Getting the Most Out of Solar Panels

Written by Scott Oman, South Coast Solar
Updated July 30, 2015
Solar panels on top of a house
Proper installation is critical in maximizing your solar investment. (Photo courtesy of US Department of Energy)

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The concept of powering our homes with the sun’s radiant energy is nothing new, but recent developments have led to massive growth in the residential solar installation business. Contributing factors include a steep decline in the cost of solar panels and new financing options that help defray the upfront cost of “going solar.”

The savings solar panels can provide are real, despite the fact that equipment and installation can require a sizable upfront investment. Don’t miss out by letting the costs discourage you from considering solar energy. 

Generating your own electricity with solar panels acts as a hedge against utility rate increases by letting you lock in a fixed rate for your solar generation for 25 years or longer. The savings add up, and the cumulative value of your homegrown energy could be two or three times the upfront cost of equipment and installation.

Are Slar Panels Right for Your Home?

It should come as no surprise that the boom in residential solar installation has created a multitude of contractors looking to cash in on a growing trend. As with home improvement, there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, and getting the most for your money requires making sure things get done right. 

Aside from the obvious things like making sure the panels are installed in direct sunlight and not under a tree, here are some things to consider based on my experience from selling and installing more than 500 solar power systems for homeowners, businesses and government.

What to look for in a solar installer

1. Honesty 

Does the contractor provide a guarantee on their work? Do they guarantee the energy production in kilowatt-hours? Inflated savings estimates are a common tactic used in solar sales, so make sure you receive a third-party model such as a PV Watts analysis, and insist they guarantee the touted savings in writing along with a clearly defined method for determining if the system is meeting the stated goals. 

2. Integrity

Can they provide references from satisfied customers and positive ratings from websites like Angie’s List and the Better Business Bureau? Do they have solar power on their home or business?

3. Experience

Is your contractor licensed and insured? Can they provide evidence of their experience through case studies and photos of prior work? Did they receive training through a nationally recognized provider? Are they certified by a national board such as NABCEP or Underwriters Labs?

How to choose the best solar equipment

1. Solar panels

Insist on panels manufactured by an established company with a proven track record. Solar panels should be UL listed. Certain locations may indicate a need for additional certifications, such as testing for performance in high humidity environments or for exposure to salt-spray in coastal areas. 

Panels used around agriculture should have certifications for exposure to ammonia. Panels are designed to be mounted a certain way, so make sure your contract states that they will be installed in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions. 

The phrase “you get what you pay for” holds true here, and if a particular solar panel seems far cheaper than others, it could indicate a problem that might only become apparent years later.

2. Roof attachments and racking 

The mounting system for your panels is important in that it protects your roof from leaks and keeps things in place when it’s windy. Require that your installer use a flashed mounting system and stainless steel hardware. Additionally, put in writing that everything will be installed according to manufacturer’s specifications and to the maximum design wind speed required in your area. 

3. Electrical components and wiring

Poor installation practices can result in decreased energy yields and may even create fire or life safety hazards. Require in writing that all work be performed by a licensed electrician and in accordance with the National Electrical Code

Components should be clearly labeled with instructions for future electricians who may not be experienced with solar equipment. Wiring and conduit should be tidy, and all solar panel wiring should be out of direct sunlight. No wires should be seen dangling. Try to inspect the work before the panels go up, and if things look sloppy, demand that the workmanship be addressed.

A little research and attention will go a long way towards helping you and your families reap the rewards of our transition to a clean energy future.

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About this Angie’s List Expert: Scott Oman is the CTO of South Coast Solar, providing solar panels in New Orleans. Since 2007, South Coast Solar has specialized in installation of solar electric panels and renewable energy systems. You can follow this #ALExperts contributor on Twitter @SouthCoastSolar and Google Plus.

As of July 30, 2015, this service provider was highly rated on Angie's List. Ratings are subject to change based on consumer feedback, so check Angie's List for the most up-to-date reviews. The views expressed by this author do not necessarily reflect those of Angie's List.

Editor's note: This is an updated version of an article originally posted on December 6, 2013.

Have you purchased a solar panel system for your home or business? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

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