Solar panels aren’t exactly cheap. Their price versus performance has significantly improved in the past few years, but they’re still not an investment that should be taken lightly.
While generally less expensive than a SUV, solar panels can last much longer. So making sure that you make a good purchase is absolutely critical.
The following is a list of questions – and the thought process behind them – to help you towards realizing the most benefit from your investment.
Solar Panels: Questions To Ask Yourself
Understanding what you want will help you greatly when it comes to shopping for a home-power system. And with the options in solar energy being so dynamic, it will really be to your benefit to narrow in on what best fits you.
- What do I want these panels to do? – For the newcomer, there are two basic types of solar for the average home; Grid-Tied and Off-Grid.
What a shopper might find interesting is that both of these will often employ the exact same solar panels. However, the hardware controlling these panels will be different and thusly, the behavior of your power system will be different as well.
Understanding the specific nuances of these two different types of solar power, may take a little time. But it can be boiled down to two different concepts.
A) Do I want little to no utility costs? – In this case a Grid-Tied system would probably be ideal.
B) Do I want energy independence? – In this case a stand-alone Off-Grid system should be considered.
At the time of this writing, the overwhelming majority of panel owners are Grid-Tied (meaning they are physically connected to the power grid). This has very definite pros and cons. However, technology is always moving forward and what is normal for today might not be the option of choice tomorrow.
The house we currently live in is Off-Grid (meaning we have no physical connection to the electric utility). We provide 100% of our electricity and, thusly, are not subject to any issues involving the grid.
This type of technology has only recently come available for normal home use – previously limited to small cottages, tiny homes, ect. But as mentioned before, technology never stands still and it is very likely that as things continue to improve, more and more people will choose to provide their own power rather then rely on a utility.
For more on this, please read, ‘Off-Grid Vs. Grid-Tied Solar: Things That Might Surprise You’.
- Am I allowed to install solar panels? – One of the biggest surprises for solar shoppers is the legal challenges that can get in your way. If you choose a Grid-Tied system, then it must be understood that you are utilizing the infrastructure of a utility and are subject to their management.
With solar panels connected to the grid, the utility retains the right to deny you use of your solar panels at any time. This includes denying you the initial hook-up or later, insisting that you disconnect your panels, even after years of use.
It would be prudent for anyone considering an investment in solar to clarify this with their local utility well in advance.
Depending on your situation, there may also be issues with a local ordinance or a homeowners association.
- How long do I plan to live at this location? – Solar panels can be a sizable investment; one that generally doesn’t move with you should you choose to relocate. It would be wise to consider just how long you plan to live at said location, otherwise you run the risk of spending the money only to never see a full return on investment.
So how long does it take to see a ROI for solar panels?
Every solar install has its own unique variables and these variables govern how long it will take you to save enough to cover aquisition costs. Some installs can see a return on investment in as little as 5 years. Others can take much longer.
A prudent shopper will research how much power the array of choice will cost and compare that to their personal electrical expense. By doing this, a fair guesstimate for ROI can be found.
Solar Panels: Questions To Ask An Installer
As someone who has personally been through this, I can tell you there are a LOT of unqualified yahoo’s in the business.
They know the lingo and talk a big game, but are not destined to make it in the long run.
I believe this is largely due to the high demand for solar. In other markets where competition between providers is heavier, the less business savvy individuals are weeded out.
The purpose of the following questions is to help you test the viability of a solar ‘professional’.
- How many installs have you done in the last 3 years? – Solar technology is incredibly dynamic. To put that into perspective, using the same budget we had in 2015, we could purchase a system today with twice the energy production (16kW vs. 7.8kW) and more than twice for energy storage (26kW vs. 12kW).
This is vital to understand as you will very likely meet with installers with a wide range of experience.
In our case, we met with installers on both sides of the experience spectrum – neither of which we felt were qualified.
With regards to the newcomer, just out of school, he had a high degree of passion and was fully up to date on technology trends. However, his lack of experience prevented him from questioning new and unproven technologies.
An appropriately seasoned professional will recognize potential issues with untested technologies/manufacturers and should urge you towards something or someone with a proven track record.
By comparison, I also spent time working with a solar professional who boasted 20 years experience. And while he was able to share many different solar stories, after a while, it was clear that his expertise was fixed on past technology.
I had no doubt that he would have been a great help on a home power system that was 10+ years old. But I did not feel confident that he was the right choice for what was current on the solar market.
For this reason, I recommend potential shoppers look closely at what a solar installer has done over the last 3 to 5 years, rather than any college degree or work from a decade past.
- How many panels do I need? – This is another great way to test where your potential installer is at.
