couple meeting with a solar installation business

If you plan to install solar panels on your home, you are probably thinking about what solar company you will hire. There are likely at least two or three solar installation companies in your area and perhaps quite a few more. Finding a high-quality solar installer is critical for doing the job correctly and sourcing reliable solar panels and equipment. You will have two general choices: national solar installers that operate in numerous states and locally-owned solar companies.

The average home in the United States consumes about 893 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity monthly or 10,715 kWh annually. Installing solar panels on your home will cost roughly $20,000 before government incentives, so this is a significant investment. However, installing solar panels is one of the few home improvements that truly pays for itself in electricity bill savings.

There is a federal solar tax credit for 30% of the price of a solar system, which can knock about $6,000 off the total cost of a solar panel system.

Are Larger Solar Companies More Reliable Than Local Installers?

Although it is difficult to speak in generalities, often locally-owned solar installers complete excellent work and provide quality solar equipment.

Some of the largest solar installers are from publicly-traded companies, including Sunrun (Vivint Solar), Sunnova, and Tesla (Solar City). Therefore, there are expectations from shareholders to maintain profit margins. By contrast, most small solar installation companies are privately-owned, typically by the founders.

Key Considerations When Selecting a Solar Company

There are numerous considerations when selecting who will install your solar power system. It’s important to consider the quality of the labor, the equipment, the customer experience, financing, and warranties.

Cost of the Solar System

It seems logical that large solar installation companies would offer lower prices because of economies of scale, but that isn’t necessarily accurate. According to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), large solar companies had higher prices 70% of the time compared to smaller, locally-owned ones. Plus, these quotes were about 10% more on average.

Getting three or so solar bids for your home can be very helpful. Unfortunately, it can be a bit difficult for solar shoppers to compare solar quotes because installers often use different equipment. Also, it is critical to know if the solar company completes high-quality work.

Customer Experience

Some national solar companies have a reputation for pushy salespeople. However, because installing a solar system is a major financial decision, it’s important to really think things through and not feel rushed into making a decision prematurely.

Often, locally-owned solar companies have more experience installing solar systems in your area. This is helpful because interconnection requirements with the utility company and permitting requirements can vary by city, town, or municipality.

It can create big issues later if your solar installer doesn’t correctly handle utility interconnection and permitting. For example, without utility interconnection approval, you won’t get compensated for surplus electricity you feed to the power grid, and you won’t get credits on your electricity bills. In addition, if you don’t obtain the required permits, you can get fined or even forced to remove your solar system.

The best way to determine both the quality of the customer experience and the solar installation company is to hear from past customers. If you have friends, neighbors, coworkers, or family members that have installed solar panels, ask them if they recommend the company they used.

There are also several websites where consumers can review solar installers, including the Better Business Bureau, Consumer Affairs, and Google. Unfortunately, quite a few of the national solar installers have very mixed customer reviews, with lots of one and four or five-star reviews from past customers.

For example, Sunrun currently has an average rating of 1.4 stars on Solar Reviews. Many consumer complaints relate to slow response times, pushy door-to-door salespeople, unknowledgeable employees, billing issues, and long maintenance delays. Sunnova and Tesla Energy have somewhat better ratings on Solar Reviews, currently with 2.4-stars and 2.9 stars.

Quality of the Solar Installation

With no moving parts, solar systems are designed to last 25 years or longer. Therefore, they must be properly installed to get the most value from your solar panels. You will want to have confidence in the crew on your roof and tinkering around with your electrical panel.

For example, numerous reviews of a large installation company, Trinity Solar, mention roof leaks after solar panel installation. Likewise, if the solar equipment isn’t properly installed, it can create maintenance issues for your system down the road.

Similar to the customer experience topic, it is important to research the reputation of both local and national solar installers to determine if they complete quality solar installations. Many small solar companies complete quality work and the results from national companies can be mixed. 

solar installer on roof
Reliable solar installers will take steps to avoid roof damage and ensure that the system performs properly.

Reliable Solar Panels and Equipment

Your solar panel system can easily last 25 or more years. However, not all solar panels are created equal from a durability standpoint. As solar panels age, they become less effective in converting sunlight into electricity, but this amount varies by the model of the solar panel. EnergySage is an excellent source of information on solar panels, inverters, power optimizers, and racking systems.

Many large solar companies primarily install solar panels and inverters from a single manufacturer. Although it might seem counterintuitive, quite a few smaller solar companies offer greater customization of the solar system. For example, they might offer two or three different models of solar panels or install a different type of inverter upon request.

Equipment and Labor Warranties

Solar panels and equipment come with warranties, but these vary considerably by the manufacturer. For example, Jinko offers a 10-year equipment warranty, and Ja Solar and First Solar offer 12-year warranties for solar panels. By contrast, Trina, Hanhwa Q-Cells, SunPower, and Silfab offer 25-year equipment warranties.

Although solar equipment is protected by warranties, labor is rarely included. Therefore, most solar companies offer a labor warranty in addition to equipment warranties. The length of solar labor warranties can vary widely from just two years to 25. Solar installers that are known for quality customer service will likely also shine when repairs are needed.

Consumer reviews of some of the largest solar companies often mention the lack of response to service requests. This is especially concerning when the labor warranty is still in place. If the warranties are still valid, another solar company can replace the equipment, but the manufacturer typically won’t cover the labor.

Financing Options

Many large solar installers do offer $0 down financing, as well as solar leases and power purchase agreements. However, many smaller solar companies also offer financing.

If you go with a local solar installer that doesn’t offer financing, a home equity line of credit through a bank or credit union might be a good option. One advantage of this is that the interest is tax-deductible. Also, if you own a home in California, Florida, or Missouri, you might want to look into PACE financing.

Which Solar Company Is Best for You?

It’s always best to have a few options when hiring a solar contractor and to compare solar bids. Perhaps you prefer to give your business to a locally owned company because it’s better for the local economy and it aligns with your values. In some cases, a national solar installer might outshine the locally owned competition. Because it can be difficult to compare solar proposals, it’s helpful to consider the reputation of the solar installers, product and labor warranties, cost, and financing options.

Regardless of who you hire, installing solar panels is an excellent way to dramatically lower your electricity bills, reduce your reliance on fossil fuels, and help benefit the environment.

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.