Solar power is big business in the U.S., which means there are now thousands of companies installing solar. Some solar installers work nationwide while others are much smaller, local outfits. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and choosing a solar installer is a lot like choosing any other home contractor. Here’s how to find a reputable solar installer and what to ask before signing a contract.
Table of Contents
1. Ask your neighbors, friends, family, colleagues, etc.
If the sight of your neighbor’s new solar panels prompted you to look into going solar yourself, don’t be afraid to ask your neighbor about their experience. Beyond just getting the name of the contractor, try to find out how the project went.
Some good questions to ask include:
- Did the solar installer provide an accurate estimate?
- Were there any unexpected costs or hiccups?
- Was the project completed on time?
- Were the workers punctual, friendly, and helpful?
- How did the installer handle any setbacks?
- Was the contractor responsive to questions and concerns?
Online reviews can be a great source of information but tend to be written by folks who had either terrible or amazing experiences. Ask around and you’ll start to get the inside scoop on your local solar installers and any national companies with crews working locally.
If you don’t know anyone who has had solar installed at home, use social media to track down home solar fans in your neighborhood. Or walk or drive around and make new friends by knocking on the door of folks with panels on their roofs. Chances are they’d be happy to talk about their array!
2. Research equipment
We get it, solar panels are sexy, and everyone wants high-efficiency and the best of the best. Unless you know a bit about solar photovoltaic technology, though, it’s easy to be bamboozled by sales talk.
We offer a guide to the best home solar panels and our recommendations for the best brands of panels. Give these a once-over before you meet with contractors. That way, if they start reeling off specifications and technical jargon, you’ll be well placed to ask questions and not get sucked into a bum deal.
Why does it matter? Well, a solar array isn’t cheap, and these panels last, ideally, at least 25 years. You want to get a good rate of return for your investment, which means choosing the best quality panels you can afford and that fit your circumstances.
The best solar panels for Arizona aren’t going to be the best panels for Alaska, though. And if a sales representative tells you otherwise, or doesn’t know what a temperature coefficient is, it’s probably best to look for a different solar installer.
Find a Solar Energy partner near you.
Ask about warranties and the installer’s experience with different panels. Ask about discounts available for panels made locally, and if the installer actually recommends American-made panels over international options. Ask about degradation rates, half-cut technology, and other things that affect how well a panel works over its lifetime. You’ll soon get a sense of whether they know what they’re talking about.
3. Set up an in-person meeting
No solar installation is exactly the same as another. For this reason alone, it’s a good idea to have any prospective solar contractor visit the property where you’re considering installing solar. This also gives you an opportunity to work with their administrative staff and perhaps meet part of the team who’ll be clambering about on your roof for a while.
If the company isn’t prepared to send a representative or only sends a sales representative, ask who will actually be installing your system. Try to find out how long the company has worked with the crew, whether projects tend to go smoothly, and what you should do if any issues arise during installation. Asking these questions should give you a sense of how responsive the company will be if things don’t go as planned.
Local installers are much more likely to do a site visit and send someone knowledgeable about how to actually install a solar energy array. A good contractor will be able to point out any potential issues right away, such as shaded spots, troublesome vents, and barriers to accessing the roof safely.
The contractor should also assess the main service panel in your home to see if it’s in a good state of repair to work with solar. If you plan on getting solar storage, the contractor will also help you work out where to position your battery for easy maintenance and safety.
Sure, you can get a solar quote from a national company using an address and Google Earth imagery, but that photo won’t tell you that you’ve got a problem with breakers that you’ll need fixing before you can get those panels on your roof.
4. Get at least three quotes (ideally more!)
Whatever you do, don’t sign a contract with the first solar installer to knock on your door or shove a flyer in your mailbox. Shop around and get at least three quotes, ideally more.
As much as possible, make sure these quotes are for the same size and type of solar installation. That way, you can compare apples to apples. If one company suggests a system sized much larger or smaller than the others, ask why. And if a company offers a quote without a site visit, factor that into your decision-making.
Don’t pay for any site evaluations. Reputable solar installers provide free site evaluations and a comprehensive quote (with a few different options). Most will ask to see a few of your recent utility bills (ideally across seasons) and will ask about your likely future energy needs (such as if you have a growing family or want to install an electric vehicle charger).
