The best solar companies aren’t necessarily the biggest.
A lot has changed in the last few years and the best solar companies in 2019 aren’t the same as in past years. While once the industry was dominated by nationwide, lease-wielding installer/financiers like SolarCity and Sunrun, today smaller solar panel installers are taking the lead. Let’s take a look at which solar panel installation companies you need to look out for as well, as well as how to find the best solar company for you.
It’s No Longer Just Sunrun and Tesla
You probably came for a list of the best solar companies in the US, but that’s really impossible. Why, you ask? Because there are simply too many great installers to list.
Back in 2015, when big solar installers ruled the solar industry and every homeowner wanted to finance with a solar lease (due to the high cost of installing solar as well as the heavy marketing), creating a list of the best solar companies was easy. All we had to do was simply name the three biggest solar companies in the industry. Still today, those names are quickly familiar: Sunrun, SolarCity (now Tesla), and Vivint.
However, times have changed. Installation costs in 2019 have dropped a shocking 63% since 2010 and the technology has become so ubiquitous across the country. Solar panels are more attainable than ever before.
With these lower costs, more homeowners are finding the solar lease unnecessary, and even counterintuitive. Installing solar is after all, a way to save money, so why choose a financing mechanism that adds additional cost?
These days, owning your own system is king (either via cash or a loan) and you don’t need a lease to finance solar. And with this change, the solar industry is becoming dominated by smaller local solar installers who don’t have the capacity, capital, or interest to offer leasing.
So whereas in the past when solar leasing was the only option, all you could do was roll the dice on a large solar installer and pray to the solar gods that you’d have a decent customer experience. Today though, you’ll be happy to know that’s just not the case anymore. If you’re not taking out a lease (and we really hope you don’t), you’ve got your pick of the litter!
With the solar industry becoming more localized over the past few years, creating a ‘best of’ list that’s actually useful for homeowners across the country is virtually impossible, as the list would be different in every city.
That being said, what you’re looking for in a solar company is the same as anywhere else: you want exceptional customer service, fast turnaround, and competitive prices.
And of course, just like any home improvement project, you’ll want to talk to several installers to compare pricing, service, and savings. Ask friends and family or, even easier, just look at reviews on Yelp and Google. Of course, the easiest way is to simply let us do the hard work for you.
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The Best Solar Companies in 2019 Are Local Businesses
To give you some context around what a ‘best of’ solar company looks like, here’s just a handful from four of the US’ biggest metro areas (New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Washington DC). Being smaller, local companies, many of them see fewer reviews than the nationwide chains, but what’s there is excellent. (All review data is valid as of January 2019.)
- Sunrise Solar Solutions: If you’re in the New York Tri-State area, take a look at Sunrise Solar Solutions. They see a perfect score on Yelp (5 out of 5 stars, based on 12 reviews) and customers varyingly praise the installer for seamless installation experiences, excellent post-installation support and repair, and system design so that homeowners see that greatest – and fastest – financial payback. That kind of customer attention is what you’re looking for!
- Ipsun Solar: Washington DC homeowners love Ipsun and rate it 5 out of 5 stars (based on 10 reviews). Customers report their staff is responsive and thorough, without any sales pressure – quite a rarity in the solar industry. Their installers are tidy, quick, and professional. Customer after customer praises their near-perfect customer service – even after the installation is complete.
- LA Solar Group: Serving the Los Angeles area, LA Solar Group enjoys an incredible 5 star rating out of a whopping 300+ reviews! Homeowners praise the company’s accurate production estimates, low-pressure salespeople, and fast installation time. Exactly what you’re looking for, with a perfect score to match.
- Good Faith Energy: Good Faith Energy installs solar as well as EV charging equipment and smart home equipment in the Dallas/Ft Worth area. Customers praise their management and customer service, saying the employees generally care about you and your home. Can’t get better than that. On Yelp, they have 4.5 out of 5 stars, based on 13 reviews.
Despite these companies having little name recognition, their great reviews and happy customers allow us to recommend them! Of course, just because a company has branches across the US doesn’t mean they can’t also provide great service, but it’s more hit-and-miss branch to branch and review scores are generally much lower for nationwide installers. Let’s take a look at reviews for individual branches of Sunrun, SolarCity, and Vivint.
- Sunrun, Sacramento: Thirty-two reviewers have left Yelp feedback on Sunrun’s Sacramento branch, which sees an average review of 2.5 out of 5 stars. Reviews run the gamut from praising professional, knowledgeable sales staff (of which there are many at Sunrun) to horror stories of both terrible customer experiences and poorly installed systems. At a branch like this, where experiences are so polarized, a good salesperson can either make or break your experience, so best to get a referral from a friend. Sunrun’s Denver branch and Burbank branch fair better, both seeing 3.5 stars, but their reviews are still not quite up to the companies above.
