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Best Solar Panel Mounts & Racking Products (2019 Edition)

Best Solar Panel Mounts & Racking Products (2019 Edition)

What are the best solar panel mounts in 2019?

A solar mount (or solar racking system) is the foundation that holds your solar array in place.

Mounts are used to attach solar panels to the roof, ground, or another surface on your property. With proper installation, a sturdy mount secures your panels in harsh weather and protects your investment.

In this article, we’ll explain how to choose the best racking setup for your solar project. Then we’ll dive into our recommendations of the best solar mounts & racking products on the market in 2019.

What’s the Best Solar Panel Mount For My Project?

Most Cost-Effective Solar Racking Solution: Fixed Roof Mounts

A standard fixed roof mount - the most cost effective solar panel mount around.

Roof mounts tend to be the least expensive way to mount your solar system because they take advantage of your existing roof structure to provide a foundation for your panels. This saves money in racking material and labor costs to complete the installation.

You also get the added benefit of building your system in otherwise unused space. If you’re on a small property with limited space, a roof mount might be your only option.

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Solar panels should be tilted toward the sun to maximize their production. Most residential rooftops tend to be sloped close enough to this optimal mounting angle that they don’t need any additional tilt adjustments. In this case, a fixed roof mount is the easiest and most cost-effective option.

To get a feel for how to install a roof mount system, check out this video where I walk through a demo roof mount installation:

Tilt Legs

If your rooftop is flat, you can use tilt legs to face panels so that they are more perpendicular to the sun. Tilt legs simply lift the panels up to a fixed angle, so that they face directly into the sunlight.

Whereas most residential rooftops are sloped, flat roofs (or low slope roofs) are morecommon in a commercial setting. In these cases, tilt legs can be used to adjust the panels to the proper angle.

A roof mount with tilt legs, used to tilt panels at the optimal angle.

Read our article about tilt & azimuth angle for an in-depth walkthrough on how to find the perfect angle to mount your solar panels.

Ballasted (Zero Penetration) Roof Mounts

Most roof-mounted racking techniques require you make penetrations in your roof to clamp the mount in place.

If you don’t feel comfortable drilling holes into your roof, or your lease agreement does not permit roof penetrations (as is the case for our flagship Wholesale Solar office), you can go with a ballasted roof mount.

Ballasted mounts rest on a free-standing base that isn’t drilled into your roof. This mount relies on the weight of the PV array, as well as concrete blocks, to hold the system in place.

Ballasted mounts only work on flat or low-slope roofs, and they must be well-engineered to handle the significant amount of extra weight added by the concrete blocks holding the system in place.

Choose Ground Mounts For Ease of Maintenance

Fixed Ground Mounts

Fixed ground mounts are the best racking option for those who need easy access to their PV array.
Wholesale Solar customer Stacy’s IronRidge SGA ground mount system, featured as our June 2018 Install of the Month.

A standard ground mount uses a simple metal frame to support the weight of the rest of the system.

The best way to secure a ground mount in place is to set the structure in a cement slab. If you choose to perform a DIY installation, you’ll likely need to rent equipment to dig footings and pour cement.

Standard ground mounts are normally installed at a fixed angle and position, though there are adjustable options for certain applications.

Pole Mounts

To lift your array off the ground, you can also mount your panels on the top of a sturdy pole. This provides more ground clearance, which is mainly useful in areas with heavy snow where you can expect snowfall to accumulate on the ground below your array.

Pole mounts are the best solar panel mounts to use in heavy snow areas, because the steep tilt angle helps shed snow.

The steep angle of pole mounts naturally aids snow removal, as the weight of the snow causes it to naturally slide off the face of the panels.

Most pole mounts are also adjustable. If you like to get hands-on with your system, you can adjust the tilt angle of your panels to get the most production out of your system on a seasonal basis.

Trackers

Trackers are ground mounts that adjust automatically, ensuring your panels always face directly at the sun.

In theory, trackers are useful in optimizing the facing of your panels to squeeze every last drop of production out of your array. In practice, if you need more output, it’s far more cost-effective to add 1 or 2 extra panels to your array (presuming you have the space).

We only recommend trackers in massive commercial-scale systems, or for rare edge cases where space efficiency is the primary concern guiding the system design.

Read more about trackers in our article: “Should You Buy a Solar Tracker? (No, Probably Not)”

The Best Solar Panel Mounts You Can Buy in 2019

Best Roof Mount: IronRidge XR100

IronRidge is a leading PV racking manufacturer making quality roof-mount racking. Their solutions are available in three sizes: XR10, XR100 and XR1000.

The XR100 is our standard roof-mount racking solution. This will work for almost all systems, unless you need a reinforced foundation to hold up in heavy weather.

In high wind and snow areas, we recommend an upgrade to the XR1000, which is built to hold up in extreme conditions.

