Green Industry Articles

Residential Solar Basics

Have your clients done everything possible to slash their energy costs but still hanker for more energy savings?

"Most people do all the major projects-- insulation and weatherization--and small things to reduce energy bills," comments Brandon Wolfe, president of Sunrayse, a distribution network for PV equipment in Menlo Park, Calif. He finds that the next question often is, "What else can I do?"

Installing solar panels to tap the sun for electrical power could be the answer they're looking for.

Given real estate practitioners' close contact with homeowners and home buyers, Wolfe thinks they're in the best position to have a conversation about whether solar panels make sense and then be the ones to refer them to experts. It's why he thinks it important to start networking with solar experts and build a stable of go-to people that you can recommend to clients.

Here are some routine concerns among homeowners and some of the basics you need to know to advise clients:

How it works: Photovoltaic cells on rooftop solar panels absorb the sun and convert sunlight into DC (direct current) power. An inverter converts it to AC (alternating current) that you can tap to power your home.

Solar candidates: Each system is customized to a particular property, so a solar expert needs to assess several variables, including the hours of sunlight, shading, and roof orientation (southfacing works best) to determine whether solar is a good choice.

System costs: The cost of each system varies by the specifics of a given property, but also by the amount of electricity a homeowner uses and by local utility and labor costs. "What's difficult for homeowners is that they just want a straight answer to 'How much will it cost?' Sometimes they feel like not getting that answer if someone doesn't say this will cost X," says Wolfe. But
tossing out a general figure isn't really possible until a solar expert assesses the house. "It's not that complicated and they can give someone a good answer once they get answers to those few variables," he adds.

Buy or lease? For homeowners put off by the cost of buying solar panels, several companies now offer leasing arrangements. It's a topic that homeowners should consider when they're vetting installers. Melisa Camp, GREEN, CEO of Go Green Investments and a real estate practitioner with HomeSmart International in Phoenix, says the advantages of leased panels are numerous. "You don't have the upfront costs, leases typically are transferable to the next owner, and the solar company will clean, fix, and maintain the panels for you," says Camp, who recently did a solar installation for her Arizona house.

Hire competent installers

The solar installer is the company that assesses a property, makes recommendations, and installs the solar panels. So it's important to find a company that is competent, experienced, and reliable.

Some tips for choosing an installer include:

Go local: Stick with local installers. They'll know best about the local variables, such as hours of sunlight, and they also should be up on all the incentives available through the power company and the municipality.

Shop around: Just like with any professional you hire, word-of-mouth recommendations, says Wolfe, can be tremendously helpful. Also, find out how many similar jobs a company has done, what certifications and training its installers have, and talk to past clients.

Get multiple bids: Camp did exhaustive research and looked at between 10 and 12 companies, but she says getting about three bids likely would suffice. Be certain installers' bids let you make apples-to-apples comparisons among the contenders. It can make a difference. One of Camp's bidders came in with an estimate that was $10,000 more than the others for the exact same equipment.

Trust your gut: Like with other service providers, Wolfe says to trust your gut when choosing an installer. And Camp says one indication of a company's reliability is its upfront customer service. Does someone call you back on time? Are the answers to questions evasive or straightforward? Are you trapped in mail jail when you try to reach someone?

Payment plan: Find out a company's payment plan. Will it accept credit cards? And how does it manage rebates and incentives? Camp received more than $14,000 of incentives and rebates, and her installer did the solar installation without making her pay those costs upfront. "My rebate was transferred from utility provider to solar provider without touching my hands," she recalls.

Incentives: There is a huge array of incentive, rebates, and grants available to reduce the cost of a solar system. Camp says the total cost of her system was $34,000. Of that, she's only paying $9,000 because she was able to tap some generous incentives and rebates. See "Resources" for ways to locate more information. Camp also suggests applying for incentives early in the planning process. Sometimes there's a long waiting period--think six months-- to get applications processed.

Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency: The database makes locating the latest Federal, state incentives easy.

• Education: There are several online sources that explain solar in laymen's terms. In addition, Camp recommends
finding a third-party advisor--a group or someone unaffiliated with a solar installer--who can offer objective advice and guidance. One Arizona-based source, for instance, is Arizona Smart Power.

• The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP): The group certifies renewable energy professionals across North America, and it's a place to find certified installers.

• Solar Energy: The calculator lets you put in your zip code, electricity provider, and some basic information about electricity usage to get a ballpark on how much a solar installation would cost and how much you could save by tapping local incentives. Its "Useful Links" section, found under "Resources," offers links to numerous government, non-profit and education sites.

• U.S. Department of Energy offers a solar primer and links to government incentives.

Green REsource Council Newsletter, December 2011