5 common traps to avoid when buying solar

Have you been thinking about installing solar on your house? Here are some common traps you should be aware of.

  1. I spoke with a solar salesperson on the phone, who told me they could get me a solar PV system “for free,” or “at no cost to you.”
    This is double-speak for one of two things: either that there will be no cash outlay when you sign the contract, or that your net payments after you install solar will be lower than your typical payments to the power company. Although both the above scenarios could be true, there will be a bill for the solar PV system, one way or the other—either lease payments or loan payments. Buyer beware of any company using these kinds of sales tactics.
  2. I spoke with a solar salesperson on the phone, who told me he would help me qualify for solar incentives.
    This is a line that some companies use to make it seem like there are complex issues to navigate. This is the bottom line: if you install a solar PV system on a home in the United States, you qualify for the Investment Tax Credit, which allows you to subtract 30% of the full system cost from your Federal tax bill. Some municipalities have local incentives. If you live in the municipality, you qualify for the incentives in almost all cases. There are additional incentives for low-income households in San Francisco, which follow a simple formula. All reputable solar installers will ensure that you get the incentives you are entitled to as a matter of course. Anyone who tells you they have special powers in this regard are pulling a fast one.
  3. During a meeting at my house, a solar salesperson told me I could qualify for a substantial discount if I agreed to sign the contract today.
    The system was almost certainly overpriced to begin with, so the salesperson could apply a generous “discount” to put pressure on you. You may often find this tactic combined with calls to “managers,” or to “the warehouse.” These tactics are unethical. You can be almost certain that the new, “discounted” price is not very competitive either.
  4. If I lease my solar panels, I will get cheap power without having to worry about maintenance.
    Your savings will be far greater if you own the system outright. There is next to no maintenance required in the first place, which is further minimized by installing quality components. What the leasing companies don’t tell you is that when you lease, they receive a 30% tax credit on the system in addition to several other incentives. Leasing companies make very large profits on these programs, and you only see minimal savings.
  5. The only way for me to own my solar PV system is to pay cash.
    Not so. Most banks have solar loan programs. You can also use an equity line on your property. (By using equity, the interest on the payments become tax deductible). Also, in most cities in Northern California you can use a program named PACE, which means that you pay for the system over your property taxes. In all cases you own the system, and realize the 30% tax credit. Instead of paying an average cost of 18–20 cents per kilowatt-hour under a lease, you pay under 10 cents per kilowatt-hour on average when you own the system.
  6. All solar systems are about the same.
    There are many solar manufacturers that focus on producing their panels for as little money as possible. The effects of this cost-cutting have the industry as a whole worried. This article from the New York Times sums it up nicely.
  7. All solar warranties are about the same.
    Although most solar manufacturers offer fairly long warranties on their solar panels, they are not the same. As you will see from that article, many companies have comparatively short product warranties. Moreover, many manufacturers only cover the parts and not labor, thereby requiring the homeowner to identify, remove, and ship a faulty component to a service center. Only one company, SUNPOWER, offers a full replacement warranty on their solar panels, which means that a SUNPOWER installer comes to your house, identifies and replaces the component, and leaves without giving you a bill.