Most people hire professionals to install their solar photovoltaics (PV) systems, but it is important that you screen each prospective installer to make sure that you find the right one for your needs. Below are important questions to ask:
1. Is installing solar panels your company’s core business and how many years of experience do you have?
Make sure that the installer you choose is a specialist in home energy. If installing solar panels is just a side business, the company may not be able to provide the service you need and may not be around if you have any servicing or warranty issues. Obviously the longer the company has been installing PV systems, the better it is.
2. Do you conduct a site inspection before quoting and installation?
A site inspection is critical because it is necessary to access whether there is adequate roof space, the electrical system is capable of handling a solar installation and there are no shading issues. It is highly recommended that a site inspection be done prior to accepting a quote or paying any deposits. Note that many companies today are able to assess your roof size, orientation and shading issues remotely by using Google Earth.
3. Is your company properly licensed?
The PV installer usually has an electrical contractor’s license. The rules about whether an installer needs to have special certification to pull permits and install systems differs from state to state, but in New York the installer must have one person on staff who is certified by the NABCEP (North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners) to apply to get state incentives. To learn more about what is required in other states, go to the DSIRE – Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency website.
4. What insurance coverage do you have?
It is standard for an installer to have an insurance certificate with general liability of one million dollars or more and workers compensation. Ask if you can be covered as an “Additional Insured” on their policy and also ask to see copies of the policies.
5. What brand of components will be used and can they be upgraded?
Some installers offer a complete branded package and others supply a mixture of different components.Make sure that the components being used are high quality and can be upgraded later. Ask the company if they guarantee that the components on their proposal will be used in the installation and make sure that if they need to substitute other equipment because of availability that you will be informed in advance and have the right to withdraw.
Note that the PV manufacturing industry has now adopted certification standards for panels to address the high number of poor quality panels that were manufactured and sold in the industry’s early days when the demand exceeded the supply. High-quality photovoltaic (PV) panels must deliver the guaranteed rated power reliably; withstand an extremely wide range of environmental conditions; be safe and durable and ensure the system’s high yield over the long term.
6. How can I monitor system performance?
Ask what kind of monitoring system they offer so that you can continually check on how much energy you are producing and how much you are using.
7. Where is the inverter going to be installed?
Where inverters are installed is important because they produce a ‘humming’ noise.
8. What information can you give us on how the system will perform?
The performance of your system will not only depend on the equipment that you install but on factors such as how many sunny vs. cloudy days you have and your roof placement and slant. Ask what kind of maintenance is needed to keep the panels clean and operating at peak efficiency and find out if the company provides this service and what it will cost.
9. What is the cost and are there any extras?
When analyzing the cost proposal it’s important to ask if it covers all of the costs including meter installation, grid connection, building permits, a fee for the installer to manage and coordinate all of the processes to get the system up and running, etc. Also ask if the installer requires a deposit, if so how much and what is the timeframe between paying a deposit and installation.
10. What rebates and incentives are available?
Rebates are generally available up to 30% of the purchase price. The Federal Investment Tax Credit gives the purchaser an investment tax credit of 30% of the total cost of the solar system. However the purchaser only can use this and other rebates and incentives if they purchase the system directly. (see purchase options below). Some rebate programs may require that your contractor be properly licensed and that you have a minimum of a full (not limited) two-year warranty on your equipment. For information on current rebates in your area, go to the DSIRE – Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency website.
11. What purchasing/financing options are available?
The three most common financing options are:
Direct Purchase –the purchaser buys the system outright. This is the only option where the buyer can take advantage of any rebates and incentives that are available.
Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) – this is a no money down financing option. The solar system is owned, operated, and maintained by the supplier and their financing partners and the solar electricity is sold to the buyer at a discounted, locked rate (the PPA price). The downside is that the supplier, not the purchaser gets any incentives that are available.
Solar Lease – like a PPA, the buyer is not required to put any money down and the purchaser is not able to take advantage of any rebates or incentives. Lease terms are generally for around 20 years, but some leases can be shorter. In most leases the purchaser has the option to buy the system at any time during the lease or at the end of the lease. The purchase price is usually predefined in the lease contract.
Your quote should clearly state the maximum generating capacity of the system and an estimate of the amount of energy that the system will produce on an annual basis. It is recommended that you ask an installer to quote your price both for direct purchase and a solar lease or PPA so that you are sure that the lease price is not based on a higher total cost.
12. What is the length of the warranty and how secure is it?
Warranties for a solar PV installation generally cover 3 main components – the solar (PV) panels, inverters and batteries, if you have them. Most solar panels come with warranties guaranteeing 80% system performance or higher for 20 to 25 years – some will guarantee a higher percentage for the first 10 to 12 years. Higher quality inverters can carry warranties for 10 to 15 years, although the minimum most people ask for is 5 years. Battery warranties can be anywhere from 5 to 15 years or more. If you purchase solar through a lease or a PPA the warranty is generally for the length of the lease but it is important to ask if the equipment warranties are for a longer period. However, you need to be confident that the manufacturers of your solar equipment will be in business to honor their performance warranties. Ask your installer whether the solar panels you are buying are made in America, China or some other foreign country and ask about the financial health of the companies that they are purchased from.
Before you finalize your purchase, it is strongly recommended that you speak with one or more references who have had a similar installation to the one that is being proposed for you.
For information on how to find installers in your area, return to our section on “Planning a PV System” and see information in item #6.