A Panel Discussion

As the population continues to grow at a record pace across Austin and Central Texas, a lesser discussed growth is also humming along in the background: the popularity of solar panels. “In Austin alone, four to five people a day are going solar,” says Kyle Frazier, acting director of sales for Freedom Solar Power. “In a given month, 150 to 200 applications are received by Austin Energy.”

For those interested in going solar, there’s a host of factors to consider before making an investment that can run upwards of $30,000. First, can the roof handle it? To find out, begin by looking up to see what, if anything, shades the roof—trees, power poles, water towers, a chimney or even a neighbor’s home can cast shadows. If the roof is clear of shadows, is it big enough to fit solar panels, and what direction does the roof face? “The orientation of the roof matters,” says Frazier. “South-facing is ideal because that’s where you get the most sunlight. But east and west also work.” What material is the roof? Some metal roofs are not compatible with panels. Is there any roof damage that needs to be addressed prior to the installation of panels, and is the current electrical system up to code? The National Electric Code changes every three years and, according to Longhorn Solar, knowing this up front can prevent changes to your installation that could be costly.

Once the roof is given the all-clear, it’s time to consider your budget and the number of solar panels you’ll need. Experts say to begin by looking over the electric bill. “Homeowners should know what their total usage is for the past 12 months in kilowatt-hours (kWh) and be prepared to share that information with the contractors they’re seeking bids from,” says Steve Petrik, director of business development at Longhorn Solar. “That will help determine the maximum system size needed to offset 100 percent of their electric bill.” Of course, that high electric bill could be caused by an already energy-inefficient home. Austin-based TreeHouse, an eco-friendly hardware and home store, says there’s not much use in putting solar on a house that is fairly inefficient from an energy perspective. Owners of homes built before 1990 are encouraged to consider basic improvements “like adding insulation, replacing windows or upgrading the HVAC systems,” says Graeme Waitzkin, TreeHouse vice president of operations.

Like most home-improvement projects, in the end, it all comes down to money: What can you afford? “Solar in Texas is an investment that pays back over time,” says Waitzkin. “Homeowners should either have enough cash set aside for the project, or have good credit to qualify for financing through their bank or the solar company.” Much of the cost for solar depends on the number of panels installed on a roof. At TreeHouse, the smallest array of nine panels starts around $7,500 and the largest goes up to $30,000 (not including installation). Tax credits can offset the cost, but not everyone qualifies—asking a tax professional before getting started can help. “The federal Investment Tax Credit equals 30 percent of their out-of-pocket cost,” says Petrik. “This reduces the net cost to around $10,000 to $18,000 when it’s all said and done.” Longhorn Solar recommends asking contractors to project the ROI (return on investment) and the factors used to land at that number, such as the current utility rate, the projected utility escalation rate and the projected system production. TreeHouse finds that after all these factors, as well as financing and buy-backs from the grid are taken into consideration, a customer’s bill can run between $30 and $100 per month.

Of course, buyer beware—while solar panels offer a virtually maintenance-free investment that’s projected to last 25 or more years, warranties on the panels vary; if something goes wrong, costs can add up quickly. Freedom Solar Power recommends that all customers get three warranties: product, performance and labor. “Most traditional panels have a 25-year power warranty and a 10-year product warranty—that’s an industry standard,” says Frazier. “But often, there’s no warranty offered on labor and that’s a problem, because if a panel is damaged, the manufacturer will replace the panel under the warranty but won’t pay for the labor, and the labor can sometimes cost as much as the panel.”

Making the sun an energy ally is a smart choice for the environment and your wallet. Just make sure you’re prepared before taking the leap.

Questions and Resources

There are lots of solar companies seeking your business. What questions should you ask? Here’s a list of recommendations from Longhorn Solar.

• If you don’t have a referral from a trusted source, seek multiple bids.

• Ask how long a company has been in business and how many installations they’ve completed—total installs as well as installs in your city/utility. This demonstrates their familiarity with local code and rebate requirements.

• Ask where a company is based. Experts strongly advise homeowners to buy from a local contractor. Austin Energy and CPS Energy in San Antonio have both put out announcements about out-of-state contractors operating in the local markets and what to watch out for. You can find this information on their websites, as well as a list of approved solar contractors.

• Ask prospective companies if they subcontract the installation to another company and who that subcontractor is. Are they an approved contractor as well? Who is the workmanship warranty with? Ask the same questions of the subcontractor, as well.

• Ask if the companies offer any kind of a performance guarantee. If so, how long and what does it cover? If not, why not?

• Ask to see a list of licenses, industry certifications and insurances. Good contractors will readily provide this information.

• Ask if they offer financing and what terms are available.

• Make sure the proposals and contracts you sign clearly outline all of the major system components with corresponding model numbers. This is critical for assessing resale value if and when that day comes.

• Read reviews on Google, Yelp and SolarReviews.com instead of relying on handpicked references from the contractor.

By Kate West