Buying A Solar System

Before you decide to buy your solar system, you need to find out your reason to do so. Your reasons for buying your solar system may be to get out from under your utilities thumb, to do your part for the planet, to be immune to future electrical rate increases, to increase the value of your property. You may have your own reasons for doing it, but you should be careful about taking advice from strangers. The person selling you equipment should have some idea of what it takes to successfully install a solar system. Have they at least installed a solar system on their own house with permitting and rebate completed? What is their policy for handling returns or warranty support? Can you verify their references? Most sellers prefer to keep their personal information discrete. So how do you know that they are not only going take your money and run? If they don’t have the right background or can’t prove their credentials, run! Most have zero of the following:
* Background in construction
* Experience permitting for solar
* Experience installing solar
* Experience in roofing
* C-10 or other Contractors License qualified to install solar
* Incentive to support you in case something goes wrong later


OPTION 1. Local purchase; Buy locally from a solar contractor. This of course, is assuming that you can verify they have a current license and have performed solar installs. Reference checking is a must. The second assumption is that you can trust they know what they are talking about. Not just sound like they know what they are talking about but verifiable evidence of doing so for happy customers. Not just out to make a quick buck. Is the seller local? Can he show you installs that he himself did or guided someone else in? THIS IS THE OPTION WE RECOMMEND THE MOST. Your chances of getting SUPPORT from a local person go way up especially if you can find out where this person conducts business from. In the case that something doesn’t work as promised, you at least have an address and face to deal with. The ideal person is someone that can offer you additional services. Prepare permits for you, prepare utility Interconnect paperwork, and prepare rebate packages. If you choose options 2 through 4, you will most likely get less support and will likely pay more.

OPTION 2. Internet purchase; Buy online from a solar wholesaler. You can find these online by doing Google searches for solar equipment. Use extra caution when choosing this option. Particularly, when these people tell you that they are engineers or have engineers on staff. Have them provide you with local homeowner references that you can visit to see if the install was indeed as seamless as they claim. Can they support you through the whole process? Will they provide proof that the equipment they sell you will qualify for incentives and will it work well together. They need to provide proof that the equipment will work well in your installation location and that the inverter and solar array will spec out together. In the trade it’s called string sizing. It’s too late once the equipment is on your roof to find out that it doesn’t work well together in the summer months, when you have the most solar potential. We have a customer that was almost sold an inverter that could not handle all the solar panels the supplier was trying to sell them. About 10 panels less. What’s worse is if the permit office or utility company will not let you install it because it doesn’t have UL listings or is old stock that no longer qualifies for rebates. We have found that you can usually find the same prices locally if you know the right people. THE BIGGEST RISK WITH BUYING ONLINE IS THAT YOU HAVE NO GUARANTEE THAT THE ITEMS WILL EVEN SHOW UP. Finally, you can add $1000 to the cost for having the items shipped. Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Northern California are the typical location of these online wholesalers.

OPTION 3. Craigslist; you can call one of those heavily advertised "3kw – 5kw system" ads on craigslist. Our experience is that they have no experience in the construction or solar industry. They can usually match the prices you find online. You do save on shipping. You will not normally not find a single person that have been guided or assisted in any way through a successfully install. You will pay more than contractor prices because there are no other revenue streams. They can only make money on the equipment. What can they offer in terms of support? What if their equipment won’t play nice together in a particular season? How about in 5 years? How much square footage do you need? How about choosing deciding between various locations on your property? What will the difference in rebate and energy production be? What advise on conduit, wire and connections can they give? What will last longer? What will pass inspection? What will not fail in 5 years? You usually pay about $2000 more than if you buy from their suppliers yourself. Have them provide you with references. Have them provide the brand and model information of the equipment. Can they really save you any money for what little service they can provide over the other options? Taking advice from someone that has worked or is working in a totally unrelated field is dangerous. Especially when you’re dealing with equipment that is about the same cost of a small car. Moonlighting salesmen are normally not in it to make sure your install goes without a hitch. They are simply out to make a buck. Modifications to your home without proper guidance can be dangerous and cost you more in the end.

OPTION 4. You can try an auction site like eBay. Heavy competition abounds on eBay and it is no longer the place to find a real bargain, like before. The average seller on eBay are wholesalers that don’t have their own online store. They have no experience in construction or solar. Their price for solar equipment is about $2000-$5000K more than if you buy from options 1, 2 or 3. If you choose this route, you'd better know what you're doing. There is no returning this equipment. Again shipping across the country is $1000-$2000. You definitely will not get support if you need any technical help or need to get your system past permitting or rebate agencies.

