Mini-Series Part 1: Purchasing Considerations for Solar Power

Welcome to our Solar Mini-Series. Our Mini-Series will try to answer questions about solar that homeowners may have. This first video discusses the purchasing considerations for solar power. A full transcript of this video is found below the video. Feel free to check out the other videos in our Solar Mini-Series.  
Full Transcript: Hello, my name is Cecil Harrison. I’ve been a nationally certified solar design engineer for the last 14 years. I hope in this series of videos to answer most of the questions that you as a homeowner may have as you consider the installation of a solar power system on your home or business. Today we will be looking at some purchasing considerations that you should take into account as you decide which solar company to hire.

When you go for a haircut the person providing that service is required by the state of Utah to have a license and to meet a continuing set of standards to maintain that license. The solar industry in Utah is unregulated by the state. Anyone who wants to install solar can start a business and provide that service. Because of the safety requirements in the National Electrical Code and the possibility of damage to your home the majority of states do require that solar companies have an electrical license and that they meet the national standards for solar installations provided by NABCEP. There are over 180 solar companies in Utah, however, only a handful of these companies have the licensing and certification that shows they have the knowledge and adhere to the standards required to design and safely install a solar energy system. Make sure you choose a company with the proper credentials. Many will tout their experience, but if their experience consists of installing hundreds of systems incorrectly that does not benefit you as a customer. Most solar companies have been in business for only a few years and many disappear after two or three years.

Many companies, especially those using door knockers, are sales only companies. They contract the actual installation of your system to someone else. This creates a situation where if you have problems it is very difficult to get your system repaired. The sales company will refer you to the install company who will then explain that you will have to go to the sales company to arrange for any additional work. A solar power system is an expensive long-term investment. Most customers want a company that will be there to take care of that system for its lifetime. Does the company provide a workmanship warranty, in other words do they stand behind the quality of their work. A workmanship warranty is different than the warranties provided by the equipment manufacturers. As I have looked at systems that are not working or not working as promised the equipment is usually fine 99% of the time. The problems are related to improper design and installation. Recently, I was asked to look at a system where the owners electric bill had not changed in the 11 months since the system had been installed. The owners had contacted the solar company multiple times only to be told their system was working fine and that their energy usage must have increased. When I looked at the inverter it showed an arc fault. An electric arc burns at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit and can only be caused when a system is wired incorrectly. Before the NEC required inverters to monitor arc faults, solar power systems had been responsible for a number of fires. For this customer their system had not produced a single kilowatt hour of energy until the fault was found and corrected in February. I was at a Home Show when a lady walked by and said “I have solar and it doesn’t work. My electric bill went up, not down. I just wasted my money.” We offered to look at her system. The company who did her install did not obtain a building permit from the city. They simply installed the system turned it on and collected the final payment. The utilities require a signed inspection from the city before they will install a net meter, so this person had been paying for all the energy she used plus all the energy her system produced.

These examples, unfortunately, are not rare. Another important consideration if your system is installed by a company that is not licensed and certified and your home is damaged because of improper installation, your insurance company will most likely not cover the damage. Solar panels need direct sunlight to produce their rated output. It only requires a short drive to find a home where the panels are improperly installed. Panels that are mounted where the roof is shaded the majority of the day or mounted facing north will never produce enough energy to pay for themselves.

Avoid high-pressure sales tactics. Never sign a contract the same day as a consumer. You need time to research the company’s online reviews and Better Business Bureau ratings. Ask the company to provide contact information for customers for whom they have installed systems in your area. Ask those customers about their experience and satisfaction. Look at the quality of the installation on their home, is it something you would be happy with on your home. Get several bids and then compare apples to apples. Take the total price of each system and divide it by the size of the solar array in watts to give you a dollar per watt cost for grid interactive systems. Without battery storage this should be close to three dollars per installed watt. If the bid is higher or lower ask why. Some companies offer to get you 30% off a new roof heating system or more insulation. Make no mistake, the federal investment tax credit for solar is only for solar. If the install company uses the ITC for other things, they put you at risk. The IRS will apply any penalties or fines to you as the purchaser not to the installation company. Read carefully any financing paperwork. Many solar financing options are the most expensive money you can borrow. Usually the best financing options are those you can arrange with your own banking institution. The same is true for leasing or Power Purchase Agreements read them carefully. The good news is designed and installed correctly solar energy systems will last for many years providing savings and security to the owner. I hope that this has been helpful and that you will join me for the other solar power mini classes in this series. Thank you.

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