The Solar Burn, Part 7: Solar Devils

This is Part 7 of a multi-part series about my attempt to install solar panels on my house. For the previous installation, CLICK THIS LINK. For the next installation (when available), CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!

Solar Devils

Ding-dong!

I open the door. It’s a man with a clipboard, wearing the cap of a solar company. I point to the “No Soliciting” sign on my door.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he says. “We’re just in the neighborhood conducting a survey.”

“Not interested,” comes my curt reply, and the door closes.

This scene has repeated quite a few times at my house, and I think at many other homes across America. A lot of folks have suffered The Solar Burn at the hands of these unscrupulous door-to-door solar devils.

The State of California has gone to great lengths to protect consumers who want to buy solar. They have a website that shows which companies have installed solar in your neighborhood, and how much they’ve charged. It also exposes which installers have been violating state regulations.

I started at this website, and made a list of initial prospects. Then I turned to Yelp, for reviews on these installers. A few of the companies got all 5-star reviews from very satisfied customers. Most had 3 to 4 stars. The lowest rated company was Sunrun, with 2 stars.

The most common complaint in the reviews was how long some companies took to install solar. They would show up unannounced at odd times, to install little bits and pieces of the solar project. This process sometimes dragged out for six months to a year, in the worst cases.

I painstakingly filtered out those companies and focused on the three with the highest reviews.

The first solar installer I called had a gatekeeping receptionist who answered the phone. She took my information. The next day I received an emailed bid. Apparently, the installer looked at a satellite photo of my rooftop, then emailed a bid for installing way more solar panels than I thought I needed.

His bid was $26,000. That seemed very high. I sensed there had been a misunderstanding, so I emailed back some clarifications to what I wanted. He emailed a reply, asserting there had been no misunderstanding, and that his proposed system was exactly what I needed. Period.

I could hardly believe it. This son-of-a-bitch had a 5-star Yelp rating, and had even been recommended to me by a local contractor who I highly respect. And yet he would not do an in-person site survey, he chose to communicate only by email, and he basically asserted that it’s “my way or the highway.”

I chose the highway and called the next devil on the list.

The lady who answered seemed very happy to be talking to me. I’ll call her Cathy. Cathy was one of those “customer is always right” types. I like that in a sales person. She had a lot of questions for me, and I had a lot for her. I’d already done extensive research into solar, so I could tell by her answers to my questions that she was an expert. She knew her product inside and out. And she was a real go-getter. I like that, too. She wanted to come out to my house just as soon as possible and do a site survey.

Wow! What a contrast from the previous installer. I think I fell in love with Cathy. So we made a date, and a few days later, there she was, at my door with her smiling face, along with a technician who hopped on the roof to take measurements.

Cathy and I sat down, where she opened up her laptop computer and showed me a proposed plan for placement of rooftop panels. It would be something like a 5.9 kW system that would generate about 120% of my electrical needs, according to her.

So, like the previous installer, this devil was trying to sell me more panels than I needed. The State of California warns consumers about this all-too-common practice and advises that the best systems meet 80% to 85% of electrical needs. That’s because if you overproduce, you don’t get paid much for the surplus you sell to the electric company. Thus, it’s more economical to underproduce than overproduce.

I expressed this concern to Cathy, and she didn’t argue with me. I talked her down to a 4.92 kW system, which we both believed would meet about 100% of my electrical needs. I had already decided that 85% would be too small for my liking, and I was willing to take a chance on overproducing a little.

Cathy emailed her bid of $21,000 to me, and advised that I get other bids before making a decision. I liked that touch of integrity.

The next person I called was named Carl, and he worked for a very large solar installation company, which I will not name. Like Cathy, Carl was eager to come to my house to do a site survey. But on the day of the survey, Carl’s technician, named Mark, showed up a half-hour before Carl. Mark told me he needed to see my garage.

When I let him in, he pulled out his cell phone and started taking pictures of everything in my garage. This was creepy. It left me feeling unnerved, and I wondered if he was casing my house to burglarize it later. I confronted him, asking why so many photos. He mumbled some vague answers that made no sense. But he got the hint and stopped taking pictures.

When Carl finally showed up he presented a plan for a 6.1 kW system. Yep, like all the rest, he was trying to oversell. I talked him down to a 4.7 kW system. Then he submitted a bid for $23,000.

That was two grand higher than Cathy’s bid. But his system would use SunPower panels and Enphase microinverters. Those brands are a little more expensive than Cathy’s proposed system of Panasonic panels and a SolarEdge string inverter.

I prefer SolarEdge over Enphase, and not just because it’s less expensive. It also handles the hot summer temperatures of our desert more efficiently. And it has a monitoring system that allows you to check each individual panel for any problems. That’s great for troubleshooting, or identifying problem areas caused by shade.

I also considered the prospect of “picture-taking Mark” returning to my house. That guy gave me the willies. I even beefed up the security system of our house, after his visit.

After some pondering, I made my decision. I went with Cathy, and quickly signed a contract with her, so that our solar array can be finished before the April 14th deadline that will end NEM 2.0.

Now it’s just a matter of waiting. And paying the installments on time, as work progresses. Hopefully by this spring we’ll have a full-functioning solar array attached to the roof of our house. And then we’ll be able to tell our electric company to stick their bill where the Sun doesn’t shine.

This ends this series for now. But I’ll be posting updates later, as the installation of our solar array progresses. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for the updates!

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