Patrick Wilber: Choosing a solar contractor


Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 5:42 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 5:42 p.m.

Investing in a solar photovoltaic system is big decision. Though many people do not hesitate spending a similar amount of money on a vehicle, there remains some negative stigma regarding solar energy. This should not be the case. Solar energy can provide you an independent source of energy with years of financial return on your investment. Your choice of a solar contractor will determine how much money you will return on your investment, and for how long.

There are many highly qualified solar contractors in the Gainesville area and statewide. These companies range from mom-and-pop outfits to branded large firms. The devil is in the details. Some specialize in certain technologies and some are excellent generalists. Be cautious. Bigger is not always better. Essentially, there are three areas to consider when investing in solar:

1. Credentials of the solar contractor: At the very least and most important is whether or not the contractor is licensed to install solar systems. In Florida, a master electrician qualifies to install a solar system, but having a specific solar license is paramount. Often for smaller companies, this will be sufficient criteria to getting a quality solar system installed – if the below two remaining criteria are met.

In addition to the solar license, additional training and credentials are often considered by residential and especially commercial clients. The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners has a nationally recognized certification and testing program. . Additional training certificates are offered from the Florida Solar Energy Center in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Occupational Safety and Health Administration training is a bonus that many contractors do not possess but will ensure that your solar project is installed with a high degree of safety.

The Florida Solar Energy Industries Association, the Better Business Bureau and the Florida Division of Corporations are good sources for the scoop on complaints and reputations of companies. A good internet search helps too.

2. Materials: Once you have vetted your short-list of contractors that you are considering, the next area to discuss with all of them is materials. There is much advancement in the technology and delivery of solar energy these last 50 years. That said, some of the old technology is still the best. For instance, many panels have increased in efficiency but the theoretical design has remained the same or similar to original panels.

The available panel, inverter and mounting system manufacturers will vary considerably between contractors. Four important terms to ask your contractor about panels are: 1. What is the instant power output rating versus long-term production? 2. What is the production and degradation factor applied to the panels over time? 3. Does the warranty cover materials and labor and is it a true manufacturer’s warranty or is it provided by a third party? Important to you may also be where that panel is made and from where the materials originate. 4. What is the financial health of the manufacturer?

3. Workmanship: Solar systems are intended to last for at least 25 years. Properly installed and maintained systems will last beyond 25 years. Some contractors offer a workmanship warranty. See what it includes. An honest and qualified contractor will supply you with as many references as he or she can. Ask for the phone number and address of the project contact and stop by to see for yourself. Would you buy a car that you have not seen or taken on a test drive? It is important to compare the workmanship of several contractors. Have someone you know that is in the construction industry accompany you and educate yourself on a few of the following topics:

a. Wire Management: Good wire management ensures safety, aesthetics, and reduces degradation. This translates to preserving production estimates –- that means more money in your pocket over time. Does the contractor use metal or PVC conduit? Are the components UV rated? Are wires sagging and allowed to rub on abrasive roof surfaces where they will become worn over the years?

b. Mounting Structures: If the contractor is putting holes in your roof to attach the system, what flashing and sealants are they using? Have they coordinated with the roofer if appropriate to maintain an existing roof warranty? Does the contractor offer options to attach the roof for the quoted price? Each type of roof (metal, shingle, flat membrane) has specific roof attachment requirements. Is the roof structure adequate for a solar array? Ask these questions and ask about the contractor’s policy for fixing leaking roofs caused by the solar installation. A properly installed solar array will never cause a roof to leak.

c. Subcontracting: It is often necessary for the solar contractor to subcontract all or part of the project. A licensed electrical contractor is required to interconnect the system to the utility grid and install all of the AC electricity components. A few solar contractors also have Master Electricians on staff. However, if the solar contractor is subcontracting most of the field work, you will be less likely to know who is responsible for quality control of the job. Licensed solar contractors and their staff should be trained in installing solar and experienced on many roof types. Contractors that use unskilled labor for critical attachments of mounting structures and electrical work are not operating in the best interest of their clients.

Investing in solar is a sensible decision and a solid investment. It can give you a peace of mind and a sense of security knowing that you are producing your own energy and helping our environment. Properly installed by a qualified contractor, your solar system will give you many years of reliable energy and save you thousands of dollars. As Warren Buffett has said: “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” Happy investing!

Patrick C. Wilbe is business development director of Power Production Management, Inc.

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