The XR10 is a viable lightweight solution for areas with no snow and very little wind loading. We commonly recommend it for installations in Arizona and Southern California, where the weather is warm and mild.

Most folks use the IronRidge XR100. It only makes sense to upgrade to the heavy-duty XR1000 if you live in hurricane regions or heavy snow zones.

You also need flashings to attach the base of the mount and provide weatherproofing and protection for your roof. Your roofing material will dictate which flashing you use:

Best Tilt Legs: Quick Mount/SunModo

We recommend the IronRidge XR100 or XR1000 (same as a standard roof mount) with the addition of tilt legs.

Quick Mount flashings.

We commonly pair these with the Quick Mount QBase low slope flashings, which are code compliant for flat or low-slope roofs.

Another option is the SunModo EZ Sunbeam commercial racking system. It can be built on top of the roof, above air conditioners and other obstructions, which helps to maximize the usable build space on your rooftop.

Best Ballasted Mount: DynoRaxx

The concept of a ballasted mount is to build your system without drilling into your roof.

This is especially useful if you don’t own the property (for example, a commercial installation in a rented office building).

We like the Dynoraxx ballasted racking system. The trays are fiberglass, which are lightweight and won’t damage your roof.

The Dynoraxx ballasted mount is lightweight and easy to install. The fiberglass trays don’t expand and contract under the heat of the sun, which means it won’t warp and damage your roof.

Best Ground Mounts You Can Buy in 2019

Best Fixed Ground Mount: IronRidge SGA

The IronRidge SGA ground mount uses XR1000 rail, which is the same equipment used for heavy-duty roof mounts.

But for ground mounts, the rails need to be set on a substructure of 2” or 3” steel pipe. Since this would be incredibly expensive to ship, we strongly recommend sourcing the steel pipe from a local building supply store.

This is the most affordable and easy to install ground mount system. We recommend a fixed ground mount, unless you live in extreme climates or have unique space concerns that would necessitate a tracker.

Read more about the pros and cons of roof mounts vs. ground mounts to determine which is best for your project.

Best Pole Mounts: General Specialties or MT Solar

Our preferred pole mount comes from General Specialties. They make high quality, adjustable pole mounts which are manufactured in the USA and built to order.

Best Pole Mount: General Specialties
A General Specialties pole mount.

MT Solar pole mounts are another great option. They designed their pole mount with ease of use in mind. They are easier to install and adjust than any other pole mount on the market.

Best Trackers: Zomeworks / Wattsun

As we mentioned above, trackers are the least cost-effective mounting option available, and we almost never recommend them for residential installations.

Trackers used to be popular when panels were 5-10 times their current price. It made a lot more sense to squeeze every bit of output you could from the panels.

Today, you’d be better off using a fixed ground mount or pole mount and adding a few more panels to cover the extra output.

But if you have your heart set on a tracker, Zomeworks and Wattsun make high quality trackers (at a premium, of course).

Best Tracker: Zomeworks
A Zomeworks tracker.

For commercial applications, single-axis trackers are a great way to save space and maximize efficiency for large utility-scale installations. But they don’t make much sense for residential systems.

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Tilt & Azimuth Angle: Finding the Optimal Angle to Mount Your Solar Panels

Tilt & Azimuth Angle: Finding the Optimal Angle to Mount Your Solar Panels

Solar Angle and Azimuth: A Quick Summary

“Angle” describes the vertical tilt of your solar panels, and “azimuth” is their horizontal facing in relation to the Equator. Solar panels should face directly into the sun to optimize their output. Finding the right angle and azimuth helps you get the most production out of your array.

Welcome to another entry in our ongoing Solar 101 series. Today we’re going to explain how to mount your solar panels to get the most energy from them.

Let’s start with two key terms: elevation angle and azimuth angle (commonly shortened to “angle” and “azimuth” for brevity).

  • Elevation Angle: The vertical tilt of your panels.
  • Azimuth Angle: The horizontal orientation of your panels (in relation to the equator, in this case).

Solar panels work best when they face directly into the sun. But that task is complicated by the fact that the sun moves across the sky throughout the day. It also changes angle in the sky as the seasons change.

So when you build a solar system, the question is: what’s the best angle to mount your solar panels to get the most output?

Some people will want to set it at one angle and forget it, while others like to go hands-on with their system and make adjustments to optimize output.

You can also buy a tracker, which automatically follows the sun’s position in the sky to squeeze the most output from your panels. But trackers are rarely the most cost-effective option. It’s almost always cheaper to buy a few more panels instead of investing in a tracker.

Optimal Azimuth (Horizontal Angle) For Solar Panels

For best results, your solar panels should face toward the equator. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, face them south. If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, face them north.

(Since we’re an American company, the following example assumes you’ll point your system to the south.)

Specifically, you should point your panels toward true south as opposed to the reading on your compass, which is magnetic south.

