So you’ve decided to go solar (congratulations!) and you are about to sign on the dotted line. Before you do, please take a moment and follow these three simple rules to avoid getting burned.
It goes without saying that for a project as elaborate as a solar installation, a written contract is required. But a written contract will do you no good, and could do you a great deal of harm, if you don’t take the time to read it!
I know, I know, contracts are boring. But lawsuits are not, and the best way to avoid such excitement is to spend a little tedious time now laboring over the fine print.
We see examples of solar contracts all the time, and some of them are pretty appalling. Written in tiny fonts, they just beg you to give up and simply ask, “Where do I sign?” Resist that temptation at all costs, less you discover the hard way that some unscrupulous contractor (or even worse, his unscrupulous lawyer) has snuck some awful prevision into your contract. Think I’m exaggerating? Take this beaut for example, from a section on Change Orders:
The change in the Contract Price caused by such Contract Change Order shall be as agreed to in writing, or if the parties are not in agreement as to the change in Contract Price, the Contractor’s actual cost of all labor, equipment, subcontracts and materials, plus a Contractors fee of 12% shall be the change in Contract Price…
Holy smokes! According to this, if the parties disagree as to the cost of a Change Order (more on this in a moment), then the cost is whatever the contractor says he has spent, plus 12%! What thinking person would agree to sign such a contract - or choose to do business with someone who is presenting it? Someone who didn’t take the time to read it, that’s who!
A contract is formed when someone - a contractor in our example - offers to do something - in this case install solar on someone’s home - and a second person - the homeowner here - accepts the offer and agrees to pay to have the work done. In order for a contract to be binding, the parties must actually agree on all of this, which is to say that the homeowner must know certain essential terms. For example:
Finally, if you are feeling rushed by the contractor (or his sales agent) to “just go ahead and sign already!” - then it is time to take a break. A legitimate contractor wants you to be comfortable with what you are signing. After all, a legit contractor doesn’t want there to be any confusion about what is going to be done or how much it will cost. So the legit contractor will be happy to answer your questions before you sign, knowing that creating understanding now, will help eliminate disputes later on. But the shady contractor just wants you to sign now - and give them a check! (Oh, and a word about initial payments - for a residential project, California law prohibits a solar contractor from asking for more than $1,000. A contractor who asks for more before work is done is violating the law.)
Worst case, go full stop and tell the contractor you want more time to review the deal before you sign. If you have doubts, consult a lawyer - yeah, yeah, I know all about lawyers (I used to be one!) but a little time spent now may save you major aggrevation down the road. And you don’t want to end up on the wrong end of a bad deal.
Congratulations, you’ve decided to look into going solar!
Regardless of your reasons…be it economic, environmental, energy independence, or otherwise…it is a sad reality that not everyone can go solar. So how do you know if your property is even a good candidate? Of course, it is important to select a few different installers to do a professional assessment, but even someone with zero solar knowledge can learn how to do a quick preliminary assessment. Here are some simple steps to determining if your home may have a great solar powered future.
If your electric bills average $100 or under each month, solar probably won’t be more cost-effective than paying the utility. The costs for permitting, design and engineering all stay the same whether you buy a 3kW system or a 10kW system. Indeed, the labor required to install 5 panels and 10 panels is not very different since installers still have the same amount of electrical ground work. The installation of the actual panels is only a fraction of the total labor. Even the costs of products improves in bulk, so the bigger the system, often the better price per Watt you can get.
Beyond this, there are many other things to consider such as whether you plan to increase your usage significantly in the future. But since utilities don’t want you to be an energy producer they won’t actually allow for more solar than your historical needs indicate… unless you plan to buy an electric vehicle. These are things you should discuss more in detail with your qualified installer.
In my blog piece “Roofing Reality Check”, I outlined the main things to consider when you examine your roof’s potential. Here are the highlights:
You could put solar here,
but it will cost you!
Space: First and foremost, to be a good solar candidate you must have adequate obstruction-free space for rows or columns of solar panels facing South, West, or East. The solar array must be three feet from any roof ridge or rake, and 18 inches from valleys to satisfy Fire Marshall guidelines. In addition, most panels are about the same size…roughly 65 inches by 40 inches. An average home in SoCal needs between 15-20 panels to offset their energy needs. This means that triangular spaces and roofs with many small faces are not going to work well for solar, but big open spaces with right angles are perfect.
Pitch and Height: Labor costs go up when installing on more difficult-to-reach roof spaces. Second story and steeply pitched roofs both increase the overall cost due to the time and effort required to keep crews safe. If you have a very steep roof solar isn’t necessarily impossible, but it will affect the bottom line, and some installers may not feel comfortable at all depending on just how steep. If it looks like an Appalachian incline more than a Rocky Mountain then you should be safe. But if we’re talking summit of Mount Everest, you may have a harder time finding a competent installer who doesn’t run when he sees the pitch.
