Rooftop solar projects ? how to find the right contractor

A decision of who to hire to get your rooftop solar panels installed must, by no means, be taken lightly. After all, it implies a considerable investment that should pay off over a period of several years and eventually bring your household substantial energy savings. That is, of course, as long as your panels are mounted by experienced professionals, who know how to do their job. Otherwise, instead of the long-lasting comfort and savings you?ve been hoping for, you?ll only expose yourself to new headaches and might even have to incur extra costs you did not budget for. 

Having solar panels deployed on your rooftop is nothing like buying a new rug for your living room. A rug can be easily placed, removed, cleaned, or stored away. It does not require any additional equipment and is laid right on the floor surface. 

Solar panels, however, need a several-step installation process where mounts must be placed on rafters and secured with steel bolts. The surrounding area must be sealed, the panels fastened to the mounts, and then connected to the electrical supply. As you can see, there are plenty of occasions for things to go wrong and cause damage to your roof or the panels and shorten their lifespan. 

To minimize those risks, hiring certified contractors who specialize in solar panel installation work is absolutely imperative. The question is: how and where to find them? 

How to pick the best solar panel contractors in your area 

First of all, ask yourself what it is that you are looking for in a company or an individual who will be in charge of making your several-hundred-dollar solar project happen. It?s probably no different from what you would be looking for in a plumber, carpenter, or car mechanic. 

You would expect all of these and other specialists to be professional, experienced, reliable, and ? last but not least ? affordable.  That?s right. The most expensive solar panel technician in town will not necessarily turn out to be the best one and picking value for money does not always compromise the quality. 

Word of mouth 

This centuries-old technique is still more than relevant when it comes to finding recommendable specialists in any field. So, before you try anything else, ask around. Chances are, some of your relatives, friends, or neighbours have had solar panels installed on their rooftops and can recommend good specialists and tip you off on what to take into consideration when hiring one. 

It might as well happen that their own experience with the hired mounting crew was not really the best one. But hey, learning from other people?s mistakes is way safer and cheaper than from your own, isn?t it? 

There is one more thing that makes relying on the word of mouth for a solar contractor search such a brilliant idea. It commonly comes with an extra bonus: introducing yourself as a relative or friend of a former client will often result in a friendlier tone, willingness to ?squeeze you in? into a tight schedule, or even (why not?) an extra discount. 

Social Media 

In our technological times, word of mouth also includes Social Media inquiries. A question posted on your Instagram or Facebook account about a recommendable solar contractor has the potential of quickly bringing back dozens of replies. 

Even if not all of them happen to be useful to you (either because of the location or price or availability), chances are you are easily going to find yourself a good list to pick from. 

Another great thing about using social media for contractor search is that many of those contractors might actually have their own accounts on the same platforms. Make sure to browse thoroughly through those accounts, looking for client opinions, prices, certificates, and any other relevant information. 

Being active online means for solar panel installers more chances for public praise which hopefully will bring more clients, but also the risk of public criticism and complaints. As someone who wants to make an informed and well-researched decision, make sure to find out what the Internet has to say about the specialist you are inclined to hire.    

Specialists from related branches 

Have you had roof shingles laid recently? Or perhaps some electrical work has been done in your house? Contractors from the roofing and electrical branches often have good contacts in the solar industry and might recommend a solar panel crew they themselves work with. 

So, if you still keep the phone number of the contractor who has done a good job with your roof or electric system, give them a call and see if they can put you in touch with someone from the solar industry. 

Local authorities 

Environmental concerns have been influencing national and international policies for quite some time now. Investing in ?clean? and renewable energy sources is one of the crucial items on the agenda of the 191 parties that signed the 2015 Paris Agreement. 

Solar PV Global Capacity and Annual Additions, 2010-2020 

Source: https://www.ren21.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/GSR2021_Full_Report.pdf 

Have you seen any solar projects around your town? Chances are your local city hall has dealt with solar contractors before and have a few good contacts to share. Remember, they hire through a formal bidding system and make sure that the specialists they pick meet all the project requirements and pass a thorough screening process. 

Paying a visit to the energy department of your city hall is, without any doubt, a smart move if you are looking for serious and reliable contractors, who are well familiar with the local energy laws and procedures. 

Solar Suppliers 

This may not seem like an obvious option but is in fact a very clever move. Knowing how a solar contractor behaves as a customer can provide useful hints on what they are like as service suppliers. 

Check with local hardware stores or solar panel sellers and see what contractors pay on time, who of them has been in business the longest, who is the most organized in their purchases, etc. You?ll quickly find out what company to consider for your rooftop solar project and who to keep away from. 

