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Going Solar: A How-to Guide

Author: Nate Gulbransen
May, 2013 Issue

As solar power becomes more cost effective, the number of solar companies is growing. As president of a long-established solar company in Rohnert Park, I’ve seen the boom first-hand. The choices are staggering and most potential customers become confused quickly. But choosing the right company, equipment and financing option can be the difference between having a reliable power supply and having an expensive liability. You owe it to yourself to do some research.
 

Choosing a solar company

Before calling a company for a bid, check out its website, Yelp reviews and Facebook page: Who owns the company? Where is it based? How long has it been in business locally, and how many of those years has it been installing solar as its primary business? A framing contractor who’s been in business for 30 years is great, but if its employees have only installed three solar energy systems, you can hardly call them experts. Check the company’s contractor’s license at www.cslb.ca.gov (contractors need to have a C-46 Solar license minimum to install Solar PV, and a C-10 electrician’s license is preferable) to see if it’s had any formal complaints and who the licensed person is on its staff.
 
Ask your neighbors with solar what they thought of the entire project: Were the salesperson, project manager, office staff and installers forthcoming with information? Was their scheduling accurate? Was the price that they agreed to up-front the price they paid in the end? Ask if there were change orders and, if so, how they were handled.
 
A properly installed solar array shouldn’t need much service. You can assume, however, that a company with primary operations 15 miles away will be better equipped for after-install service than one based elsewhere. After you’ve done your research, choose two to four companies to get bids from. Any more, and you could have difficulties differentiating between all the options and what each salesperson says.
 

Getting bids

Contact PG&E and get 12 to 36 months of your most recent electrical use in kilowatt hours (kWh). Have this information ready when you contact your chosen companies. Discuss the type of installation you’re interested in and schedule a time for someone to conduct a site survey. Schedule them within a few days of each other, so you can remember what each company highlights. Take notes.
 
For a typical residential rooftop installation, the tech should get on the roof to measure it, take shade readings where you’ll have panels installed, inspect the main service panel and any subpanels the system is attaching to and discuss conduit and inverter locations. If the tech doesn’t do this, your bid won’t be very accurate.
 
Get a list of local, recent customers who’ve had a similar installation to the one you want. A real solar company working in your area should have no problem providing at least 10 names. Select a few to call, then go see the installations if you can.
 
When you receive your bids, look at the various system sizes in number of panels and in kilowatts of direct current (KW DC ; this is the way solar panels and solar systems are sized). Are they similar?
 
Ask how the company will attach the array to your roof and what guarantee you have that your roof won’t leak afterward. Will your main service panel (the main electrical panel on the house, where the meter and, in most homes, all the circuit breakers, are located) require upgrading? Is that included in the bid? Are permits and engineering included? Is this a firm price or is it subject to an engineering review?
 
Look at the gross installed contract amount (before any incentives) and determine the cost per watt (it should be on the bid somewhere) then compare it across the board. If one bid is significantly higher or lower than the others, find out why.
 
Ask where the panels are made and by what company: Is it likely to be in business to honor the 25-year warranty? Are the panels from a reputable, diversified company? What type of inverters is each company using? Why?
 
While you may not know the answers to these questions, listen to whether the salesperson is well versed in explaining the various selections. Compare the cash price of the arrays, not the monthly payments.
 

Financing

Financing solar arrays is a business unto itself. Here’s a brief overview:
 
Cash. If you have cash available, consider paying for your solar array with it. Some companies may even offer a discount for paying with cash.
 
Bank loan. Interest rates are very low right now, and if you choose home equity financing, you may be able to deduct the interest paid from your taxes.  
 
Sonoma County Energy Independence Program (SCEIP). This county-run financing program offers Sonoma County residents and business owners up to 20-year terms, a relatively good interest rate and easy qualification. Interest on this assessment may also be tax-deductible.
 
Leases and PPAs. These only make sense if you have no ability to use the federal tax credits, are planning to be in your home long-term and your home is currently underwater on value. The perceived benefits—free maintenance, monitoring, performance guarantee—rarely offer anything above manufacturer’s warranties on the product. The cons vary with each provider and contract, but can involve costly questions about repair, maintenance and liability.
 
A solar energy system is a great way to lower your bills while helping the environment. Hopefully the information here will help you go solar with confidence.  
 
 
Nate Gulbransen is president of Westcoast Solar Energy in Rohnert Park, winner of the Best Green Business award in the 2012 NorthBay biz readers poll. Contact him at (707) 664-6450 or info@westcoastsolarenergy.com.

 

 

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