Pick the right solar vendor, save more money!

Maybe all my talk so far has convinced you it doesn’t cost more to build energy-efficiently or install alternative methods of power generation, and now you’re ready to make the big move to solar. If so, let me be the first to thank you for making that decision! Not only are you a true leader, but you’re sure to be the next big topic of discussion in your neighborhood. But before you make the final choice on a solar installer, here are some key points to keep in mind as you meet with your local solar vendors:

  1. Get the contractor’s license number. Once you find it, look it up. All U.S. states have a website to look up a contractor’s license and give you some background information on the contractor. This is key: your installer MUST have a contractor’s license, without question. For Massachusetts residents, you can check a contractor’s license record at the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety license lookup site
  2. Check the contractor’s record with the Better Business Bureau. Not all contractors will have information on file with the BBB, but if there have been any complaints or unresolved warranty issues, they will most likely be listed here by previous customers. Eastern Massachusetts residents can check the local Better Business Bureau business listings here.
  3. Does the contractor outsource their crew? This may not sound like a big issue, but it is. Some companies outsource their installations to other, often unqualified, sub-contractors. Remember, these contractors will be installing solar power, most likely while walking on your roof, drilling holes in your roof and making all sorts of electrical connections within your home. You need to be assured the contractors have been properly trained and certified, and if the crew is outsourced, you can’t be sure of that.
  4. Get Referrals. Ask for a list of the most recent three, four, or even five customers. Not every customer is willing to be a reference, though, even if the contractor did a great job. So don’t be alarmed if the contractor can’t give you the name of every customer s/he’s ever worked with. But get a few names and phone numbers of recent customers, call them up and ask them if they were satisfied with the contractors work. Did the contractor meet their initial estimates? Was the work performed in a timely manner? Has the customer realized the expected savings with the new equipment? These are all valid questions to ask. You may also consider driving by the customer’s home as well, just to check out how the installation looks from the outside.
  5. Ask what brands of equipment the contractor uses. Not only does solar power involve the installation of solar panels, but you also need to have the proper A/C and D/C converter units installed (solar power produces DC current which needs to be converted to AC current to power things like your computer, lights, and washing machines). Like all other types of equipment, there’s good quality and lesser quality (to be kind). Most solar equipment will not require a high level of maintenance, but be sure there is a warranty offered on the equipment and that the contractor stands behind the warranty claims.
  6. Get a second quote. Not only will this help assure you that the quote being offered is reasonable, it also helps ensure cost competitiveness across installers. But don’t select your contractor on price alone. The more expensive quote could be advantageous if that contractor uses better installation procedures, higher quality parts, or extends greater warranty coverage. In general within Massachusetts, the current average is roughly $8.60/KwH generated. So depending on the size of the system you’re installing, a typical residential installation should cost between $16,000 and $50,000+ for a full passive heating and cooling system. Massachusetts residents can find a spreadsheet with information on the costs of recent solar installations in Massachusetts over the past several years, along with the applicable rebates the homeowners received, at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative’s web site.
  7. Get a fixed date for installation to begin and end. Your contractor should have the work pretty much all figured out ahead of time and should be able to tell you how long installation will take and when they will be able to begin the work. A good contractor won’t get thrown by a project overrun and should be able to plan accordingly for all contingencies. Be sure to ask the previous customers if the contractor finished their job on time as well (see Get Referrals above). You don’t want to be starting an installation in central Massachusetts in late September only to have it held up past the first cold spell in October.
  8. Get the warranty specifics for your equipment and save it in a safe place. Solar equipment lasts a LONG time and requires very little on-going maintenance, so chances are you’ll forget the brand name and maybe even the installers name after 20 years, so you’ll want to have this information handy in year 18 should anything go awry.
  9. Don’t forget your rebates! Most U.S. state have some form of rebate program, and if your state doesn’t, your local utility company most likely does. Your contractor should be intimately familiar with all the available rebate programs and how to apply for them. A good contractor may even file the rebate requests on your behalf – it never hurts to ask them if they will! Check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, for a list of available rebates in your state.

Congratulations on taking the first steps toward energy independence! If you have more questions on solar power or other forms of alternative energy in the home, read my other blog posts or visit my web site at www.CyberGreenRealty.com for more information. You can also find a listing of Solar vendors in the Eastern Massachusetts region on my web site under the Eco Friendly Partners page.

Until next time, Peace!



One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Daniel Gehman on August 15, 2009 at 10:23 PM

    Tim, I went on line with my PV system in February 2007. There were a couple of glitches in my process, including the permit processing, then, at the time in mid-2006, the availability of the high-efficiency panels from SunPower. The system was supposed to be ready by October of 2006.

    Oh well. They did a pretty good job with the installation, and even came back to do a roof repair at one point. In all, I’ve been really pleased with the system. My average monthly electric bill is about $36. I would recommend a PV system to anyone who could scrape together the bank.


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