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Category: Installation

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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[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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