Become a quote-comparing expert in no time

Are you tired of confusing jargon and TLAs (three-letter acronyms)? If you’ve ever tried to compare quotes from solar installers, you know what we’re talking about. And how do you make those apples and oranges look the same?

Comparing quotes is an important part of going solar — like with any home improvement project. The good news? It doesn’t have to be confusing. If you follow the steps outlined in this podcast by solar expert Barry Cinnamon, you’ll be a quote-comparing expert in no time.

Step 1. Compare installers

Solar is a big purchase that goes on your house. So you want to work with a reputable installer.

How do you find a good installer? Get references from friends, neighbors, and online sources like Yelp. Check how long the company has been in business. And pay attention to the vibe you get from each installer. Listen to your gut if it just feels wrong.

You can make this step even easier by going solar with a service like Domino. The cleantech startup has already vetted the installers they partner with, so you don’t have to. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t still check out the installer you pick.

Step 2. Compare cash prices

Comparing prices is easy, whether you choose to buy or lease your system.

If you lease a car, a good approach is to first determine what the best cash price would be, then find a good deal on your lease based on that. This tactic also works for solar. The way you compare solar prices is to look at dollars per watt.

Let’s say you’re quoted a price of $20,000 before incentives (which will be the same no matter who you go with). If the quote is for 20 panels at 250 watts, that means it’s a 5000-watt system. So at $20,000, the price comes to $4 per watt.

Step 3. Compare equipment and services

Solar panels themselves don’t vary that much. Yes, you’ll pay more for higher efficiency — but you don’t really need to maximize efficiency unless your roof space is limited.

What you want to focus on is the inverter, which converts the sun’s rays into power your home can use. You can choose from three kinds of inverters:

  • String inverters have traditionally been the cheapest, but prices are now leveling out. These are not as shade-tolerant and don’t let you monitor each panel’s performance, so they’re best if your roof has full sun all day.
  • Microinverters are a good option if you have any shading. If one or two panels are shaded at any time, the rest of your panels will still keep producing. Most microinverters allow panel-level monitoring.
  • Optimizers function a lot like microinverters and are sometimes cheaper.

Check the warranties for your panels and inverters. String inverters are the only item in a system likely to need replacement, and maintenance tends to be very low for solar systems — but many companies will offer repair and maintenance service in case it’s needed.

Step 4. Compare financing

Solar financing has come a long way in recent years. You can choose from these options:

  • Cash purchase: This is the cheapest over time, if you have the cash — and it’s also the simplest and fastest way to finance your system.
  • Loan: These days there are all kinds of loans for solar: home equity loans, PACE loans, regular bank loans, loans from installers. Things to compare are terms, interest rates, and origination fees — and watch for any escalation rates or prepayment charges. Because of financing charges, you’ll pay a bit more for a loan over time than for a cash purchase, but you’ll end up owning your system.
  • Lease or PPA: This option will cost you the most over time, but it lets you start saving on your electric bill from Day 1, often with no money down. Leases and PPAs can be hard to compare, because many variables are baked into the numbers. So find the best cash deal, then decide whether to lease your system.

For more on these financing options, see Lease, PPA, or Buy – Oh My!

What about system performance?

Because solar panels don’t differ much, solar systems of the same size will have very similar performance. And how much energy a system will generate is based on a lot of assumptions made by the installer.

Because of that, what you don’t want to compare is projections for system performance — or how much electricity and money your system is expected to save you. Unless the systems are different sizes, you can expect to save the same amount from different systems. This is one case where size does matter.

It’s okay to ask for help

So now when you’re looking at those 10-page quotes, you’ll know what to focus on. Just follow these 4 easy steps to compare your solar quotes.

But you don’t have to go it alone. Domino provides an energy concierge to help consumers navigate the process of going solar, including comparing quotes. Concierges can answer questions at any step — whether it’s about inverters, financing, or anything not on this list.

Photo credit: matthewreid via flickr