- Vivint Solar, Salt Lake City: On the extreme low end comes Vivint Solar’s hometown branch of Salt Lake City. The branch sees a dismal 1.5 out of 5 stars, based on 14 reviews. Customers continually complain of dodgy sales tactics and extremely poor customer service, with one waiting six months+ for a maintenance call. Best to stay away from this branch. Unfortunately, Vivint doesn’t fair too well in other areas either, with both their Fresno, CA branch and Mesa, AZ branch suffering from 2 star reviews.
- Tesla, Los Angeles: Like the other national companies above, SolarCity/Tesla suffers from extremely polarized reviews. Customers either love them and praise their work, or absolutely hate them with a vengeance. Case in point, 190 customers have left Tesla’s Los Angeles branch reviews. Sixty-two left a perfect 5 stars, while 111 left 1 star (the worst possible rating, as zero stars isn’t an option). That leaves just 17 reviewers who gave 2 to 4 stars. Complaints range from poor customer service to roof damage with an accompanying refusal to fix. Generally speaking, if nothing goes wrong, customers have a great experience. However, if something unexpected comes up, be prepared for a headache. Other SolarCity branches suffer from similar scores. Their Pethpage, NY branch sees 1.5 stars and their Phoenix branch sees 2.5 stars.
Of course, there are also local companies out there that also see terrible reviews. So what to take away from all this? No matter if the installer has one branch or two hundred, it’s all about the individuals you work with.
Again, we strongly recommend to research the companies online, read reviews, and seek multiple estimates from 3 to 4 companies. Talking to several companies isn’t just to get a feel for your costs, but you can also feel out the sales reps and how the company does business, all before you sign the contract.
The Benefits of a Local Solar Panel Installer
In 2015, those three big integrators (SolarCity/Tesla, Sunrun, and Vivint) accounted for 59% of the residential solar market. Fast forward to Q1 2018 (the last period we have data for) and their collective share has dropped to just 33%. That leaves 66% of the residential market open.
Who’s installing all that solar, you might ask? These are small solar panel installers that do not provide any financing themselves. In other words, local companies that focus on a specific city or state and that can’t (or don’t want to) offer solar leases.
As we’ve seen, in 2019 these big, nationwide installers don’t provide the best customer service. If you’re dead-set on financing your solar installation via a solar lease, Sunrun, Tesla, or Vivint is probably your best option, as most smaller installers don’t offer this option.
However, smaller installers can typically provide more attentive service, as they’re working with fewer customers in a much smaller geographic area. They know all the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the local utilities and building departments, as well as any special regulations or requirements that needs to be met, and can typically move projects along quicker.
On top of that, large installers generally quote costs at 10% more than smaller installers, likely due to their higher marketing and customer acquisition costs. NREL compared installation costs between large and small installers, publishing the study in 2017, and found this difference works out to $0.33/watt. That probably doesn’t sound like much, but for an average-sized installation it’s equivalent to just over $2,000 more.
So when going solar, don’t overlook the little companies! You might just have a better experience, faster installation, and lower cost.
Why You Should Go Solar in 2019
If you’re wondering why you should install solar in 2019, wonder no more! There’s a major reason to take care of it now, instead of next year.
Federal tax credit is expiring
Here’s your official warning. The federal income tax credit, now worth 30% of your installation cost, will decrease at the end of 2019. If you install before the end of the year, you’re sill eligible, but the credit decreases to 26% in 2020, so do it now! A 3% drop probably doesn’t sound like a lot, but for the average-sized system, that’s about $560.
A word of warning: Many solar installers won’t tell you this, but this federal income tax credit is non-refundable. If at tax time you owe the feds less than the credit is worth, your taxes will only drop to zero. They won’t cut you a check for the deficit. However, they will allow you to break the credit out into chunks over several years if you don’t owe enough in the first year.
If you’re on a reduced income or retired, keep this in mind and talk to your tax preparer before relying on this tax credit!
Going solar is still a strong investment
With the rising cost of electricity and the continually dropping cost of solar, going solar is a better investment than ever.
Homeowners in states with lots of strong sunshine and/or great financial incentives (net metering being the most important) – think California, Massachusetts, and Colorado – are going to come out further ahead than those in states without the above qualifications. In fact, if your state doesn’t have any net metering, your solar industry is probably pretty small.
