You’re thinking about putting solar panels on your roof, but where do you start? Before we dive into our experience, I want to make two points about going solar.
When it comes to solar, every situation is unique.
The system you need may be very different than the system your neighbor needs. There are an incredible number of factors – house orientation, energy usage, roofing structure, budget and retail electric providers (REPs) servicing your area, to name a few – that can affect what is available to you right now and whether it makes sense.
What applies today may not apply in a few months.
The solar industry is rapidly growing and changing. For instance, a handful of years ago leasing panels on your roof was a popular way of going solar. Now, it’s not really recommended. So take older stories (and prices) with a grain of salt and try to talk to people who have had recent experiences or who work in the industry.
Table of Contents
- Collect quotes
- Comparing quotes & selecting an installer
- Contract negotiation & deposit
- More paperwork – HOA documents, city permits and TDU contract
- Post-installation paperwork & inspection
- Switch electricity plans
- Enjoy with a solar party
1. Collect quotes
We collected proposals from three different companies, who were recommended to us by an extremely knowledgeable friend who just wanted us to have a good experience (he wasn’t getting compensated for the referral). We started the process at the beginning of November 2018, which turned out to be perfect timing (more on that later).
If you don’t know anyone who has gotten solar or is in that industry, try looking for solar enthusiast groups on social media platforms like Facebook. Some groups that should be able to help or point you in the right direction are:
In North Texas, there is also the DFW Solar Tour that is put on every year. On the website, you can discover the homes that have solar panels and identify the installers.
Two of the companies who we got quotes from visited our house, where one put up a drone to help create a model of what a potential system for our house could looks like (cool but unnecessary), and one company corresponded with us via phone and email.
In addition to providing an electricity bill and our usage history, we provided these guidelines to the installers:
- We wanted to contain the system to one side of our roof if possible.
- We wanted the system to be able to power our new electric vehicle that we got 4 months earlier. This was important because they couldn’t design a system that covered the past 12 months of our actual electricity usage. We all had to do some math to estimate what 12 months with the car would look like.
- We also wanted to allow for potential future growth. We eventually want to get a second electric vehicle and would love to be creating as much electricity as we use.
- My husband would prefer all black panels (no silver edges) if it was cost-effective. Turns out it certainly wasn’t for us.
- We wanted to have the capability to add a battery for storage later (a battery can cost $15,000 alone so the price automatically put that solution in Phase II of the project for us).
And we got lots of quotes with different solutions that we had to sort through, and most of them contained two great money-saving line items.
Local Oncor rebate
Oncor – the transmission, distribution and utility provider for our area that maintains the electrical infrastructure – has a rebate program to encourage the installation of solar panel systems. They want and need more energy created locally. As North Texas grows, power demand increases, and it’s more cost-effective to create energy here than pipe it in from somewhere far away. It also helps prevent rolling blackouts.
Essentially Oncor starts each year with a pool of money available for new solar installations. Since solar installations take some planning and permitting time, we were contacting solar installers at just the right time (early November) to get a slot for one of these rebates that start being awarded in January of a given year.
On our quotes, the Oncor rebate was an estimate because Oncor had not yet announced its rebate rate. Even after the rate is announced, it’s still an estimate, as Oncor uses a variety of factors when determining the total rebate for a specific project.
Our installer provided a fairly accurate estimate that was only about $100 off. Oncor pays the rebates directly to the installer, so the homeowner is not out any cash up front while it waits reimbursement. Our Oncor rebate ended up being $4,192.92, about $0.48 per watt.
Federal tax credit
The federal government also offers a tax credit for solar installations in what is officially called the solar investment tax credit, or ITC. In 2015 Congress passed a multi-year extension. Here are the rates as they stand in July 2019:
|2019||30% tax credit|
|2022||10% on commercial projects, 0% on residential|
So if your installation in 2019 costs $10,000, then you would get a $3,000 tax credit.
The IRS issued guidance in 2018 for the credit, which said that people can qualify for the tax credit if construction has started in a given year or meets the Five Percent Safe Harbor test. More on that here. And, of course, I am not a CPA. Talk to a professional.
The one caveat to the federal tax credit is the fact that you only see the savings in the following year when you do your taxes. You still have to pay the savings out of pocket when your system is installed and then remember to tell your CPA about the array when tax time rolls around, so you get credit for it on your taxes.
- Get quotes from multiple companies.
- Ask friends or family for referrals. They might get compensated for a referral, so it’s also important to know if that is one incentive behind their recommendation. Some companies might even offer you a discount for being referred as well, so it might be advantageous if you feel 100% comfortable with that installer after meeting with them.
