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

Is Solar Marked with a New Orleans Saints Bounty?

I have been working in the Solar industry for the past two years through ups and downs of start-ups, small and large Photovoltaic installations, starting by selling one-off modules to Burning Man “Burners” to get by and more recently installing large Federally funded Energy Efficiency Community Block Grant projects with Johnson Controls throughout Nevada. One thing remains, it is constantly a struggle to sell solar.

I recently had a spout with a member of Senior Corps of Retired Executives (S.C.O.R.E.) about solar in a new business model I have been working on called “CrowdSolar”. He said, “Son, I have been doing Solar since before you were born. You have a great idea here, but the numbers will never add up with Solar.” I debated with him for twenty minutes pointing out that the levelized cost of energy of solar is projected to hit grid parity within the next five years, that I understand that module prices are lower than they should be because of Chinese market saturation and unfair trading practices, and that if a system can be financed properly, like I am offering, you can get a customer to save money from day one. He wouldn’t buy it and recommended I speak with a solar businessman in the UK with whom he was familiar (I will be doing that soon).

My point is, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that says solar electricity is a bad thing, much less “the future”. But are we all blinded? It is a large investment and the “payback period” is longer than people are typically willing to accept. My colleague Patrick shared the following with me that he recently came across regarding market penetration of energy-saving technologies:

The concerning thing is that assuming this graph applies to today and Solar electricity as an “energy-saving technology” that means that adoption of the technology would be limited to well less than 10% market penetration. Does that mean then that locations such as Germany and Spain which have seem much larger adoption have exceeded the market equilibrium of the technology and will continue to face problems with their feed-in tarriffs and further adoption? I personally still think not, but I don’t have the research base to back that up.

What do you think? I invite you to comment with your thoughts below…