Let’s take a look at a quick example to see what kind of savings you could see. Solar panels produce varying amounts of electricity depending on the location, but we’ll use US national averages from the US EIA and National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) for as much as possible:
- Average utility electricity rate: $0.13 per kilowatt-hour
- Average yearly increase in utility price: 2.9%
- Size of solar installation: 5 kilowatts
- Installation cost: $2.70 per watt ($13,500 for the 5 kW system above)
Averaging out estimated production of a 5 kW installation in each state, we find that an ‘average’ 5 kW installation produces 7,111 kilowatt-hours a year. Over its entire lifespan, that installation should produce 161,000 kWh of electricity – all for $13,500. If you bought all that electricity from the utility over 25 years, you’d spend $29,900. So you’ve saved $16,400 with a 13 year payback.
Of course, your own situation will surely be different, but the simple math shows the power of solar on your wallet. And you might not have even noticed, but we didn’t even take the federal tax credit into account! If we added on that, your savings would be blown through the roof.
Tips to Find the Best Solar Panel Installation Company
The best solar salespeople can explain the benefits and innerworkings of a solar installation clearly and succinctly. But even still, all the little details and data points can quickly add up and make your head spin. Kilowatts, kilowatt-hours, degradation, utility rates increases, avoided cost, savings, tax credits. It’s all rather a lot.
As a homeowner, here are a few tips to keep your head from spinning when it comes to install solar:
Get Multiple Quotes
We’ve said this again and again, but it bears repeating. Don’t just go with the first company you talk to and don’t just take your neighbor’s word for it, even if they claim they had the best experience in the world (you know most installers give money for referrals, right?)
Getting several quotes not only allows you to compare cost and equipment, but it also allows you to see how the company does business. Are they pushy know-it-alls, or do they actually listen to you?
Meeting with companies for a face-to-face sales call allows you to weigh both their cost/savings estimate as well as their customer experience. Unexpected hiccups frequently arise when installing solar, from utility red tape to roof issues, and your salesperson can be your knight in shining armor continually pushing your project forward or simply a dead weight.
Thankfully, getting quotes from multiple installers is extremely easy and always free. On their first meeting, they’ll give your roof a quick assessment, run through equipment options, and give you ballpark figures for both cost and savings. Enter your info below to get started and find the best local solar installation company today.
Read online reviews of your local branch
Like we saw for Sunrun and Tesla above, customer review scores can fluctuate from branch to branch. If you decide to work with a major installer with several branches, be sure to read reviews of your local branch. Yelp and Google are your best friends in this scenario, as users can leave feedback for a specific branch, not just the company as a whole.
If you’re working with a local company, finding reviews is obviously much easier, as they’ll all be relevant.
Focus on what’s important
Listening to your salesperson, you can easily get bogged down in the details. They even might try to upsell you on panels or inverters. Certainly listen to them, but just remember to focus in on the two most important points: financial savings and great customer service.
While it may look simple from the homeowner’s point of view, installing solar is actually a complex process involving salespeople, project managers, engineers, building departments, utilities, and installers. Your project goes through many hands before it gets to your roof, so a solar installer that you can trust to do the right thing and do it well is an indispensable asset. This is why getting multiple quotes and reading reviews is so important.
Solar is a financial investment, so spend as little as possible (within reason, of course), so you can save as much as possible. For the vast majority of homes, ‘standard’ run of the mill equipment will do just fine. Most homeowners find that premium, high efficiency panels simply aren’t worth the additional cost, even with the greater energy production.
Choose financing wisely
Leases and loans add cost. That’s just the way things work. Financing can add thousands of dollars to your final solar costs. And of course, that translates to thousands of lost savings.
Exactly how much depends on the details of your agreement. Sunrun use to claim homeowners could knock about 10% off their monthly electricity expenditure by installing solar with a lease. With a loan, it’s easy to calculate exactly how your financing will affect your bottom line. Just take a look at your interest rate and term.
Let’s say you take out a 12 year loan with 5% interest to pay for the 5 kW installation above. You’ll be tacking on an additional $4,480 to your total investment. So instead of paying $13,500 for your solar installation, you’ll pay $17,980. Yikes!
Needless to say, if you can pay in cash, do it. It might hurt a little now, but you’ll see the benefit down the line.
With solar panel cost and installation costs shocking drop in price over the last decade, we aren’t limited to solar leases to finance installations, which opens up a whole new range of smaller, local companies that really weren’t an option before.
This is of course a blessing, as more choices are never a bad thing, but it does make creating a list of the nation’s best solar companies rather difficult. If you want to find the best solar companies in your area, just research on Yelp and Google and be sure to get estimates from multiple installers. If you are interested in learning more about solar panels themselves then check out our list of the best solar panels for 2019 too.
Image Credit: CC license via Flickr