How Do I Pick a Solar Installer? 10 Questions to Ask a Solar Installer

For disclosure and so you know where I am coming from: I am a Civil Engineer by training, spent two years managing a renewable energy installation company in Northern Nevada, followed by a general contractor focusing on green building and energy efficiency. I have since moved on to become a program manager the Nevada Institute for Renewable Energy Commercialization, a 510(c)3 nonprofit organization. Alright, lets get to it:

First thing is first, don’t even consider installing Solar until you have made your home or business more energy efficient (see my post from last week about how to do this yourself). Energy efficiency is often the lowest hanging fruit with the quickest bang for your buck, and every dollar you save is a many more dollars you don’t have to spend on Solar. While they often cost a few hundred bucks, you can also consider a home (or business) energy audit to expose your areas of greatest concern; that lowest hanging fruit.

The most important thing today when considering installing solar is to be an informed customer. I have seen too many people of the past five years be taken advantage of by shysters in the industry looking to make a quick buck on the uninformed with hard sales tactics and brutal lies. I have found from firsthand experience that if your installer is straightforward and honest, the sales cycles is often about 6 months. These means from a customer perspective from the first time you talk to someone about solar, until the time you feel comfortable about going forward with it can be six months. Solar has become a full technology industry and installing a system is a sizable investment for anyone requiring an objective financial decision as well as the emotional desire to do so.

When selecting your solar installer, make sure you get at least three estimates. Here are the most important due diligence questions to ask before you make a final decision…

Dan’s “10 Questions to Ask Your Solar Installer”:

  1. Are you licensed, bonded, and insured as an electrician or solar installer in the state?
  2. Are your installers locally licensed if required (such as Nevada OSHA PV License in Nevada)?
  3. Are you NABCEP (North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners) PV Installer certified?
  4. What size systems can I actually fit on my roof?
  5. What brands of solar modules and inverters will you be using on my system? What are their warranties (expect 10+ year inverter warranties and 25-30 year power performance guarantees of 80%+ on the modules as well as a 2-year workmanship warranty)?
  6. Can you show me some systems that will be similar to mine that you have installed before?
  7. Do you finance solar projects or offer a solar lease? Can you get my payments less than my current monthly electricity costs? If not, what are my upfront costs and what does my return cash-flow look like?
  8. Is my roof in good enough shape to last for the life of the solar system (25-30 years+)? Do I need to re-roof beforehand?
  9. Will you help me understand and secure rebates & tax incentives? Can you help me finance or roll these cost savings into my financing package from day one (so that I don’t have to pay anything more out of pocket upfront)?
  10. What are my additional expenses over the life of the system? Will I need to replace the inverter(s) in 7-10 years? Do you cover that?

If you are looking to dig into this a little more, the National Renewable Energy Labs have some good consumer resources:

While I am no longer managing a solar installation company, if I can be of any assistance in helping you make a decision I invite you to connect with me on LinkedIn, Twitter, via a comment below. Thanks! – Dan

Home Energy Efficiency Hacks

For disclosure and so you know where I am coming from: I am a Civil Engineer by training, spent two years managing a renewable energy installation company in Northern Nevada, followed by a general contractor focusing on green building and energy efficiency. I have since moved on to become a program manager the Nevada Institute for Renewable Energy Commercialization, a 510(c)3 nonprofit organization. Alright, lets get to it:

First thing is first;

“A penny saved is a penny earned.”
– Benjamin Franklin 

I know it’s not sexy, but ever dollar saved in efficiency (insulation, better appliances, and HVAC) is a dollar that you don’t have to spend on renewable energy, and efficiency is generally a lot cheaper. There are plenty of companies out there doing energy audits, personally I don’t like have people rummage through my place for a few hours and they will likely tell you exactly what I will site-unseen:

  • 60%+ of all utility bills for a house go toward heating and cooling.
  • Get a NEST Learning Thermostat (I got one in February 2012 and it definitely saved $30 in energy bills in the first month). It has a barometric pressure sensor, motion sensor, light sensor, and temperature sensor (and works with your iPhone – my fianée loves to turn it on from bed in the morning 🙂 ). I am in now way affiliated with NEST, but this thing is awesome, is detects when you are home and away and you can turn on your cooling on your way home. For $250 I think it is worth it.
  • You are wasting 50% of your heating (or cooling) to the outside and your house has the equivalent of a  24″ x 24″ hole of leakage that should be sealed off and gaps calked (you might be able to do this)
  • Many of your ducts are detached, kinked or improperly taped off (If you can use duct tape, you can do this)
  • Your forced air system doesn’t evenly distribute air through your house (hopefully you made this a little better with the kinks)
  • A little extra insulation in your roof wouldn’t hurt
  • You should probably insulate your foundation stem walls in your crawl-space under your house
  • Most of the pipes running through your house on the exterior have too much free space around them
  • If you want to take things a little further, go get a point-and-shoot infrared thermometer at Home Depot or Lowes for $30 and check out all the hot spots (or cold) on a hot (or cold) day. Hint: check out the temperature difference between your external walls near your windows, electrical sockets, and switches as compared to your internal walls. Also look at your surface roof and floor temperatures room by room if you feel like it.

If you got your mortgage through FHA, there is something called an Energy Efficient Mortgage through which you could finance all of the work above and save money every month (you can even refinance to make this happen in many cases and mortgage brokers definitely wouldn’t hate helping you do this right now).

If you are really keen on hiring someone to do an audit make sure:

  • They are HERS Rating or BPI Certified
  • Get some references and ask around about them first
  • Find out they will do other than a blower door test
  • Find out if they are tied to / feed leads to a contractor
  • Make sure they will provide recommendations above an beyond a report that is darn-near impossible to decipher
  • If they don’t crawl under your house or in your attic they aren’t worth a darn
  • Get two other quotes
  • Compare prices based upon per square foot & deliverables provided

I will publish a post next week about how to choose a solar PV installer. Stay tuned: you are welcome to connect with me on Twitter @DanHerr or