Many people are surprised to learn that their compass isn’t completely accurate. That happens because magnetic forces in the Earth’s core pull the compass needle away from true north or true south. Depending on your location, the compass reading can be inaccurate by as much as 25°!

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The difference between magnetic north (the reading on your compass) and true north is known as magnetic declination. This is a measurement of how many degrees you need to compensate from your compass reading to find true north.

Magnetic Declination values in the United States

A positive number represents eastern declination, meaning true north is east of your compass reading. A negative number represents western declination, meaning true north is west of your compass reading.

So how do you calculate the ideal azimuth for your panels?

First, find your magnetic declination from one of the many charts online, or from a tool like NOAA.gov’s calculator.

Adjust the facing of your panels by the magnetic declination value in your location. The direction you adjust the panels depends on where you live:

In the Northern Hemisphere:

  • If your magnetic declination is east (positive), rotate your panels east.
  • If your magnetic declination is west (negative), rotate your panels west.

In the Southern Hemisphere:

  • If your magnetic declination is east (positive), rotate your panels west.
  • If your magnetic declination is west (negative), rotate your panels east.

Two examples to demonstrate the difference:

If you live in San Diego, California, your magnetic declination is about 11° east. Since San Diego is in the Northern Hemisphere, start by finding magnetic south, then adjust 11° to the east.

In contrast: Cochran, Chile also has a magnetic declination of around 11° east. But since you are in the Southern Hemisphere, you want to point your panels north instead. So you would actually make an adjustment 11° to the west to find the ideal azimuth.

By performing these adjustments, you will face your panels directly at the equator, maximizing their exposure to sunlight (and by extension, the amount of solar power you generate).

Finding the Optimal Tilt For Your Solar Panels

The other half of the equation is finding the vertical angle, or tilt, of your solar panels.

You have a couple options here: pick one angle and leave it alone, or adjust the tilt a few times per year to optimize seasonal production.

Depending on your preference, here’s our advice.

Optimal Tilt Angle (No Adjustments)

If you never want to bother with adjusting your panels, set them at a tilt angle that is equal to your latitude.

To use the above example again, San Diego is located at a latitude of 32.7157° N. You’d be just fine if you set your panels at around 33° and left them untouched.

One wrinkle to consider is changing the tilt slightly to favor summertime or wintertime output. If you spend more money in the summer running the A/C, you might want to optimize for summer production. On the other hand, if you end up blasting the heat during harsh winters, you can set your panels to favor winter production.

This matters more for off-grid systems, since you store your own power. If you are grid-tied, you most likely want to optimize for summer production, since the utility company will typically give you a credit for any over-production. You will produce more in the summer, and you can collect on this credit in the winter months.

To optimize overall production year-round, tilt your panels at your latitude.

To lean toward more production in the summer, tilt your panels at your latitude minus 10-15°.

To lean toward more production in the winter, tilt your panels at your latitude plus 10-15°.

Seasonal Adjustments to Optimal Tilt Angle

If you have an adjustable mount and don’t mind tilting your panels manually, you can change the angle a few times a year to get a bit more production from your array.

We should note that this isn’t a particularly common choice. Most of our customers simply give themselves a 5-10% cushion in production when sizing their system so they never need to make adjustments.

The main exception is in heavy snow areas. If snow will accumulate on your panels, pole mounts make a lot a sense. You can adjust them to a steeper tilt angle in the winter, which not only improves output, but also sheds snow from the face of the panels.

Related Product: General Specialties 10x Pole Mount

If you are able to adjust the angle of your solar panels a few times per year, here is the adjustment schedule we recommend:

  • Spring: Tilt the panels to your latitude.
  • Summer: Tilt the panels to your latitude minus 15°.
  • Fall: Tilt the panels to your latitude.
  • Winter: Tilt the panels to your latitude plus 15°.

These are general guidelines, but you may get better results by customizing your adjustment schedule based on your location. For more info, read through solarpaneltilt.com, an old-but-still-excellent reference that explains (in great detail) how to tilt your panels to maximize their production.

A Note About Trackers

Trackers automatically adjust your system so that your panels always face directly at the sun. The concept is to squeeze as much production as possible out of your panels.

While the idea sounds great in theory, trackers rarely make sense in residential systems. Tracking equipment costs $600-$1000 per panel, and you could expect that investment to net you 60 to 90 watts of extra production out of a 300W panel.

Alternatively, if you need more output, you can simply add another 300W panel for around $160. If you have the space, it’s far cheaper to add more panels.

The math changes for commercial systems, but in general, most people don’t need trackers. Read the full explanation here.

In the end, you don’t really need to be concerned about fine-tuning your system unless you’re in danger of running out of space to build it. Trackers are often too expensive, and frankly, adjusting panels is going to feel like a chore unless you really enjoy the hands-on DIY approach.

If you have plenty of space, we recommend giving yourself a cushion by adding a few extra panels. The convenience is well worth it.

