You might have heard about a solar co-op coming to your town. These community solar projects promise to bring you lower costs and peace of mind when making a solar panel purchase for your home or business. They can often deliver on those promises, but it’s important that the right questions get asked.
The way these programs work is that an organization sets up a framework for co-op members to evaluate and screen prospective solar contractors that are interested in providing their services to co-op members. There is usually a single selected contractor. The co-op members screen contractors, evaluate proposals, and sometimes interview the contractors in person.
But what is the number one question you should be asking your solar co-op?
There are obvious questions like material quality, price, and workmanship. But guess what… many times the co-op members select an out of town contractor, often due to price or unreasonable warranty offers. And then guess what happens when co-op members actually need service after the installation? Delays, unresponsiveness, and flat out denial of responsibility.
Selecting a local contractor is absolutely critical. If you are unable to get your original installer to service your system, you will need to find someone else to do so. And solar contractors are notoriously hesitant to touch others’ work. The #1 question to ask is: Where is the contractor located and how can they be reasonably expected to provide service after the sale?
You might be thinking that surely the co-op members will select a reputable company that will stand by their work. But the industry is full of fly-by-night companies, new contractors, and sales outfits chasing tax credits. That is no small matter since the Federal Tax Credit is likely to go away, as current law has it expiring after 2021 for residential projects. Many contractors will go out of business and chase the next shiny object. You have to ask whether your contractor is in it for the long haul.
Sage Advice for Anyone Going Solar
This advice isn’t necessarily for co-op shoppers only. If you are considering an investment in solar panels, I’m the guy that people call when their original contractor is unresponsive, in the wind, or out of business. It happens all the time.
If your co-op is lucky enough to select a reputable contractor that will be around for a while, there may be nothing wrong with selecting that contractor. But there is nothing to stop you from soliciting quotes from other contractors. You will find that others may match the co-op pricing, or even beat it. That’s possible because they don’t need to pay the co-op organizer a fee that is often required for all installations (depending on organizer).
The co-op won’t help you down the road if the selected contractor goes out of business, or simply refuses to fulfill their obligations.
It really comes down to common sense. If the co-op contractor has no real business presence in your local area, they won’t maintain staff in the area. They will likely complete dozens of installations during the brief co-op program. Then they will go back to their home office and look for the next opportunity.
Are they really going to drive from hours away to diagnose problems and make warranty or non-warranty repairs?
And are you going to drive hours to their office to walk in and demand answers?
Do they even have an office – a stable office that is staffed during regular business hours?
Along the same lines… who is actually going to complete the work? Is an out of town contractor going to hire new guys in your area? Are they going to truck over their regular staff? If so, how are they going to provide their regular service back at home? That should make you wonder.
Solar panel installations are intensive, time-consuming jobs. They require follow through with inspections, interconnection agreements, monitoring system setup, and post-installation follow up. Who is going to do that? What if you have questions? It’s not just about slapping up some solar panels and flipping a switch. Dedicated local staff are necessary for a good customer experience.
The Buck Stops Here
Solar contracting companies (and all trade contractors) are required to have a “qualifier.” The qualifier is the licensed individual that is responsible for all work the company does. If something goes wrong, the qualifier is liable for it. Their license is on the line.
Does it make sense to hire a solar contractor that may never set foot in your town, much less on your property? Sadly, that is the reality with programs like this when an out of town contractor is selected. Will you know the name of the individual responsible? Can you talk to them? Will they do you the courtesy of meeting with you before, during, and/or after the installation? Doubtful – especially if they are from out of town.
Ask yourself – are you asking the right questions?