High pressure sales tactics: the sale is only good for today; the price goes down more the longer you make them wait. If the price goes down by a couple of thousand every time you stall, run. This tells you that the salesman commission would have been a lot more. They are not looking out for your best interest and definitely not looking out for the interest of the planet. They may tell you things such as: This is the last system that I can sell at this price, the price is only good this week, let’s talk to the manager. The manager is just a better salesman. One plays good cop and one plays bad cop. The price you pay if you pay large installers is about 40% more than if you find a small local installer that can get you contractor direct pricing on equipment.

When you go into a permit office, they will want to check the electrical and mechanical designs of your system. They will want to see the engineering behind it and may even ask for the engineer’s signature on the drawings. The days of the permit office engineer and inspectors not knowing what they are doing, are over. They will want to know what your electrical connections and run specs, the amperage levels on all sections of your electrical circuits, your grounding and protection system specs, the engineer for your circuits and mechanical attachments, the specs of your equipment, the specs of your existing electrical system, the location of the equipment, safety warning sign language, NEC and building codes that you plan to comply with. They now want to see the drawings on a certain size paper and to an engineering scale.

When you apply for a utility rebate, they will want to have the complete year shade analysis and have the rebate calculations done for them. They will check this at the end of the install to make sure their investment will produce the energy that it was supposed to. They need about 6 documents that you or a contractor needs to complete. All the paperwork must be done correctly otherwise you risk the rebate changing in the time you correct the application. You go through this process again after the install. You have to tell them about any changes that were necessary due to what couldn’t be foreseen at the planning phase. There are about 4 more documents that you send in this time. Finally they will inspect all self installs to make sure you did what you said you would do. If you didn’t your rebate will be at risk and likely be less than you initially thought it would be. Especially if you didn’t do the complete shade analysis and your system is not producing what you said it would.

1) Be sure to shop AT LEAST 3 LICENCED contractors. Don’t settle for the first offer.
2) If you’re buying your equipment with no plans or paperwork you will have to create them correctly yourself. The important thing is that you will get very limited support and useful advice if you buy from a none licensed contractor.
3) When the seller won’t reveal the equipment brand and model number you can usually buy it yourself for less. The industry standard for markup is about 10-12%. We have seen some on Craigslist of about 20% and some on Ebay of about 35%. A contractor will be willing to only take about 5-8% if you buy other services from them. It will be easy for you to get this permit, pass inspections, and get your rebates if you buy the plans from a contractor/engineer. It is automatic if you have them do the complete job.
4) Have the seller provide references and if possible, show proof of expertise. It’s not longer “Plug and Play” like lots of sellers may tell you. Inspectors are applying international building codes and requirements and no longer will “let things slide”. You will have to take things down and correct any issues.
5) Take a good look at your roof condition. Will it need to be changed in the next few years? Will your contractor help you find a good roofer to get this done if needed? This is the best time to re-roof as the penetrations can be better sealed with new roofing materials. In this market the contractor will probably help you do other construction projects in order to get the solar business.
6) Ask some of your friends if they can refer a contractor/licensed solar wholesaler that they have worked with in the past. Word of mouth referrals are usually the safest ways to go.
7) If at all possible, we recommend option #1 and, if possible, purchase plans and permit packages from an experienced installer. Because your chances of having successful installs is 100%.
8) Finally, we ask that you shop at least 3 sellers and that you also give us a try. In the economic times that we are in, we understand the difficulties of making ends meet for yourself and your family, and we will do our best to be fair to you. But we are also going to tell you things that some others may not tell you. Even if it will make you decide to take care of those items first before doing solar, such as fixing your roof or electrical system. If you decide to come to us, please expect to find out that you may need a different size system than what other companies have told you. They probably don’t know building codes, don’t know how to check out your past energy use and tier situation. We're also not going to show you pictures of generic installs you can find on Google. We will provide you names and details about our installs so that you can check our references. Neither are we going to claim that we "install the most" solar systems and have a solution for all people. We are not going to make those claims, because we don’t want to insult your intelligence. There will always be someone out there that will sell a bit more than the last person. At times we can earn your business and at other times, not. So we encourage you to shop around and judge for yourself if we are fair. We know that this could take business elsewhere but we know that there are many reasons that people will do business with us. We feel that it's the right thing to do since we too know that we want good price and service when we buy items this large and important. It’s not something to take lightly. It’s just good business sense.