Our guide to selecting a solar contractor is designed to simplify the bidding process. The below information will educate consumers on the solar contractor selection process:
I. Understanding the solar bidding process
Construction projects all start with getting estimates. Solar estimates are complicated because they require power consumption research and custom system design. Below is a quick breakdown of the typical bidding process for solar panel installations:
- Service Request: You, the consumer, request an estimate from solar providers. This process should be quick, 1 to 3 business days is common.
- Preliminary Estimate: Most contractors will start off the bidding process by giving the owner a preliminary estimate. This allows customers to make purchasing decisions without much involvement. Preliminary quotes are for discussion purposes only and can sometimes be inaccurate depending on the company’s experience.
- Site Survey: Once a customer has reviewed preliminary pricing and expressed interest, solar contractors will visit the site and gather necessary measurements, and inspect the solar installation area.
- System Design: Solar contractors will custom design your solar system using the information gathered at the site survey. This will likely be the confusing part of the process, we go in to detail later in our guide.
- Final Price: Once a system has been designed the solar contractor will provide a final price. At this point the consumer should have a turn-key price in their hand that has accounted for all cost, taxes, and incentives. (Note: it is common for pricing to be updated based on customer design change request, this is typically solar panel or inverter request)
- Signed Contract: A signed contract will finalize the bidding process and usually requires a down payment. Research your contractor before paying any down payment. A state contracting license and a little common sense (no craigslist!) can help verify a contractor’s legitimacy.
II. Understanding the solar construction process
The construction portion of your solar installation will be the most important factor in its overall quality and power production. The construction process below will help you ask the right questions during the bidding process:
- System Design: An involved design is critical for system production. Different companies will likely purpose different system designs. It is important for consumers to ask why a system was designed a certain way and understand the designers reasoning.
- Solar panels should, at the very least, be UL listed. Brand recognition, performance guarantee, power output, and product origin are less-important factors that tend to distract some consumers.
- Solar Inverters are more critical component than solar panels. You will have the option of traditional string inverters, micro inverters, and DC optimized string inverters (the linked article goes into greater detail). Inverter specification should be based on customer preferences and site conditions; be cautious of companies that specify micro inverters and DC optimizers because of their ease of installation.
- Material Purchase: Material availability changes daily so material should be acquired ASAP. This is why down payments are common in the industry. Unpredictable material shortages can sometimes require job delay or material changes. Solar contractors should specify a material of equal or greater quality.
- Permits and required documents: Paper work should be filed as soon as the job begins. This includes permitting, applicable rebate documents, and interconnection agreements.
- Solar Flashing and/or Attachment point: Solar panels sit on racking (rails) which are connected to the solar flashing (roof-mount) or attachment points (ground-mount). Roof mounted arrays should have a flashing method that is designed for the roof type. More information can be found on our residential solar page.
- Solar Racking: Solar panels sit directly on rails called “racking.” Solar panel frames are made of aluminum so it is best practice for racking to be made of the same material as the solar panel frames to prevent galvanic corrosion. A quality racking product will be made of aluminum and designed specifically for solar panels.
- Solar Wire: Running and terminating wire is the most critical part of an installation. It is recommended that all wiring and terminations be installed by a NABCEP Solar Professional and Journeyman Electrician.
- Inverter and Panel Connection: Solar wire is ran down to the Inverter equipment where the necessary safety disconnects and panel connections are made. Most jurisdictions require this portion of the system be installed by a licensed electrician, which is why it is sometimes sub contracted to a separate electrical company.
- Solar Panels: Solar panels are the last item installed. Solar panels are bulky and weigh around 40 lbs so necessary safety precautions should be taken.
III. Solar Contractor Qualifications
The below qualifications will assist consumers in determining a solar contractor’s credibility:
- References: A qualified solar contractor should be able to supply referrals and examples of previous projects. Talk to the reference and prepare a few questions. Avoid companies that offer incentives for reviews as these may not reflect customer’s actual experiences.
- Electrical Contracting License: Texas requires contractors doing solar photo-voltaic installations have a Texas Electrical Contracting License. TECL licenses require the following:
- Master Electrician: Master Electricians are required to verify all work done under their license meets National Electric Code.
- Liability Insurance: Liability Insurance is very important for consumer protection. Property damage will be covered up to the contractor’s insurance amount.
