How to Choose a Solar Company

Thursday, April 8th

Questions You Should Ask a Solar Installer

Cartoon old man with walker at a fork in his path. Left is Fountain of Youth, right is Fountain of Bacon. By DIFFEE.

How many cars have you owned? How many cell phones? What about homes? Most people shopping solar have bought several cars and at least one home, but very few have ever gone solar before.

Today, we are going to talk about How to Choose a Solar Installer and 10 Questions You Can Ask a Solar Company.

People realize that solar is a longer commitment then car, which you may replace in a few years. And like buying a car, you want to make an informed decision. But here is the problem, you have never purchased solar before. After 10 years in the solar industry, Rayah Solar is going to try and make that easier for you!.

Before we start, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. There are some people, whom I like to call “commodity shoppers,” who only want the lowest price with the most options (warranties, guarantees, etc); and while those things are enticing, they do not necessarily signify quality or longevity. If you are the type of person that only cares about price, then my suggestion is, read no further – there are online quoting services that may be right for you. I will say this though, the old adage holds true – you get what you pay for.

Again, if you are reading this blog, I figure things like quality, workmanship, punctuality, and integrity matter for you. And when things go wrong – because in construction, things do go wrong – you care about how problems are resolved. Does this sound like you so far? If so, let’s continue.

With that said, here are 10 Questions you should ask a Solar Company. Some of these questions can apply to any trade or construction company, while others are specific to solar. Our goal is that this blog will help you choose the right solar company for you.

10 Questions You Should Ask a Solar Company

 

1. Can you me about your company?

Chuck In A Truck representation.

In solar, as in many industries, there are many different types of companies: national solar companies, large and regional solar companies, small to midsize companies, and “Chuck in a Truck.”

“Chuck in a Truck” is usually a local electrician who is not really a solar installer, but has the technical knowledge to install a solar system. Sometimes, if “Chuck” is your friend and neighbor, you might be able to get a good deal on your solar installation. However, there are a lot of pitfalls with this. First, Chuck may not be qualified nor knowledgeable on all the local solar incentives. We’ve seen this before; an electrician tries to install his own solar system and then can’t get any of the local or state incentives. Also, ongoing services and warranties can be an issue. We find most people are not that comfortable with this sized company.

The next size companies are the small to medium sized solar companies. These range from 1-4 employees on the smaller size, to 5-12 on the medium. Again, you may run into some similar issues with service and warranties with the smaller companies, and even a lack of product selection. Usually, the 5-12 person shops are run with a tightened belt. That usually results in efficient solar installations and decent after-installation service. Again, this is not always the case, but we’ve found it is common.

The next size up are larger solar companies, with 20+ employees. They usually cover the entire state or sometimes multiple states. These companies tend to have well-established operations. Because of the size of these companies, they tend to have higher overhead, which sometimes results in more expensive installations. Also, many of these companies can’t handle their own volume which may result in delays and quality compromises. But this last point can be true of any company size. On the other hand, there are a number of these mid-sized companies that have their systems down pat and will give you a terrific installation.

Lastly, you have the national solar companies. This is certainly a mixed bag. Most of these companies have been in and out of Massachusetts for years. Sometimes they have great deals, but other times their prices can be nearly a third more than the local installers, and with inferior products. Obviously, you don’t want that! Another issue with these larger companies can be customer support. Some of the biggest solar companies are notorious for their customer support (or lack thereof). Just read their reviews! They are all about volume and could care less if you are happy or not. Frankly, this surprises us, because one would think that they’d want positive reviews, but in reality, they simply don’t care. Again, this is not every company, so take this with a grain of salt.

The goal here is to understand the size & scope of the solar company. So be specific with your questions!

Sometimes people are worried if smaller companies will be in business in a few years. However, the big box companies have no assurity of longevity either. Just in the past few years, we’ve seen many of them go bankrupt!