EnergySage 

If you are a US citizen, you might also want to take a look at https://www.energysage.com/. It is an Expedia-like page that lists pre-screen solar installers all over the country. All you have to do is to sign up and request solar quotes for your property. 

Soon enough you should start receiving online price quotes that are clear and easily comparable. 

For those who are located in one of the European Union countries, Solar Business Hub offers a similar service. 

Main players 

If you are not able to find any tips or recommendations, a safe option for you is to go for the biggest names in the industry. The list will probably vary depending on where you are located. Yet, certain brands ? like SunPower Corp, Sunrun, LG Solar, or LONGI Solar ? have achieved a global presence. 

What?s the advantage of choosing a renowned company? You can obviously expect the product to be of certified high quality. The drawback, however, is that a well-known contractor will most probably be rather expensive, might have a full agenda, and will not be willing to provide the personalized service you?ve been hoping for. 

Cold calling 

This is probably the most tedious and the riskiest way of picking a solar contractor, but if nothing else works, cold calling will have to be your last resort. 

While the local yellow pages will give you nothing but a name, address, and a number to call, using the Internet may once again prove a little more informative. 

Google my Business, for instance, assigns a rating to all listed companies and lets you see their reviews. 

How to evaluate a solar panel contractor for your rooftop project 

Things to consider: 

License and certificates 

Although PV installers typically learn about solar panel mounting at a technical school or by completing a special course (basic safety, installation, design), they might also need to hold a special license that authorizes them to perform roof and electrical work. 

Once you?ve short-listed a few potential contractors, make sure to contact local authorities and ask whether any special license is required for a PV installer in your area. While bigger companies usually employ enough professionals licensed for different types of work, smaller ones might have to resort to subcontracting, which may improve the work quality, but also increase the final price. 

Verifying whether your contractor holds any relevant industry certifications is also a useful thing to do. For the US it will be NABCEP certifications, such as PVIP, PVDS, PVIS, and so on, whereas for the EU you might want to check the ?Review of current certification schemes? published by PVTRIN

Why does it make any difference whether your contractor is certified or not? While not mandatory, it sure shows they are serious about their business and open to new training opportunities. 

What?s more, picking a certified PV installer might also get you better rates in case you need a bank loan to finance your rooftop project. 

Price and payment options 

One of the first rules of thumb when it comes to rooftop solar panel projects is to quote. According to the report published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), large contractors tend to be 10% more expensive than smaller ones, which could mean as much as 2,000 US dollars difference in the total installation price. 

Source: https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy17osti/68010.pdf 

What?s more ? the report says ? small firms prove to be more responsive to market conditions and policy changing and align the quoted price with true project costs rather than their brand reputation. 

Apart from the price itself, which is a huge decisive factor, pay attention to the payment terms offered by your selected contractors. 

When is the first payment due? Is any down-payment required? How much time do you have to settle the total bill? 

Some solar contractors are able to offer zero-down financing and a convenient payback schedule. Those who have been in business long enough should also be familiar with different financing options you can apply for (solar leasing, a PPA, or a loan). Some might even offer you their own solar loan. 

Quote and Contract 

A serious and professional solar panel contractor should present their official quote in writing, in a clear and transparent way. 

Compare various offers by evaluating not only the bottom line but also: 

  • cost of panels and other necessary hardware (inverters and racking system) 
  • estimated start and finish dates 
  • number of workers assigned to your project 
  • hourly rate 
  • cost of permit obtention (if applicable) 
  • leftover and garbage disposal costs 
  • any potential exclusions 

When spotting considerable differences between different quotes, make sure to identify their source. Keep in mind that solar panels can vary dramatically in price, depending on their type (polycrystalline or monocrystalline) and quality. In order to make an objective comparison, try to get a quote for the same or similar panel type. 

Don?t hesitate to request a datasheet or a sales sheet for all the materials included in the quote. A great idea is also to verify the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Tier of the quoted panels. Aim for tier 1 exclusively, as long as it is within your budget. 

The manufacturers listed in tier 1 are among the most trustworthy and creditworthy and financially stable. In case any of their panels happen to be faulty, they are the most likely to offer a satisfactory solution. 

Before signing any contract, read it carefully and make sure everything you?ve been promised is included. Pay special attention to dates, exclusions from the quoted price, as well as the client and the supplier obligations. 

Home consultation 

Unsure of what solar panels will be best suited for your needs? A lot will depend on your budget, the size of the roof space to be covered as well as the average exposure to sunlight. 