I have found that there are two kinds of installers working today. The first type of installer is focused on the packages that they have. The second type of installer is focused on you.
A good way to know what type of installer you are speaking to is by how they answer this question.
There is nothing wrong with a generic ballpark answer like ‘7kW will cover the average American home.’ But, if nowhere in the conversation do you hear the term ‘whole house-load’, then understand they might not be fully focused on you and your personal situation.
This is important because, even in homes with identical appliances, individual behavior will impact electrical consumption.
And any experienced solar installer will know this implicitly.
A solar installer that is truly focused on you, will have to know just how much electricity you are using before they can design a system that meets your needs.
## Note ##
For more on ‘house-load’ please read, ‘How To Build A Solar Powered House’.
- How long before ROI? – This is a very common, but very loaded, question.
For the majority of solar shoppers, the ability to save money on your electric bill is very appealing. So much so, that it might seem odd not to ask this question.
But as was mentioned above, electrical consumption will vary not only from user to user, but from house to house as well. For this reason, it is impossible to know, with any certainty, just how long it will take for your panels to pay for themselves.
Be wary of any salesman that promotes savings without a healthy dose of reality.
- What happens if my property is damaged during install? – This question needs little explanation.
Any viable solar installer will have the proper licensing and insurance to perform their service in your exact location. If they don’t or if they have had a bad experience, you will probably see it in their response.
I implore you not to choose a questionable solar installer over another just because of price. Doing so might cost you much MUCH more than any initial savings.
- Can you provide references? – Beyond any doubt, the best thing I did when shopping for a home-power system was following through on references.
So if you get anything from this entire article, please let it be – MEET WITH PRIOR CUSTOMERS!
One of the seven companies that I approached for our home-power system, provided a retired couple as reference.
For the record, meeting with Wayne and Karen was an absolute blessing and the beginning of a friendship that lasts to this day.
But I will never forget Karen’s response when I inquired about their installer.
“He’s a scatter-brain,” (and yes, those were her exact words).
I must admit, her brash response caught me off guard. But as time moved forward, I found that her assessment was spot on. So much so, that in the end, we went with a different company.
Prior customers are homeowners, just like you. And I have found that they will tell you things that your potential installer will not.
For this reason, the value of talking to references can not be understated. Not only will they be an experienced asset in your new solar network, but the input they give may save you from a costly mistake.
Solar Panels: Questions That Make You Look Good
After your instincts have found a salesperson agreeable, there are questions you can ask that will let your potential installer know that you have done your homework.
- Ground Mount Vs. Roof Mount – Not every location will be conducive enough to provide the homeowner with a choice. But for those who have the space, you have the option of using a ground mount for your solar array.
There will be some sort of additional cost for this, but asking your potential installer to go over the advantages or the disadvantages of a ground mount is a good way to learn more about them as a company.
- How do I know if my roof can support it? – The overwhelming majority of home solar arrays are roof mounted. However, it should not be assumed that the roof of your home is ideal for this arrangement.
As building codes vary from location to location, it would be wise to see ‘in writing’ what the specific requirements are for your area. (This will also give you the opportunity to establish email communication for further questions).
- Is my location ideal for solar power? – While panel performance continues to improve, it should be understood that solar panels work best in direct sunlight and should be oriented true south whenever possible.
Not every situation will be conducive to these two important requirements. In the case of sunlight obstruction, such as a heavily wooded lot, trees might have to be removed in order to optimize power production.
In the case of a roof mounted system that is facing east or west, additional panels may be needed for you to achieve your power production goals.
A qualified solar installer will be able to assess your site and make the necessary recommendations. (A preliminary evaluation can be easily done with Google Maps).
- How much will it cost? – It is my opinion that while this question is clearly important as it donates a certain seriousness from you about your endeavor to obtain solar panels, it is probably best to ask it later in the conversation. Doing so too early, may trigger a sales speel, that blocks relaxed conversation.
- Lease Vs. Purchase – With demand for solar being so high, there is a wide range of options when it comes to obtaining said product.
Generally, the smaller installers will offer purchase only, with leasing being the domain of large scale companies and sometimes the utility itself. Inquiring about this can lead to the question of financing, should you choose to go that route.
For anyone who is considering solar panels, know that there are plenty of folks out there who are eager to share their personal solar experiences with you.
For this reason, I highly recommend you find a forum focused on home solar.
Some of these members will be in different states and some of them will have absolutely incredible stories. But whether they have a small array that is Grid-Tied or an executive estate with Off-Grid power, they all have a shared passion – power from the sun!
Finding a network of like-minded individuals will benefit you tremendously!