- Research the different incentives offered in your area. Pay attention to whether they are time-sensitive or difficult to secure, and whether you are responsible for some of the money up front. There may be incentives you are unaware of so be sure to ask around.
2. Comparing quotes & selecting an installer
This was a tricky part of the process. First, installers are likely to provide 2 systems of different sizes to give you an idea of what your dollars can get you. But, the installers are not necessarily going to provide you with the same size systems as one another or use the same technology.
Right now, there are primarily two types of technologies that convert the power from the panels from DC to AC used on residential solar systems:
- One central inverter for your entire solar array, with optional power optimizers on each panel to monitor the activity for each panel. Also called a hybrid system in some circles.
- Microinverters for each panel on your roof
There are some helpful, educational videos on YouTube if you want to learn more about the different inverter systems.
We received multiple quotes from each company but to make sure we were comparing apples to apples, we looked at the estimates for the similarly sized systems. This wasn’t an issue since they both were trying to cover our annual needs based on our home usage and the addition of an EV.
After initial meetings with the three companies, we ruled one out since we didn’t think we were a good match for one another.
Here were the final contenders’ estimates:
|Good Faith Energy||Axium Solar|
|System size||8.58 kW||8.1 kW|
|Est. first-year production||13,159 kWh||12,652 kW|
|Cost before incentives & rebates||$28,111* |
*included $1,620 for a Critter Guard
|Cost after Oncor rebate and federal tax credit (30%)||$16,675||$14,798|
|Estimated payback period||8.8 years||~9 years|
These systems were as close as we were going to get from competing installers. The chart above does not account for the difference in technology, outlined below.
I’ll take this opportunity to again emphasize that each situation is unique, so you should not expect these companies to provide this exact solution at this exact price to you.
|Panels||26 Panasonic N330s||27 Trina TSM-300DD05A.05(II) panels|
|Inverter||26 Enphase IQ7x microinverters||1 SolarEdge central inverter, SE7600H-US|
While the Axium PDF didn’t state that it included 27 power optimizers, I’m nearly positive those were included in the quote. We would not have seriously considered the proposal otherwise, as power optimizers provide panel-by-panel monitoring information and stop the system from acting like Christmas lights – when one panel stops working, the whole system stops.
At this point, we made a list of questions and scheduled follow-up calls with each solar company. We were thorough.
Here’s a partial list of what we asked:
- How much do you charge to remove the panels to work on the roof?
- Every roof will need to be replaced eventually. We wanted to have some idea about how that process would work.
- What are the product warranties? Are there labor warranties included from the manufacturers? How long are the manufacturer warranties?
- Manufacturers often include warranties on their products but not necessarily on the labor to remove & replace panels/parts.
- Who designs your systems?
- You want a licensed engineer that will design it.
- What type of maintenance or cleaning is required? Are any maintenance services included? If not, who should I contact?
- If the company fails, who should I contact regarding panel and inverter warranties and replacement?
- Why do you prefer the type of inverter you included in the proposal?
- How do we monitor production of panels after installation?
- What does “flush mount” mean?
- As of right now, best practices dictate the panels be a few inches off of a roof to provide airflow to help cool panels in hot weather. One reason we asked this was because “flush mount” was mentioned on one company’s proposal but not the other. Turns out both companies install panels correctly but describe it a little differently on their consumer-facing paperwork.
- If there is a blackout or brownout, what will happen to my system?
- What’s the degradation on the panels after 25 years?
- What types of electricity plans are there for solar panels?
- This is a big one because only in certain parts of Texas do we have the ever-beneficial net metering, where residents can get credit on their electricity bills for electricity they generate and send to the grid. Net metering is also called a buyback program.
- The plans that are right for you will depend on the size of the system you can afford to install and how much electricity you use during daylight vs. nighttime.
After getting satisfactory answers from both Good Faith and Axium, we were stuck. Both were reputable installers with knowledgeable reps. Both had competitive prices. Which way to go?
We were having heartburn over which type of system to go with – microinverter vs. central inverter – because we didn’t want to bet on the wrong technology, and both seemed evenly matched with their pros and cons. I mentioned this to our solar aficionado friend, and he pointed out that there wasn’t a clear winner right now; otherwise, one would’ve taken over the market. Diplomatically, he was saying either would be fine – you can chill out.
So we went back and looked more closely at the manufacturers’ warranties. The microinverters had a 25-year warranty when the central inverter only had a 15-year warranty. You can buy an extended warranty for the central inverter but we probably didn’t realize it at the time (information overload). Plus, a larger system was more attractive. We were shooting for net zero consumption on an annual basis – consume what create over the course of a year – and I’d rather have a slightly oversized system than undersized.
So we moved forward with Good Faith Energy.