Most PV contractors offer free consultations. Scheduling a home visit with various candidates will help you get an idea of what tends to be the general consensus in that regard. At the same time, you?ll quickly spot who is trying to talk you into buying an unnecessarily expensive product and who?s giving their honest recommendation based on facts and experience. 

During a site visit, a true solar expert should be able to evaluate your roof potential for solar energy harvesting (judging from its orientation and pitch) and detect any potential shading problems. They should also be able to estimate whether the existing roof provides adequate support for the solar project you have in mind and point out any visible damage that must be repaired beforehand. 

Experience 

Free consultations are only one of the ways to check if your contractor is experienced enough. There are several other aspects that will help you ?sort the wheat from the chaff?. 

First of all, a truly experienced solar contractor will be well familiar with local laws and regulations for solar energy projects. If a permit is needed ? they should either be able to get one for you or at least orient, you on how and where to obtain it. 

In order to incentivize citizens to move towards clean energy sources, authorities often offer funding programs or tax credits to help finance new projects. Should such extra funding be available, an experienced contractor will surely know about it and guide you on how to apply for it

An installer who has been in business for a considerable amount of time will also have good contacts with his own suppliers. Better material purchase prices, better payment conditions, priority attention ? all this will benefit you as well either as a more affordable quote or shorter installation time. 

An important aspect to consider when going solar is the potential benefits of hooking up your project to the local power grid. 

Experienced and well-established solar contractors usually have good contacts in the local utility companies and should be able to advise you on any potential rewards (net metering awards or feed-in-tariffs) you might get for sharing your excess solar power. Make sure to raise this topic at some point. 

Warranties 

Another great way to evaluate a PV contractor for your rooftop project is taking a careful look at the warranties stated in their quote or contract proposal. Keep in mind that the typical warranty times for solar panels include: 

  • a 25-year power performance warranty 
  • a 10- to 12-year product warranty 

If the solar panels your contractor is suggesting offer less coverage than that, take it as a hint and request a different brand. 

In the case of inverters, the expected factory warranty coverage is 5 to 10 years, with a possibility to extend it up to 20 years. Paying for such warranty extension is usually a pretty smart decision, considering that inverters have a typical lifespan of 10 to 15 years (quite shorter than panels themselves). 

Energy production guarantee 

How much energy am I going to be able to harvest with this PV rooftop project? What savings can I expect? These are two of the best questions to ask your short-listed solar specialists. 

Contractors who are not able to make this kind of projection most likely don?t have enough experience and don?t fully understand the variables and the steps to consider. 

Please note that in order to estimate your rooftop PV efficiency, you need to know your panels? conversion efficiency as well as their location and orientation. Factors such as weather conditions and overall panel cleanliness should also be taken into consideration. 

While energy production estimates might vary from one contractor to another, depending on how conservative they are, you might want to run their numbers against an online calculator (e.g. PVWatts Calculator by NREL) and see how close or how far they are. 

Look for contractors that are able to not only calculate the approximate energy production but are also willing to guarantee it in their contract. Anything around 80% is a decent guarantee of projected electricity production. 

Insurance 

Before you let the mounting team climb on your roof, make sure they are adequately insured against accidents. The compensation they receive should be enough to cover their medical expenses and substitute for lost earnings. 

As for your solar project, see if the contract you are signing offers protection for all stages of its life (design, installation, operation, and maintenance). While the original equipment manufacturers? (OEM) warranties cover most of the product quality risks, general liability and property insurance policies are also common. 

These will protect you and your property against bodily harm or property damage resulting from solar panel installation, as well as possible equipment theft or damage due to fire, wind, acts of vandalism, etc. 

Keep in mind that your house insurance will most probably offer some coverage for solar projects, too. Don?t forget to inquire about the details and the extent of this coverage! 

Has the contractor promised your rooftop solar project will bring you tax incentives and/ or rebates? Know that there are insurance policies that offer compensation in case you lose such benefits due to poor project design or poorly done paperwork. 

Availability for post-sale maintenance 

Given that your rooftop solar project should be able to operate for around twenty years, its maintenance is something you should see to it right from the start. Ask your installation company whether they provide maintenance service and what their rates are. Then quote around and compare. 

If you want your solar panel project to bring you real savings over the years and be operative for as long as possible, you should make sure that it is operating at its maximum efficiency. That is why keeping your panels clean and regularly maintained is something not to be neglected. 

*** 

Before you schedule a site visit with a solar contractor representative, write down all the questions you want to ask and remember to mention all the aspects of the project that you consider relevant. Don?t let yourself be pressed for a decision. Weigh all the pros and cons and don?t sign anything unless you really feel convinced the service provider you?ve chosen meets all your expectations. 

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