Interview with an Expert: Why Solar is a Solid Investment

A little overwhelmed by the financials of solar? We know the feeling well—that initial down payment can seem like a lot. But when you really drill down into your system’s cost of return, it can offer some serious savings over time.

To get a better sense of these factors, as well as what goes into a residential installation, we spoke with Brandt Womack, a solar installer at Sitara Electric in Knoxville, Tennessee. Here’s what he had to say.

man and woman solar installation

How do you help homeowners decide whether or not solar is right for them?

I think different markets are driving this more than anything. In Tennessee, where Sitara is located, it’s more of a financial decision than anything. There aren’t any incentives per se, other than the federal investment tax credit. Other than that, there’s not a whole lot, and the problem here with the sellers is that the energy is so cheap. So in another market, that’s going to play out differently. Where electricity’s more expensive, like California for example, it’s kind of a no-brainer, because the cost of solar is pretty much the same no matter where you go.

So you’d say that cost is probably the number one factor?

Yes. And one of the things we talk about is the return-on-investment—it would be kind of a high number in Tennessee. Here, it could be up to ten years for a homeowner to earn back the initial cost of the system, while in California, it could be much less.

Have you noticed more interest recently, since system prices have dropped overall?

Not personally. I think other companies are doing pretty well, but they’re in different markets. I’ve been in this business for about eight years, and I’ve seen trends that last about 15 to 24 months in various states, and then once the incentives go away—one of the things to keep in mind is that the incentives can go away, or there are too many installers, and there’s only so much you can do to cut your costs to compete with other installers, so the weaker ones sort of just drop out.

What do you think a homeowner should do if they do install a system and then the manufacturer or installer goes out of business?

That’s a good question because we actually see that a lot. A lot of times people find me through NABCEP—that’s the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners—they’re kind of a clearinghouse for installers. There’s really no other certification you can get for solar other than your electrical license, so they’re also a clearinghouse of information. People will check with them to find installers, and I’ve met a lot of customers through that situation you just described, who bought something three or four years ago, and it’s having problems, and they need somebody to work on it, and that company went out of business. I really think that NABCEP is the best way to get people. They have continuing educational requirements, so if you’ve held your license for a long time, that means you’re pretty reputable.

What do you think homeowners can expect from a contractor in terms of the installation and the service and maintenance?

I don’t know that they need to offer much in the way of maintenance. There’s really not much that needs to be done after the installation. The system does involve a lot of electronics, which can wear out over time, so just sort of a general system check up—if your installer offers that kind of program. Often with homeowners, it’s almost not worth it, because there’s going to be a cost associated with that, which will drive up your return on investment.

I’ve had a lot of customers who’ve kept in contact with me, the installer, even though I might have worked for another company when we installed it and they’ve had problems and called me to do the repairs. So establishing a good relationship with your installer is a good idea, too.

What do you think about homeowners who try to do some of the installation themselves?

I don’t recommend it. The customers who try to do the work themselves usually end up causing more problems, so I advise leaving it up to the professionals. DC voltage is a little tricky because it behaves differently than your home’s AC current, and it can cause fires if not installed properly. So I would just leave it all to the professionals.

Again, developing that relationship with the installer and feeling comfortable with them is important. Because they’re the pros.

roof shingle repair

Do you ever have to recommend rooftop repairs or other preparations before the installation can begin?

Yes. You’re putting equipment on the roof that’s warrantied for 25 years—and most roofs don’t last that long. A frequent recommendation is to go ahead and upgrade the roof just before.

Also, the panels will shade the roof. If you have a shingled roof with asphalt composite shingles, it will actually prevent long-term damage because of the shading from the UV.

We also recommend that homeowners take out a little bit more insurance. It’s a home improvement, which increases the value of your home, so it makes sense to up your policy a little bit.

Are there any homes you’ve ever seen that just aren’t fit for a solar energy system?

Yes, I can think of one instance. If you have a really high electric bill, and it’s due to the home being inefficient, then that would be a situation where we’d recommend that they try to work on the efficiency first, by adding more insulation, etc. If  you have an old HVAC system and your windows are so old that they don’t shut properly, we’ll tell you that updating is your first priority.

What about an efficient home? How do you help a homeowner decide how large of a system they’ll need?

Usually we go with a stock 10 kilowatt size. That’s the most that our local power company here will allow without going through a whole other set of paperwork that’s even more complicated. We kind of start there and then see what they’re looking for, and whether it falls into their price range or not. If the home is very efficient and the homeowner is conservative with their energy use, they can actually make money by using a 10 kilowatt system.

How long does the average project take?

With all the paperwork, it’s about a four- to six-month sales cycle. But the actual installation takes just a few days. Acquiring the equipment will take a few weeks, but it’s usually the paperwork that takes a long time. Honestly, a lot of my customers are going off-grid and not connecting to the grid at all—they’re tired of the paperwork and hassle.

That’s interesting. Anything else you’d like homeowners to know?

Nearly 100 percent of my clients have gone with solar for financial reasons, which surprises people when they first start thinking about it, because it seems prohibitively expensive to make that initial investment. But once they see the numbers, and they take those numbers to their accountant and say, “Oh, this makes so much more sense.”

So you’re saying, don’t get sticker shock?

Right. It’s not just a fringe thing.

We definitely think so, too! Thanks, Brandt, for speaking with us today.

Thank you for having me!

You can learn more about Sitara Electric’s solar, energy efficiency, and electrical work by visiting their website.

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