This is the first in a three-part series on ways to save money while going solar.
Most of us would agree that solar is the way to go when it comes to powering our homes, even if we haven’t yet taken the steps to do that. The savings are significant, with a recent article in the Boston Globe revealing that a Massachusetts family saw its winter power bill drop from about $500 to $110 per month due to the addition of solar panels.
But some of us shy away from going solar because of the start-up costs. Even if you know how to do the installation, pre-made solar panels, wind turbines, solar air heaters and solar water heaters can be expensive.
Following are some tips for those who have decided to go solar but who want to do it at discounted prices. Today, I’ll focus on purchasing a manufactured solar panel system from a solar dealer. In future articles, we’ll get into buying your components wholesale and having a contractor install them, as well as buying your system wholesale and installing it yourself.
Buying A Manufactured System
When you hire a reputable solar dealer, the main advantage is that the dealer will do all the work. Of course, this will cost you more than the do-it-yourself route; but it may end up providing you with the most professionally installed system with some good guarantees.
First of all, it’s very important to interview several solar dealers in your area. The first one you speak with may seem great; but by interviewing four or five, you might find one you like better. The more dealers you speak with, the more you’ll learn about the solar industry, which will help in your eventual decision making.
Resources for finding a solar dealer include:
Make sure that your solar dealer has earned an Installer Certification from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners. This challenging exam requires both considerable knowledge and field experience to pass.
On-site consultations usually last an hour or less, and some dealers with larger firms may say they’d prefer to handle it over the phone. Don’t get turned off by a dealer who wants to do a phone-only interview the first time, as the dealer will probably be looking at Google images of your house while talking with you and may be able to provide a lower price due to the volume of business.
You may learn something valuable during these interviews, most importantly whether your house is even suitable for solar installation. Most houses are; but if your house is shaded much of the year, it might not be right for solar panels.
Among the things you should look for when communicating with a solar dealer and his staff are their professionalism and what kind of experience they have in your city or county.
The best dealers usually have the most knowledgeable sales staffs. If they seem like they either can’t or don’t want to answer your questions, move on to the next one. Experienced dealers will know, for example, that certain inverters match up better with certain PV panels, which may match better with your roof layout. They’ll know which solar panes perform better with low light than others do, or in hotter temperatures.
Because each city and county has its own unique set of codes and permit requirements, a solar dealer who has already done work in your area will be able to get through the process faster than one who hasn’t. You don’t want to be part of their learning curve.
You can also check out a solar dealer with your local Better Business Bureau, and ask him for references from previous clients.
It’s OK if a dealer has a couple of “resolved complaints,” as nobody is perfect. But if there are numerous negative reports or “unresolved complaints” about a dealer, you should probably look elsewhere.
The recommendation here is to call at least two of the references you’re given by each dealer. Ask them detailed questions, including:
- Was the installation on time?
- Were there any unexpected delays in the process?
- Did you have any complaints and were they dealt with properly?
Because you will probably only be given the names of satisfied customers, spend a few hours driving around town looking for the company’s signs in yards and then ring a few doorbells to learn what their experience was with that company.
Follow up your dealer interviews by asking two or three of them to prepare a bid for you. Don’t just automatically take the lowest bid. You might not always be comparing apples to apples, and a careful examination of the bids might reveal some inconsistencies in pricing, installation and warranties. Request a “not to exceed” proposal that will protect you from extra costs should there be installation problems.
When you’re closing in on your final decision, use these negotiating tips to maximize your discounts:
- If your roof is easily accessible from a second story window, you may be able to save on installation time and costs.
- If you can get a neighbor to work with the same dealer, there may be some savings due to reduced travel time for the dealer.
- If you are flexible with your installation time, a dealer may reduce the price to do it a few weeks down the line if he’s busy, rather than right away.
- If you like a particular dealer but want him to come down a little on price, show him a lower bid from a competitor.
- Ask the dealer if he offers referral fees. If so, let friends, family and neighbors know about your system and the savings you’re anticipating.
Regarding warranties, try for 10 years and settle for five if necessary. And make sure you run your contract by a lawyer.
Going solar is the way to go, but be a smart shopper along the way.