Is the local solar company the best to buy solar from? With worker standing on local map.Comparing companies: Larger companies tend to have good systems, but that does not always translate into good customer service or product selection. This can go both ways. Small to mid-sized companies might give you better customer service, but not always. Also, out of state and very small companies may not be able to offer you certain local solar incentives, because they are not qualified.

Helpful Questions:

  • How many years have you been year business?
  • What State are you based in?
    *You’d be surprised how many companies pretend to be local when in fact they may not even have an office in your state.
  • How many solar installations have you done?
  • How many employees do you have?
  • What is your corporate structure?
    • LLC, S-Corp, B-Corp
    • Employee owned
    • Big mega c-corp.

2. What do your customers have to say about you?

Solar Reviews with five starsIf this company is worth their weight, then they should be quick to show you their online reviews on Google, Yelp and SolarReviews. They should have videos with happy customer testimonials and a ready-made list of references. If you are proud of something, you want to share it, so hopefully, your solar company is proud of their work and they want to share it with you!

Helpful Questions:

  • Can you provide me with some references?
  • Do you have any customer testimonials?
  • How are your Google, Yelp or Solar Reviews ratings?

Please keep in mind though, its easier for people to give negative reviews than positive ones. So, don’t get discouraged by one bad review. Also, some smaller companies may not have a lot of reviews, but this does not necessarily mean they are not a great solar provider – just that they are not good at collecting reviews. We’ve worked with some fabulous solar installers that are terrible at getting reviews.

In the end though, if a company has a lot of negative reviews, you may want to look elsewhere.

3. What is your company’s core competency / company specialty?

One lit light bulb hanging lower on string of light bulbsLet’s face it, solar is complex. The products are unique. The installations take special training. Neither a typical roofer nor electrician are trained in solar. On top of that, the local and state regulations on solar are confusing and time consuming, so you want to work with a company that is a solar expert!

We’ve seen some solar companies diversify to sell other products. Honestly, this is a mixed bag, and we’ve seen some really good companies go out of business trying to diversify. Conversely, we’ve seen some HVAC, energy auditors and roofers trying to go into solar. In many cases, this is an equally big disaster. Again, there are certainly some companies that make these successful transitions, but they are the exception, not the rule.

There are lots of companies that will sell you a solar system, but we highly recommend that you work with one that’s primary competency is solar.

Helpful Questions:

  • Do you just do solar?
  • Is solar your primary business?

4. What brands of solar panels and inverters do you offer?

Solar panel with close up view.The fact is there are a lot of different solar panels and inverters on the market. Not all will be right for you and your home. The goal of this question is to figure out if the solar company is just offering what they “have” or, what is “best” for your home.

For example, let’s say your home uses a lot of power and solar panels will be on your front roof. For you, you may want the most efficient and best looking panels on the market. Your neighbor however, lives across the street and uses very little electricity. Her panels will be on the back of her very large roof (not facing the street). For her, she may be fine with a less efficient panel that has a white backsheet. These are two different scenarios, and would merit different solar panels, and perhaps, different solar inverters. For help selecting the best solar panel for your home, check out our blog, The Top 10 Solar Panels for 2021.

In general, there are two sales models for solar companies. The first will have a limited or no product selection. The second we like to call, “brand agnostic”, and they will try to custom design your home with the right solar panel to meet your unique needs.

Buyer Beware – sometimes a company may claim to have “product selection,” but in reality, they have a special deal to push one brand over another. This can be very bad if they are hawking five-year-old dust covered panels. However, if that solar panel is a good fit for your home, then this may not be bad at all.

We want you to remember that this is your home, so don’t feel like you need to get pigeonholed into products that aren’t right for you.

Helpful Questions:

  • What other solar panels do you offer?
  • Why do think this solar panel is better than another solar panel?
  • What other inverters do you offer?
  • Why do think this inverter is better than another brand?

Remember, you and your neighbors don’t drive the same cars or have the same TV’s in your family room. So why should you have the same solar panels? For more information about selecting solar panels, please see our blog: Top 10 Solar Panels of 2020

5. Are you offering any special incentives or programs?

Money bags on top of a house with a hour glass over the money bag.In Question #1, we briefly talked about the inability of some out-of-state or smaller solar companies to offer certain solar incentives. This is definitely true in Massachusetts, and likely in other locations as well.

