Finding the right contractor is possibly the single most important part of a solar installation project. Homeowners choosing to go solar often are excited to start the process. Yet, it is important for consumers to thoroughly research contractors in addition to identifying and defining their own expectations. A trusting homeowner-contractor relationship will foster clear communication and prevent unnecessary complications. This guide will save you time, energy, and money by helping you find the right contractor for your solar job.

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Big vs. Local: Find Your Solar Installer

Take our solar personality quiz and see if you’re better suited to a big, national solar company or if a local solar contractor might be a better choice:

1. Do you plan to purchase or get a loan for your solar array?

Yes No

2. Do you like being hands-on with planning?

Yes No

3. Is your rooftop unique or will it require a specialized array?

Yes No

4. Do you prefer to keep your dollars local?

Yes No

5. Do you want to choose your own solar panel manufacturer?

Yes No

6. Do your like having access to the top company official?

Yes No
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Looks like a big name solar company might be the way to go. Read on to find out why.

Big Name Company Local Contractor
Financing

A big, national solar company might be best for you if:

You plan to lease your system.

Most large installers offer leasing options or Power Purchase Agreements (PPA). These options make solar affordable and accessible for more people. Large installers are able to offer consumers these options because of their sheer size and capital.

Small, local solar installer might be the best choice if:

You’re buying or getting a loan for your solar system.

Being able to take full advantage of tax exemptions, credits, and other solar incentives is a benefit to buying or financing the system. Shawn O’Meara with SUNWorks fully supports consumers buying or getting a loan to purchase the solar systems themselves. O’Meara notes that smaller installers that work at the regional or local level have established relationships with reputable lenders who can make that possible.

Brand You’re more comfortable with established brand name.

Many consumers enjoy the fact that large installers are well known and established throughout the country. Brand recognition helps to inspire trust and security especially when it is backed by a strong track record of installations. Homeowners may feel at peace knowing that their installer has deployed hundreds of MW’s as opposed to their smaller competitors.

You want access to the top company official

If a consumer likes to talk with the head official of a company before they invest their money, local installers are the best option. Accessing the CEO of a 15-person company is more plausible than reaching the person in charge of a company with 10,000 employees.

Decision
making
You’re not interested in being hands on with planning.

The business model of large installers is constrained to offering standardized, uniform systems. Customization and variance can threaten their purchasing power and decrease the number of customers acquired. Repeatability is critical when installing up to 1,000 systems per month.

You want to be highly involved in decisions/planning vetting.

Local installers have the flexibility and capacity to give consumers their personal time and attention. O’Meara notes that with many large installers, consumers have no say as to what type of panel is purchased or how the system is installed. If a homeowner envisions being part of the design, purchase, and installation of the solar system and its components, a smaller installer is ideal.

Conventionality Your solar set up doesn’t need special configurations/panels.

Large installers are the way to go for homeowners seeking solar solutions that boast reliability through standard, “cookie cutter” systems. Each house is unique. Depending on location, rooftop direction, slope and other factors, your home may be a perfect candidate for the standard design and panel type offered by large installers.

Your system requires specific panels (such as high-efficiency) or configuration.

Not all rooftops are created equal. This is an issue for big installers but not for local companies. The orientation of the roof, its slope and dimensions, its weight capacity, and other issues will determine whether the homeowner needs a customized design compared to a more standard one-size-fits-all system. O’Meara also notes that the quality of the panel and how it is installed can make a huge impact on energy output, impacting savings and return on investment. O’Meara suggests consumers do their homework to find the best contractor who can deliver a reliable and high-quality system within their budget.

10 Questions to Ask Your Installer

No homeowner would ever let a total stranger renovate their home. To feel a certain level of comfort and security with the contractor, consumers are entitled to ask as many questions as necessary before committing. For contractors, being interviewed and evaluated is just part of the job and helps prevent complications down the road.

How many grid-tied solar systems have you installed?

Solar expert Shawn O’Meara notes that choosing a contractor with a solid track record of experience and installations is critical. Ensuring the contractor is financially viable means they will be around when you have a problem.

Can you show me similar systems you’ve installed?

Seeing first-hand the type of systems the contractor has installed can also help inform you on the quality of their workmanship. Related client testimonials can also help increase your comfort level.

Will you handle permit, rebate and tax incentive paperwork?

Ideally, the contractor will assume these duties. However, filing paperwork and reviewing complicated documents can equal extra expenses for the contractor. Establish whether the homeowner or contractor will be responsible for these necessary activities.

Are you NABCEP certified?

The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioner, or NABCEP, certification provides the public with a high degree of confidence, as practitioners meet the highest standards and qualifications to pass the exam.

