How to Choose a Solar Panel System

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Have you ever thought about putting solar panels on your roof? Now might be the time to do it. Prices for solar panels have plummeted, and industry experts anticipate a continued decline.

The culprit is an oversupply of silicon, an essential component of most solar panel systems. "Raw silicon that used to be $450 bucks per ounce is now worth $45 bucks per ounce," said Gaelan Brown, spokesperson for groSolar, a Vermont-based installer and distributor of solar panel systems. This, coupled with a 30 percent federal tax credit for solar installation and ever-cheaper models from China, have saved homeowners as much as $14,000, according to Mr. Brown.

There are a nerve-wracking number of solar manufacturers and installers out there, so I caught up with Shawn Roe of SRoeCo Solar, a solar advice service, and asked him to share five questions that all consumers should ask before purchasing a system. I hope you'll find his insight as helpful as I did:

1. "How many systems has your company installed?"
Due to the recent spike in solar panel installations, and the decrease in other construction-related businesses, many roofers, fencers, and builders are attempting to start solar installation companies with no solar experience and without proper solar installation knowledge. Look for a reputable installer with at least 50 installations and a few references.

2. "Is the warranty on my solar panels 25 years?"
Most solar panels on the market are high-quality and will have a guaranteed output of not less than 90% after 10 years and no less than 80% after 25 years. Any panel should have this warranty, whether it's made in Germany, China, or America.

3. "Is the warranty on your labor 10 years or longer?"
Some states require installers to warranty their labor for 10 years in order for the system to be eligible for state rebates. Any good installer should have no problem including this.

4. "What is the total output of the solar panel system in kWh/year?"
This is arguably the most important factor in comparing solar electric systems (other than price, of course). If you have solar panels warranted for 25 years, and labor guaranteed for 10, then the brand of solar panel – whether monocrystalline, polycrystalline, or any other – doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is how much energy they are expected to produce in a year. Many times the cheaper, "less efficient" solar panels will produce more energy in a year at a better price than the pricier, "more efficient" solar panels. When warranties are the same, output is the money-maker, not brand or efficiency.

5. "What is the final cost after parts, labor, installation and rebates?"
Don't compare the cost of the panels exclusively, or the labor exclusively. Compare the bottom-line cost after rebates. Whoever can give you the most output (kWh/year) at the best price, is the company you should chose.
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