For more information, check out our free solar racking guide.

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Discover vs. SimpliPhi: What’s the best lithium battery for solar energy storage?

Discover vs. SimpliPhi: What’s the best lithium battery for solar energy storage?

When we design off-grid solar systems with lithium batteries, we work with two main brands: Discover and SimpliPhi.

These two manufacturers are major players in the lithium battery market, which is the premium option for solar storage.

In this article, we’ll compare Discover AES vs. SimpliPhi Lithium batteries and give our honest opinion on when you might choose one over the other.

The alternative to lithium would be lead-acid batteries, which are less expensive but don’t last as long or run as efficiently. We review lead-acid batteries alongside lithium options in our review of the best solar batteries on the market.

Similarities

First, let’s talk about what the two options have in common.

They’re both the same chemistry: Lithium Ferro Phosphate (LFP). LFP is a different type of Lithium battery designed to be very stable and safe, with high output to handle a demanding off-grid environment.

Lithium batteries have some inherent advantages over lead-acid batteries:

  • Longer lifespan
  • No maintenance
  • More efficient power usage
  • More usable storage capacity (deeper discharges)
  • No off-gassing / ventilation

Both Discover and SimpliPhi will offer a stable battery with a long lifespan. You won’t need to check in for regular upkeep like you would with lead-acid batteries.

They are also comparable in price. If you compare Discover’s 48V battery to SimpliPhi’s 48V battery, the cost per kilowatt hour of capacity is almost exactly the same.

At the time of publication, our price for 48V Discover AES batteries works out to $1 per Wh of capacity, while we charge 98 cents per Wh for a comparable SimpliPhi battery.

We compare 48V options because they are the highest efficiency and most cost-effective for most off-grid systems. Also, it just so happens that most household inverters come in 48V, so it makes the most sense to match the battery voltage to commonly used inverters.

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It is worth noting that the cost per Wh depends on size and features. Many of our SimpliPhi 24V lithium batteries come in at a lower price point than their Discover counterpart. And of the two, SimpliPhi is the only one who makes a 12V option.

But due to inverter and charge controller specs, the apples-to-apples comparison most people care about is the 48V offering, because most off-grid residences are going to run off of 48V battery banks.

Why choose Discover’s Lithium Batteries?

Discover batteries thrive in large-scale systems. They have two main advantages: battery sizing and ease of installation.

Battery Size

The largest battery SimpliPhi makes has a 3.5 kWh capacity. In contrast, Discover’s largest battery nearly doubles that capacity, at 6.6 kWh. (Remember: even though the sizes are different, the cost-per-kWh is almost identical.)

Recommended product: Discover 6.6 kWh 48V Lithium Battery

If you are building a battery bank for a typical off-grid residence, it will take fewer Discover batteries to reach the same target capacity. For example, if you need 26 kWh of capacity, you could do that with 4 Discover AES 6.6 kWh batteries. It would take 8 SimpliPhi 3.5 kWh batteries to cover the same ground.

Ease of Installation

From an installation and wiring standpoint, Discover batteries are also easier to work with. SimpliPhi batteries have stricter cabling requirements.

You’ll need to run each SimpliPhi battery into a busbar, which is a terminal for all your wire connections. The busbar then combines all of the batteries in parallel. The extra cable management can be a pain because all of the wires need to be equal length.

It’s critical that all cables are the same length, because the individual batteries are not communicating with each other directly.

SimpliPhi battery busbar
SimpliPhi’s lithium batteries wire into a busbar, which manages the cabling. Image Source

Discover AES batteries don’t have the same strict cabling requirements. They can plug into each other to communicate and synchronize output.

This results in less wire overall and easier installation, because you can connect several batteries together in parallel without needing to run individual wires to a busbar. And because Discover batteries have more capacity, you’ll have fewer batteries to wire together.

All this means that Discover batteries take less time and money to install, and the difference is amplified in larger systems. That isn’t to say you can’t build large SimpliPhi battery banks — only that it’s a bit more tedious to do so.

It’s not a big deal if you’re bringing in an experienced installer to hook up your system. But if you plan to do a DIY install (as many of our customers do), consider that it may be a little more complex to install SimpliPhi batteries on a large scale.

Charge Capability

Discover batteries also have higher output, which means they can charge (and discharge) faster.

Charging current is measured in amps and commonly expressed as a percentage of total battery capacity. For example, if a 100 amp hour battery can output 100 amps, that is a rate of 1C. (C stands for Capacity.)

Here’s how continuous charge and discharge current looks for the two 48v models we are comparing:

  • Discover AES 6.6kWh 48v: 1C
  • Simpliphi PHI 3.5kWh 48v: 1/2C

This means the Discover batteries can handle twice as much charge and discharge current. That likely has to do with differences in the battery management system (BMS) and overall battery design.

The BMS works to manage voltage, current and data logging for your battery bank. These manufacturers use different BMS designs, which may explain why Discover’s batteries charge faster and handle higher current.

