If I had to phrase my experience as a solar shopper, I'd say the home power market has got to be the new Wild West. Things are changing extremely fast! Scientific American labeled the solar boom as "unprecedented." Panel performance has gone up dramatically, while price continues to go down. And riding this wave of ever-increasing capabilities are a whole host of salesman; cowboys who sling strange sounding terms around so fast that you can be left wondering if they are even talking your language. It can be tough to make sense of it all - really tough. But if you want a system that will do the job and do it at an affordable price, then you have got to do your homework. This is a must! Shortcuts will cost you dearly.
Here are some super simple things that I learned as a solar shopper.
*Get multiple quotes - like a lot of them!
This might seem obvious, but remember, you are in the Wild West. While you might assume that quotes for a clearly defined system should be relatively close, this is not necessarily the case. The following are the most interesting four of the several quotes I received.
Salesman A had been in the solar business for decades. He was very comfortable in his knowledge of off-grid systems and had loads of advice. But, he didn't use email. ...?!!... Yes, believe it or not, there are still people in sales positions who have not learned how to use email.
*Quote: Didn't bother asking for one!
Salesman B had been working part-time out of his garage for around five years. He had a good list of customers and was very passionate about the advantages of solar power.
*Quote: 3.7kW of panels, 24 hours of batteries, turn-key cost of $38,000.
Salesman C was from a wholesale factory in California. He represented a facility that specialized in systems for DIY individuals. I would be responsible for the grunt work, but the complex wiring would already be done, leaving me with a plug-n-play system that a licensed electrician would then connect to my house.
*Quote: 6.8kW of panels, 24 lead acid batteries, delivered cost of $29,000.
Salesman D was from a company that confidently claimed to be a leading installer in the four-state area. He was extremely thorough in understanding what my needs were.
*Quote: 3.9kW of panels, 24 lead acid batteries, turn-key cost of $29,000.
*Make sure your salesman do their homework!
One thing that left me exasperated as I desperately tried to understand this strange world of off-grid home power was 'how do I know what I need?' Of the four potential solar providers listed above, only one actually did a full load analysis of how much electricity I would be using. Do not sign anything until you've seen a full load analysis. This guy had every detail, right down to the four hours of TV I could watch every day. This thoroughness on his part lifted a lot of the anxiety I had about off-grid power.
While corresponding with a solar installer, I shared with him my concern about mounting the panels to my roof. The house has two stories and I did not feel that I would be able to clear them of winter snow. He shared with me that this would not be an issue as the panels would keep themselves clear. I was obviously skeptical of this, but he assured me not to worry as certain rays would penetrate the snow and warm the surface of the panels, at which point 'the snow would slide right off.' Now where I live, anything less than a few inches of snow is considered a light dusting. It's nothing to have feet of snow piled up on the roof. And yet somehow, certain rays from the sun would penetrate feet of snow and warm up the surface of panels whereby all of the snow would slide off? I don't know, maybe he's right. Maybe there is some sort of sunlight anomaly that would keep my panels clear for me. And maybe purple pixies will fly out of my son's potty chair tomorrow! But until I get the blessing of some magical winged creature, I'm going to keep the panels where I can reach them.
*Listen to your gut!
Your choice to take responsibility for your own energy needs is a big one. Very few have gone this route. Despite all the available technology and all the environmental awareness, off-grid living is still a rare thing. It is unique, bold, and possibly a little rebellious. People will notice you. So take your time ... take a big breath ... and if you're so inclined say a prayer (you'll need it), so when you're ready, you can make this incredible move with confidence.
And should you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, just remember, the sun has been shining a long long time. And when it comes up tomorrow, it will be offering the same warm rays of life that it has for countless ages. Your choice to embrace this gift is the right one!