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 LinkedIn.com/in/danielherr.

5 Steps to Starting in Solar Sales

I have been asked many many times how to get started in Solar and renewable energy. If you’re looking to work in the industry, my first answer, understand what the heck you are talking about and just do it. Okay, that many not sound like the best advice, but in my experience thus far most of the Universities don’t know what they heck they are talking about yet when it comes to renewable energy at this point and you’re going to have to do some of your own homework. Sure they can approach it from a big-picture, “Solar energy is good because…” standpoint, but that is pure garbage when it comes to running a clean-energy business.

First thing’s first: Learn what you are talking about

I would highly recommend that you have a technical background if you are looking to get into Solar. If you walk in my door misplacing kilowatt-hours for watt and spelling photovoltaics as two words, I will likely show you the door. Start here:

  1. Learn the basics of modules and inverters.
  2. Attend one of Bill Brooks’ classes.
  3. Read Photovoltaic Systems be James Dunlop.
  4. Subscribe to HomePower Magazine, SolarPro, and others.

You can easily find information about pv modules by visiting websites of solar veterans such as Sharp Solar, SunPower, and SolarWorld. Common inverters seen today are central (SMA, PV Powered, Fronius) and micro (Enphase). In fact you can get all of this in one place by getting a free catalogue from DC Power Systems or Solar Depot (now the same thing – merged to become the largest distributor in the US), AEE Solar, Focused Energy, or others. Please be careful to avoid homemade and no-name or new solar companies. The industry standard for power performance is 80%+ at 25 years+; if the company has been around for three years, its a little hard to know they’ll still be around in 25.

Secondly: Figure out how to scope a system size

Take an energy bill for your place and size out a system. You will need to learn some back of the napkin calculations for this using NREL RedBook numbers. For example in Reno, Nevada we commonly use 5.96 sun-hours (assuming optimal tilt). That means with my old apartment using around 6.2kWh’s/day would need a 1.04 kW system (assuming no losses) to meet my electricity needs on an average day. There are many arguments about different losses (including wire sizing, inverter, etc) to use, you can add all those individual losses up if you really want, but generally between 0.77 – 0.80 is a good conservative range. If you divide my 1.04 kW by that number (say .8) you would get a 1.3kW system.

Make sure you learn how to use PVWatts by NREL. PV Watts gives you great annual performance data for any location in the country using NREL’s climatalogical datasets.

Thirdly: Learn some of the standard economics and selling points

If you don’t know how to use Excel, now would be a great time. While you may think people are jumping through the wood-work to install solar for the environmental benefits, this is truly not the case. The hard fact is people only care about the price savings and the people that are widely adopting solar right now are very knowledgable people that have been researching, reading up on it, and running the numbers themselves. While I hate the “pay-back” question, you will get it, and solar is not going to “pay-back” in two years or less for those short-sighted people. Do you ask what the payback is when you do a kitchen remodel or purchase a new car? Solar is an investment, and likely the best one a homeowner can make.

In General Facts about Solar:

  • It is an investment, and you have to want to do it. Customers have to be shown the economics of it; cash in, savings out.
  • It generally increases property value without increasing property taxes
  • Owners will not be going “off-the-grid,” they will generally be net metering (installing a bi-directional meter that keeps tally of energy in and energy out). There is likely a minimum cost from the utility for being connected (say $15/month)
  • System lives are 30+ years if property maintained
  • Solar materials prices have been continually falling, but they are likely a little less than they should be right now (Read tariffs on Chinese modules are coming and the market is currently saturated with product which has driven the price down).
  • The weighted average cost to install solar was $4.08/Watt at the end of 2011 (I have seen as low as $3.65/W, but residential can still be in the $5-6/Watt for small systems).
  • Catch a glimpse of the industry in 2011

Forthly: Do it.

Now it is time to work your butt off to sell some systems. Some of the largest companies in the country that are truly dominating and looking to add on sales people are:

Jump in, get your feet wet, and make a career out of Technical Solar Sales

Finally: Get your NABCAP Certification in Technical Sales

NABCEP Certification is not easy; it takes years of industry experience designing and selling systems. Once you reach this level you have proved you are a valueable and honest Photovoltaic Technical Sales Professional.

Thank you for reading my blog – Daniel S. Herr.
If you are interested, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @DanHerr
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Crowdfunded Solar

So I’d feel silly not posting about what Matt, Pat and I have been spending tons of hours working on the past few weeks: a business plan we have called CrowdSolar. I’ve had this ideas stuck in my head for the past three years or so and its really needed to come to life. Here is the thought more or less:

CrowdSolar LogoThe Idea

Crowdsolar allows the average person to invest in solar while providing building owners with the opportunity to generate electricity from the sun without high up-front costs. CrowdSolar’s vehicle and platform for these investments directly funds solar photovoltaic installations with accredited investors through an easy to use and share online platform.

The Need

The most pressing issue that solar energy continues to face is high initial cost. The limited availability of financing opportunities makes going solar unfeasible for many businesses and homeowners. CrowdSolar provides the foundation for a sustainable clean energy catalyst allowing the industry to transition away from government subsidies and artificial incentives, which are set to expire by 2016. More importantly, in the worst economic times of our age investors are searching for alternative investment opportunities and the ability to encourage the development of clean energy in their local communities. CrowdSolar addresses those needs. Crowdsolar aims to change the game in the adoption ability and market penetration of solar energies.

I have forced myself to get it out and on paper, at least the start of it, and am submitting it to a number of entrepreneurship competitions (including the NCET Governor’s Cup, UNR’s Sontag Competition, and CalTech’s FLOW). Please find our boiled down version which we submitted to the Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition today. I welcome your comments, questions, concerns, and collaborative efforts:

Thank you for reading my blog – Daniel S. Herr.
If you are interested, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @DanHerr
Or Subscribe in a reader