Are you licensed, insured, bonded?

Contractors typically must have a license to perform skilled labor on a person’s home. To become licensed, some states require the contractor to be bonded, protecting against shoddy workmanship. Liability insurance will cover contractor-caused damage.

Do you have experience getting permits for solar in my area?

Some cities have standard forms, caps on fees, and a streamlined review process. Other communities are not so fortunate. A knowledgeable contractor will be able to assess the time and money permitting will require.

Do you offer system monitoring?

Various factors can negatively impact energy output, resulting in lost savings for homeowners. Monitoring systems accessible remotely via the Internet and are an easy way to ensure that your system is working at full capacity.

What type of equipment will you install?

A contractor might be offering the lowest price but at what cost? To save on installation expenses, contractors might be using cheaper, lower-quality panels or racking systems. Solar contractor O’Meara, notes that consumers should be investing in the highest quality panel they can afford because, in the long run, a less efficient panel or design can significantly decrease energy output and the systems long-term return on investment.

What kind of warranty do you offer?

Compare between contractors to ensure the warranty offered is reasonable and feasible. Knowing a company’s history can help you predict whether or not the contractor will be around in the future when an issue arises. O’Meara also notes that manufacturer warranties on panels can cover workmanship and/or production and it is important to know the difference.

Do you subcontract any part of the installation?

Most large installers use certified subcontractors to complete an installation project. These subcontractors need to be accredited. Homeowners can research which local installers the company uses before signing a contract.

Understanding Your Solar Quote

Consumers like to comparison shop before they buy, making sure they are getting the highest quality product for the best price. Deciding on a solar contractor should be no different. Satisfied customers do their homework, reviewing multiple options to make an informed decision. Proper research fosters peace of mind and is the foundation of any successful home improvement project. As a general rule of thumb, homeowners should obtain at least three quotes before deciding on the right solar system contractor.

Be Sure Your Solar Quote Includes:
  • The maximum amount of solar electricity, or wattage, the solar array will generate. This lets consumers know how much energy production they can expect from the array and compare that to their power needs. Wattage should be measured in AC watts, the type of electricity used in homes.
  • A solar system is more than just the sum of its panels.The quote should present an itemized list of the materials to be provided, including, but not limited to: scaffolding, number and type of panels, inverter, cable, meter, etc. The list should also include the cost for each item.
  • The quote should list any services to be provided and their cost.This typically includes survey, design, installation, and warranty. Homeowners should also be aware of any special circumstances that may result in extra charges. Seeking total transparency in this area will help prevent any hidden costs, resolving budgetary issues between the consumer and the contractor before they arise.
  • A one-step mathematical equation provides consumers with the figure to use for cost comparisons: the price per watt of generation. Find this number by simply taking the total price and dividing it by the maximum capacity. 

The price per watt of generation is an easy way to compare between contractors, however it should not be the only way. As O’Meara points out, some contractors will choose to install the cheapest panels or racking systems they can find. Others will find the easiest and fastest way to install wiring and conduit, resulting in an unattractive system.

Go with a reputable installer. An installer that doesn’t have a strong track record might not be around when you have a problem.

Shawn O’Meara,

NABCEP Certified PV installer

In the end, the homeowner may have to spend extra to repair, replace, or remove the system. Along with cost, consumers should take into account the quality of the contractor by reviewing their track record as a successful solar installer.

Major Solar Companies: By The Numbers

There are fewer than a dozen major solar companies in the market, but that number seems to be increasing every year. Thanks to PPA and lease financing options offered by major installers more people have the ability to afford solar. In 2014, according to a report by GTM Research, 72 percent of the 1.2 GW of residential solar installed was third-party owned. With competition increasing in the residential solar market, major companies are seeking ways to stand out from the crowd. Explore this list of 10 major U.S. solar installers to find out how.

SolarCity
Founded

2006

Financing Options

Power Purchasing Agreements (PPA), solar system leases, and upfront purchasing

Installed

189 MW

Operates In

19 states including Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, and Washington

Profile

SolarCity is one-of-a-kind, offering sales, financing, design, installation, monitoring, and efficiency services from a single source, without needing the services of multiple third parties.

GRID Alternatives
Founded

2001

Financing Options

In addition to providing job training, this solar company provides no- to very-low-cost solar power for low-income families and administers California’s single-family low-income solar incentive programs. They also work with tribes, multi-family housing projects, and international programs.

Installed

22.4 MW

Operates In

California, Colorado, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington D.C., Virginia, Maryland and Delaware

Profile

This 501(c)(3) non-profit organization uses community partners, volunteers and job trainees, to deploy solar power and energy efficiency for low-income families. This business model serves to provide energy cost savings, valuable hands-on experience, and a source of clean, local energy.

