Solar Tribune

Choosing the Best Solar Company for You

If you’re thinking that it’s time to go solar, you’re not alone. Solar panels have never been less expensive, and the industry is booming. Wondering how to cut through the noise and find the best solar company for you?

We’ve consulted with solar experts and customers alike to identify the essential steps for choosing between solar companies. Following this checklist will help you create an action plan for going solar, so you can can start saving on your energy bills.

First, prioritize what you value in a solar company

Before you start shopping around, ask yourself what your top priorities are. The key is to understand and rank your options before deciding on the right company. Are you most interested in:

  • Saving as much money as possible?
  • Getting the highest quality service and equipment?
  • Integrating solar power with battery storage or smart home technology?
  • Maximizing your curb appeal?

Comparing solar companies based on cost

The payment plan you choose will affect how much you save. It may also influence when and where you save. Consider whether you want to pay the installer the lowest possible price, or achieve the greatest savings on your utility bill over the long run. You’ll typically have the following plan options.

Lease a solar system. With a lease, you rent the solar equipment the company installs on your roof, and pay a monthly fee over the life of the agreement. The provider maintains ownership of the system and receives any tax credits. While the total cost is usually a bit higher than purchasing a system, you won’t need to worry about maintenance.

Solar leases are popular because you can usually get started for little to zero down. Prepaying the entire lease has its benefits, however. Because the provider assumes no risk, it’s often willing to tweak the terms of the contract in your favor. You’ll also reduce your monthly bill.

Key metrics to compare:

  • Down payment required
  • Monthly payment
  • Term length (15 to 25 years)
  • Maximum annual payment increase

Sign on to a power purchase agreement. With a power purchase agreement (PPA), you pay for the solar electricity the company’s system generates. While similar to a lease, you pay for the energy on a per-kilowatt-hour basis, rather than a fixed monthly fee. The rate typically increases each year. Making a custom down payment on your PPA will lower your rate, and your provider may also waive the annual increase.

Key metrics to compare:

  • Price per kilowatt hour
  • Term length
  • Maximum annual rate increase, as a percentage

If you have an older house, ask if any electrical upgrades will be necessary to install solar panels, and consider the cost they would involve. Also look into how a solar system may affect your property taxes and home insurance.

Buy your system outright. If you have the cash, paying for your system up front will spare you from paying interest.

Key metrics to compare:

  • Cost per watt of installed capacity

Finance your solar system. Buying your system will maximize your savings and increase the value of your home. Keep in mind that you’ll need to pay for ongoing maintenance and repairs, however.

Your solar company will typically make the financing arrangements for you through a member of its lending network. Home equity loans are the most common way to finance a solar system. In some communities, homeowners can also finance solar systems through their local governments, and pay the loans back in small amounts over time as part of their property taxes. If you’re interested in this option, look for a Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program in your area.

Key metrics to compare:

  • Cost per watt of installed capacity – This refers to the size of your system. The average home solar system generates about five kilowatts. Solar providers will use a site assessment and review of your energy bills to determine the size you need. The quote should give you the cost per watt; compare this number for the same size system across several installers.
  • Interest rate – Note the interest rate, and whether it’s variable or fixed. A fixed agreement will lock in a predictable rate, while a variable one will fluctuate.

Comparing solar companies based on service and quality

It goes without saying that you should research the company’s credentials, the quality of its products, and what guarantees it provides.

Warranties. Your system will require both panels and an inverter; ask about warranties for this equipment. Warranties typically cover solar panels for 20 to 25 years, and inverters for 10 years. In addition, some solar providers offer installation warranties and production guarantees.

Certifications and Ratings. Find out how long the company has been in business, and if it holds relevant certifications from organizations like the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP). Also look for regional credentials like the Bay Area’s Diamond Certified status. Diamond Certified companies are recognized for exceptional customer satisfaction and expertise. Be sure to check the company’s customer service rating with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) as well.

Services Offered. You may also want to consider whether the company handles solar exclusively, or offers several different services. Some homeowners prefer to contract with solar-only companies. However, finding a reliable solar company that also provides “whole-home” energy services like roofing, insulation, and efficiency upgrades can give you a leg up on other home improvements down the road.

Company Culture and Values. You can maximize the environmental impact of going solar by choosing a company that’s also dedicated to social responsibility in its own operations.

Companies like Clean Solar, Sungevity, and Sun Light and Power are Certified B Corporations, for example. These providers are certified by the the nonprofit organization B Lab for meeting its social and environmental performance standards.

Some companies support nonprofits through donations, sponsorships, and volunteerism. Others like Semper Solaris use equipment made in America or hire veterans. Look for information on these types of activities on the “About Us” page of a company’s website.

Comparing solar companies based on home integration

Many solar providers now offer related services like cloud-based monitoring platforms, battery storage, and smart home integration.

Monitoring. At a minimum, a monitoring service will track your system’s output. Most will also record your home’s energy usage. In some cases, you’ll need to access the data over the Internet, while other companies offer mobile apps.

Battery Storage. A battery will store the excess energy your system generates during the day, then release it during grid outages. When the grid shuts down during a storm or high-demand event, you’ll stay up and running for hours on clean, renewable power.

Smart Home. A handful of companies even integrate solar power with smart home technology. This allows you to power your home with solar and automate energy management at the same time. You can set up your preferences for heating, air conditioning, lighting, and security for different times of the day, and the smart home system will automatically control those conditions. Using smart home technology can maximize your energy savings and minimize your utility bills.

Comparing solar companies based on aesthetics and home appeal

While traditional solar panels have a black-and-white “checkerboard” appearance, some manufacturers now make sleek, all-black panels designed to blend in and maintain your home’s curb appeal. A few companies have also designed low-profile mounting systems that sit nearly flush with roof surfaces. If aesthetics are important to you, check out the photos on the company’s website, or ask about the appearance of the equipment.

Next, compare offers from multiple companies

Once you’ve narrowed your list down to a handful of companies, it’s time to shop around for the best deal. Some installers provide estimate calculators on their websites—especially the larger ones. These companies typically use satellite imagery of your roof to develop an estimate. You’ll generally need to enter an amount for your average electric bill, so be sure to have that information handy. You may need to email or call other installers.

Web-based estimates are only a first step. For the most accurate quote, a technician will need to visit your home, assess your site, examine your recent electric bills, and discuss your energy goals. Be sure to get formal quotes and actual agreement terms on paper from a few different companies before making a final decision.

Solar Tribune’s Quote Generator will give you multiple quotes from local installers, based on your zip code and monthly electric bill.