You absolutely don’t want to miss out on solar incentives because the solar company is not capable of offering them. This would certainly break our hearts, so do your due diligence and make sure you can get every solar incentive available to you!

For instance, in MA, a MassCEC Turnkey Solar Integrator can offer the Mass Solar Loan, and an income Based Rebate. These are great programs and can potentially save homeowners lot of money!

Helpful Questions:

  • Are you MassCEC Expedited Solar Installer? (In Massachusetts)
  • Are you offering any solar incentives other solar companies cannot offer because they are out of state or no qualified?

6. Do you do your own Solar Installations?

Man Installing Solar PanelIt may surprise you, but a lot of solar companies do not do their own solar installations. This does not mean these are bad companies. In fact, they may save money because they have reduced overhead and give you a better deal.

But whether the solar company does the installation themselves or subs it out, it’s important to know who will be in your house and to know their qualifications. Also, this question can help you more accurately determine the size of the company.

Helpful Questions:

  • Do you have a Master electrician on staff?
  • How many installation crews do you have?
  • Do you subcontract your installation work?

7. Can you show me examples of your Installations?

House with solar panels and a purple front doorThe goal here is to understand what this installation is going to look like on your roof! When we drive down the street, it’s like a game, we look at solar installations and say, “oh, that’s a nice one” or “yuck, that one looks terrible.” Quality workmanship really shows a well done solar job.

Here’s the thing, if the solar company or any company for that matter, performs quality work, they will be proud to show you their work. TThey should be ready to show you photos and explain why their installations are superior to the competition. If they are not eager to show you photos, then err on the side of caution 🤨.

You should also be able to discuss the location of all solar equipment, including disconnects, meters, inverter and conduit runs. Please keep in mind that solar installers must abide by National Electric Code, and we are not magicians, but the point here is – the solar company should be open to these conversations.

Solar panels on roof showing the electrical connections to the home.Here are some things you should never see on a solar installation:

  • Exposed rooftop junction boxes
  • Unnecessary metal pipe on the roof (some may be needed)
  • Pipes running down the front of the house
  • Crooked solar panels

Helpful Questions:

  • Can you show me some examples of your installations?Solar panels on a very sloped roof.
  • Do you have some installations nearby I can see?
  • How will the solar panels look on my roof?
  • Will there be exposed silver conduit or junction boxes on my roof?
  • How do you bring the wires through the house?
  • Do I have a say in the design?

8. Can You Describe your Project Management Process?

Professional Contractor, Project Manager cartoonProject management, is perhaps one of the most important aspects of choosing a solar company. This is the difference between a great customer experience and one that makes you want to pull your hair out!

it really matters.

The best solar companies will assign you a dedicated project manager (PM). You will have this person’s contact information and they will be your main point of contact. Other companies will have a PM department. This means that you don’t have a single person accountable to you, but rather, a team of people. This can be efficient in well-run companies, but it usually lacks the personal touch of knowing the name of the person that has got your back. Some companies will have your sales rep or solar consultant handle project management duties. We believe this is a recipe for disaster. Permit submission and regulatory requirements are confusing, time consuming and just difficult. Most times solar consultants do not have the time nor expertise to do this correctly.

Helpful Questions:

  • Will I have an actual person assigned to me or will it be your PM department?
  • Who is accountable if I have a problem?
    • If it’s the solar consultant, does they/she/he have the authority to actually fix the problem?

9. What can I expect for operations and maintenance?

Professional Installer cartoonOnce your solar system is installed, someone needs to take care of it. Yes, solar panels have no moving parts and there is a 25-year solar panel warranty. However, that doesn’t mean the system shouldn’t be monitored and maintained. At Rayah Solar, we monitor every panel on every system in our fleet daily.

