Solar panel systems have come down in cost, but a typical household installation costs between $13,000 and $20,000, depending on your state. With that sort of pricing, it only makes sense to evaluate a solar company closely before you hand over any money. Here are the main questions to ask solar companies.
Solar Panel Equipment Questions
These questions cover the solar systems themselves, including hardware like panels, batteries, and converters.
1. What type of system do you recommend for my home?
Broadly, there are three types of solar panel systems that companies are likely to install.
The first type is a grid-tied solar panel system, which is the most popular choice among homeowners. Grid-tied systems use energy from the panels when sunlight is around and pull from the electricity grid when they’re not. They also let you sell extra electricity for credits on your energy bill, which can provide significant savings over time.
The second option is grid-tied with energy storage. Grid-tied with storage is similar to the option above but adds solar batteries. This is noticeably more expensive than just a grid-tied system, but the batteries provide backups that keep working even if the main grid goes out.
Having energy storage is a good option for people who need guaranteed electricity access for health or safety reasons.
The final system option is off-grid. These solar systems often disconnect from the primary energy grid, although that’s not necessary. Instead, they have enough solar panels and batteries that you can function entirely separately from the grid. Off-grid is by far the most expensive option because many incentives don’t apply to off-grid systems, but it’s also the most reliable.
2. What are the solar panel system specifications?
System specifications for solar panels include factors like how much electricity they’ll produce and how much space they’ll cover. For example, most houses need between 5 and 10 kilowatts of electricity to be practical. So a 5 kW system will generate between 350 and 850 kilowatt-hours of electricity, depending on how much sunlight you get each month.
For context, a typical home uses close to 900 kilowatt-hours a month. This means a 5 kW system will reduce but not eliminate most bills, while a 10 kW system will have enough extra to sell back to the grid during most months.
3. How long will my solar panels last?
Most solar panels last 25-30 years, so expect your installer to quote a number around this range. Anything too different from this standard suggests they’re using an odd product, and it’s unlikely you’ll get much more than 30 years out of any modern panel.
Solar panels produce less electricity over time, so they probably won’t stop working when you hit this cap. The average panel has a degradation rate of 0.8% each year, although premium solar panels could reach 0.3% or less. Premium panels are the only ones likely to last more than 30 years, but most homeowners don’t buy those.
Most installers consider solar systems less practical when they reach 80% of their original production capacity. However, installing extra solar panels can mitigate degradation and help your system last longer beyond the amount you need.
Read More: How Long Do Solar Batteries Last?
4. Do you have a solar panel system monitoring app?
Some companies have these, while others don’t. Lacking an app isn’t a red flag among our questions to ask solar companies, but it’s nice to have an app when they’re available. A good monitoring app can track how much electricity your panels produce, alert you to faults, and even contact your installer for repairs.
Here are some questions to ask about your house, specifically.
5. Does my house qualify for solar?
Experienced installers can often tell if your house qualifies for solar just by looking at it, but reliable companies use software to calculate the exact value for your home. So be careful of anyone who doesn’t do that.
In this context, qualifying for solar means having a house that gets enough sunlight to provide enough electricity throughout the year. Site-specific issues like surrounding trees of buildings can reduce the amount of sunlight you get, so whether a solar system makes sense for you.
6. Does my roof qualify?
Some roofs are not suitable for installing solar panels. Good roofs for solar include asphalt, composite, tar, gravel, and metal. Most houses in the United States use asphalt shingles.
Brittle materials like slate are much harder to work with, though an experienced installer may be able to cut tiles and reinstall them to fit a solar unit to your roof. Wood is an especially bad choice for solar because it’s a fire hazard.
7. Does your warranty also cover my roof?
Solar panel installation companies typically void your original roof warranty in the area they worked on. However, a good installer’s warranty will cover that area instead and should last for at least ten years. If their warranty doesn’t cover your roof, that’s a problem, and you should reconsider hiring them.
