We’ve been in the residential solar industry since 2006, and have witnessed a lot. We install only within SDG&E territory, but oftentimes our friends and family in other areas ask us what to look out for. So here’s a list of questions that homeowners should be asking, but infrequently do:
- Does the solar company have a contractors license in good standing? If they don’t, then they’re sub-contracting out their installations to someone who does. In recent years, there’s been an onslaught of “solar companies” in the marketplace that do not actually install solar! They have no liability for the solar that’s installed, and the installer has no liability for the proposal that was presented to the homeowner. Not good for the consumer! In California, you can check contractors licenses here, as well as verifying that your salesperson is a licensed Home Improvement Salesperson.
- Do they have positive online customer reviews that span at least a few years? We recommend looking at Yelp, Google Reviews, Facebook, and the Better Business Bureau (BBB). Some other review sites such as Angie’s List, EnergySage, and SolarReviews strongly favor solar companies that pay fees to the site.
- How long has the solar company been in business? Solar is a competitive market, and the simple truth is that the majority of solar companies do not survive. As a consumer it’s to your advantage to go with an established contractor. It may behoove you to verify their longevity claims on the state licensing website.
- What is the solar company’s financial viability?
Are they profitable? Do they have a lot of debt? This is equally important information to know about the manufactures of the solar panels and inverters.
- How long has the solar salesperson been in the industry? Were they selling cars or cellular plans last month? Most solar salespeople do not make it in the industry for very long. Similarly, it’s important to know the experience level of the solar installers, since they are the ones that will be working on your roof. Avoid companies that hire installers seasonally.
- Is the salesperson educating you, or just trying to close the deal? Have they explained Net Energy Metering (NEM), the annual True Up cycle, and time-of-use (TOU) electric rate schedules? Are they proposing a specific layout of solar panels on your roof, and providing estimated annual production of that system based on your actual roof orientation and your actual shading conditions? Are they discussing with you what your expected future electric usage might be, and providing you with options to choose a variety of system sizes? Can they speak intelligently as to why they are specifying the solar panels and the inverter solution on their proposal? And will you have any contact with the salesperson after you sign the contract?
- Are you able to see previous installations in your area, and talk with previous customers? Does it look like the solar company values the aesthetics of their installations? Do they paint any exposed conduit to match, do they line up the panels properly, etc.?
- What quality of equipment are they using for the balance of the system? Is the system designed to last for decades, exposed to the elements? Are the roof attachments protected by flashing, or do they rely on sealant? Are they using plastic zip ties to hold the cabling off the roof, or actual wire clips made for outdoor conditions? Do they use plastic flex tube, or metal tubing?
- What does the pricing on the proposal include, and how firm is it? Some solar companies almost never change pricing once a contract has been signed, and some use change-orders on most every job. What contingencies might cause a change in price? Have they verified that your main electric panel is sufficient, and that there is sufficient space on your roof?
- Are they transparent about their financing options? It is very common now for contractors to increase your contract price to accommodate “contractor” or “dealer” fees they pay to the finance company in order to offer a special loan product. If the loan sounds too good to be true (e.g. 12 years at 2.99%, or 18 months same as cash), then you are paying for it somewhere else. If they are offering a PACE loan such as the HERO loan, have they explained the extra costs involved, and the actions required when you sell your home? For many homeowners, the best loan may be an equity loan or a loan from a local credit union.
- Are they pushing a lease or a power purchase agreement (PPA)? There are many downsides to the lease/PPA model, the most important ones being that #1 it is vastly more expensive than buying solar, and #2 it can act as a liability if you sell your home rather than as an asset (talk to a Realtor about this). The lease/PPA model may still be appropriate for some homeowners, but be wary if your salesperson discusses the pros and not the cons. And of course, look at online reviews of the provider of the lease/PPA.
- Are verbal warranty and guarantee claims backed up in writing? What does the installation warranty cover? Do the equipment warranties from the manufacturers include full replacement or just partial? Do they include labor? What are the production guarantees? It is important to know exactly what is covered. You may be told that a battery has a 10 year warranty, when in fact the reimbursement rate after just a few years for a 40%+ loss of capacity may only be around 1/2 of the original purchase price.
- Is the solar company offering a never-ending string of promotions? $2000 cash back if you sign up before the end of the month! Sign up now and we’ll pay your utility bills until your solar is installed! Act fast to get your free iPad! Some companies simply design the cost of these constant promotions into their pricing, but for others it may be a sign that the company is struggling.
- Are there actually new incentives being offered? Can I really get solar for free? Unfortunately a common sales tactic among disreputable solar companies is to claim there are new incentive programs being offered by the government or by the utility, when in reality there are not. Some doorknockers and telemarketers will even pose as a representative of the utility in order to lend authority to their claims. Be very wary of this sort of tactic! Ask for third-party verification for all their assertions, and do your own research before giving them your contact information.
Lastly, we recommend to our friends and family in other regions that they choose a local solar contractor rather than a multi-region installer. In our experience, the customer experience suffers once the company grows too large. And though larger companies can achieve some cost savings through greater buying power, it is not enough to make up for the added costs of bureaucracy. Many national residential solar installers have gone bankrupt in recent years, and as a whole they have seen their market share decrease dramatically. Residential solar is primarily a regional market now, similar to residential roofing, HVAC repair, and swimming pool service.