- NABCEP Professionals: The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners offers certifications that verify individual’s solar experience and knowledge. Having a NABCEP professional involved in system design and installation is recommended but not required by most jurisdictions. NABCEP professional license should not be confused with NABCEP entry level accreditation. NABCEP professionals can be found in the NABCEP directory.
- OSHA Training: Solar requires working in elevated environments with heavy equipment so proper safety training is beneficial.
IV. The Installation Crew
You will probably not meet the installation crew until after you have signed a contract. This is why some companies allocate most resources to sales and less on installation. Consumers should request the following credentials for the installation crew in their contract:
- Electrical License: Ask to see the installation crew’s electrical license (we will not be offended, we work hard to earn these licenses). Texas requires a Journeyman or Master Electrician overseeing all work done by apprentice electricians. This means that a licensed Journeyman or Master Electrician should always be present during installation.
- NABCEP Professional: Having a NABCEP professional present during installation is not required but is highly recommended. NABCEP professionals are not given licenses but can be verified using the NABCEP certified locator.
- Company Employee: While this probably sounds obvious, a lot of companies resort to hiring sub contracted labor for solar installations. This means a completely separate company will be completing a portion of your installation. This company should have their own Texas Electrical Contracting License, liability insurance, and recommended certifications (see Solar Contractor Qualifications, above). Specialty sub-contractors are often used for underground electrical and complicated electrical interconnections.
- Safety Training: Solar installations can be dangerous so proper safety training is necessary for all solar crews.
- Health Insurance: Owners can become vulnerable to liability if uninsured workers get hurt on their project. This is why solar company employees and sub-contractors need proper coverage in case of injury.
V. System Design
Solar power systems can be perfectly designed multiple ways… They can also be designed wrong. The qualifications below will be useful in determining a proper system design:
- Experienced Designer: An experienced designer will use your kWh consumption, available open space, and electrical service to design your solar PV system. With a basic understanding of how solar energy works you should be able to follow the reasoning behind the systems design. Avoid solar contractors that cannot explain their reasoning for specifying a certain system.
- NABCEP Professional: A NABCEP certification in Solar PV Installation and/or Technical Sales can be beneficial in guaranteeing an individual’s skill level.
- Personal Touch: Make sure the designer is taking time to become familiar with your project before creating a design. Sometimes it helps to talk to the company designers and installers before signing a contract.
VI. The Sales Process: Tactics to watch out for
Use the solar sales process to your advantage by evaluating their sales process. The below sales tactics are easy red flags to what the overall company experience may be like.
- Cold Call: Cold Calls and neighborhood visits are very typical of companies that are production based. Production based companies are typically large companies that make money on quantity instead of quality. They typically offer affordable pricing but consumers should use the knowledge gained in this article to decide whether the low price is worth the possible low quality solar installation.
- Pushy Sales People: Don’t let sales people scare you into signing a contract prematurely. While it is true that rebates can change at any time, it is over emphasized by pushy sales people to lock consumers in bad contracts. Take your time and do your homework before choosing a contractor.
- Question Deflecting: Be cautious of any company salesman that avoids answering specific questions about installation and design practices. Get everything in writing of have the solar contractor agree to a consumer contract that has requirements for solar installations.
- Lifetime Warranty: Companies have begun offering lifetime warranties to separate themselves from the competition. 5 to 10 years warranty is common for professional solar companies. Beware of this tactic, as you will not have any insight in to the company’s financials and whether they plan on staying around for the lifetime of the system.
- Material Praising: Specifying a quality material is very important for a quality installation, but you will likely become confused when every sales person guarantees their products superiority. Do your own research and have the sales person explain why their product is specified.
- Sketchy Reviews: Checking online reviews is a great resource but it is not uncommon for unethical companies to have fake reviews online. Ask for a reference you can speak to over the phone that doesn’t mind you driving past their location to see the installation.
- Review Fishing: Beware of companies that offer incentives for providing company reviews. This is against companies like yelp and Google local’s service agreement.
VII. Solar Contract for Consumers
Solar contractors typically provide their own contracts and terms but there is nothing wrong with having your own terms that protect the consumer. Below is an example of a contract that consumers can require potential solar contractors to sign. We highly recommend using this contract or something similar.