systems using modules and inverters on an approved list, and constructed by installers on an approved list. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority maintains a list of about 120 “eligible” installers for projects it partially funds, with another 90 names on a “provisional” list. Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Program has its own list of approved installers. You can work with a local installer who’s not on the list, but you won’t be eligible for the program in question. When talking installers, be sure to ask which incentive programs they have access to and how that will affect your financing options.
  2. What’s the track record? How long has the company been in business, how many systems have they installed, and how happy are the customers? A reputable business should be happy to put you in touch with satisfied customers. Attend a meeting or two of the local ASES chapter (see page 10) and ask people there which installers have a solid reputation. Finally, look around the neighborhood for solar arrays, and ask the owners about their experience with the installer.
  3. Consider whether you want to go with a very large regional or national organization, with a deep field of expertise and a sophisticated inventory and delivery infrastructure, or with a friendly and responsive local installer who may be able to answer an emergency phone call after a tree falls on your roof in the middle of the night. The large company may offer a better initial price due to economies of scale, but may be slower to respond to warranty and service issues later on. The local family-owned company lives on its reputation for service.
  4. It’s smart to contact three promising candidates and call for estimates from each. Expect to spend an hour with each estimator.
  5. Check with your homeowner’s insurance agent to find out whether there will be an extra charge to cover a new array against hail or wind damage

Estimating the job

Even before providing an estimate, an installer’s representative will want to sit down with you to review your utility bills. Then there’ll be a discussion of how much you can expect to save on monthly bills and a rough estimate of installation costs. The estimator will be knowledgeable about your local utility rate structure and net-metering regulations, and may suggest ways to reduce energy use and thus the size of the PV or SDWH system.

The estimator will want to climb out on the roof to gauge the amount of sun it gets and what kind of shade to expect as the sun moves across the sky, summer and winter. A critical issue is the condition of the roof itself. The solar array components carry a warranty of 20 years or more, and you probably don’t want to bolt it onto roofing tiles that will need to be replaced in five or ten years.

Ask about subcontractors. Is the installer going to bring in a licensed electrician or roofer? If so, who is responsible for the quality of their work? Who, for instance, will be responsible for roof leaks?

Ask about leasing programs and financial terms, of course. The estimator will have a good grasp of local incentives and grant programs, and should be able to reel off a list of banks offering “green” loans for home energy projects (banks and leasing companies often have their own lists of approved components and installers). The estimator should also explain the tax implications of local incentives and how they affect your federal tax credit.

Once the estimates are in, compare them carefully. Make sure that all the bases are covered: Are the estimates all for the same size system? Are there performance warranties? Who handles the permitting and inspection fees, and are all applicable taxes accounted for? What are the warranty and service-visit policies? What about cost overruns – if fees or charges rise unexpectedly, who pays?

Scheduling and installation

Once you’ve settled on an installer, negotiate firm dates for installation and commissioning (that’s when the completed system has been inspected and is actually connected to grid and running). A post-commissioning visit from the installer should validate system performance, and the rep can explain the inverter’s monitor display so you can track power production. Be sure to get the equipment manuals and warranties and file them safely.

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