Okay, you’ve picked a solar installer. You’re about to sign on the dotted line and write the first check — typically for $1,000, at least in our area — and now are hoping for the best. If you have a straightforward install, and you have selected an experienced installer that isn’t overwhelmed by the nearly insatiable demand for solar, perhaps you can sit back and relax. More likely, you’ll want to know what possible issues could arise and ways to stay ahead of them. We’ll provide some thoughts on making sure your project is a success.
Follow Your Project Closely
As my first sales VP boss told me decades ago, “Never confuse selling with installing.” Solar companies certainly don’t. They will be super-urgent to throw out an optimistic vision of an optimal setup, nearly instant installation, and massive returns. Your first time to take a deep breath and proceed carefully is when you sign the actual contract. Make sure you understand the proposed timeline, the exact equipment to be used, what other costs there might be, and what recourse you have if things aren’t going the way you expect. Because once you’ve signed, you’re now in the hands of the stretched-thin, overworked, system design and project management departments, who need to deal with the realities of fire safety setbacks, building codes, electrical hookups, scheduling their short-staffed roofing and solar teams, and making a profit on the deal. The more you can learn about the project team and their likely timeline in advance, the better.
Based on our own experience and that of several people I’ve spoken with, often the initial planning documents sent for your approval may not be much more than a JPEG showing proposed panel placement. If you have the time and inclination it’s worth having a look (usually via a simple PDF) at the full documents that will be submitted to your local planning department on your behalf. If you’re getting an inverter or battery, check where they’ll be installed. For the most part, building codes and regulation will protect you from the worst possible outcomes, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure the project will be what you expected and signed up for.
Verifying Your Utility Interconnect
One friend signed a substantial contract for a solar installation with a top-rated installer, only to find out that his electric service was not large enough to safely accommodate the size of the installation he’d purchased. That’s because in most places there is a safety limit of 120 percent of your electrical service to the total amount of power flowing through your main breaker box. So if you have a 200 amp electric service with a box rated at 200 amps, then you would be limited to 240 total amps, which in turn means a maximum of 40 amps of solar backfeed. There isn’t any reason the installer shouldn’t have known how to do the math in advance, but they didn’t.
The utility (PG&E, but it could have been any of them) not only wanted $2,000 to bump his service from 200A to 225A but for him to change some of his landscaping for better access. The installer basically gave up on the project, so now he is asking for his deposit back and looking around for a different company to work with. Depending on your installation, your utility may also want to do additional testing before certifying you to be able to sell electricity back to them. In our area, the amount of validation and testing required varies greatly from one house to another — even in the same town.
Fire Departments Have Final Say
When we did our first solar installation over 15 years ago, we were able to cover a roof surface entirely with panels. As solar proliferated, fire departments realized they could prevent them from walking on the roof and cutting needed holes in it in the event of a fire. So there are now fire safety setbacks in place. That means your fire department will need to sign off on both the signage for how to power down your panels in case of an emergency and the actual layout of the panels. Those codes are changing, and are subject to interpretation, so there is no guarantee that your initial installation design will pass muster. In our area, for example, a 3-foot setback is normally required on the ridge and sides of each roof area, but that can be reduced to 18 inches if there is easy access from an adjoining roof.
In our case, the first several layouts were rejected, including one that unfortunately actually got installed. We wound up having to use a different, and slightly less desirable, set of roof surfaces than the ones that were originally specced. Our installer added two panels to our installation (at their cost) to help offset the loss, but it was still a stressful process that dragged the project out and required moving panels around after initial installation.
Keeping Your Installer Focused
Of course, the most common source of delay in starting your project is the usual issue of scheduling. Several people I contacted reported that once they’d signed up it was hard to get the attention of their contractor to schedule the work. In our case, that wasn’t an issue. Ilum scheduled our roof work quickly, and the solar installation followed as soon as the roof was upgraded as needed to allow for the panels. (We had some sections of wood shake roof, which are both not a great idea anymore, and in our area, no longer legal for a solar installation.)
One tip I learned by going through this process is to get a copy of the full plan that the installer is planning to submit for permitting. Make sure to look it over before it gets submitted. It’s easy for there to be an incorrect assumption about the property or project based on the initial site survey. In our case, we have a nice, covered location for the inverter which will work better than the standard one that the installer had first specced. By getting that straight before the plans went in to being approved we saved some time and anguish.