Roofing Materials: The best roofing material for solar is composite shingles. Developments have been made to safely attach solar panels to metal and tile roofs but the cost for the racking attachments and labor are frequently higher. Run on Sun prefers to remove tile where the array will go, re-roof with composite shingles, install the solar, and backfill with remaining tiles. This incurs a re-roofing cost but is the safest way to avoid roof leaks and ensure safe attachment of the array to the rafters.
One of the first things an installer will do is take a quick look at a satellite image of your property to check for shade elements as well as the layout of your roof. A useful tool in the Los Angeles area is the LA Solar Map. This takes into account shading throughout the year and provides a handy report on your property’s viability for solar. It isn’t a perfect tool, however, so take a look around your property and note if there are any trees shading the roof spaces that you’ve identified as ideal for solar. Trees to the north would not pose a threat since solar will never be placed on a north-facing roof. But tall foliage to the south could negate any energy production value of a solar array. All may not be lost as microinverters, like the ones from Enphase that we feature on our projects, can do a lot to salvage a site plagued with shade. But even with this technology, 100% shaded areas are a non-starter. In addition to trees, note tall parapets on a flat roof, chimneys, satellite dishes, HVAC units, and second story walls which directly shade your ideal roof spaces.
Center-fed panels, like this one, can be a problem for going solar.
This is something many people are uncomfortable with, but a quick glance at your main electrical service you can be very informative. First, find your main service. This should be located on an outside wall of your home with circular enclosed meter protruding out. Open up the main panel where you’ll find a column of breakers. The main breaker, the one with the largest number stamped on it, is either at the top or sometimes in the middle of the column of breakers. If it is in the middle, this is called a center-fed panel and you may need to upgrade your electrical service before going solar.
If you find yourself tripping breakers every time you turn on a hair dryer, that is also a sign you should upgrade your service. Even if you aren’t tripping, depending on the size of your home, if the main breaker is stamped with anything under 200 you may need a higher electrical service before going solar to avoid tripping in the future.
Next, take a look at the rest of the breakers. Does it look like the entire column is full? Sometimes there are rectangles in the metal face plate which can be punched out to add breakers when needed. If there is no space at all for a new breaker for solar, then you may need to upgrade your service.
Unfortunately upgrading your service will add some cost. Ask your solar installer for their opinion but if any of the above rings true be prepared for this additional hurdle to sunshine power.
The reality is, solar is an investment. While some companies may insist you can go solar for free, I would never count on getting something for nothing. We have outlined some of the myriad reasons we recommend avoiding zero-down solar leases in other posts like “Top 5 Reasons to Stay Away from that Solar Lease” and “The Perils of Solar Salesmen”. Frankly, the costs can more than double over time when you lease instead of purchase your system.
So the last step to assess if you are a good candidate for solar is to assess your financial position. There are many low-interest solar loan options out there as well as property-assessed PACE financing, but in order to get the economic value of solar you need to be prepared to own the system outright. This way you can take the 30% federal tax credit and any additional rebates if available from your utility.
To give you a ball-park idea of the cost for going solar in Run on Sun’s service area (LA Metro area) today, including design, labor, permit fees and the whole shebang, is roughly $4 to $5 per Watt. This means that an average house with a 5kW system will cost between $20,000 and $25,000 before rebates and incentives. Obviously the cost will be on the low end if you have a composite-shingle, single-story, low-pitched roof with no need for a service panel upgrade. Depending on your electric bills pre-solar, this investment can pencil out with a return in as early as year 5 or as late as year 10+. But deciding if the financial outlay is worth the long term investment is something you must assess before signing on the dotted line.
After going through the above steps you should have a solid idea of whether solar is right for your home or not. If you’ve determined its a go, the next step is to call your local installer and make sure they check all the same qualifiers and more. Now that you’re an expert on solar assessment 101 you can even suggest solar to any neighbors with homes that beg to be powered by the sun!
Solar leasing programs are very popular, driven, no doubt, by the allure of something for nothing. After all, the lease programs insist that for nothing out-of-pocket you can start saving today - an appealing pitch that is only rebutted when the homeowner does some serious homework. This is not a new topic for us, and our post pointing out the
Top 5 Reasons to Avoid a Solar Lease!, is one of our most popular posts ever. But an encounter with a potential client this past week highlighted yet another peril in the form of the deceptive salesman.
Don’t buy solar from this guy!
A couple of days ago we got a call from a woman who had been referred to us by one of our clients. She had been thinking about going solar and had in fact signed a lease agreement with another company before she spoke with our client. “Whoa,” said the client, “you better think twice about a lease. You should really talk to the folks at Run on Sun before you go forward with anybody else." The woman told us she had until Saturday to cancel her contract so could we please come and see her right away? Given that she was a referral and time was tight, we scheduled her site evaluation for the next day.
