How to Pick a Solar Power Installer

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Solar energy has been around for decades, but its popularity has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years. Solar power is popping up in more and more conversations, in news articles and on the Web. The popularity of renewable energy is reminiscent of the dot-com boom of the late 1990s.
The major difference between the dot-com and renewable energy booms is that there’s a lot more value spread across the renewable energy field. There are fewer “flash in the pan” operators, if you will. That doesn’t mean that the solar sector doesn’t have its share of flakes, but it just doesn’t have as many.
What strategies for picking a solar energy installer will help you weed through the pretenders and find the right one? First, there are many installers out there who are starting out. They may not have a huge body of work, but they are very well educated on the science and design of solar. These installers are not to be discounted.
Second, there are a lot of general contractors, electricians, and HVAC pros out there who are successful in their field and have a large body of work in their specialty but did not take  solar courses and therefore have little to no solar experience. These installers are not to be given too much credit for non-solar work.
My first two pieces of advice for picking an installer revolve around one thing: education. There are plenty of solar installation courses out there and if your installer has not taken one, then chances are that the design of your system will not be optimal and you will pay for a system that doesn’t yield the maximum amount of power possible.
Next, consider industry standards. The unwritten rules for solar installation include that the installer takes care of all aspects of the installation, from the initial site survey and the design of the system, to the coordination and management of electricians, structural engineers, crew required to handling all the paperwork, permitting, rebate applications, all the way through the installation and meeting with town or state inspectors after the job is complete.
The way the solar industry has grown, the installer is the one-stop shop who will handle all of the above. Like any contractor, the installer may sub-contract portions of the project, which is normal, but the contractor is still fully responsible for coordinating and supervising the project.
You as the customer should not be coordinating all the sub-contractors. More than likely your installer follows this unwritten rule, but it is always good to check during your initial meeting with the installer.
That brings us to solar incentives. As we reviewed in a recent story, “Economic Stimulus for the Rest of Us,” the U.S. government offers a 30 percent tax credit on all renewable energy projects with no project cap. Your installer can assist you with filling out the tax credit, but the installers’ responsibility ends there. Your accountant should be briefed on all the incentives and provide you an overview of the tax implications prior to your purchasing the system. Solar is an extremely good investment, so make sure you maximize the incentives as they pertain to you.
As for state solar incentives, each region has different ones. In many states, a rebate requires that the installer fill out an application for you. Once completed and submitted by the installer and approved by the state, you are ready to rock. It’s important to note that certain state or regional rebate checks are sent to the installer and therefore covered by the installer as a portion of the deal. Make sure you check your local state rebate to confirm that this is the case. If it is, then there should be no reason for you pay to for that portion of the project. The rebate check will be simply sent to the installer after completion.
As for picking a solar energy installer, remember that when it comes down to it, you are hiring a contractor to handle a home improvement. So the most important rules to follow are those that you would follow for any other contractor. Make sure you get at least two or three quotes, confirm that the contractor has the proper license and required insurance, ask for references and make sure that there is a contractual agreement in place that outlines the work to be performed and the price and progress payment schedule. It’s also important to outline what is important to you. (Do you want a local guy at a smaller company, someone tall dark and handsome, lives in Sleepy Hollow, New York? Ahem, whatever your preference.)
Stay true to yourself and if  a deal smells fishy, then go to the next installer; there are plenty of fish in the sea.
photo: Wayne National Forest

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Derek Markham

Derek lives in southwestern New Mexico and digs bicycles, simple living, fungi, organic gardening, sustainable lifestyle design, bouldering, and permaculture. He loves fresh roasted chiles, peanut butter on everything, and buckets of coffee.

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