Learn how to choose a solar installer using these helpful tips.
Before you invest in a solar electric system, put some energy into how to choose a solar installer. If you can't find an installer listed in your hometown Yellow Pages, let your fingers do the walking on the Web. Home Power magazine (www.homepower.com) has a searchable database of renewable energy dealers and installers, organized by state. And with chapters in 33 states, your local chapter of the American Solar Energy Society [www.ases.org] also may be able to provide you with a list of renewable energy installers and dealers.
Professional credentials. Some organizations train installers by guidelines set by the North America Board of Certified Energy Professionals (see "Solar Energy Educational Opportunities," in this issue). Many seasoned professionals, however, choose to not put forth the extra time or expense to become a NABCEP-certified PV installer. Instead of judging their capabilities by a certificate, you'll have to evaluate other credentials, such as their customer references.
While electricians have experience with electrical systems, PV systems may be foreign to many licensed electricians. However, if you hire an installer who doesn't have an electrical license, you also may need to find a licensed electrician to pull the permit and do the final AC hookups.
Training. Some companies who manufacture and/or distribute renewable energy products offer formal training and classes. Find out if the installer has taken advantage of any training courses provided by manufacturers. Only a handful of formal degree or training programs in renewable energy have been established and most of these programs are fairly new, so don't be surprised if the expert you hired is self-taught or apprenticed. As in many fields, experience is as valuable as classroom education.
Experience. Each PV installation is different, and the more experience with various systems, the more situations the installer will know how to troubleshoot. Find out how many systems similar to yours the installer has designed and installed. New products enter the market and new regulations are established every year. A PV installer who has performed several recent installations should be familiar with the newest products and the latest code issues.
Variety and quality of products. The more brands an installer carries, the more likely he or she will have one that fits your application. However, if the installer only carries a couple of brands and those brands work for your system, variety is not as important as the quality of the products. Research the inverter, controller and other components that an installer suggests to determine if the products meet industry standards. Many products undergo rigorous testing by the Underwriters Laboratory (UL), a nonprofit product-safety testing and certification organization. The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) also provides a similar approval. Checking products to make sure they are UL — or CSA-approved is one way to gauge if the products are reliable and safe. Home Power magazine also frequently reviews products. (You can access back issues of the magazine on their Web site.) Last but not least, check out the products' warranties.
Service agreements and performance guarantees. Installers should provide some kind of optional service agreement to you. Make sure you discuss what services they will provide — and how long they will provide service — if problems arise with your system. Will they be readily available to troubleshoot a problem? For what portion of the repair costs will they be accountable?
Determine who will be responsible for maintaining the system. (Off-grid systems require more maintenance than panels connected to the grid.) If you will be the one responsible, what kind of training will the installer provide to you? Although there are no standard service or maintenance agreements, many installers will agree to a site visit at least once a year to check the system's performance. Most homeowners benefit from a service maintenance contract in the early years of a system's performance to help ensure the system runs smoothly.
The bottom line: While the installer is sizing up the system, you should be sizing up the installer. Online and mail-order suppliers who never visit the installation site may have difficulty recommending the most appropriate equipment. A comprehensive on-site, solar and load analysis and two-way interview can help ensure a thoughtfully designed and well-planned installation.