This means that Discover batteries can be interconnected for faster charging and higher output. They plug into each other, allowing them to communicate and synchronize charge and discharge current.

SimpliPhi’s batteries act independently. Individual batteries do not communicate or share information.

Why choose SimpliPhi’s Lithium Batteries?

SimpliPhi has a lot going for them as well. As I mentioned before, their small and mid-range lithium batteries come in at a lower cost-per-kWh than Discover’s options.

In fact, Discover doesn’t make a 12V lithium battery, but SimpliPhi does. This would be your go-to battery for mobile use, like powering your RV or boat, or small remote applications like security systems or any equipment requiring a 12 volt power source.

SimpliPhi is more competitive in the 24V territory as well. We sell their 24V lithium battery at $1 per Wh, while Discover’s is $1.15 per Wh of capacity. These batteries might be an appropriate choice for small cottages, cabins and tiny homes.

Recommended product: SimpliPhi 3.5 kWh 24V Lithium battery

The rule of thumb is that SimpliPhi shines in applications that don’t require a lot of output. If you need to power lights and charge your phone in a small hunting cabin, we would likely recommend SimpliPhi to save you some money with no real downside.

(It could be a different story for something like a workshop, where you run power tools that demand high power output.)

For small to mid-range applications without intense peak demand, SimpliPhi’s battery sizes are a bit more flexible, and the prices a little bit better.

Discover vs. SimpliPhi: The Verdict

We lean toward Discover for large-scale systems because they’re more space efficient and easier to wire. SimpliPhi has more cost-effective midrange options, and they make a 12V battery, which Discover doesn’t offer.

As far as reliability and reputation go, both companies are solid. Discover has been making batteries since the 1950s, but they are the more recent arrival to the lithium battery space.

SimpliPhi was founded in 2002 with an exclusive focus on lithium battery storage. What they lack in longevity, they make up with laser-focused research and development efforts in the premium lithium battery market. They have quickly earned their reputation as a high-end battery manufacturer.

You can’t go wrong with either product, and we recommend both brands with full confidence.

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How to Find a Solar Installer You Can Trust

How to Find a Solar Installer You Can Trust

It can be a real pain to find a good solar installer.

Most local solar installers offer an all-in-one solution to source equipment and install your solar system. But these turnkey providers often charge prohibitively steep prices to get the job done.

That’s because turnkey providers are large companies with a lot of overhead (equipment, office/warehouse space, insurance, wages, etc.). They need to bill far more than independent contractors to cover their costs.

In fact, it’s common for turnkey providers to charge 100-200% of the cost of equipment to install a system.

A $10,000 system can quickly balloon up to as much as $30,000 installed after they tack on the installation charge. For a project that takes just 2-3 days, a lot of people wonder where the money goes.

There is another way, though: research and buy the equipment directly, then hire a local contractor to manage parts of the installation.

If you’re willing to research and buy the system yourself, you can likely find a solar installer in your area with a much more competitive price than the big turnkey companies.

It requires a bit of extra research and legwork, but the savings are well worth it:

Find a solar installer that works for your budget.

To save money on installation, you can buy direct from wholesale distributors (like us). But we don’t have in-house installers. Instead, we ask our customers to go the DIY route and build it themselves, or hire a local solar installer or contractor to put the system together.

Of course, we want to see every project succeed. For us, that means connecting people with the best solar installer we can find in their area to see the project through to completion.

When people ask us how to find a solar installer, this is the process we walk them through.

Step 1: Ask if we know someone.

We’ve been selling solar equipment for 15+ years, and naturally we’ve built relationships with installers around the country in that time. Ask your designer if they can connect you to a trusted installer in your area.

We’ve sold over 10,000 systems in the United States since 2002. Chances are good we’ve worked with someone in your area.

Step 2: Ask friends if they know someone.

If we can’t set you up with somebody, ask your local friends and family whether they’ve worked with any contractors they recommend.

Finding a solar installer is a bit like finding a mechanic. For the average person who doesn’t have technical experience in the field, we fear we won’t understand what they’re charging us for.

If a friend or family member you trust can vouch for a contractor’s honesty, that referral is worth its weight in gold.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a solar specialist. It can be the contractor who re-roofed your parents’ house or the electrician that wired your friend’s new A/C.

Any competent contractor with enough experience is worth working with. The most important thing is that they do honest, efficient work.

Step 3: Find Reviews and Compare Quotes

If you can’t find a direct referral, it’s time to move on to recommendations from strangers.

The best generic review site for a project like this is Angie’s List, which is a directory of contractors, suppliers and other businesses in the home improvement space.

Since most contractors are capable of installing solar (even if that isn’t their specialty), the ones with a good reputation on Angie’s List are a good place to start.

