Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How To Find A Solar System Contractor

Finding a contractor to install a photovoltaic solar system on your home is not unlike finding any other specialist to complete a home improvement, provided the contractor has solar savvy.

by Broderick Perkins
© 2008 DeadlineNews.Com

Unauthorized use of this story is a copyright violation -- a federal crime

Deadline Newsroom - With city, state and federal initiatives shouting 'solar!' from the rooftops, finding competent solar equipment installers is paramount.

Solar and other renewable energy rebates and initiatives from the federal government down to city jurisdictions are prompting more contractors to hang a "solar installer" shingle, take to rooftops and cash in on the demand.

It's relatively simple to install and maintain a $30,000 flush-mounted, rooftop, 320-square-foot, PV array efficiently generating 3 kilowatts -- enough power to meet the needs of a 2,500 square foot home.

Simple that is, provided the PV panel installer is experienced in the task at hand.

As with hiring any professional, a good start to finding a solar contractor is to seek referrals from family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and others you trust who also recently purchased a system with which they are satisfied.

The referrals should be to licensed contractors or, better yet, licensed solar contractors who work in your area. Contractors typically obtain a license by proving their skills through education or training, testing, in-the-field experience or some combination of all those efforts.

More specifically, solar contractors are licensed after meeting requirements specific to the specialty.
In some states, designated solar contractors are licensed to perform solar energy work and only other building or construction work necessary to install an active solar system.

The licensing process typically also comes with continuing education services to keep contractors current on techniques, codes and the like. It also includes a regulatory system that helps weed out the bad apples. Consumers get an official agency where they can check the record of contractors, lodge complaints and seek redress for problems.

Truly professional contractors also won't work without a permit, which means the local building inspector will examine the work for compliance with current building codes. Avoid any contractor who attempts to circumvent the permit process.

Most states don't have regulations for a designated "solar contractor," but each state's renewable energy incentive program can help.

The Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy offers a clickable-map data base of federal, state and local renewable energy programs, each of which can help you find qualified contractors and educational and financing information for consumers.

Even where there's no "solar contractor" license category, incentive programs typically come with state-registered or program-registered contractors and or approved solar and other renewable energy systems.

You can also tap solar energy trade groups to find contractors, especially in areas where they aren't regulated. Trade groups typically come with a code of ethics, training requirements and a network of product research, development and educational services for its members.

Home owners considering hiring a professional solar system installer should also get schooled in solar technology to be better equipped to interview prospective contractors.

Select a contractor who has years of experience installing grid-connected systems and who isn't afraid to refer you to satisfied customers.

The contractor should also have site savvy -- clear, unobstructed access to the sun is crucial. The contractor should also be able to help you decide what size system you need to generate all the power necessary for your home or just a portion. It's up to you not to let the contractor sell you more power than you need.

The incentive programs and utilities can help you calculate how much of a rooftop array you really need based on past energy use.

The contractor should also be familiar with special features your system may need including an inverter necessary to change the direct current (DC) power from the solar panels into alternating current (AC) electricity to power your electrical devices and to be compatible with the electric grid. Batteries, which increase your cost, provide back-up and storage power for your home during grid outages and gray days.

Each incentive program explains the local utility connection requirements including which utilities will buy excess power and which will let you pump juice back into the grid without reimbursing you, but the contractor also should be familiar with grid connections, metering and what happens to excess power.

Finally, get several bids and make sure the bids are for the identical solar system.

© 2008 DeadlineNews.Com

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Broderick Perkins, an award-winning consumer journalist of 30 years, is publisher and executive editor of San Jose, CA-based DeadlineNews Group -- DeadlineNews.Com, a real estate news and consulting service and Web site and the new Deadline Newsroom, DeadlineNews.Com's news back shop. In both cases, it's where all the news really hits home.

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