Tips for Selecting Solar Installer

By Derek Girling, HelioPower Energy Consultant

This past year’s tremendous growth in residential solar installations hasn’t gone unnoticed and new solar companies are hanging their shingles out every day!  Contractors that up until last year were busy installing aluminum windows and garage doors or wiring parking lot lights are now touting themselves as solar power experts. California alone has over 1,500 solar installers operating in the state. More than a few of these companies are very small operations run out of the owners’ garage.

Designing and installing a reliable and efficient solar power system requires expertise in engineering, roofing techniques, and electrical systems. Another overlooked skill is the ability to accurately submit your permitting and rebate application paperwork in a timely manner.

Selecting a contractor can be stressful! This is a significant investment and you’ll have to live with the results for decades. Some questions a homeowner should ask include:

Does the contractor have more than one crew? If not, managing your installation along with inspections and follow up visits will be challenging.

What is the likelihood of this contractor being around in ten years to back up their warranty? The California Solar Initiative requires all installers to warranty their workmanship for 10 years but if your contractors is out of business, you’re out of luck.

How does this contractor manage their cash flow? This is very important considering they may be floating literally tens of thousands of dollars in rebates. Cash flow problems can result in delays or substandard materials used on your home. Make sure your contractor is well capitalized. Evidence of a financially strong contractor can include direct relationships with their industry partners. Larger contractors are able to leverage their size to get the best pricing and availability of components from their vendors as well as offer residential solar financing services from companies that trust their installation abilities.

Fortunately for homeowners there are several on-line tools to help answer these questions and steer you to an experienced professional.

The first place to start is at the California Contractors Board website to check their license. Just type in the contractor’s license number (if they don’t provide you with a license number be suspicious!) and this website will verify that their license is current and in good standing. Confirm that the license number they gave you corresponds with their company name. You can also check the contractor’s bonding and workmen’s compensation policy information as well as if there are any complaints against them.

Next go to the California Solar Initiative website to find out a little more about your potential installer. This webpage has a search function so you can see how many, where, and what size installations they’ve done. The data is compiled from reservation requests filed within the last three years with Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas and Electric, or Pacific Gas and Electric. (Municipal utilities like LADWP or SMUD are not included in this database.) Many solar water-heating installers with limited solar electric experience inflate their installation number claims – this is where you’ll see just how many installs they’ve done. Another red flag is an inordinate amount of withdrawn or cancelled applications.

csi-chart-image

One of the best features of this site is the ability to determine if your installer is actually the one doing their installations! Many new solar marketing companies function as a middleman and are not the actual contractor on the job. Note the two different fields “Seller” and “Contractor” in the search tool. If they aren’t the same, this may be the case.

Two other useful resources are Angie’s List and the Better Business Bureau. You can see if anyone else has experience with your contractor. Of course, a potential contractor should be able to provide you with a few customers as references.

It’s a fact that a well-engineered and properly installed solar system will deliver you clean low-cost power for decades. Spending a little time researching your solar power contractor is the best way to avoid headaches and ensure that you get your money’s worth out of your investment!

Contact Derek Girling at [email protected]