Photos: Harry Strharsky
Late last year I wrote a blog post on how to go about researching and determining your needs to offset your electric utility bill by selecting and installing clean, renewable energy, rooftop solar panels on your home. https://10001ways.com/post/going-solar-step-by-step
Today I will be relating a cautionary tale about what happens after you sign a contract.
On November 4, 2020 I signed an agreement for a 4.251 kW system that would deliver 6,708 kWh annually to meet 100% of our electric needs with thirteen 327-watt Sunpower solar panels. It met my cash flow break-even goal of less than 10 years after rebates and other incentives. After researching business reputations and customer reviews online I selected the proposal from Freedom Solar, a regional sales, installation and warranty company doing business in Colorado and Texas.
The very next day I received a Welcome email from Customer Support and Scheduling detailing “The Next Steps to Your Solar Project.” These included: 1) Site Assessment & Design (2-3 Weeks), 2) Permits & Approvals (2-4 Weeks), 3) Installation (1-3 Days), 4) Inspection ( 1-4 Weeks), 5) Activation & Closeout (2-3 Weeks). So far, so good, a clear and concise outline of what to expect with a reasonable timeline.
Within five days of signing the contract I had an appointment within a three-hour window for a site assessment. On November 9 it was snowing all morning in Fort Collins. During the first break in the action when the wind died down we were visited by a company engineer with a drone to take pictures of the surface of our roof from every angle and to personally peek into the crawl space above our ranch home ceiling. The following day I received our first invoice for project initiation. It was promptly paid.
After not hearing anything for the next 10 days, I made an email inquiry as to the status of our solar project. I was told we were #20 in their queue. “At this time, we expect your installation to take place in Mid-Late December.” I then made arrangements for Freedom Solar to apply for approval from the Architecture Committee of our Home Owners Association (HOA) and I also signed a Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) Solar Purchase Disclosure. Then, once more, silence.
By the start of the second week of December I started to worry that without an install date and the holidays soon approaching I would lose my 26% federal solar credit set to expire at the end-of-the-year and be lowered to 22% for 2021. So after five weeks I again inquired about the status of our project. I was told that “the final design plan was completed on 11/25. There was a few days delay in submitting everything” for permitting. Turns out that the City Utilities Specialist said he did not receive the permit application materials until 12/8 and the last day to submit projects for the 2020 calendar was November 30th.
On December 17, I sent a scathing email declaring “I was not a happy camper” and thought that their project management was less than competent and “Who is going to make this right?” The balance of December and all through January was peppered with email apologies for my frustrations with their delays and attempts to make amends with a company rebate to cover the loss difference in the 2021 federal tax credit. I appreciated our Energy Consultant’s attempt to make us whole, as originally proposed and urged them to move forward.
Unfortunately there was also finger-pointing at the city for its permit processing delays.
Finally, thirteen days after receiving the Fort Collins Utilities Project Approval and almost a full thirteen weeks after signing a project agreement, we had scheduled a single day installation for February 1. I was also informed that the Federal Tax Credit of 26% was just extended through 2023. The heat was off.
The electrician promptly arrived at 8:30 AM and the four-person install crew arrived from Denver within a half hour later. After introductions I asked to see the plan they were working from to make sure we were all on the same page. To my dismay, instead of having panels installed on South, East and West roof elevations as originally agreed, the plan they showed me had all 13 solar panels being installed on the East-facing roof surface. I told them that this was unacceptable and instructed them to hold everything while I made a bee-line to the phone.
Two hours of back-and-forth negotiations, phone conversations and emails ensued with Freedom Solar’s Regional Operations Manager while their install crew remained on stand-by. To sum it up, I received two additional panels and micro-converters, at no extra cost, to meet or exceed the originally proposed system size and annual electricity production without any installed South facing panels. Turns out they neglected to tell me that, after review, the previously agreed on panel placement plan was in violation of a 2015 State Fire Setback Code that forbid installation on our too-small Southern exposed dormer roof elevations. Of course, this was not revealed until after I received a food catering menu and invoice email attachment for their office New Year’s Holiday Party mistakenly labeled "New Plans."
By 11:00 AM the crew began our installation and finished, without further complications or delays, within five hours, when they packed up and headed back South to Denver.
What can I tell you? Despite your best efforts at research and due diligence in the decision-making process, “your mileage will vary.” The internet is less than a trusty source for customer reviews. It is also my experience, not limited to solar rooftop installations, that as our economy has changed over the years from manufacturing to service dominance, the service we do receive has left us wanting. When was the last time you called “Customer Service” and did not get a stiff, robotic response on the other end of the line instead of a caring, knowledgeable human?
The cost of solar panels has gone down significantly just in the past few years to make it an affordable and responsible choice for many more homeowners. In 2010, the average home solar installation cost was $7.34 per watt. That has been reduced to just $2.50 per watt in 2020. A 5 kilowatt installation, averaging $12,500 today would have cost $36,700 in 2010.
In Fort Collins, alone, normally 10 applications for permits are received per month. Over the past December they received 70. If you ask me there is still a lot of overhead cost to squeeze out of solar rooftop projects. As evidence of this, our small, residential project required 11 company personnel, not counting the 5-member install team. I have had communications with an Energy Consultant, two Solar Sales Coordinators, two Customer Account Managers, an Assessment Engineer, Scheduling Coordinator, Permitting Coordinator, Inside Operations Manager, Assistant Regional Operations Manager and Regional Operations Manager from the same Company in three different cities in two States. It can get exhausting. You may prefer to take your chances and choose a smaller, local solar company for more efficiency and personable service, although your costs may be higher.
Stay tuned as I report on the “Inspection, Activation and Closeout” steps of our experience. It could be a few months before I have some hard facts of how our solar electric production measures up to the plan we were sold and embraced.