The next tier of directory sites would be Yelp and Google business reviews. These sites are bigger than Angie’s List and have a larger body of reviews to work with. But they are not specific to the home improvement industry, and they have fewer tools in place to gauge the quality of a contractor’s work.

Our last recommendation is a classic standby: the Yellow Pages. Although online directories have taken over as the primary way to find local businesses, the Yellow Pages have one key advantage.

The types of companies that still advertise in the Yellow Pages tend to have a more established track record and history of service. You want to find an installer who will stay in business and honor their warranty should you run into any problems. If a company is advertising in the Yellow Pages, it’s much more likely they’re in it for the long haul.

Do I Need a “Certified Solar Installer?”

The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) is a non-profit organization that certifies solar installers.

Solar certification is nice to have, but not necessary to perform a solar installation. A track record of quality work is far more important than a certification as a “solar installer.”

A solar certification means that your installer was interested in learning about solar. They took a course and passed the exit test at the end. In some cases, they may have also pursued NABCEP’s continuing education credits.

Think of it like interviewing candidates for a new position at your work. A college degree is a positive indication that the candidate is interested in learning and growing. But simply having a degree doesn’t mean they’re good at what they do – the best indicator is real-world experience in their field.

NABCEP certification is the same way. It’s a positive sign, but it’s not a substitute for hands-on experience in the real world. Ideally, you’d find someone who has both.

Aside from NABCEP, some areas have additional certifications that are mandatory to comply with local building codes. For example, in Oregon, all contractors must have a license from the Oregon Construction Contractors Board for solar installations to be up to code.

Check your local jurisdiction to be sure you clear the bar for a code-compliant installation.

What Do the Best Solar Installers Have to Offer?

License

Installers should hold at least a C-10 license, which is a general electrical contractor’s license. Most people hire an electrician to hook up their system at the end of the project. You want to be sure they’re licensed to handle the wiring and electrical components of your system.

Insurance

Insurance not only protects your contractor, it protects your property from damages in case something goes wrong during the project.

If they damage your property and don’t have insurance, they’re still liable to cover it, but it may require a protracted legal battle to recover the money to make repairs.

No legitimate contractor works without insurance. If they aren’t insured, run for the hills.

Workmanship Warranty

The best solar installers stand behind their work. A workmanship warranty covers any problems that arise as a result of faulty installation. If a panel comes loose because it wasn’t screwed down properly, the workmanship warranty would cover the repairs.

Contractors offer a broad range on these warranties, anywhere between 1 and 10 years of coverage.

Be wary of new companies offering long warranties. They may promise a 10-year warranty to close a sale, but there’s no guarantee they’ll stick around long enough to follow through on it.

If a company offers an extended warranty, make sure they have a verifiable history of doing business in the solar industry. You want to be sure they’ll still be around 10 years from now to honor that warranty.

Reputation & Longevity

This is a continuation of a few of the points above. Solar is an industry with a long sales cycle and an even longer product lifespan. Some people spend more than a year planning out their system, and panels are warrantied for 25 years.

For this reason, it’s a huge advantage to find an installer with a long and steady work history. You want to be sure they won’t flake on your project before it’s finished.

You also hope they’ll stay in business long enough to honor their workmanship warranty, and perform any additional repairs or maintenance in the future (like replacing the inverter halfway through the life of the system).

Make sure your installer has a long-standing reputation.

Competitive Quotes

Solar is still in a bit of a Wild West phase. There’s not a lot of visibility into pricing, and different contractors charge drastically different rates for solar installations. Some are more competitive than others.

Independent contractors bill around $1 per watt to install a solar system (equipment cost not included). That price can vary based on availability and project complexity.

We’ve seen every billing structure imaginable, but the most common (and fairest) approach is cost-per-watt. Your installer should bill you a flat rate based on the size of your system.

$1 per watt is a good target price for installation (not including equipment costs). For example, you’d pay about $10,000 for a 7kW system, and an independent contractor might charge you another $7000 to install it.

But that can fluctuate based on project scope and the level of local competition. In less populated areas, there tend to be just a few competent installers are booked several weeks out. Because the demand is high, you could pay a premium to land a slot on their schedule.

To mitigate this, contact as many installers as possible and gather quotes to make sure the rate you get is competitive. You might be surprised at the disparity between bids. This extra bit of legwork could legitimately save you a few thousand dollars on your install.

How Long Should Solar Installation Take?

Standard solar installations take just a few days. A professional crew of 3 people can install a solar system in a day if there are no delays.

The paperwork is in and permits have cleared. It’s time to buckle down and build the system.

Expect a standard installation to take 1-4 days of physical build time, depending on the experience and size of the crew. Most installation crews work in teams of 2-3 people.

Certain factors can lengthen the installation process. For example, the crew might come out a few days early to pour footings and let the concrete set for a ground-mount system. Or you might need to upgrade an old electrical service panel. The extra prep work may add a few days to the total build time.