8. If my roof needs repairs, how do I remove and replace the solar panels?
Solar installation companies should be able to describe how you can remove and replace your solar panels, including the best places to disconnect the system. However, they may suggest leaving this to a professional roof repair company instead. Such companies often have experience working around solar systems and can do all the work for you.
9. Should I replace my roof before installation?
The answer to this question depends on the condition of your roof. Replacing your roof too early represents a significant cost increase, so it might be better to wait a few years before installing solar if your roof is too new.
Most solar panels last 25-30 years, so ideally, your roof will have at least that much life span remaining. Composite asphalt shingles typically last 15 to 40 years, so you should install solar shortly after adding that roof material.
Metal roofs usually last at least 40 years, and many can go 70 or higher, so you can often install solar panels anytime you’re living in a house with that. A reputable installer can tell you whether it makes sense to replace your roof.
Cost, Payment, Savings, and Contract Questions
These questions cover the fundamental financial aspects of installing a solar system.
10. How much will going solar cost me?
Solar installation prices have come down over time and will probably keep falling. However, cost directly correlates to system size and power generation, so the more energy you need, the more expensive the system will become.
As explained above, most modern solar systems cost between $13,000 and $20,000 for a 6 kW system. So naturally, the price goes up proportionally if you’re installing more panels.
11. How should I finance my panels?
Several ways to finance solar panels, but most people either pay for the entire system outright or get a loan. Solar companies sometimes offer loans directly, so it’s not a red flag if they provide that. Alternatively, you can get a loan from most banks, credit unions, and similar institutions.
Be sure to ask about any special loan offers you qualify for. For example, incentive programs can get you lower interest rates for solar upgrades, and a good installation company will know what programs you’re likely to qualify for.
The ideal loan costs less to repay each month than you’ll save on your electricity bill by switching to solar. The difference between these numbers is extra money in your pocket each month, which goes up significantly when you pay off the loan.
12. Can I see the contract before I sign?
There is no good reason for a company to refuse to let you see and evaluate the contract before you sign it. Of course, they may ask you to review it by a specific time because they need to schedule jobs a few weeks ahead of time, but don’t trust any company that refuses to let you read the contract.
13. Can I get a lower price for paying in cash?
Some companies offer discounts for paying in cash. For example, transaction fees for large purchases can add up to a lot of money, so installers might offer a discount of up to several hundred dollars if you pay cash.
Keep in mind that electronic transactions have added security, especially if you’re going through a bank or a reputable credit company. So you may decide that the extra protections are worth skipping the discount.
14. Is my electricity bill high enough to justify going solar?
Some households don’t use enough electricity to justify switching to solar. Generally, the more electricity you use, the more valuable solar becomes. However, if you only run a few lights and a heater with no major appliances, solar probably isn’t a good choice for you.
Most homeowners need to use about 500 kilowatt-hours per month before solar becomes viable. So if you’re below this and an installer suggests a full solar array, you won’t see the full cost savings.
15. What is my projected savings by going solar?
This is a calculation your solar installer can only perform once they have your household’s numbers and local energy costs. Savings are calculated by subtracting what you’re gaining by using solar panels from what you currently get via the local grid. Don’t forget to ask about savings 10 and 20 years down the line as your solar system slowly degrades.
16. Do I qualify for any rebates or incentives?
Many people currently qualify for some incentive programs, but some people won’t. Programs can include federal, state, local, and lender options meant to promote the spread of solar panels. A good installer will know which programs you likely qualify for and can investigate to be sure.
17. What happens if I sell my house?
This applies mainly to warranties and service coverage. While you can take solar panels, you fully own with you, that’s usually a bad idea. Most solar panel companies will suggest you leave the solar panels in place because they add value and can get you a better sale price.
Warranties that transfer to new owners are fundamentally more valuable than those that end when you sell the property. Ask your installer if you can transfer the coverage to a new homeowner. If they don’t usually offer that, ask if they can add it to your coverage. It’s not a deal-breaker if they won’t, but it’s a nice extra to have.