What we found when we got there was a two-story, blue tile roof, littered with roof vents! Once you allowed for clearances on all of those obstructions, as well as with the setbacks required by the local Fire officials, there was very little roof left for solar. (We estimated maybe 3 kW max.)
But the contract that she had signed said that this other solar company was going to put 5.7 kW on her roof! How on earth did that reach that conclusion? The answer was simple: the sales guy came to her home with a stock contract that contained a provision buried within the fine print that allowed them to “revise” what would be installed once the “engineering review” of the home had been completed!
In other words, the guy trying (and succeeding) in getting her to sign on the dotted line had no idea whether his repeated assertions of “30% savings off your present bill” were accurate or not, and he plainly did not care.
This unfortunate woman, who lives in a nice home in a nice neighborhood, had been preyed upon by the solar industry’s equivalent of the flim-flam man, and make no mistake about it - these disreputable representatives are a pox upon the entire industry.
Oh, and as to that right to cancel the contract? The lease agreement appeared to be speaking out of both sides of its mouth on this. One provision cited the California statutory requirement of three business days to cancel, whereas a second provision promised six calendar days. Yet the attached, Notice of Rescission, only referred to the three-day option, and it required that the document be delivered to an office in Texas to be effective! Good luck with that.
No one should end up in this woman’s position. Here are a few steps to protect yourself:
Caveat emptor, folks!
Readers of this blog may recall the serious windstorm that we suffered here in Pasadena back in 2011, and Run on Sun’s efforts to help out one victim of that disaster. We received some very kind words from the son of the disaster victim, and he even took the time to write reviews on some of the major review sites. So far so good, but then Google decided to get involved, and things took a nasty turn. Here’s the scoop…
It was brought to our attention that if you did a local search on Google for “Pasadena Solar Installers", the first company name that shows up in the organic (i.e., not paid for) search rankings is Run on Sun - excellent!
As you can see from the screengrab on the left, in addition to showing where we are on the map, it lets you know our hours, provides a link to our website, and reports that it has four reviews. When you click on the reviews reference, it pops up our Google+ page and presents the reviews, first by providing a summary that Google generates from three of the reviews, and below that it offers the first paragraph from the first two reviews, allowing the viewer to read more of the excerpted review and/or to click through to the remaining reviews. It is the Google generated summary that is the problem.
Here is the full (Five-Star!) review as authored by Tom McDade:
Earlier this year my mother’s house was hit with the terrible wind storm in Pasadena and her old solar system was destroyed. She contacted Jim Jenal at Run on Sun and he was very responsive to her call; he quickly came out to assess the damage and he removed the old panels from the roof before they could fly off and possibly do more damage to other property or persons. He then proposed a new system that was not only better then what she had but his price was considerably less expensive than another solar company who tried to take advantage of my 85 year old mother. I live in Ohio and Jim still worked with me closely in order to satisfy my mother and get her new system installed properly. I would not hesitate to recommend him. [Emphasis added.]
Needless to say, as a small business, we live for reviews like that. It was kind of Tom to take the time to write, and more than one subsequent client has mentioned Tom’s review.
But this is how Google “summarized” Tom’s praise:
“…another solar company who tried to take advantage of my 85 year old mother.”
Holy crap! Google has transformed us from the hero of the piece to the villian! How many people have seen that “summary” and fled?
So we contacted Google, followed their procedure for noting problems with reviews, and got nowhere. The Google rep claimed that because the summary was selected by an algorithm, there is nothing they can do about it! Hmmm… who wrote that algorithm anyway? What a lame, even evil, excuse that is!
So if we cannot get Google to clean up their act, the least we can do is publish this clarification so that perhaps people searching for us will understand what is really going on. Isn’t technology wonderful?
Smokey the Bear knew a thing or two about urgency, and appropriating his call to action seems particularly apt right now. Today, rooftop solar is under concerted attack before the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). If we are to maintain the growth of solar, with its tens of thousands of jobs here in California, as well as its huge benefits in reducing air pollution - particularly greenhouse gas emissions - we need YOU to act now.
Our friends over at Vote Solar, along with the California Solar Energy Industries Association (CalSEIA) are working to beat back the insidious proposals coming from the Investor Owned Utilities - including SCE - to gut net metering and impose taxes on those who invest in rooftop solar. If those proposals were to be adopted, much of the economic value of solar could be destroyed.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. The CPUC is a poltical entity and like any political entity, it responds to pressure from the public. We cannot match the economic clout of the IOUs, but we can beat them the old fashioned way - by standing up for solar!
It’s easy - just click on this button:
When you do, you will go the Vote Solar website where you can add your name to the list of concerned Californians who want to preserve the many benefits of rooftop solar. Please pass this word on to your friends and colleagues and urge them to get involved too!
We can win this fight - but we need YOU now!