By Jennifer Lubell

Micah Breeden, chief financial officer with Allterra Solar in Santa Cruz, Calif., walks through the basic questions any potential solar owner should ask an installation company about their credentials and the job itself.

What’s your experience?

Homeowners should find how long the installer has been in business, how many installations they have performed and how much of their work comes from referrals. If this is 50 percent or higher, and the company been around a long time, that’s a sign that it treats customers well and performs good work. “A low referral rate will mean poor customer experience,” Breeden advised.

Details about employees are key: how long have the project supervisor and installers been with the company and does it subcontract any of the project’s work scopes? “Companies that do not subcontract, and have long-tenured employees will most likely have employees that are taken care of and treated well, and thus take pride in their work and do quality work,” he said.

What should I know about the installation process?

Any good contractor should tell you about the make and model of the equipment. This includes information about solar panels, inverters and roof mounts. Installers should always use a trusted industry brand like Quick Mount for the roof. All of this information should be clearly outlined on the contract.

Ask about the time frame of the job – it usually takes anywhere from six to 10 weeks from sign up to installation. Beware of jobs that get done too quickly; according to Breeden, if a company quotes a very short time frame to installation, it may mean that it doesn’t get much work.

Lastly, find out if the company is installing a monitoring system. This is a way for you to track system performance via an app or online.

What will take place after installation?

Find out how the contractor will handle the end of the project and what its service plan is after installation. “If one offers a free site visit to determine the issue versus another charging $150, that is definitely worth knowing,” Breeden advised.

Will the installer leave you with any instructions on how the solar system operates or how billing works with the utility company? Many contractors just give you a folder of documents and walk away. “Solar is complicated and it is in the best interests of the homeowner to have a full understanding of everything involved,” he said.

Should something go wrong with the solar system post installation, any contractor worth hiring will handle the manufacturer’s warranty claim.

What does the warranty cover?

Homeowners should get all of the details about the warranty, including what it says about roof damage or leaks incurred during installation.

“Some panels have 10-year product and 25-year performance warranties [referred to as 10/25], while some have 15/25, or 25/25. Same thing with the inverters,” Breeden explained. The product warranty covers any defects in parts and/or manufacturing. “So, if the soldering on the cell connections within the panel fail, this would be covered for example,” he said.

The performance warranty covers the performance of the solar panel. At a minimum, an installer should have a 10-year warranty on the penetrations it performs. Some manufacturers include replacement labor and others do not. Always compare the equipment that different contractors offer, and their respective warranties.

Extra tip:

To choose the best contractor for the job, homeowners can compare the “price per watt” from contractor to contractor. (e.g. $20,000/5,000 watts = $4.00/watt). Factors such as big box brands and type of equipment all play into this number, so lower is not always better. However, this can be a good tool when comparing proposals for different-sized systems.

SolarStory has analyzed the installation rates and prices offered by providers in your area to help you find the right installer for your solar system. Get started by entering your location here.