Again, with big companies, you will probably end up in that all too familiar position; “Press 1 for Sales, Press 2 for Customer Support.” For many, this is not desirable. If you are the type of person the values individual attention and accountability, than we suggest you pay careful attention to what happens after the installation. It’s not enough for them to say they have a warranty – you need to find out – how do they actually do it!

Helpful Questions:

  • So here is the main question: after your installation, who will be responsible for my solar system?
  • Does your company have an operations and maintenance division?
  • How do you monitor your solar systems?
    • How often do you check your monitoring portals?
  • Will I have a operations and maintenance person assigned to me, or is it just a department?
    • If it is a sales person – are your sales people trained on service and maintenance issue? (we’re pretty sure the answer to this one is definitely not!)

10. What are your Warranties and Guarantees?

Five Year Warranty BadgeNot counting manufacturer warranties, there are two common warranties offered by solar companies. 1) an installation warranty, and 2) a production guarantee.

Installation warranties can range from 5 to 25 years, and are fairly straightforward. You do however want to make sure they cover roof leaks, fuses, wiring and all of the smaller components of the solar system.

A production guarantee is different from the solar panel performance warranty. The production guarantee is given by the solar company, and basically states that if the solar system does not produce a predetermined amount of energy each year, they will pay the difference. The timeframe is typically 10 to 20 years at 90-95% of the systems expected output (nobody will give you 100%, it’s just not practical, so don’t ask). Please note, not every solar company will offer a production guarantee, but if they don’t offer it, you should feel free to ask for one.

One thing to keep in mind is that the duration of these warranties may be negotiable. If one company has a 10-year installation warranty, and another a 20-year, you can ask the first company to match their warranty.

Helpful questions:

  • What is the length of your installation warranty?
    • What is covered by Installation Warranty?
  • Do you offer a Production Guarantee?
    • For how many years?
    • At what percentage?

**BONUS QUESTION

What is your Company Mission?

World With Butterfly perched on it.A company’s mission is not just words on paper. A mission is the activities taken daily to accomplish that mission. That mission should be practical and straightforward. For example, at Rayah Solar our mission is to Bring Humanity to Light. For us, that has great meaning. The “humanity” part, is bringing relationship, integrity, and professionalism to every aspect of our business. The “light” is obviously to bring solar power to homes and businesses.

Most companies have a “mission statement,” but we urge you to find out what it is. Is it something lame and generic like, “we are trying to save the planet.” Sure, that sounds nice, but it probably has very little meaning to any of the employees.

Now, don’t get us wrong, many people in the industry are involved because they believe they are “doing something good”, but a good company should have clear and tangible purpose, and more importantly, a purpose you identify with and that aligns with your core beliefs.

Closing Thoughts: What Should you really be looking for?

It is important to understand that there are things in a solar project that are negotiable and things that are not. Customer service is not negotiable! If a company treats their customers as dollar figures, rather than people, you cannot negotiate for better service. Industry expertise is not negotiable. Quality craftsmanship is not negotiable. They either install quality solar systems, or they do not.

If you are comparing two companies and one is personable, has as great product selection and you can see they really want to design the very best solar system for your house, but their pricing is a little more expensive than their shark-like competitor (who by the way, is almost guaranteed to ignore you at the first system error), we urge you to value the company that focuses on customer service. Even if they can’t match the price, they still are a much better option.

How you start your experience with a solar company, is a decent sign for things to come. When all else fails, and you are comparing two great options, trust your gut!

**Bonus #2

Questions to ask yourself about the solar company:

Here are some questions you should be asking yourself about your potential solar partner:

  • Are they really going to design and build the right system for my home that fits my needs?
  • Do they take the time to demystify solar – explain the:
    • Products
    • Technology
    • Incentives
    • Cash flow
    • Warranties
    • The Process
  • Are they going to take care of you through the entire solar process?
    • That’s not just one conversation at the kitchen table, that includes:
      • During the project management time frame: design, engineering and installation scheduling
      • During the installation
      • 1 year after the install, 5 years, 10 and 20 years later.
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