Be a Smart Solar Buyer: The Devil is in the Details, Part I

So, you are thinking about solar panels for your roof. You know they drastically reduce your electricity bill and they are among the most environmentally friendly technologies on the market. You are ready to start your search…

..but what if you don’t know anything about solar? How do you know where to begin? A panel is a panel, right? How will you know if you’re making the best decision for your home?

The great news is, solar is a pretty simple, safe, and straightforward technology. It’s been around a long time, there are no moving parts to maintain, and at a basic level, most of the solar systems you research are fairly similar. But there are a lot of details to be aware of that make a difference in the appearance and performance of a solar system. It’s important to know the right questions to ask in order to effectively evaluate your solar system options.

Every installer you reach out to will start the process by asking YOU some questions. They want to know these simple pieces of information:

  • How much energy your property consumes in a year
  • Your home physical address so that they can determine east/west or north/south orientation

Once they know these details, installers are quite capable of mapping out the solar potential for your property. But what the final product will look like on your property, and how it will perform now and in the future, can vary quite a bit depending on the company you choose to work with.

Now it’s your turn to ask questions.

Equipment Specifications

Even if you don’t plan on spending hours researching the pros and cons of each solar panel on the market, it is important that you ask for the details of each piece of equipment the installer plans on using. Ask for the brand and model number of both the solar panels and the inverters. Find out the specifications of the panels—how efficient are they at converting sun power into electricity? The industry standard hovers around 20% efficiency—some panels are 18% efficient, while others are 21%. This may seem like a small difference, but over 30 years’ time it adds up to major differences in energy output from your panels. How much do the solar panels degrade over time? All panels lose a small amount of output power after years of sitting out in the sun—how much will your proposed panels degrade? How well do they perform in high heat (i.e. Virginia summers)? Also ask for information about the mounting system, which are the mounts/rails that the panels rest on.

All solar systems come with production monitoring software, which reports how much power your solar PV system is producing every hour of every day. You might want to ask the installer to show you a demo of the software.

Some companies also offer consumption monitoring capability, which allows you to see how much power your home is consuming in real-time. You can overlay solar production figures on top of home consumption figures to see if you are pulling power from your utility or if you are exporting extra power to the grid. Some companies charge extra for consumption monitoring; others offer it free of charge. It is not a necessary piece of the system, but many people think consumption monitoring is a must-have feature.

Once you know this information you can compare proposals from different solar installers, and you have the opportunity to do a little bit of research on the equipment if you choose.


Find out the manufacturer’s warranty on each piece of equipment—each component of the system usually has a different warranty timeline—and ask whether there are extended warranty options. Also find out the company’s installation warranty, which is always much shorter than equipment warranties.

Again, this information lets your compare different proposals more easily. This also gives you an idea of why some solar panels cost more and some cost less. As with any piece of equipment, the higher quality, more efficient, more advanced technology panels cost more, but should also have a better warranty.

These are some questions to get you started on solar panel specifics. In Part II of this post, we will talk about solar system aesthetics.

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