for finding a quality contractor. ask around
in your community about which solar compa-
nies are well respected. Do an internet search
for solar in your town and see which compa-
nies have been in the news for doing qual-
ity work in your area. it may help to attend a
meeting of your local american solar energy
society chapter (listed on pages 78-80) —
you’ll meet people who’ve already purchased
solar arrays for their homes and can ask them
about their experiences.
when interviewing solar contractors,
focus on experience and stability. how many
residential systems have they installed in your
area? Companies with the most local experi-
ence will have the best recent knowledge of the
rebate process, building codes, homeowner’s
association restrictions and financing options.
Get a list of as many of the contractor’s instal-
lations as possible and go look at them.
if appropriate for your climate, ask how the
design will shed snow. ask if rodent damage or
bird nesting issues will need to be dealt with.
Many solar installers require a down payment to commence the project. This is fine;
however, you may want to ask if the down payment can be waived for a financing charge. if
the installer does not offer this option, it may
indicate an unsound cash-flow situation for the
company and questionable long-term stability. also ask how many projects the installer
has in its backlog. while it may be tempting
to select an installer who can be at your house
installing panels the following week, a short
project backlog may indicate that the company
is struggling to get work (similar to a restaurant
that has no diners).
Find out how many electricians and
north american Board of Certified energy
Practitioners (naBCeP)-certified installers
the company has on call. This will shed light
on the company’s expertise and commitment to maintaining competent employees.
will all the work be done by the company’s
own employees? if the company uses subcontractors, make sure you read the contract
to know who is responsible for warranties or
work left unfinished.
ask how the company handles service
issues. Do they have a dedicated service department? what turnaround time will they guarantee for service calls? also ask how they will
guarantee the performance of the PV system.
For example, if your system has some partial
shade, what recourse will you have if the system does not produce the electricity that the
installer predicted? in case of a system failure,
how quickly do they guarantee to have the system up and running again? installers in the
same market often offer the same warranty
term; however, what is covered under the warranty can vary dramatically. anyone can sell
solar panels. it’s important to choose a company that will stand by its product and ensure
you realize the fruits of your investment. The
solar installers with the best warranty and service may cost more up front, but they can save
you money in the long run.
each proposal should list the make and
model of the PV modules, mounting system,
inverter and other electronics. it should show
total component cost, sales tax, labor charge,
gross system cost and the estimated effect
of local rebates and the federal tax credit. Be
careful of the installer’s interpretation of the
federal tax credit as it applies to local rebates.
typically, the federal tax credit is applied after
rebates are deducted from the system cost. if
the federal tax credit is applied to the gross sys-
tem cost, any rebates are usually subject to fed-
eral income tax. ask whether the cost includes
everything required to install and commission
the PV system. Certain fees, such as permits
and roofing costs, are not included by some
installers. Find out how much these will be.
also ask how any cost changes during the proj-
ect will be handled, and how the installer will
minimize your exposure if the system costs
more than expected.
when comparing proposals, it’s easy to
overlook the components and just focus on
how much power you get for your dollar. This
can be a mistake. Most PV panels offer 20- to
25-year warranties, and inverters offer 10-year
warranties. a warranty is only as good as the
company behind it. research the PV panel and
inverter manufacturers. Determine if they are
established, financially sound companies that
are dedicated to the PV business and are likely
to honor their warranties years down the road.
if environmental stewardship is one of your
reasons for going solar, consider how environmentally responsible the product manufacturers are. established companies should publish
a corporate responsibility report.
Making the Purchase
when you are ready to select your solar
installer, there are a few final details to be dis-
cussed before contract signing. Determine the
expected installation start and finish dates as
well as the expected system turn-on date. local
utility rules often cause a delay between system completion and turn-on, and the installer
should set your expectations appropriately. if
local rebates are available, ask about the rebate
process and how the installer can help you navigate the system.
Installing the System
PV installations by a competent contractor
are typically hassle-free for the homeowner. a
typical roof installation takes two to three days
but may be longer for a large system or on a
steep or complex roof. once the PV system is
complete, the local jurisdiction will inspect the
installation for local building code and national electric Code compliance. The installer
will then make any corrections required by
the inspector. Finally, the net meter will be
installed by the utility company, and the system can be turned on.
once your system is operational, the installer should conduct an orientation to make sure
you understand how to read the inverter display and any remote monitoring software you
may have purchased. The installer will show
you how to identify a system outage, which is
usually indicated via the inverter display. You’ll
learn how to track production to make sure
the system is generating the predicted power.
You should also receive a system manual which
contains the electrical diagram for the system
(in case someone else needs to work on the system in the future), component serial numbers,
component warranties and product manuals.
Servicing the System
The most common service issue with a PV
system is inverter failure. in the event of failure under warranty, the installer should service
or replace the inverter at the manufacturer’s
expense. Be sure to check in advance whether
roof leaks are covered under the installer’s
warranty. while PV panels are tested for hail
resistance, hail damage is not covered under
the manufacturers’ warranties and would need
to be covered with a homeowner’s insurance
claim. Before purchasing a PV system, contact
your homeowner’s insurance company and
determine the additional cost, if any, to insure
the system. GS
Dan Yechout is director of sales at namasté Solar
( namastesolar.com) in Boulder, Colo. He holds a
bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Colo-
rado State University and is a naBCeP-certified
PV installer. He has designed more than 150 suc-
cessful PV systems.