The price of solar panels is down. It’s fallen by more than 75 percent since 2009, according to prominent environmentalist Bill McKibben. This drop reflects increased efficiency, both in the manufacturing process and in the panels themselves. Still, the initial cost of buying and installing a full system, including panels and supporting parts, can be a steep investment for most consumers. That’s why our team spent weeks researching the best manufacturers and installers to make going solar and doing your part for the environment a lot more affordable.
How to Pick the right manufacturer (and its best solar panel).
Consider these four key factors when searching for a solar panel manufacturer:
1. Longevity. In this new, and rapidly evolving industry, companies can come and go before your warranty has a chance to run its course. Look for manufacturers that have been around for at least ten years and seem likely to stick around even longer.
2. Power. Your roof only has so much space, and not all of it will face the right direction, or have the right angle or exposure to accommodate solar panels. Having fewer, more powerful panels will maximize your roof space and lower your installation costs. Go for panels that pull in at least 230 watts each.
3. Efficiency. Again you’ll want fewer, more powerful panels. The magic number here is at least 16.5 percent — it’s the average efficiency rating of the best solar panels, so scoring even higher means your panel is doing its job pretty well. (Efficiency is a measure of the power output in relation to the panel’s surface area and power input from the sun.)
4. Customer service. Hopefully, you’ll only ever need to contact your installer, not your manufacturer. But if your installer happens to go out of business, the only way you’ll be able to take advantage of your warranty will be through your manufacturer. The manufacturer’s website should be easy to navigate, and it should have a way for you to call or email.
If you find a manufacturer that checks off all your boxes, call to find its preferred installer in your area.
Then, find the right installer. The biggest lesson: Call for a quote.
Here’s what to look for when you call:
- Customer service. If you’re not getting great customer service now, imagine what it will be like to deal with this same company for the next (and far less lucrative) 25 years.
- Warranty. Look for 25year warranties for panels, inverter, and labor. If you don’t have to replace your inverter before your panels, you’ll have one less thing to worry about.
- Guarantee credit. Some installers will pay you per kilowatthour if your panels fall below their promised production rate. Keep an eye out for this and ask how the production rate will be tracked.
- Location. It’s best to go local, according to solar developer Tom Kacandes. “Find a locally based business with a real person as the owner if at all possible — they are the best people to work for or buy from in my opinion,” he says. “Buying solar from a local business primarily means that the person who makes the ultimate decisions is accessible to you and accountable to you, or at least they should be. I think it is much harder for a regional manager in a big company to make hard decisions when their bosses are just pushing sales and cost goals down on them.”
- References. “Choose a reputable installer who readily makes referrals available upon request,” says Kacandes. “And you want a number of referrals, not their top happy customer and no one else. It’s worth talking to the folks they’ve referred even if it is not a guarantee that your result will be equally good. You can also run the name of an installer you like the sound of past your local building inspector. They usually won’t bad mouth anyone, but if they suggest you get more quotes, pay attention!”
- Certifications and licenses. “When I go to look for an installer, what I choose will depend on which route I want to go (e.g., buy, lease, PPA), but I will confirm the specific installer person doing the work on my roof is certified (by CanSIA) or, at the very least, could demonstrate quality training and competency based on qualifications set forth by a credible organization,” says Theresa Nahan, an independent communications specialist focusing on energy efficiency and renewable energy.
- Consumer reviews. Nahan says it’s worth the investment to check with Angie’s List: “I would also pony up for the services of a consumer review or advocacy organization and ensure the company/installer has good reviews.”
The Bottom Line
Remember: buying your panels is not the only way to go solar. Lease or enter a power purchase agreement and you can get still score major savings without any initial investment. To find the best option for you, get a handful of quotes and run the numbers. For more information, including pricing options and our recommendations visit: http://www.thesimpledollar.com/bestsolarpanels/