If you’re considering installing a PV (photovoltaic) system, there are several important factors to take into account before making a decision. In this article, we’ll provide you with 12 essential things you need to know before installing a PV system to help you make an informed decision and ensure a successful installation process. Whether you’re a homeowner or a business owner, this guide will provide you with the knowledge you need to make the most of solar energy and save money on your electricity bills.
Factors to Consider Before Installing a PV System
Here’s a list of all the things you need to do:
1. Perform an energy audit
You must determine exactly how much energy you use and where it is going before you even begin to build your solar system. This is crucial if you choose a time-of-use (TOU) rate structure because you can learn a lot of useful tips on how to use electricity differently throughout the day.
Some states require an energy audit before you can buy a solar system. California is making this a requirement if you want to collect their sizable rebate. Why? It’s not really in the interest of your contractor to help you reduce your power consumption because that means they’ll be selling you a smaller system. But you get a much better payback by conserving before buying a big PV system. Plus it’s in society’s best interest to use as little power as possible. Hey, the government is subsidizing you, so they have a right to tell you what to do — and besides, they’re right.
2. Decide how much to invest and how to finance it
You must also collect cost and performance estimates for PV systems, including the following:
• PV system costs, lifetimes, expansion potentials, warranty and so on: The best bet is to call contractors and have a preliminary conversation about these issues. They’ll know all the rebates, subsidies and tax credits because it helps them sell systems. They’ll come to your house and be very nice about assisting you because they know this is a big investment and they’re going to have to do a bang-up sales job. Don’t be shy about exercising these people — if they don’t want to help you and answer difficult questions, find somebody who will.
• Rate structures: Find out which structures you’ll qualify for after the equipment is in place. Your current structure may not be applicable anymore. Can you change structures later if you don’t like the one you’re in? Can your utility company change structures for you later? You may find yourself in a real bind if you install a system under a certain rate structure but then you get a nice letter from your utility informing you that they’re changing your status.
• Review the physical installation options: How much roof space will a system take up? Do you have a suitable roof, facing approximately south? If not, you may have to ground mount which is more expensive, plus visually questionable for the neighbors. What condition is your roof in? If you need a new roof, you should probably take care of that first, because the roof job will be a lot more expensive if you have to have the PV panels removed (the roofers will certainly not do it) by a contractor and then replaced at the end of the job.
• Work out the cash flow for the investment: You’ll probably have to make a down payment (typically $1,000) at contract signing. Then you’ll have to pay somewhere like half the remaining balance at the beginning of the installation. As soon as the system is in place, the other half is due. Make sure to find out when the system will begin producing power. You may have a gap in time between your last payment to the contractor and the utility approving your system, at which point you can turn it on.
You won’t accrue the benefit of tax breaks until your next tax filing, which can take over a year or more. Are rebates payable to you or the contractor? In California, rebates are paid directly to the contractor, so they’re not part of your cash flow at all.
3. Locate contractors and go out for formal bids
You should speak to as many contractors as you can. Get them to visit your home so they can take a closer look at your problem. Until they do, they can’t offer you a precise estimate. Every price they provide you over the phone is merely an estimate. Say goodbye just before you hang up if they inform you that it isn’t.
4. Choose the best contractor and write the contract
At this point, you’ll probably have to write a check for a down payment. It is important to have a lawyer review any contract before signing it to ensure that it is legally binding and protects your interests.
5. Wait for equipment to arrive
The equipment is rarely stocked. Wait for building permit approvals, financial aid, tax incentives and other things. Be prepared for this to take at least six weeks.
6. Allow for installation and inspections by the county and utility company
The average installation process lasts a few days. The county inspectors will look at your system and certify it. The utility company is very concerned with your system because you’ll be feeding potentially dangerous power back into their grid. If a utility employee is working on the grid somewhere nearby, he or she could get a nasty shock from your system if it’s not shut down.
7. Wait for the utility to put in a new meter and connect to the grid
The utility company installs a new power meter and formally connects you once everything is prepared. You are now involved in the power generation industry. Woohoo!
8. Get a tutorial on how to operate your system
The contractor must demonstrate the entire system to you and go through its risks and recommended use. You should be aware of potential issues and how to spot them. You may now see the numbers being generated on your inverter’s display. What the figures signify should be explained by your contractor.
9. Submit any paperwork to utilities, states and so on for final rebate payments.
Rebates aren’t payable until the system is in place and working properly. If your contractor is receiving the rebate directly, you don’t need to do anything. If you’re receiving it, you want to get it as fast as possible.
10. Change your household habits to optimize system payback
Up to this point, everything has been educated speculation. Now reality sets in. Is your system operating the way it should? The way it’s capable? Are you using power at the right times of the day? Are your savings what you thought they should be? If you’re on a tiered or TOU rate structure, you will probably need to change some of your consumption habits to capitalize. Talk to your contractor about the things you can do and if the system is not producing the way it was projected why that may be the case. Most of the time, it’s not the system but the operation that is causing the discrepancy.
11. Maintain and repair the system
In Murphy’s immortal words, “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.” Unlike most other investments, PV system problems are entirely yours to solve. Even if you’re under warranty, you have to call the contractor and notify him; he has no idea of knowing when your system is broken.
12. Expand in the future
The best tact (strictly from an investment standpoint) is to install a smaller system than you think you need and allow for the possibility of future expansion. You can easily do this by purchasing an inverter larger than you need and adding more solar panels later, perhaps when energy costs rise.
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