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Watch out for yourself in solar land

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If you’re looking for a solar contractor, there’s no shortage of them. And that can be a problem.

Thanks in part to large-scale incentives by the provincial government to boost use of solar energy, the number of solar photovoltaic (PV) installers has doubled over the past two years — 223 are listed on the Solar Society of Alberta’s solar providers directory alone.

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Much like any industry, there’s always the risk of hiring a fly-by-night company that may be hopping on the bandwagon with the hopes of easy money. Arguably, one should exercise particular caution when hiring in a relatively new and hot industry such as solar.

Although there is little indication that shady practices are widespread in the solar installation industry, there are still reasons for producers to practise caveat emptor when hiring contractors to build their on-farm solar pro­jects. For one, there are few regulations in the province around solar installation practices or certifications. For another, it’s easy to fudge the numbers to make return on investment look more attractive than it actually is.

“It’s very easy to move those figures around depending on the kind of parameters you use in terms of utility rate increases, rate of inflation, etc. I’ve seen a little bit of abuse of that,” said Rob Harlan, executive director of the Solar Energy Society of Alberta.

Producers have a few ways to minimize their risk, however.

Accepting multiple bids, getting an idea of the contractor’s experience, talking to their past customers about the quality of their work, and even reviewing the materials contractors plan to use can help bring some clarity to the decision.

Taking a look at the solar energy society’s providers directory at www.solaralberta.ca is a good first step. The directory allows users to search for details on solar PV installers in the province, including how long they’ve been in business and how many and what kind of systems they’ve installed. Here are some other recommendations:

Accept multiple bids

Solar customers should always get several bids — probably at least three, said Bryce Allred, co-owner and operations manager with Lethbridge-based Solar Optix, an engineering, production and procurement company that develops and installs solar PV systems.

Not only does this help customers get the best price, but helps them determine the right price ballpark for the system being installed. It’s a matter of doing your homework, said Allred.

“Get references, talk to their customers and ask to go look at existing systems they’ve built,” he said.

Get it engineered

There’s a misperception out there that installing solar systems is easy, said Erika Grintals, co-owner and sales manager of Solar Optix.

However, nothing could be further from the truth. The process requires extensive consultation with structural, electrical, and geotechnical engineers to make sure a system is safe, functional, and regulatory compliant.

“When it comes to things like choosing the right inverters and how they match with the transformer, there’s a great deal that can go wrong if the contractor the customer has chosen is inexperienced in that regard,” she said.

Ask about the paperwork

Although there are few regulations around solar power specifically, there is usually still an extensive, time-consuming permitting process that needs to take place. Producers can go it alone in this regard if they so choose, but the question they should ask themselves is whether they have the time to do so. Allred said Solar Optix works through the permitting process as part of its overall service, but not every contractor does the same.

“You need an electrical permit from your municipality,” he said. “If your solar array is mounted on a structure you will need a building permit. You may need a development permit from the municipality as well.

“You may even run into having to work with Nav Canada if there are perceived glare issues if you live near an airport. There’s a lot of stuff to do.”

Ensure the quality is there

There are many ways an otherwise apparently trustworthy contractor can cut corners — using cheap, bottom-of-the-barrel materials is one of them.

But how is a customer with no knowledge of solar PV systems supposed to know what constitutes high-quality materials?

Again, it’s a matter of talking to the contractor’s previous customers and consulting with experts such as the Solar Energy Society of Alberta.

“We’ve lost a couple of jobs where the customer took the cheapest price,” said Allred. “I’ve personally gone to inspection departments and forewarned them that a project is coming and they really need to do their due diligence.

“It’s not about getting back at the other contractor. It’s about protecting the customer and the industry because the more jobs that are not done properly, the more it paints us all with the same brush.”

Shady contractors are not the only ones who cut corners, however. Trusted name brands can also offer substandard materials and misleading information.

“Something we’ve seen out east — and it’s already in Alberta — is one particular big hardware store that’s advertising complete, do-it-yourself solar packages. But the information it’s putting out there is not even technically accurate because of its one-stop-shop approach. We’ve had discussions with it, saying you have to do this right or you’ll damage the industry.”

Don’t be afraid to complain

The Solar Energy Society of Alberta offers some avenues to consumers who have had problems with a contractor, said Harlan.

“If there are problems once the installation is done, consumers can file a complaint with us and we’ll investigate it. We don’t enforce the Canadian electrical code or safety code but we can confront companies and pull them off our website if they’re not doing good work.

“That’s actually a significant power because if you’re not listed in the directory you don’t have access to government incentive programs.”

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