“Is your license current? and Is it the right license for the work?” Licensing requirements change from state to state. A quick call to the local chapter of a national solar industry organization should let you know what kind of license is valid for a contractor to be able to install solar. You can find the contact information of your local chapter by checking out the webpages of the American Solar Energy Society or Solar Energy Industries Association. In Washington State, you are required to be a licensed electrical contractor to even advertise that you install solar in the state. You check the Labor & Industries website to see if your contractor is listed. You can see an example of ours here. “How much insurance do you currently carry?” Washington state mandates the minimum level of insurance of $250,000. More established contractors will often have higher levels. For instance, we carry a $2,000,000 policy, and for some projects that amount may go higher. A good insurance agent can give a contractor a valid certificate of insurance in less than 24 hours. We maintain a current certificate that we can show to clients during our sales process. Ask if there are any current claims against the insurance that might affect you as one of their customers. “What does your warranty cover and for how long?” We are happy to volunteer the language of our craftsmanship warranty. Many contractors point to the manufacturers’ warranties of the materials without talking about how their own work might (or might not) be covered. Solar warranties can be complex. Ask your contractor what warranties will be in place, and what protections each warranty gives you. “Do you have any other guarantees in place?” Many solar contractors might offer additional guarantees to help set them apart from the competition. Additional guarantees might be fixed price bids, guaranteed production, or installation dates. Consider the value of the guarantee when comparing prices between contractors; even if that value is peace of mind. “How long have you been installing solar in my climate?” There are a lot of people becoming solar contractors that do not understand how roofs, home construction, and electrical systems need to interact to have a long living installation. Because someone has experience installing in Arizona doesn’t mean they understand the rain mitigation strategies of the coastal Pacific Northwest or snow loads of the Cascades. Find someone that has experience working in your climate. “Are you familiar with the building and electrical codes and HOA restrictions for my area?” In the solar industry, there is a lack of nation- and even state-wide standards. Electrical and building codes change depending on your city, county, state, and utility. The last thing you want to do is invest a lot of time and money only to find out that your installation doesn’t meet the required codes, or that there are (sometimes enormous) additional fees you didn’t know about. Be aware though that codes can change over night, and many jurisdictions have the habit of not telling anyone until you show up to buy a permit. If you have one, talk with your Home Owners Association (HOA) to make sure there aren’t requirements that are not public knowledge. Many solar contractors can help you speak with your HOA in order to get your system approved to their standards. The Revised Code of Washington prohibits an HOA from outright banning the installation of solar panels, but they may have other requirements for your system. “What 3rd party certifications do you and your business have?” The most common certification in the solar industry is the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) certification which requires previous solar installation experience and passing a rigorous test to become certified. There are other certifications like Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL) PV certification, and the RISE certification that are gaining popularity. A 3rd party certification doesn’t guarantee quality, but it can help you rank contractors. “Do you sub-contract any of the work?” While using sub-contractors should not disqualify a contractor from earning your business, you will want to know more about what portions of the work are subbed out, and how long of a relationship your contractor and their sub have, and what kind of quality control processes are in place. “Can I speak to a list of references?” Any self-respecting contractor will have a list of references handy if you ask, if they haven’t already volunteered a list for you. “Do you qualify for all of the incentives available to me?” In some areas, you have to work with a certified or verified contractor in order to receive all of the utility, municipal, and state incentives. Make sure your contractor is qualified to provide these incentives if you live in such an area. Choosing a contractor is always a hard decision. Add “new” technologies like solar into the mix, and things can get downright stressful. The important thing to do, is take your time, and talk to more than one contractor. Your system will likely have a lifetime of 30+ years. Make sure you choose someone that you want to have a long working relationship with; not just someone who gives you the lowest price. If you’re looking for more good solar contractor criteria check out Solar Washington’s comprehensive list.
In our business, solar energy business, talking politics can get you into as much trouble as talking religion. The Energy Industry (including fossils) is deeply intertwined with politics. You never know just where someone leans politically. Everyone comes to install solar for their home or business for every conceivable reason. It’s one of the things that makes working in solar so fulfilling. You meet incredible people, doing incredible things, because they believe. They believe it’s a good investment, good for the environment, good to decentralize power, good for this and good for that. The problem is that politics does not always follow public opinion about solar. Politics and political support can change on a whim. It’s an exciting time to be in the solar business. Really, it always has been, but there’s this little saying you may have heard “May you live in interesting times.” The solar business hasn’t been called the “Solar Coaster” for nothing. We’ve weathered incredible ups and downs, and we still have big fights a head of us to be able to mature as an industry. Solar is a disruptive technology. It’s shifting power from a traditionally centralized architecture, to a highly distributed model. It’s going to take a lot of innovation to get solar from where it is today to something as ubiquitous as a computer or a cell phone. But it’s already happening. Yesterday morning I had the pleasure of listening to a brief talk by Rocky Mountain Institute CEO Jules Kortenhorst at the CleanTech Annual Meeting. I’m reading everything RMI puts out these days. If you want to follow thought leaders in the future of energy, this is the group to follow. 2011, RMI published Reinventing Fire. It is a bold look at the near future where Distributed Energy Resources (DER), like solar and efficiency, reshape the energy landscape. The people in the room with me yesterday morning are working towards making that future a reality. We’re not working in cleantech because of some overarching vision handed down to us, but because each of us, for our own reasons, are trying to move to a future filled with hope. A hope that we can find a way we can live our lives that renews and reinvigorates the environment and the economy. Often people get together at an event like the annual meeting to make connections, find investors, or friends. To me it’s a chance to take a break from working in the trenches and see what’s happening in the outside world. What I see happening out there are lots of brilliant people working to make energy production and consumption more democratic. To put more power into the hands of more people. It is a wildly exciting time to be in solar, and I’m glad we get to be a part of it.