10 Questions To Ask Before Choosing A Solar Company

10 Questions To Ask Before Choosing A Solar Company

If you’ve never used a solar energy company before, it can be hard to decide which company and plan is right for your home. Depending on where you live, you may have several options for types of solar panels or you may have multiple energy lease packages to choose from with very different amenities. Before you switch to solar, ask yourself the following questions to help narrow down your choices and find the best company for your energy needs.

1. How much money will I save?
There are a few ways to estimate your savings: you can think about how much lower your monthly bill will be, or look at an aggregate savings for the next 20 years. Looking at both measures can help you decide whether the initial higher cost of purchasing solar panels and an energy system for your home will be offset over the 25-year life span of the equipment. If you don’t plan to stay in your home that long, or if you would need a high interest loan to purchase panels, leasing solar energy or a power purchase agreement (PPA) will have a much lower upfront cost, but less long term savings. Get quotes on both types of sytems and both short- and long-term savings to make the most accurate comparison. A final component to consider is how the long term energy use is estimated. What might change in your family over the next decade? Will you have teenagers who leave on lights or purchase an electric vehicle that will need to be plugged in overnight? Minor fluctuations in use won’t affect the savings much, but major transitions might make those savings higher than the initial quote.

2. How much will I pay to get started?
Again, this depends on which kind of system you choose. If you’re looking for the highest long term savings by purchasing a solar panel system, you’ll save the most by avoiding interest and paying the full cost out of pocket. Depending on the size of your home and your energy needs, this could be very expensive. It is possible to purchase energy systems by paying nothing up front for a loan or lease option that includes free installation, but you will have higher monthly payments. Many companies will allow you to make a deposit or down-payment towards the cost of the equipment that fits your budget. This is the best of both worlds as it allows you to get started with solar energy savings month to month, and still see a significant long term savings as well. Check your contract agreement to make sure there are no penalties for early pay off.

3. How accurate are the quotes from companies?
The more information a technician has about your home, the more accurate the quote can be. If a company offers you a free quote without coming on-site to see your roof and home layout, they are likely offering an inaccurate estimate. Look for a specialist who asks lots of questions about your current usage and your plans for the future. They should come to the house and take notes on the quality and construction of your roof, your trees and amount of shade, and have information about the zoning codes and building plans in order to design a system that really fits your needs. This might add to your up-front cost, especially if you are hiring more than one company to give you a quote, but the time spent creating an accurate plan can save you time and money once installation begins. Most projects run into unexpected changes during the installation process that will affect your total cost. Before you buy, ask the solar company staff what the approval process for these changes involves and ask about common problems or cost increases they have encountered on other jobs.

4. Will I have enough electricity for my needs?
When you get a quote from a company, it should include a forecast of the average electricity production for your system. Experienced companies will do their best to design a solar energy system that produces sufficient energy for your home by gathering extensive information on your home. A good quote takes into account normal wear and tear on the panels and a slight decrease in output over time from degradation. Even the best designed system, however, is rated based on how the solar panels perform under ideal conditions, which of course will vary in the real world based on changes in weather or shade conditions. Occasionally, the actual output will not meet your usage needs.

Most companies offer language in the purchase contract to guarantee a certain number of minimum production units from the system based on these estimates. Occasionally, solar equipment fails to produce the expected amount of energy. Before you choose a company, compare the production guarantees and look for a company that has established steps for fixing your system should this problem happen. Ask about what process they use to observe the energy output of your system and how often their customers experience inadequate power availability.

5. What’s the best way to finance a solar energy system?
No single purchase option is the best for every homeowner. If a company is pressuring you toward a specific lease through their bank or financing department, it’s probably to increase their profit, not to save you money. Get options on PPAs, leases, and loans including contract terms from several companies to compare, but make the decision based on your own research. Consider how much savings you can comfortably invest in a down-payment, what kind of interest rate you’d be able to get on a loan, and what kind of home efficiency tax breaks you might get to offset installation costs. This is where comparison shopping can really pay off, as different companies are likely to have packages tailored to benefit different kinds of financial situations.

6. How qualified are the staff who give me a quote?
Ideally, you want your solar energy system to be designed by an engineer, or at least someone with technical expertise.  Before you invite a company to visit your home and design a quote, ask about the qualifications of their staff. Having a quote and production information from a salesperson who makes commission by selling you a larger system than you need or that won’t comply with your building codes is not worth the risk.

7. Which kind of panel is the best?
Different homes need different kinds of technology to get the right amount of power with the smallest possible system. Before you decide, ask companies which kinds they offer and what maintenance and repair options they can provide.

Houses with a simple roof design and minor shading can get by with simple technology: single string inverter panels.  This will be a durable and cost effective option. Keep in mind if the shade conditions change, or a single panel is compromised due to damage or defect, the entire system will have problems keeping up with production.

Home with multi-stepped roofs or heavy shade cover will want to consider a more expensive, but more powerful option: microinverter panels. Each panel produces electricity independently form the others, so even dappled sun or partial shade that moves during the day can produce sufficient energy. Because the internal hardware is more complex, diagnosing and repairing problems can be more complicated and expensive, so look for companies that offer warranties.  

Some companies are able to offer optimizer panels. This technology keeps the independent production of the microinverter panels with a simpler production mechanism to increase durability. The trade-off is they can be the most expensive option.  

8. Will I need a permit to have solar installed?
Each neighborhood has different laws about construction and which projects need special permits. You can look up the building and fire codes for your address online or get help from a clerk at your local municipality, but a reputable company should come prepared with that information before giving you a quote on installation. Some communities do not allow certain types of panels due to aesthetics or electrical grid requirements. This is helpful information to know before you invest in multiple quotes. You will likely need a final inspection after installation to ensure your power meets electrical and fire codes. Ask your solar company how they facilitate this process and what their plan is to remediate if the installation doesn’t pass inspection.

9. How do I make sure the installation is done right?
Investing in solar is a time consuming and expensive experience. You want to make sure it’s done properly the first time. Get information from your company BEFORE installation about the process including how many technicians will do the work and how long it will take. What is their training, qualification, and supervision process? What kind of guarantees on their work can they offer you? Ask specifically about whether their service warranty or quality guarantee includes incidental roof damage so that any resultant leaks remain the solar company’s responsibility.

10. Is my roof right for solar?
It’s not a good investment to install solar panels on a roof that will need extensive repair or full replacement within 10 years. If you know your home needs a new roof, reprioritize and put your solar plans on the back-burner. Part of the inspection and quote process from a company should include details about the condition of your roof, including the age and strength of the shingles as well as the load bearing limits and amount of sun, wind, and wear each section experiences. Look for companies that will provide language in the contracts to accommodate unexpected roof problems that might be discovered during the installation process, otherwise you might be stuck with fees for time spent making repairs that delay the solar installation.

Moving your family’s energy production off the grid and onto a solar energy system can be a long-term cost savings as well as a more sustainable way to power your home. With all the options for panels, purchase agreements, and installation methods available, choosing the right company can be stressful and time consuming. Follow these tips to streamline your process and make sure your home and investment in solar is protected by choosing the best company in your area.