Not All PV Installers are Created Equal

With the growing adoption of solar technology in Massachusetts and other states around the country, more and more PV installers have entered the marketplace.  Between large national solar companies, smaller regional installers, or construction companies with some solar expertise, there are many different options to choose from.  You’re not always going to be comparing apples to apples.  So really, what should you look for in a solar installer?

1.        What work have they done? 

Naturally, you would think the large, national firm may have the most experience.  Large companies may have a large portfolio of installations, but that doesn’t mean their crew has a lot of experience.  To avoid headaches and unnecessary delays, you should seek a company who has a familiarity with the local weather conditions, regional permitting rules and electric codes, and state and municipal incentive programs.  You should also inquire about the types of projects the contractor typically works on.  Some companies are better suited for residential/small commercial projects, while others work exclusively on large-scale solar farms.

2.       Are they properly licensed and insured?

Licensing varies by state.  I recommend you look up the licensing necessary for your state and make sure your installer has these credentials.  In addition to this, find out if they are approved for your state’s rebate program.  Massachusetts, for instance, does not have approved installers, but they do designate expedited installers who have earned the privilege to more quickly complete applications and process rebate payments.  There is also one voluntary certification program that provides a national standard of excellence for industry professionals.  NABCEP, or the North American Board of Certified Energy Professionals, administers PV installer credentialing.  In order to obtain the PV certification, applicants must meet experience prerequisites and a pass a rigorous exam encompassing PV system design, installation, safety, project management, maintenance, troubleshooting, etc.  Of the more than 14 million people living in New England, only 100 have obtained the NABCEP certification.  NABCEP PV Installer certification is tied to individuals rather than a company.  With any company that you work with, they may have certified installers, but they may not be tied specifically to your project.  My company, Brightstar Solar, guarantees at least one NABCEP certified PV installer will be on-site at all times during construction of your system.

3.       Is the work being subcontracted?

After the sale, many PV systems are farmed out to subcontractors for rebate, installation, and service.  Since big box stores, like Home Depot and Lowes, and national group-based solar purchasing concepts have aggressively entered the market, they are also quickly expanding their installer network to construct these systems.  Let’s face it, a good solar company will not have any problems finding work, nor do they want the headaches of dealing with a middleman.  That means they won’t need to sign on with the big box store or solar marketing firms.  So who’s doing the work?

 4.       Where is the company headquartered?

You are probably asking yourself, why does that matter?  Well, larger national solar companies are based in California, Colorado, and Maryland.  If you’re a Massachusetts homeowner, do you really want to speak to someone in California if your system fails, or would you prefer to talk to someone local?  I would go with the local person who can more quickly send someone out to diagnose and fix the problem.

5.       Can you find reviews?

I have a friend who will never call references.  She says, “Why waste my time on someone who is almost certainly going to say positive things about their experience?  I mean, what contractor would offer a bad reference.”  It is a tell-tale sign when a company can’t furnish any references, though.  Solar-Estimate.org, a not for profit and free service, is one of the best review sites for solar installations.  Any professional or company can join the site, but they give their “Pre-Screened Status” to companies who have been in operation for 3 years, have three good professional and customer references in the last 12 months, and have been approved by ContractorCheck.com.  Make sure you look for reviews with a local zip code because you will see those out-of-state submissions grouped in there, especially for the larger national installers.  Out-of-state reviews are not a good indication of what your experience will be like because you will deal with a different sales, service, and installation team.

I’ve touched the surface of the more important questions when making the decision of choosing a PV installer, but next I want to go over what to ask about the equipment and the installation work itself.  Brightstar Solar works with residential and commercial customers in Massachusetts to navigate the installation process and maximize solar financing and incentive opportunities.  If you are interested in learning more about how solar power can offset your electricity demand for your home or business in Massachusetts, please contact us for a free evaluation of your site.