Sungevity
Founded

2007

Financing Options

Purchasing the system outright, securing a loan, or leasing the system

Installed

In 2010, Sungevity installed 4.7 megawatts of solar

Operates In

California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Vermont

Profile

Sungevity uses contractors and their Remote Solar Design technology to customize and build a system. Sungevity is a Certified B Corporation, meeting social and environmental standards set by B Lab, a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

SunPower
Founded

1985

Financing Options

Lease through SunPower Capital, take out a loan, or purchase the system outright

Installed

Total solar energy generated since its inception: 18,000,000 MWh. This includes residential, commercial, and utility solar.

Operates In

SunPower works wherever they have SunPower certified solar installers.

Profile

SunPower uses certified solar installers and specializes in developing high-quality, high-efficiency panels backed by a 25-year power and product warranty. They also focus on sustainability, with the only Cradle to Cradle® designation in the entire solar industry.

RGS Energy
Founded

1978

Financing Options

Lease or purchase. However, some financing plans are not available in every state.

Installed

Real Goods Solar serves homes, businesses, schools, government facilities, and utilities across the country and has installed more than 235 MW of solar.

Operates In

California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. They also serve Hawaii as Sunetric.

Profile

RGS Energy’s employees perform installation services. This solar company is proud to serve as a community-minded solar service provider and has installed 22,500 solar energy systems and counting.

Vivint Solar
Founded

2011

Financing Options

Power Purchase Agreement (PPA)

Installed

Approximately 340 MW

Operates In

Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, and Washington D.C.

Profile

This solar company uses its own employees to design, install, and maintain solar systems and prides itself on its customer service.

SunEdison
Founded

1959

Financing Options

Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), loan, purchase

Installed

13,432,291 MWhs of electricity generated for residential, commercial, utility, and government customers.

Operates In

California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York

Profile

This company uses authorized subcontractors but is one of a few providers that do all their own manufacturing while also investing in the development of clean technologies. It also has the longest history in solar, coming in at 60 years.

NRG Home Solar
Founded

This solar company is a wholly owned subsidiary of NRG Energy. The parent company acquired Roof Solar Diagnostics in early 2014 to create NRG Home Solar.

Financing Options

Lease

Installed

According to NRG Energy’s annual report, the power company owns 1.2 GW of utility-scale solar systems, and 47 MW of distributed solar panels on rooftops (53 MW including systems under construction) in addition to 25 GW of natural gas power plants, 13 GW of coal generation, and 448 MW of wind farms.

Operates In

Connecticut, District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania

Profile

NRG Energy is a big player in the world of energy and is one of the largest solar developers. NRG Home Solar offers community solar – a system that allows you to purchase solar energy without having to put panels on your rooftop – to consumers in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New York.

Sunnova
Founded

2012

Financing Options

Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), lease. The company also offers an “EZ Pay PPA” option where the monthly payment is fixed, based on expected energy production. Sunnova will also buyback a solar system from another company and enter the owner into a fixed payment schedule.

Operates In

Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey. It also operates in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and Saipan

Profile

Sunnova subcontracts construction through its Sunnova Partner Network.

Sunrun
Founded

1999

Financing Options

Power Purchasing Agreements (PPA), solar system leases, and upfront purchasing

Installed

472.5 MW

URL

Sunrun

Operates In

14 states including Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania and South Carolina

Profile

SunRun, in operation for nearly two decades, focuses exclusively on residential projects and pioneered the solar lease model that other major companies now use. They use local contractors to complete installation projects.

Top 5 Tips to Choosing a Solar Contractor

There are fewer than a dozen solar companies in the market, but that number seems to be increasing every year. Thanks to PPA and lease financing options offered by major installers more people have the ability to afford solar. In 2014, according to a report by GTM Research, 72 percent of the 1.2 GW of residential solar market, major companies are seeking ways to stand out from the crowd. Explore this list of 10 major U.S. solar installers to find out how.

Get a solar quote/evaluation in person.

With so many variables that can impact the price of a solar system, on-site visits from solar analysts provide the most accurate and comprehensive quote.

Get at least three quotes.

Quotes provide a solid starting point to compare between contractors and choosing the right one for the job is easier when there is more than one to pick from.

Find the best return on investment.

ROI can vary wildly between states. Local experts in the Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SREC) market, tax incentives, rebates, and long-term financial planning are indispensable when going solar.

Call references.

Solar companies will provide customer references. If the call sounds biased or rehearsed, ask to call someone from the customer list at random.

Take your time.

Solar installation is like any other major home improvement project. Thoroughly researching contractors will pay off in the end. Avoid the pressure to move quickly and take advantage of incentives.