Of course, you might run into larger problems. If they start drilling and hit bedrock, they might need to bring in different footings or specialty equipment to lay the foundation. That will add to the cost and timeframe of the project significantly.

Roof mounts can experience delays as well. Sometimes people discover their roof isn’t structurally sound, either due to age or damage from the elements. In these cases, your solar installation project grows into a full roof upgrade or replacement.

This is obviously a much larger undertaking, and you should budget time accordingly. Your installer should be able to provide a clear quote outlining the scope of the project and give an estimated timeframe for each part of the work.

New to solar? Check out our guide to Getting Started With Solar to learn the basics.

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Filing Solar Power Permits in 2019? Consider the Following Factors

Filing Solar Power Permits in 2019? Consider the Following Factors

this guide will help you get the latest information on solar permits

Here’s What You Need to Know.

All of these factors are important to consider when permitting your solar system, and can help streamline your process. Take the time to consider these often-overlooked aspects so you’re not caught off guard! 

This guide is the perfect prep work to get you started on going solar, and can save you a ton of time so you can get your install going and claim your Federal Tax Credit before the 2019 tax season ends in December.

Geographic Location

Every state, and many different cities within them, has different permitting processes and requirements for homeowners looking to install solar.

California is our go-to example for state requirements: cities in California have some of the strictest zoning, building, and fire codes, so chances are if you can meet their standards, you can meet any state’s standards.

We recommend you check your local AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction) for full regulations. Some things to consider with your location include:

  • Urban or Rural Property
  • Off-grid or grid-tied
  • Zoning regulations
  • Fire codes and building codes
  • Property lines and neighborhood restrictions

Residential or suburban areas often have stricter zoning and installation requirements than rural areas – and if you own several acres of land you can more easily accommodate different mounting types such as ground or Pole-Mounted systems.

In some cases, you have more of a choice in the matter – if you’ve recently bought property that’s off-the-grid, it’s a much more affordable option to go solar rather than paying tens of thousands of dollars to run wiring out to your property. Factors like this can help make your installation decision easier, and will affect your permitting and engineering needs down the line.

Wind & Snow Loading

Areas with high precipitation or snowfall require some planning – solar panels can usually only bear a certain load weight – snow and debris can add up quickly during the winter, so it’s something to plan for. You don’t want to spend thousands of dollars just to lose your entire solar setup when the snow hits this winter.

Moreover, your local AHJ will have building codes that require new structures (such as a solar array) to meet the requirements of your environment, so check with the authority for specific requirements. Many authorities require at least 10-40 PSF (pounds per square foot) load-bearing on panels, and most panels are rated for much higher than this at around 150+ PSF. 

Engineering

Engineering your system is essential in some areas, with many AHJs requiring a “wet stamp” which means an engineer needs to review each individual project and sign off on it before approval. Some areas require that ground mounted arrays get soil engineering, where an engineer tests the soil properties to determine how the foundation should be engineered before they can approve your permits.

DIY solar kits tend to include components from a number of different sources and manufacturers, so getting the right approvals and permitting can add time to your install. Some companies aim to alleviate this, for example, IronRidge racking is engineered for all 50 states, and typically meets any local wind or snow requirements – your AHJ and any needed engineer or building code authorities will need to know this info. 

Equipment

Newer or more complex equipment can delay or complicate your permitting and install process. Grid-tied systems are usually the most straightforward, but a grid-tied battery backup system will be scrutinized more closely because of the complexity, and often the local inspector will have questions. Expect to be asked about your battery bank’s brand, model numbers, battery type, venting method, enclosure, and other details.

Sometimes this also happens with new technology. A few years back, a lot of inspectors were confused about SolarEdge since it is a unique inverter with DC optimizers on each panel. We heard a lot of questions from the building departments about sizing and system calculations. Today, SolarEdge is the #1 residential inverter in the US, and we don’t hear as many questions from inspectors about it.

More recently, some newer systems, such as Tesla’s Powerwall, require specially-authorized (and often very hard to find) installation professionals who have been certified to work with their equipment.

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[Videos] Become a Ground Mount Installing Pro: Beginner and Advanced IronRidge Videos

[Videos] Become a Ground Mount Installing Pro: Beginner and Advanced IronRidge Videos

Finally gain the confidence you’ve been looking for! Our Friends at IronRidge want you to be a Ground Mount expert. In these 2 detailed videos you will learn the basic and advanced approaches to installing your Ground Mount solar foundation.

Intro to Ground-based & IronRidge Design Assistant

Ground Mounted solar arrays often appear very simple, but their foundations can vary in depth, width, and spacing, making them one of the trickiest variables to handle. In this presentation, we review the forces affecting ground mount foundations and show you how to use Design Assistant to quickly reduce foundation size and cost.