Upgrading? Your Old System May Find a Home
Most people are installing solar for the first time. But if you’re like us and upgrading an older installation, you’ll need to do something with your current panels and electronics. If they’re worth re-using, and you can find an installer willing to work with them, great. Otherwise, the installer is likely to want to charge you a potentially large amount to remove and dispose of the old panels.
Fortunately, if you look around, there are people who repurpose old solar tech. We found one person who provides them to low-income households, and then another who lived off the grid and was happy to take them off our hands. Both options are certainly a more environmentally friendly alternative to having them stuck in a landfill, or even pulled apart for partial recycling.
Project Management: Try Not to Assume Anything
Solar installers are running pretty much full tilt, at least where we are. There are plenty of opportunities for things to fall through the cracks, even after the project is specced and permitted. In our case, even though the installer had corrected an error in their initial permit package to specify the (black and high-efficiency) panels we had ordered, on installation day the truck showed up with a different (less attractive and less efficient) model. Fortunately, I was on site and made a point of checking the crate of panels so we caught the issue in time. The installer was quick to correct it.
If, like us, you wind up needing to calculate and recalculate the potential output of a specific panel layout, there is an invaluable estimation tool called PVWatts from the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL). Instead of just giving you a simplified best case answer for your home, you can put in exactly the power and efficiency of your panels, their tilt and azimuth, and numbers for your electricity rates, shading, and the efficiency of your other components. In our case, we wound up with panels facing three different directions on four different roof surfaces, but with PVWatts I could calculate the projected output from each of them and add them up. Yes, our installer did the same thing, but with all the changes it was great to have my own planning tool when working with the installation crew.
Did You Get What You Were Promised?
One of the biggest complaints about solar installers, judging by their online reviews, is that they promised some massive payback that never materialized — either because the system didn’t generate enough power, or because the user didn’t save enough money. I absolutely believe that happens all the time. My solution (unless you just like getting into tussles with vendors) is to do your own homework using some of the methodologies we’ve described above, and then decide how much solar you want and what you’re willing to pay. That way if the company delivers the installation they quoted, you’re good to go. In our case, our system is definitely delivering everything we’d hoped for, at least so far. We’ve been tormented with smoke from some wildfires since it was turned on, but by comparing the actual solar radiation falling on a nearby weather station with our rated system efficiency, it’s doing a great job.
In some cases, you can get a deal where the solar company finances your project based on projected output. Especially if you’re cash-strapped, that may be a great option, although with interest rates increasing, this type of lease/payback option isn’t as good a deal as it used to be. Remember that there really isn’t any such thing as a free lunch, so do your own calculations and see what they’re getting out of it for themselves that might accrue to you if you paid up front.
Wait, What? You Want Me to Wash Them?
One expense that doesn’t typically get added to solar estimates is the cost of cleaning the panels. It’s likely you will get a stern admonition from your solar installer that they should be professionally cleaned twice a year. He’ll probably also have a company to recommend. Unfortunately, those cleanings can easily run $400 each. That takes a big chunk out of your solar savings.
There are two pieces of good news here though. First, in most parts of the country, cleaning is rarely needed. Rain typically cleans the panels, and because they’re usually sloped most debris slides or is washed off. Some studies show only a few percent loss from even a fairly dirty panel. In our case, we’ve had our initial solar installation for 15 years and only felt the need to clean them a few times. And that was mostly just out of guilt. The second piece of good news is that you can do it yourself (as long as you feel you can do it safely). So if your panels are in a location you feel comfortable getting near with a brush or broom and a hose, they’re easy to wash off. Just avoid doing it while they are in sunlight and producing a lot of power.
Solar Has Come a Long Way
Our new solar installation is night-and-day different from the 17-year-old version it replaced. The panels are nearly 50 percent more efficient, for starters. And our SolarEdge inverter is also both much simpler and more efficient than our old Trace/Xantrex installation. I can monitor it from anywhere because it has a Zigbee gateway that connects through our Wi-Fi to the SolarEdge monitoring site. As the dust finally settles, we are still optimistic that we’ll have a payback of 7 years or perhaps slightly less. It could wind up being substantially less if our power utility, PG&E, has to jack up rates to help pay for wildfire safety upgrades, which is a real possibility.
Top image credit: Getty Images