During this time, we also researched which retail electric providers, such as Green Mountain Energy or Reliant, had solar energy buy-back plans and called home insurance companies to get an idea of how solar panels would affect our rate.
- Try to compare estimates of systems that are close in size.
- Ask lots of questions.
- Process the information and ask more questions.
- At this stage, you should also figure out who your retail electric provider will be and collect quotes for home insurance.
- Make sure you’re completely comfortable with your selected installer.
3. Contract negotiation & deposit
Once we told Good Faith we were moving forward, it was time to review and sign the contract, as well as pay 20% down.
We did not negotiate the price, but we did request changes to the contract.
Here are the few things we asked to be removed:
- A paragraph that gave access to a heavy truck weighing up to 80,000 pounds and said they weren’t responsible for any damage from driving across a lawn, driveway or sidewalk. Turns out a heavy truck was not needed for our project, so this part was struck from the contract.
- A clause that said we waived our right to receive a list of subcontractors and suppliers.
In Texas, contractors are required to include the Residential Disclosure Statement, or Sec. 53.255 of the Texas Property Code. If this is not included in a contract from an installer, run. If it is, read it! We sure did.
One specific sentence caught our eye:
“Under Texas law, on final completion of the work and before final payment, the contractor is required to furnish you with an affidavit stating that all bills have been paid. If the contractor discloses any unpaid bill in the affidavit, you should withhold payment in the amount of the unpaid bill until you receive a waiver of lien or release from that subcontractor or supplier.”
When we signed the contract, we told Good Faith that we would be requesting this affidavit once the work was complete. We did this to make sure that no unpaid contractors or suppliers would place a lien on our house if Good Faith did not pay them for whatever reason.
While we trusted Good Faith would pay all its contractors and suppliers, we were protecting ourselves by taking this step. We did not want to pay for solar panels two times over. Since Good Faith did not balk at this stage when we said we would request the affidavit and then they later provided one that said all bills were paid without fuss, they demonstrated their trustworthiness and willingness to work with us.
Another part of the Residential Disclosure Statement stood out too:
“During construction and for 30 days after final completion, termination, or abandonment of the contract by the contractor, you should withhold or cause your lender to withhold 10 percent of the amount of payments made for the work performed by your contractor. This is sometimes referred to as statutory retainage. If you choose not to withhold the 10 percent for at least 30 days after final completion, termination, or abandonment of the contract by the contractor and if a valid claim is timely made by a claimant and your contractor fails to pay the claim, you may be personally liable and your property may be subject to a lien up to the amount that you failed to withhold.”
After we read this, we decided to request changes to the payment schedule and structure to make sure we did not pay the last 10% until we received the affidavit. Since we were requesting changes, we also asked to include verbiage saying we would not pay the final 10% until after our city and Oncor (our TDU) completed their final inspections.
With some changes accepted, some rejected and some amendments made, we signed the contract.
- Know your rights! The Texas Residential Disclosure Statement should be included in the contract, and you should read your rights so you can decide whether you want to exercise them.
- Kindly request changes to the contract if you are uncomfortable with the verbiage. If you don’t feel comfortable or confident reading and understanding the contract, pay an attorney a few hundred dollars to do it for you. It’s a worthwhile investment.
4. More paperwork – HOA documents, city permits and TDU contract
And just when you think you’re done with paperwork, there’s more! Besides scheduling a site assessment to make sure there aren’t any unexpected hurdles for the installation, there are more forms to fill and sign.
First, we live in a neighborhood with a homeowners association. So we needed to get signoff from our architectural committee before Good Faith could install anything.
The good news about that? Texas Property Code Sec. 202.010 dictates that HOAs and POAs cannot prohibit or restrict a property owner from installing solar energy devices. There are exceptions, one of which is installing them without prior approval by the HOA, so just do what you’re supposed to if you have an HOA – submit the form and get approval. If you want an explanation of this property code section, check out GoSolar Texas’ page on the topic.
Good Faith filled out our property modification request form, so all we had to do was sign and submit it. We sent it in on Dec. 19 and got approval back on Jan. 2 – a great response time!
Second, Good Faith prepared a packet of documents for us to sign to apply for our permit from the city. We had to do this twice (the second was actually an addendum to our original application) due to an unforeseen change of plans, discussed in the next section.
Third, we had to sign what’s called a tariff application with Oncor. I’m still unclear on why it’s called a tariff agreement but it was a simple document that also had the title “Application for Interconnection and Parallel Operation of Distributed Generation” on it. The document told Oncor that we, the homeowners, had hired Good Faith to install solar panels and included the type of equipment that would be installed.
- The contract is just the first of many documents you’ll be signing.
