FindSolar.com lists thousands of solar installers across North America. It’s easy to narrow the list down to 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.
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:
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.