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How to pick a solar installer

Choosing a solar installer can seem like guesswork, with new companies appearing on the scene almost as fast as they disappear. Some solar companies have used pressure sales tactics and public ignorance to charge prices well above the industry norm.

Molly Sterkel, manager for the state’s rebate program, Ben Airth, residential program manager for the California Center for Sustainable Energy, Daniel Sullivan, who owns Sullivan Solar Power in San Diego, and Scott Gordon, vice president for residential sales for HelioPower in Murrieta, offered tips on how to avoid the bad guys and pick the right company:

— Don’t sign any deal on the first meeting. Companies need to come and take measurements of the roof, conduct inspections, and decide whether solar even makes sense.

— Get at least three estimates on a solar install. Comparative pricing will prevent ripoffs.

— Only use a licensed contractor. The California Contractors State Licensing Board maintains a website where customers can check to make sure a contractor has an active license: www.cslb.cs.gov.

— Check the California Solar Initiatives website, at californiasolarstatistics.ca.gov. After an overhaul in October, the CSI website now has a menu item called “Find an Active Installer” that shows average price per watt for any installer who’s put up a system in a customer’s area. It also provides average solar costs.

— Ask installers for a CSI-EPBB. The CSI requires installers to create this document for every potential customer. It includes a wide array of information for each install, including predicted electricity production, size and type of solar panels, and anticipated rebate. Comparing each installer’s CSI-EPBB document clears away rhetoric and sales talk for hard numbers.

— Take a seminar at the Center for Sustainable Energy. The center is a nonprofit funded by ratepayer cash, and not solar installers. They offer classes that explain the benefits and costs of solar systems. Check energycenter.org for a schedule.

February 7, 2011