How will a PV system change your life?
Unless you are experienced with wiring and construction, you’ll probably opt for professional installation of your home solar electric system. That will save you time and trouble, but you’ll still need to manage the home solar installation process and take care of the system once it’s installed. Here’s what you need to know to do both effectively.
Choosing a Home Solar Installation Professional
If hiring an installer, it’s a good idea to get proposals from at least three companies. Be sure to ask the following:
- Does the solar professional have experience designing and installing the type of system you want? If you are in the market for a photovoltaic system, for example, don’t hire a contractor who has only installed solar hot water systems.
- How many years has the contractor has been in the solar business and how many installations have they done? Solar is booming in many parts of the country; be cautious about hiring a newbie contractor.
- Is the contractor licensed? Some states require that solar contractors to have special licenses; check with the contractors’ license board in your state about requirements.
- What specific services will the solar contractor provide? Most offer a “turnkey” service: they’ll analyze your site and energy needs, design an appropriate system, procure the equipment and materials, handle the utility company and rebate paperwork, obtain any necessary permits, and install the system.
- Are the bids you received based on the same type and size system? Bids should also include all costs associated with buying and installing the system, including hardware, installation, permits, and grid connection. The bids should state the expected energy output in kilowatt-hours.
For general advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our “What to Ask Your Contractor” article.
What to Expect from the Proposal
When you first contact solar professionals, they’ll probably ask a few questions over the phone to assess whether a PV system is feasible for your site. They’ll ask for your address so they can look at your property on an online aerial map to see if shade might be a problem. And they’ll want to know how much electricity you used over the past 12 months. You might want to pull out your electricity bills ahead of time or get copies from your utility company if you don’t keep them on hand. You can often access these bills online.
If your site looks promising for solar, a salesperson will come to your house to physically evaluate your site. They have tools and software that they use to create a solar map showing how much sun the site receives at any time of day throughout the year. This allows them to figure out the best spot for a solar array and how big a system you need. Systems are usually installed on the roof, but if your roof doesn’t get enough sun, they’ll look for sunny spots elsewhere on your property.
Based on the site evaluation, the company should provide you with a detailed proposal that will include
- Site survey results. This should describe the recommended location, solar orientation, and mounting angle for the PV modules to give them the best solar access for maximum energy production. The proposal may include digital photos and a site plan marked with the proposed mounting location. It should also describe the conditions at the proposed installation location, and how the panels will be mounted. If the solar contractor anticipates conditions that might hinder installation, such as signs of roof deterioration, these should be spelled out in the proposal.
- Electricity use analysis. The salesperson will talk with you about what portion of your electricity use you want to offset with a PV system and whether you anticipate any major changes in your electricity use (up or down) in the coming years. Based on that information and the site survey results, the proposal will recommend a specific system size and configuration.
- Proposed system.The proposal should describe in detail the recommended systemand configuration. This includes
- Components to be used, including brand names and model numbers of the PV modules and inverters (and batteries, if applicable)
- Where the components will be located
- Where the wiring will be run
- How the modules will be mounted to the roof (or ground, if applicable)
- Gross system cost including all components and labor, and net system cost after deducting eligible federal, state or local rebates or other incentives
- Estimated annual energy production of the solar system in kilowatt-hours(kWh)
- Projected energy costs and savings with the solar system
- Warranty information
If you approve the proposal, the contractor will ask for a deposit and your signature on a detailed contract.
Want a rough idea of how much the home solar panels are likely to cost you? Just answer a few simple questions about where you live and how much you currently spend on electricity and the Solar Savings Calculator provided by Cooler Planet can give you a great estimate for what your home solar installation will cost. Of course each situation is a little different but this calculator will allow you to properly set your expectations.
What to Expect During the Installation Process
For a typical residential system, the installation process takes two to five days. But keep in mind that the entire process, from when you sign the contract to when your system starts turning your electricity meter backwards, may take a few months. That’s because the contractor has to obtain permits, get incentives or rebates approved, and have the system inspected once it is installed.
During the installation process, the contractor’s crew will need access to the areas where the panels and other components will be installed and electricity meter is located. They will be running wiring between the components and will have the power off at your home now and then during the installation process.
If you have an older analog electricity meter, your utility company may replace it with a new digital meter. If there is a charge for meter replacement, this should be spelled out in the proposal.
Depending on local requirements, after the system is installed, the contractor may need to have it inspected by the utility company, building department, or both before you can start using it.
Lifespan, Warranties, and Maintenance
Expect PV modules to last 20 to 30 years. The inverter, which converts a PV system’s direct current to the alternating current you use in your house, is likely to have a 10-year warranty. If your system has batteries to store the energy you’ve collected from the sun (most don’t because of the expense), expect them to last seven to ten years. Make sure all the warranty information is spelled out in the sales proposal and in the contract you sign.
PV systems have no moving parts and are built to last a long time, so maintenance is no big deal. Hose down the modules a couple of times a year to get rid of dust and bird droppings. If you live in an area that gets very little rain, it’s a good idea to do this more frequently. Solar modules are quite tough and designed to withstand extreme weather conditions. They won’t produce electricity if they’re covered with snow, but since they’re typically mounted at an angle in a sunny area, the snow melts and slides off easily.
Solar electric systems won’t generate electricity if they’re shaded. Keep nearby trees trimmed and don’t plant new trees where they might grow up to shade the panels.
Because PV panels last a long time, it’s possible your roof may need replacement before the system reaches the end of its life. Typical residential PV systems are modular: the panels can be disconnected, unbolted from the mounting racks, and reinstalled after the roof is replaced.