18. What happens if I need to break the contract?
In rare cases, you may need to break a contract you have for installation. The exact policies vary by company, but you can usually cancel without penalties for one month after you sign. This is before installation starts, so the company doesn’t lose as much.
If you have to cancel after that, expect significant penalties, although these typically lower over time as you repay more and more of your contract.
General Business Questions
These are questions to ask about your solar installer as a company.
19. How long have you been in business?
Solar panels were invented in 1954 and came out to the public in 1956. However, they were too expensive for most people to even consider. In the 1970s, prices came down enough to be practical, and that’s when businesses started.
Ideally, you’ll find a manufacturer that has at least five years of experience. More is always better in this industry because that indicates they’re running a successful company and have a lot of satisfied customers.
20. Are you a local or national company?
There’s no right or wrong answer here, but it’s a good detail to know. Local companies are exceptionally familiar with your area, while national companies may be able to get parts at bulk rates and offer discounts that local companies can’t.
21. What is your service area that you operate in?
A company’s service area is the general area they work in. The area could be as small as one city if there are enough customers, but many solar companies will install in at least one county around their headquarters and often the surrounding counties.
22. How many solar systems have they installed?
This number gives you a reasonable estimate of the experience of the personnel. The actual installation process takes one to three days on most homes, depending on the size of the solar system, so an average company will install 2-3 systems each week. This number goes up significantly if they have several teams working at once.
23. How much experience do they have working with your utility company?
Most solar companies work directly with utility companies to connect things correctly. Having experience with your utility company also means they know the paperwork process, how long things will take, and who to talk to if there are any problems.
24. Do you know the permitting process in your city?
Cities can have different permitting processes, so a solar company with experience in just a few cities away won’t necessarily be the right choice for your city. If they have experience, they can tell you where they get the paperwork, what information they need, and how long it will take.
25. Can they provide references or reviews of prior solar installations?
Few things are more helpful than comments from previous customers. A reputable company can point you to online sources with customer reviews. Small companies will have fewer reviews, but try to stick with companies that have at least ten. More reviews are always better because they help eliminate statistical errors.
26. What is your rating with the Better Business Bureau?
The Better Business Bureau is a major ranking system that accredits trustworthy businesses. Avoid any solar companies that don’t have a listing with the BBB because that’s both unusual and suspicious. The BBB will also let you investigate complaints, see what the company did to resolve things and get a more informed opinion.
This is functionally a supplement to public reviews of the company. Of course, public reviews are more reliable if you have enough of them, but checking this is still helpful.
27. Do you design and install the systems yourselves, or do you subcontract to local companies?
Many solar installations require custom plans for connecting wires and hooking up to the grid. Subcontracting this type of specialized work is not inherently wrong, so you shouldn’t avoid them just because they do that. However, it’s good to investigate any subcontractors to see if they meet your standards.
This is where things can get tricky. Subcontractors may not have a “public” business with reviews you can read. If you can’t find that information, try to locate some of their other customers and ask about their experiences.
Business License and Insurance Questions
These questions are primarily a formality to ensure you’re hiring a legitimate business. Actual problems here are rare, but with the price of solar systems, it’s always best to do your due diligence.
28. Do you have your business license and insurance policies in your state?
Reputable companies will always say yes and can provide copies of this information on request. The best companies always carry this information with them and can retrieve it from their vehicle on request. Emailing copies of these is also acceptable because you can easily research the license numbers and confirm their accuracy.
29. What is your business name registered with the state?
Some companies do business under a name other than their public-facing one. For example, the fast-food chain McDonald’s is their public-facing name, while the actual company is known as the McDonald’s Corporation. Having a different business name for dealing with the public is common, so it’s not a red flag if you see this.