Qualified solar contractors will also look at the size, orientation, and tilt of your roof, and can design a system to maximize solar capture. They’ll offer a guide to likely production, with annual estimates, and give you a sense of your solar payback period.
Great solar installers will even help connect you to any locally available rebates, grants, loans, and other financial incentives that can make going solar a little more affordable. At a minimum, a solar installer should be able to work with you to develop a plan for financing your installation. This might be full ownership, or could be a lease or power purchase agreement. (Remember, though, you don’t have to agree to the installer’s suggested financial plan and should shop around to see what’s available.)
5. Don’t just go with the lowest price option
Solar installations cost money, sometimes lots of it. And in many cases, you get what you pay for. This means that the lowest quote isn’t necessarily the best. In fact, if you get a quote that’s significantly higher than the others, there may be a good reason why.
For instance, a solar installer might have accounted for a solar battery storage system, where others left this out. Or the other companies may be cutting corners or have omitted permit fees and other costs that will surprise you later. Sometimes, though, a higher price just means better quality workmanship, equipment, and an extended warranty.
Again, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. Does one quote list the system size in kW DC and another in AC? Does one offer a full labor and parts warranty and the other only a short-term manufacturer’s warranty?
Saving a few hundred or even a few thousand bucks now might seem tempting, but if it costs you in productivity, repair, and replacement costs down the line, it may not be the bargain you think.
Rooftop solar isn’t new, but many solar installers are. The industry has grown rapidly in the last decade, which means there are companies with longstanding reputations and others that have only installed one or two systems.
Now, obviously, every solar contractor has to start somewhere, and just because a company has been installing solar since the 1980s, doesn’t mean the crew that will work on your roof is the best out there. A newer installer may be a great fit for your needs and could offer a very competitive price and fresh ideas about equipment and installation.
Experience plays a big role in how smoothly a solar project goes, though. This is especially true for trickier rooftops.
The good news is that if you set up an on-site visit, you will almost certainly get a sense of the contractor’s experience. If they’re new to the game and seem intimidated by your rooftop and its many vents and foibles, consider going with a more experienced installer.
As a general rule, it’s a good idea to work with a crew where the lead installer has at least four years of industry experience. Ask how many installations the company has completed, and if the answer is upward of 500, that’s a pretty good indication of a tried and tested team.
Find a Solar Energy partner near you.
If you live in California, you can also check the California Solar Initiative (CSI) Contractor Database. This lists all the contractors who have completed solar projects in the state. The California Distributed Generation Statistics database is also a great place to look. Here, you can search by zipcode, with data on the average cost per watt near you. Your state may have something similar, or you might find a similar resource through your utility.
7. Service and warranty
Solar panels can last 25 years or more, and most panels come with a warranty to match. But who will actually carry out any servicing or repairs should they be needed?
Ask any prospective solar installers if they fully service the systems they install. If you have a local installer who can service your installation, all the better. This makes servicing far easier to schedule and much more likely to happen in a timely manner.
All that said, if you go with a solar installer who has lots of experience and a great track record, you might not need any help with servicing until it’s time to take those panels down!
8. License and insurance
Depending on where you live, solar installers may be required to have certain licenses and insurance. Look for something akin to California’s Contractors State License Board (CSLB) to check if your prospective contractor is up to date with their licensing.
In addition to checking basic licensing, you’ll also want to ask if the contractor has and pending complaints with the state license board. It’s a good move to also check if the installer has reviews on the Better Business Bureau and ask if they have workers’ compensation insurance.
Other things to consider
A good solar contractor is usually a font of information about solar financing options, warranties, and equipment. Don’t be shy about asking for recommendations for solar loans if you need one. Always do your own research though, and make sure you understand the terms and conditions of any financing before you sign a contract.
Some solar installers are vetted by companies offering solar loans. This can open up new options for financing that you might not otherwise be able to access. There are, however, solar installers who will apply for credit products on behalf of prospective customers, which can affect your credit rating. Some contractors may even digitally sign loan contracts without the customer fully understanding what’s happening.
Be very wary of this sort of set-up. If anything feels pressured or rushed, ask for time to consider your options. Contact the financial institution yourself to get a clear sense of how your loan will work and how your monthly payments and overall costs will look. Don’t just see a lower monthly payment and think you’re getting a great deal. You may be signing a much longer contract with hidden fees, penalties for early payment, and liens against your panels or even your property.