In this three part series, we’re going to discuss one of the most important and difficult tasks when going solar, choosing the right solar contractor. There are many solar companies in California that advertise themselves as “the best,” while third-party companies acting as brokers that recommend the “right solar company for you.” But what does that even mean? How do you know which solar contractors are actually the best? Should you even invest in a solar contractor when there are secondary trade contractors like roofers, electricians, or construction workers who say they install solar systems? Every contractor will highlight their most positive qualities and offerings on their website, but are they telling you everything you need to know? Doing supplementary research into prospective contractors and asking the right questions can make sure you get all the information necessary to make a decision that’s best for you. This guide will show you 4 important factors that will help you better vet and select the right contractor.

FACTOR #1 – Do they specialized in solar?

With to boom in solar, so many contractors want a piece of that pie. Whether it’s a roofer, or a General Contractor, or even an electrician, how can you be assured they’re experts in solar installation? Maybe they subcontract their solar projects? If that’s the case do you find peace of mind knowing this? While it may be tempting to hire a secondary trade contractor to install your system, companies with a primary focus on solar power will be much more experienced, committed, and motivated to provide a better customer experience. Solar energy is a complex technology with processes, products, and information that are continually evolving. Solar-focused companies are more likely to be current and will utilize the latest solar developments to provide you with the best solution that will meet your specific needs. For instance, an expert solar contractor will determine exactly much energy your system will produce and will guarantee it. They’ve accurately calculated the longevity and efficiency based on a customized assessment of your home and energy consumption.

FACTOR #2 – Do they have a history of installing solar?

Make sure your chosen company has been working in the solar industry for a long time. A lot of companies advertise 10, 20, or 30 years in business, but don’t let you know how many of those years were focused on solar, nor do they advertise the age of their solar license. Unfortunately, it is also a common practice for companies to hire a contractor who has a solar license for 15 years and then advertise that they’ve been installing solar for 15 years. Research is key. When considering solar companies, we recommend you check the license history and ask how many permits have been pulled.

*Pro Tip: Researching Contracts & Licenses: BuildZoom is great website to use to check on how many projects your chosen contractor has completed. You can also check license history and details at the Contractors State License Board.

FACTOR #3 – Do they have a strong business model and financial security?

As important as licensing and permits are, that’s not the only thing to look for in a quality contractor. The company also needs to be in sound financial shape and have a sustainable business model in order to maintain and support the performance of your system for many years ahead. Be aware of a contractor’s business values. Many solar companies exist in today’s market are “money-minded” rather than “quality-minded” because of the potential of making profit. A lot of these companies are just a sales group that will sub contract your job and not care about the details. Most likely such companies are not able to ride the waves of the market, and before you know it they disappear forever. From January through June of 2017, nine solar companies filed for bankruptcy due to unsustainable business plans and operations, leaving their customers with worthless guarantees and warranties.

So be sure to do business with a solar contractor that will honor the guarantees and warranties of a solar system through its lifespan. And be sure you have it in writing!

*Pro Tip: Evaluating Business Models: Research prospective companies up on Yelp. Positive reviews from previous customers, quick response time, and five stars can all help you decide whether a solar company is well-structured and taking care of its customers.

FACTOR #4 – Can you trust what a contractor offers in pricing and production?

Many times, solar companies will provide higher production estimates to convince homeowners that their system will generate more energy…only to realize the production is way less that what was originally promised after the solar has been installed.

The reality is that energy generation is based solely on the equipment and design—it has nothing to do with the contractor. Systems with the same equipment and design will produce the same amount of energy, regardless of who installs them. The real test when choosing a contractor is the solidity of the guarantee offered, if any. This will signal how much the contractor is willing to stand behind their estimate and system design. Making sure you are getting a lengthy and solid guarantee in writing is crucial. Don’t rely on contractor-provided energy production estimates unless backed up by a long lasting solid guarantee.

*Pro Tip: Estimating Solar Production: Use third-party calculators to calculate your solar production. This will let you know how the estimate was arrived at.

Pricing can be confusing, since contractors will all suggest something different. If your energy goal is to produce 7,500kWh a year, some contractors will recommend a 5 kW system, while others will offer a 4kW system. Comparing these options by the overall cost or the number of panels can lead to confusion. When considering pricing, make sure you are comparing price per watt. Keep in mind that the larger the system size is, the lower the price per watt should be.

How to calculate a solar system’s production and price: Know the size of your system (in DC watts) then multiply by 1.4 (this assumes that some panels face east, west, or south). After you have determined your system size, you can find out the price per watt by simply dividing system cost by system size to get a $/watt final answer.

Example:
System size: 7700 Watts DC
Derate: 1.4 (x 7700)
Production: 10,780 kilowatts/hour (of solar energy in the first year)

System size: 7700 Watts DC
System price: $22,500 (÷ 7700)
Price Per Watt: $2.92

Once you have gathered all your research on contractor reliability and success, you’ll be one step closer to making a final decision about a solar contractor. This chart provides additional factors to consider when selecting your solar partner: