Selecting a Solar Installer: 7 Aspects to Consider

Solar panel installation on roof in Harrisburg, PA - By solar installer KC Green Energy
Solar panel installation on a large roof in Harrisburg, PA – By solar installer KC Green Energy

You are probably already familiar with the idea that a residential solar installation lowers or eliminates the cost of home electricity. This idea has been floating around for the last 10 years, and by and large, it is true.

If you took an interest in owning your solar installation, you probably have found that leasing cost less money upfront than purchasing, but down the road the financial benefit is net negative. You may also have found that purchasing offers tax breaks, and leasing doesn’t.

In all fairness, it’s a complicated picture that only careful, step-by-step explanations from experts in the field can disentangle and make clear. The affordability and profitability of a solar installation depends to a large degree on the quality of both the installation, and of the advice you receive at the start and throughout your project.

Yes, not just the equipment, but also the solar installer.

These matters led us to write this article. What do you need to look for when you select a solar installer? What is advisable to consider in making a choice between contractors?

Here are seven key aspects to consider, based on advice from the U.S. Department of Energy and other reputable sources.

1. Be willing to shop around… Get bids from 3 solar installers!

Request detailed bids from three different solar installers. What should each bid include at a minimum?

  • All the necessary information about the system size
  • Its expected energy output
  • The brands of the equipment to be installed
  • The manufacturer’s warranties
  • The installer’s warranties, and
  • The total cost of the system.

Solar installers should also specify the installation time and expected delivery date (or date range) based on the date of order. Their bids should specify their Registry of Contractors number(s), and the fact they have proper insurance and certifications.

Comparing multiple quotes helps you evaluate the range of options available and receive the best value for your hard-earned money. When you get these bids, ask specific questions, and clarify any uncertainties. The U.S. Department of Energy emphasizes this approach to avoid overpaying and understand the market better (Energy.gov: Decisions, decisions – Choosing the right solar installer).

2. What is the Solar Contractors’ Rating and complaint history at your local BBB?

Solar installation on a shingle roof in Carlisle, PA - By KC Green Energy
Solar installation on a shingle roof in Carlisle, PA – Completed in winter – By KC Green Energy

Standing

We recommend checking the standing of each bidding solar installer with your local Better Business Bureau (BBB). The BBB provides a platform to rate contractors, and consumers can check on that platform if there are complaints against a contractor… and the resolution of these complaints.

Contractors and other businesses start with an A+ rating at the BBB. Find the solar installer’s page on the local BBB website. If you see that they have an A+ rating, it means they have kept their initial rating intact and were not penalized by the BBB due to unresolved complaints. That’s a good sign… but consider it a red flag if they have many complaints.

Complaints

Yes, look for complaints. Contractors with a long history of business may have had a few complaints filed by consumers and businesses at the BBB. The most important factor here is: were complaints resolved to the satisfaction of the consumer? Or did the BBB find that the customer was at fault and the contractor was right? Resolved complaints indicate both parties confirmed that they reached a satisfactory agreement and there is no more dispute between them.

Take a look at the nature of the complaints. This will help you raise more questions during your meeting with the bidding contractors. You will be able to get clear answers on some aspect of their business that may be important for your project.

In any case, do not deal with a solar installer with a long track record of getting complaints, regardless of whether they were resolved.

3. Should you prefer a local solar installer over a big national brand?

There are two schools of thought on the topic.

Big brand, big voice

Big brands advertise that they offer well tried-out, standardized processes that are reassuring to consumers. They also boast having the financial backing that becomes necessary when a solar installation goes wrong, and consumers ask for their money back or monetary compensation.

These strengths are also their weaknesses. Big names approach any problem with the same protocols and processes. These are not always fine-tuned to local situations, and you can’t use a hammer when a screwdriver is needed. Likewise, their financial strength can also become the hammer they use to tie up a dissatisfied consumer into litigation… with devastating consequences for the families. Lastly, it is difficult for consumers to discuss with a mammoth company with local office managers tied by or hiding behind “corporate”.

But is there more to it?

By comparison, a local solar installer with much less financial backing will most often prefer face-to-face discussions to settle an issue with the consumer and preserve its local reputation. Business owners are most often front and center of their businesses, and they are immediately reachable. This is a much more comfortable situation for consumers.

Do big brands know the local market better than smaller local operators? Usually not. They have good knowledge of national regulations, but they don’t necessarily know the intricacies of local regulations. This may result in unnecessary delays for permit approvals and solar installation delivery.

What happens after a system is installed and delivered? What about post-delivery support? A local installer is always a few miles away, easy to reach. A local technician is most often available to swing by your home on the same day. A big brand will schedule technical visits days or months in advance, their size and procedures make it more difficult for them to be reactive to consumers’ needs.

Solar array on regular shingle roof in Carlisle, PA - By KC Green Energy
Solar array on regular shingle roof in Carlisle, PA – By KC Green Energy

KC Green Energy is local

As a matter of record, over the decades we have been in business, KC Green Energy has helped many families who initially went with a big brand for their solar, but when they needed to have their solar system uninstalled to repair their roof or install a new roof, the big brand would force them to wait 6 to 12 months to schedule the technical visit! These families’ only option was to pay for a local company to handle the uninstallation, then file for reimbursement.

Local solar installers live and die by the quality of their customer reviews. Big brand can manage to drown the voice of a large number of dissatisfied clients in a sea of reviews. This is easy to see when you consider the reviews of big consumer brands: their advertising budget helps them survive a ratio of bad vs. good reviews that would kill a small local operator.

Keeping your money local

Last but not least, local operators will recirculate most of the money you pay them into the local economy in the form of local purchases, investment, jobs, and taxes. This is called the “local multiplier”.

Between 2012 and 2022, an organization called Civic Economics conducted multiple economic impact studies for local communities that wanted to measure the percentage of money recirculated into the local economy by local operators vs. national operators. The 21 studies conducted by Civic Economics were eye-opening for many. They revealed for instance that in the retail business, independent retailers recirculate almost 53% of their revenues locally vs. 13.6% for chain retailers. Independent local restaurants recirculate 64% of their revenues, compared with 30.4% for chain restaurants. (Source: http://www.civiceconomics.com/indie-impact.html)

Likewise, a local solar installer will recirculate a majority of their revenues into the local community, benefiting the local employment scene, the local school districts, and the local taxation base. All positive factors that are of no particular interest to big brands.

As local solar contractors, we advocate for keeping the money local, dealing with local people, and keeping things simple.

4. Does your solar installer have any roofing expertise?

In most cases, solar panels are installed on the roof of your home. Some solar arrays are installed at ground level, but this is a much less common configuration.

If your solar panels are installed on your roof, the question is how strongly will be they anchored into your carpentry, and what will be the effects on your roof in 5, 10 and 15 years.

A solar installer with no strong roofing expertise will most often miss important indicators that a roof needs reinforcement or repairs before the structure of the solar installation is affixed to the decking and the carpentry.

When the solar installer doubles up as a roofer

On the contrary, a solar installer with a deep roofing experience is able to spot the weaknesses in the structure of your roof, your shingles, and also detect any possible leak. They won’t start the job before the necessary reinforcements and repairs are properly done. They will also ensure your roof is clear of any debris and dirt before starting the solar installation.

There is definitely more than one reason to prefer a solar installer with a strong roofing expertise. The Department of Energy advises homeowners to verify that the solar installer confirms your roof can support the solar array and remain in good condition (See: “Addressing roof conditions”, energy.gov: choosing the right solar installer).

When selecting your contractor, verify their roofing credentials and those of any subcontractors involved.

KC Energy Green and its parent company Kautz Construction have been doing roofing for almost 50 years. With thousands of roof installations and repairs, with and without solar systems, we can rightfully claim being experts in both businesses. You directly benefit from all our years of experience and research on the best installation and repair methods in the industry.

5. Purchasing vs. leasing solar panels: do your research!

You need to understand the financial implications of purchasing (cash or through financing) versus leasing solar panels. Each option has benefits and drawbacks.

Purchasing your system results in greater long-term savings. It also makes homeowners eligible for tax credits. The leasing option lowers upfront costs but over time, you may not see the same financial benefits.

Large solar panel installation on 2 sides of roof, in the region of Harrisburg, PA - By KC Green Energy
Solar panel installation on both sides of the roof, in the region of Harrisburg, PA – By KC Green Energy

Leasing

Benefits:

  • Little to no upfront investment, making solar energy more accessible for lower-income families.
  • Maintenance and Repairs: The leasing company usually handles all maintenance and repairs. However, a properly installed system will require minimal, if any, maintenance.
  • Predictable Energy Costs: Lease agreements often include fixed monthly payments based on estimated energy production, but in the long run usually end up costing more to lease versus purchasing.

Drawbacks:

  • No Ownership: You don’t own your solar system, and are not eligible for federal tax credits, SRECs, or local incentives. Basically, you are giving away the financial benefits of solar.
  • Higher long-term costs: Over the lease term, the cumulative payments will exceed the cost of purchasing a system.
  • Transferability issues: If you want to sell your home and it has a leased solar system, your potential buyers must agree to take over the lease terms. This can make selling your home a project much more complicated.

Purchasing (Cash or Financing)

Benefits:

  • Ownership and incentives: Owning your system makes you eligible for federal tax credits, local incentives and potential rebates. This reduces the overall cost of your solar installation.
  • Long-term savings: Your initial cost will be higher, but you will benefit from significant long-term savings (no monthly lease payments).
  • Predictable Energy Costs: If the solar installation is paid in cash, your electric bill is either eliminated or greatly reduced and your vendor can tell you what to expect whether it’s 100% solar energy offset or less. If it’s financed, your monthly payments will replace your payments to the electric company and will remain the same (usually equal or cheaper than your electric bill) throughout the term of your financing. Once your loan has been paid off, your electricity from the sun is free.
  • Increase in your home value: A study published by real-estate portal Zillow in 2019 showed that at the national level, homes with solar panels sold for 4.1% more on average. Prior to this, another study conducted by the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab on 22,000 homes across multiple markets, states, housing types, and solar systems had shown that “home buyers were willing to pay more for homes with photovoltaic energy systems — averaging about $4 per watt of PV installed”. (The study covered homes owning their own solar system). Solar enhances the perceived value of a home and contributes to a faster sale. Over time, as energy costs continue to rise, the market value differential brought about by a solar installation could become much more significant.
  • Return on investment: The ROI of a solar installation averages about 7 years and from then on, you are no longer paying the electric company for your electricity if you are producing a 100% of your energy through solar.

Drawbacks:

  • High initial cost: The upfront cost of purchasing a solar system is a barrier for many homeowners. However, replacing an electric bill with a solar finance loan works in your favor because it’s like paying yourself back.
  • Maintenance responsibility: As the owner, you are responsible for all maintenance and repairs. Fortunately, properly installed solar systems require little to no maintenance and have a substantial warranty. Repairs to the systems are usually minimal.
  • Financing challenges: Not all financial institutions lend money to purchase a solar installation. Your solar installer must have financing programs immediately available, and a deep knowledge of all local subsidies and tax breaks offered to homeowners who select to purchase their solar installation.

Consider the short and the long-term

Ultimately, the decision to purchase vs. leasing should depend on carefully weighing of the short-term and long-term benefits and drawbacks. Worldwide scientific studies indicate that “the average degradation rate still allows reasonable performance after 25 years” (Source: nrel.gov).

Financing a system is a decision that will obligate you between 10 and 20 years (the most common loan terms are 10, 15, and 20 years). So it is a very long-term investment, and its financial impact will vary across time, depending on the amount financed and the duration of the financing, the interest rates and cash-flows (monthly cost of financing, lower energy costs, energy buyback rates from grid operators), the evolution in the cost of energy itself, the presence of any escalation clause in your leasing or loan agreement, and the predictable cost of maintaining- repairing your solar system. And in addition to this, you need to add the positive impact of local subsidies and tax incentives.

You need to work with a solar installer fully familiar with these factors, and fully ready to go with you into the weeds. This should be one of your key assessment factors when deciding to select a contractor.

Lastly, we would advise you to submit to the attention of your financial advisor the proposal and contracts received from solar installers, as well as any financial model they may provide to support their proposal.

6. How does the solar installer evaluate your current and future energy needs?

Pay attention to the questions asked by the solar installers bidding on your residential social installation when discussing its size. Your current needs must be thoroughly assessed. Homeowners usually want to produce in excess in order to resell to the grid operator and decrease the cost of their installation.

But will your needs stay the same over the next 25 years?

A young family of four will likely be reduced to 2 members 15-20 years down the road. A young couple will likely have 1 to 2 children some 3 to 5 years into their marriage. A Gen-X couple probably live by themselves but may have one Millennial child staying home for a prolonged period.

The number of electronic devices used in the average American home has significantly increased over the past 40 years.

Electric vehicles also increase our daily electricity usage, and if EVs sales improve over the next 10 years, the contribution of this factor will be significant in household electricity budget and usage mix.

Your solar installer needs to take these factors into account when determining the size of your solar array and your electrical production now and 10 years from now.

Pay attention to how your solar installer approaches these issues. A well-considered approach is more likely to set your system correctly for the years to come.

7. Does the solar installer offer enough financing options?

We discussed financing from the standpoint of the difference between leasing and purchasing, with financing being an option to purchase your own system.

But this assumes that you are presented with financing options.

This makes a difference between solar installers. Some contractors don’t have any financing solution to offer, leaving you the responsibility to talk to your banking institution. Others offer only one financing option, with the risk of a high-interest rate.

Some installers, however, have several financing solutions in their portfolio, and they will study your situation to help you find the least costly financial institution. This is such a strong determinant of the total cost of your system, and of the monthly cost of your electrical bill, that the choice of a solar installer may eventually hinge around this sole factor.

8. Bonus! Other decision factors in selecting a solar installer

Credentials and certifications: Look for certifications from organizations like NABCEP.

Transparency and communication: Does the installer provide a clear timeline for your project? Did they answer all your questions?

Warranties and maintenance: What are the terms and conditions of the warranties offered by the bidding solar installers? Do they cover the equipment and the installation?

Customer Reviews: Read the Google reviews, ask for customer references.

Longevity: How long have they been in business? Longevity is a sign of customer satisfaction.

We hope this list of 8 key aspects to consider when selecting a solar installer proves to be helpful in your search for a reliable contractor. As a Lancaster roofer and solar installer covering most of the state of Pennsylvania, we know the research process is complex. It is not easy to make a decision. Your solar installation is a long-term investment that will improve your quality of life and give you a new level of independence.

You deserve to receive the very best advice you can find in the state. You also deserve to be helped to navigate all the tax breaks and incentives made available to homeowners at the federal and state levels. We have this expertise.

We remain at your disposal to discuss your project, evaluate your home and your electrical usage. Call us at 717-290-6094 to schedule a technical meeting and to receive a free estimate.