Even President* Trump probably doesn’t know if his new solar tariff was supposed to help, hurt or kill the US solar industry, but that’s all water under the bridge now. The tariff went into effect on February 7th, but the emerging consensus is that consumers still have plenty of incentive to get rooftop solar. The real problem, as with any major home improvement, is how to decide which company you trust to crawl around on your roof with thousands of dollars worth of high tech renewable energy hardware.
The US Department of Energy came out with a helpful guidepost back in 2016, and now the Colorado based PV information firm SolarReviews.com is out with a new customer survey that builds on those findings.
Looking For The Best Rooftop Solar Installer
The SolarReviews guidance comes from a customer satisfaction survey involving more than 3,500 rooftop solar installations. Crunching the numbers, SolarReviews identified three characteristics that consumers look for in a solar installer. Here’s the rundown:
SolarReviews.com found the most successful residential solar installers, based on information provided to the site by consumers themselves, are either family or privately owned, limited in geographic scope (are not national companies) and aren’t larger than 100 employees.
So yes, it looks like you don’t need to go any further than your own backyard to find a good solar installer. The best place to find satisfaction is an independent, small to mid-sized, local company.
If a national company is your only option, the survey offers a note of caution:
In contrast, the three companies with the worst consumer-provided ratings—all of which are national installers—are publicly held, large companies with national (and sometimes international) footprints.
On the bright side, even companies with lower ratings performed fairly well in the survey. The average result indicates that consumers can expect good results from both national and local companies, with the exception of a few outliers:
…the average review score for all 2,800 installers reviewed on the site in 2017 is 4.63 out of 5 stars, indicating solar electricity still maintains a high standing among solar consumers.
As for the outliers, the bottom line message from the survey is simple common sense: consumers should read the fine print, get referrals and do some comparison shopping before committing to a rooftop solar installation.
All else being equal, solar buyers should also weigh the benefits of getting the best deal compared to getting the best service. According to SolarReviews’s survey, small regional companies garnered the highest rankings in customer satisfaction partly due to their “laser-like focus on customer service.”
To help things along, SolarReviews offers a zip code-based shopping tool and handy links for background info (check out their recent blog post on rooftop PV costs), all backed up by partnerships with the Solar Energy Industries Association, the California Solar & Storage Association (formerly CALSEIA), the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, and Solar Energy International.
Tariff? What Tariff?
Yes, what about that solar tariff? CleanTechnica is among the plethora of US solar industry observers raising substantial concerns about upheaval in the US industry and depressed consumer demand, leading to the loss of thousands of solar jobs. The solar industry itself has given the tariff a nearly unanimous thumbs-down ever since Trump first raised the possibility of a tariff last year.
On the plus side, the months of early warning gave solar companies time to take steps to mitigate the impact of higher prices on consumers. For example, some companies built up their stockpiles in advance of the February 7 tariff deadline, and some are appealing for waivers (btw, the new tariff only affected photovoltaic cells and modules, not other means of harvesting energy from the sun).
Last month, Consumer Reports looked into the tariff issue from the consumer angle (natch!) and concluded that “this is still a good time for consumers to go solar.”
Consumer Reports totes up at least three reasons why:
1. The installed cost of rooftop solar panels won’t rise all that much, because the PV panels only account for part of the overall installation. Labor, financing, permits and other “soft costs” account for the rest (regular readers of CleanTechnica probably have the “soft costs” issue drilled into their heads, but it’s still a point worth making).
2. The tariff will drop from 30% to 15% over its four-year lifespan, then it will disappear. However, consumers are advised to act now instead of waiting for the tariff to go away, because right now there is still a hefty federal tax credit for rooftop solar. By the time the tariff goes away, the tax credit is also set to be eliminated.
3. Depending on which state you live in, there may also be state and local tax incentives for rooftop solar.
On top of all that, rooftop solar costs are continuing to drop at both the hard and soft ends. So, a minor increase in solar panel prices could be offset by falling costs elsewhere in the rooftop solar installation chain. Somewhat ironically, Trump’s own Department of Energy continues to promote programs that bring down costs, including financing and other soft costs.
How To Help Your Friendly Neighborhood Solar Installer
The 2016 report from the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory offers some additional insights indicating that solar installers can help keep the solar market humming along, partly by focusing on customer service and customer satisfaction.
The report encourages installers to follow up on leads at lightening speed, take care to allay consumers’ doubts about rooftop solar, streamline their options, refrain from bashing their competitors, ask for referrals, and stay in touch with past customers.
NREL also advises solar installers to be persistent when following up on leads and referrals. Typically solar companies stop calling (or emailing) after a three to six month window, but solar adoption can take about nine months.
However, NREL offers an important caveat that circles back around to the SolarReviews survey:
There are a lot of opportunities to win a customer or referral after the initial three to six months. The earlier you give up, the more money you might be leaving on the table. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that every lead or every past customer should be contacted continuously for years. What it does mean is that you should be selective about who you contact, and think carefully about how you approach each person.
There’s that local angle again.
Either way, the NREL report offers up some important guidance for rooftop solar fans who want to help the US solar industry keep chugging along despite the Trump tariff.
If you have rooftop solar and you’re happy with it, contact your installer and offer a referral.
If you’ve been thinking about rooftop solar, now is the time to get ‘er done.
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Photo: via National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
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