- Try to get your HOA or POA application in as soon as you can because you don’t know how long it’ll take for the architectural committee to approve it (or any issues you’ll run into).
Somewhere in the midst of all of the paperwork, we got some unpleasant news. Due to a shortage of a certain part that goes into the Enphase microinverters, there was a national shortage of the ones we were going to purchase. They could not be used in our solar array if we wanted to still install in early 2019.
Good Faith communicated our options:
- Wait for Enphase to ramp production back up but we would miss the window to take advantage of the Oncor rebate, raising our price by about $4,000.
- Go with a different microinverter, the Chilicon CP-720. The inverters are designed to convert the energy from two panels, instead of the usual one panel per microinverter.
- Switch to SolarEdge central inverter (SE7600H-US) with DC optimizers (P370). This is the setup Axium offered us. We’d still have the ability to monitor each panel individually with the power optimizers, and we’d have one inverter instead of 13 or 26 that the other options provided.
Initially, we felt stuck and considered backing out. We had already stressed about the inverter decision, and this was a big change to make after we had already started the process.
We researched Chilicon and asked lots of questions about their product. We also asked more questions about the SolarEdge solution.
After a few days, one of the options felt like the clear winner: switch to the SolarEdge central inverter and use DC optimizers. SolarEdge has a solid reputation and we were more familiar with their company and products by this time, so it was the most comfortable option for us.
Good Faith agreed to buy the extended warranty for the central inverter so we would have a 25-year warranty instead of the standard 12-year warranty. This way our whole system would be covered for 25 years since optimizers and panels already come with a 25-year warranty. No change to the cost, and our install date would be pushed back a little, with new engineering designs drawn up and an amended permitting application sent to the city. However, we would still receive the Oncor rebate. Woo! We’re back on track.
- If something unexpected arrises, take a deep breath and take your time to make a decision that feels right for you.
We finally got here – and this was the easy part! We had a crew of around 7 working all day to install the rack on the roof, wiring, solar panels and Critter Guard. Since they needed access to our attic, we had to be home. Even if they didn’t need access, we still would’ve been there to answer any questions and supervise the process.
It took them the day to install everything and clean up. After they left, we noticed the way the Critter Guard was originally installed wouldn’t keep critters out. But we talked with our contact, and a Good Faith crew was out the next day to fix it. The responsiveness impressed us, and we were so excited to have a working system installed.
- Make a point to be there for the installation and inform the crew of anything they need to know that is particular to your house.
- Inspect the installation once the team is done to make sure there are no glaring errors that might hurt you down the road.
7. Post-installation paperwork & inspection
After the installation, we still had a few things to do to make it official, including:
- Signing a one-page Installation Notice for Oncor, certifying the panels had been installed.
- Collecting our warranty certificates from Good Faith for our records.
- Waiting for our Permission to Operate (PTO) letter from Oncor that allows us to use our solar panels on the grid and get credit from our retail electricity provider for any excess energy we create. Here was the exact wording: “Once the Interconnection Agreement is Approved/PTO granted, and the Oncor meter is reprogrammed, your Load Profile will be updated at the beginning of your next full billing cycle. At that time, Oncor will begin reporting any excess generation. It is the customer’s responsibility to contact their Retail Electric Provider about any buyback programs available.” We received our PTO letter a day after we signed the Installation Notice.
- Passing a final inspection from the city. Good Faith was there for the inspection, which was scheduled about 2 weeks after installation. It happened without fanfare.
- Paying our final installment to Good Faith.
8. Switch electricity plans
As soon as you have the PTO, you can officially switch your electricity plan with a retail electric provider. We waited for the sign-off from the city before we did this on the offhand chance that a problem needed to be resolved.
We went with Green Mountain’s Renewable Rewards® buyback plan, which allows us to receive a full bill credit for any extra energy we send to the grid. They are essentially paying us the same amount we pay them for any extra electricity we generate.
Since we had already done our research before we signed a contract with Good Faith, this was just as simple as calling Green Mountain and requesting the plan change.
This did take some time to go into effect, because they waited for the current billing cycle to end before we started our new electricity plan.
9. Enjoy with a solar party
Because I’m always looking for any excuse to plan a party, we celebrated with a fun get-together for our friends and family. Plus, multiple friends had expressed interest in learning about solar systems and seeing what equipment was installed, so we decided it would be more fun to throw a bash for everyone.
We served tasty snacks and delicious beverages using compostable cutlery, plates and cups. For grins, we set up a photo station, and everyone was in for a treat when our friends brought their Tesla Model X and entertained everyone with its dance.
If you have specific questions or would like the contact information of the people I’ve interacted with, email me.