30. What is your license number?
License numbers are the primary way of identifying businesses because they apply no matter what name the company is using. As with business licenses, reputable companies will always produce this information on request. Any unwillingness to provide the license number is an immediate warning sign.
31. If you use subcontractors, are they licensed, and did you background check them?
Subcontractors are common in the solar installation industry, so there’s a good chance your installer will use them at some point in the process. Doing background checks on subcontractors ensures that they’re only inviting trustworthy people to work on their house. Failure to check subcontractors is another major warning sign.
32. Do you have a master electrician that will be on-site when the system is installed?
The only answer you should hear for this is yes. Master electricians are licensed, certified workers and the only people legally qualified to perform many parts of the installation job. This includes inspecting grid connections, designing parts of the system, and grounding the entire unit.
Warranty, Replacement, and Repair Questions
Warranty and repair guarantees help protect you if something goes wrong with your system. However, at more than $10,000 for most installations, problems they don’t cover could end up being incredibly expensive.
33. Who should I contact if there is a problem with my system?
Most companies can give you either a phone number or an email address. Ideally, you’ll have all help and support come from the same company installing the panels. In some cases, though, solar panel installers may contract with a dedicated repair service instead. This is fine, but you should always know who to contact.
34. Where is your service team located?
Knowing where the team is located can help you figure out how long they’ll take to arrive if there’s a problem. Of course, closer is always better, but this isn’t a decisive factor by itself unless reliable access to electricity is essential for you.
35. What do the warranties cover, and what is excluded?
Knowing exactly what warranties do and don’t cover is essential for understanding your protections.
A typical warranty guarantees 90% performance after ten years and 80% performance after 25 years. The equipment warranty should also guarantee at least ten years without overall failure, in addition to protecting from manufacturing defects, environmental problems, and early wear and tear on the system.
Be sure to distinguish between the solar panel’s warranty and the installer’s warranty, which may cover different things. Installers’ warranties should also cover the installation area, including the parts of the roof they worked on. This gives you added protection against leaks and other issues.
36. What happens if the system does not produce as much power as was promised?
If the solar system performs too far below its listed rate when installed, you have an issue. It’s easy to estimate how much power a system should generate by looking at its size, so if it’s too low, there’s probably a bad connection somewhere. Light levels are easy to calculate before installation, so you shouldn’t ever get less light than expected.
This is one of the important questions to ask solar companies. In most cases, they’ll send out an inspector (probably a master electrician) to test your grid or look at reports. Remember, solar panels produce different amounts of electricity throughout the day, so you may think you’re getting less energy than you are.
37. Do you offer performance guarantees?
All reputable solar panel companies offer performance guarantees for their system. These are typically the same as their warranties, with the primary number being at least 80% of the original performance after 25 years. Avoid companies with a lower guarantee and favor companies with a better one.
Don’t forget to ask about performance guarantees for system components besides the solar panels. Solar batteries typically last 5-15 years, while inverters usually last 10-12 years. Chances are you’ll need to replace several system components at least once, so ask about the expected timing and costs for that.
Liability and Insurance Questions
Finally, there are a few liability questions to ask about.
38. Will you place a lien on my property for the system?
Solar installation companies should not place a lien on your entire property. This is a common misconception people have about the process. However, they can place a lien on the panels themselves until the loan is paid off.
Other lending institutions like banks may place a lien on the property if you get a loan from them, but you might be able to convince them to limit it to the panels.
39. Do I need to take out additional insurance, or is there an insurance policy that comes with the system?
Solar panel installers often have warranties and guarantees, but that’s not the same as insurance coverage. Your installer may suggest you check with your existing insurance provider because homeowners’ insurance policies usually cover solar panels once they’re added to your house.
The reason existing panels can get coverage this way is that they’re treated as permanent attachments. However, this isn’t guaranteed, so you should check with your insurance provider to be sure. If solar panels aren’t currently on your policy, your provider may be willing to add them, either for free or for a minor increase in your premiums.