Advanced Ground-based & IronRidge Design Assistant

As you know, no two Ground Mount Systems installations are the same. In this presentation, we explore the wide array of site conditions installers encounter and review best practices around topics like dealing with groundwater, building on sloped land, and planning for cold climates. In addition, we’ll share a field-tested and proven method of saving time on large-scale installations. We’ll also show you how to use the new visual interface in Ground-based Design Assistant to plan your project and generate a bill of materials.

More IronRidge Racking Resources: 

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Five Quick Tips For Solar Installation Safety

Five Quick Tips For Solar Installation Safety

Afraid of heights? Well, you’re not alone, and we understand working on your roof, DIY-installing a solar system, can be a daunting prospect. Nobody wants to be injured while working on the roof, so being careful on your rooftop is essential. Luckily, we have a few valuable tips and tools so you can stay safe while working on your install!

1. Check Your Footing

roof ready boots for solar installation

Keeping your footing at a steep angle is a difficult proposition, and doing so while also lifting and setting racking, heavy solar panels, and managing wiring is going to require some extra steps to ensure your safety. However, there are several methods and tools you can use to make certain you stay sure-footed every step of the way.

Footwear

A good pair of roof-ready boots with flat soles that can get a grip on roof shingles, tiles, or metal can make all the difference when you need to stay on your toes above the ground.

  • Pros: low cost, easy to use (just wear them!), lifetime usage.
  • Cons: help with safety, but no guarantee – boots are only as safe as the feet that wear them.

Rooftop Walkways

Rooftop Walkways are also a unique solution you can look into to save yourself from a spill.  Watch Rooftop Walkways Video

  • Pros: Clear pathway where you need it on your roof, nonslip surface for all-weather accessibility.
  • Cons: Cost varies from affordable rubber padding to expensive specially-constructed rigging.

Man-Lift

Renting a man-lift is also a viable option, allowing you to lift heavy loads up to roof height, and have a way to get yourself up to the roof and down to the ground quickly and easily. Our August Install-of-the-Month feature customer used a man-lift, which proved extremely helpful.

  • Pros: Affordable temporary rental – no need to install any extra equipment or spend time maintaining/repairing the machinery.
  • Cons: Temporary solution, you’ll need to rent one again if you need to reach your roof after the install is done. Man-lifts also require some level of operating experience to use safely.

Scaffolding

You can also rent scaffolding for easy roof-access, a good safe option that is available from many hardware stores such as Lowes or Home Depot. You can read on the comparisons between a Solar Platform and Scaffolding here.

  • Pros: Scaffolding provides a safe, steady access to your roof
  • Cons: Setup time

2. Fall Prevention

roof-install

Even if you’ve got the right footwear, you can still be worried about a fall. Secure yourself with a Roof Anchor tool, a handy accessory that can keep you safe if you lose your footing – you can install them on your roof for the duration of your solar project, then uninstall them when you’re done. Alternatively, you can install a permanent roof anchor if you expect to be doing a lot of roof work in the future. A Roof Safety Harness is also an essential piece of equipment when working on a sloped roof, and together with a roof anchor forms a complete PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) system for fall-prevention.  Watch Roof Anchor Video

3. Electrical Safety

safety-gloves

It may sound shocking, but solar panel wiring can give you quite the jolt if you’re not careful! First and foremost, adhere to all local codes, regulations, recommendations and manufacturer’s guidelines when installing your solar system.

Insulated tools and rubber gloves are a must – and you should also be sure to remove any conductive items such as metal jewelry, watches, etc. Electrical safety is one of the most daunting parts of the installation process.

Generally, when you install your solar system and wire it, you’ll leave it disconnected from the power grid before final inspection by an electrician can be completed – this is to ensure everything is copacetic before you flip the switch.

4. Check For Damage

damaged-panels

The last thing you want is damaged solar components – not just because you spent money on them, but because damaged wiring and components can spark fires, and damaged or cracked batteries can leak hazardous fumes and battery acid. Upon receiving your freight shipment, the first thing you should do is check for damage.

Most freight shipments are packed as securely as possible, but accidents do happen, and most shipments are insured or otherwise protected to replace or compensate you for deliveries with the broken product.

5. Don’t Go It Alone

help-from-friends
Photo: Wholesale Solar customer Matt M. installing his 11.16 kW Grid-Tied System

“I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up” is something we’ve all heard before, but it’s also something you should keep in mind when you’re working on a project at home.

Larger installation projects can be done with the help of friends and family helping you cut down on install time and taking care of some of the heavy lifting. If you’re installing alone, however, it’s important to make sure that neighbors or friends know you’ll be working on your roof – checking in periodically or expecting to hear from you.

If you fall from your roof or have an accident with heavy equipment, there’s a chance you won’t be able to call 911 yourself, so having a backup plan in case of an emergency is important!

These five quick safety tips will ensure you stay safe while installing on a rooftop, so don’t skip over them! Making sure you’ve got the right tools and preparation is essential to a successful installation before you ever set foot on the roof.

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