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:
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?
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 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.
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.
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.