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We knew when we bought our homestead that solar power was going to be early on the list of "must-dos" for many reasons: saving money, self-sufficiency, and environmental concerns were top on the list. But we needed to do our research and wanted to jump in carefully.
One decision we didn't anticipate right away, but became incredibly important, was whether to go with a large company - national or regional - that had a reputation by name, or a small local company of which we hadn't heard until starting our explorations. We ended up meeting with one company in each of these categories. In the end, our hearts and minds landed us with the "little guy" for a number of reasons, and we have been repeatedly satisfied with that decision.
1 They are just as knowledgeable and might even make better decisions. OK, so hopefully any company that has been in the solar business for any amount of time should know what they are doing, but we ran into some interesting surprises. Here, the main difference was between a big national company and the state and local companies. The national company offered to install panels on our roof, cause that's what they typically do. They didn't seem to care that our roof was not going to offer a great return because it was party shaded and not at a great angle. They were going to slap the panels on anywhere they could. This is because the national company works on a different model - the panels are owned by them and they reap the rewards. They are so huge, they aren't as concerned with the return for the customer because it is still going to make them money.
When the state and local companies came by our house, they laughed at the idea of installing on our roof - that would never be the right decision in our location if the goal was for us to save money and get the most out of our panels. They did thorough research on our site, gathering information about sun angles, trees, and land layout. If you have a company come to your house who doesn't do that kind of research, send out the red flag.
2 They offer competitive pricing (despite what you might assume). Don't even get me started on the deals that the national company was offering that were "only available for a limited time and you have to sign on the dotted line RIGHT NOW in order to get them." They seemed surprised that we wanted to own and not lease our system, for the long term return that decision would offer.
We actually really liked the salesperson from the statewide company, and the bank rate he was showing did appear to be a good one, but we heard rumors that the "fees" for getting that good rate were built into the package and kind of hidden from us, so were were paying for them anyway (kind of like paying for points on a mortgage). In the end, the price that the local company quoted us was competitive with all of the others, and we found that our credit union was able to offer a loan that made sense even if it wasn't an exclusive deal.
3 The local company just seemed more trustworthy. I don't know if I can fully articulate why we trusted the local company more (maybe it was the fact that they weren't trying to offer us limited time deals) but we just felt like they were more transparent and honest with us. They showed us right off the bat where they source their panels, which kind they were using, and why. We had to ask the other companies to provide that information (which the regional one was happy to do, but the national one didn't seem like they were used to being asked).
The local company didn't rush us to sign the papers, and were honest about what they could offer and when based on when we signed. They also didn't push us into buying more panels than we needed, but they were honest about the fact that it would cost more money to install more later and they didn't want to see us incur those extra costs (in a way that wasn't pushy at all). Everything was thoroughly explained with examples from other clients, and they could describe where those clients were located and how they had helped them as if they were neighbors. And of course, we found out about them through a referral from a friend.
4 They followed through when they said they would. Getting an answer from the local company was as easy as emailing the woman who had sat at our kitchen table with us. I will say, the same was true for the regional company; the local salesperson was friendly and we liked him and he usually got back to us pretty quickly. But as we continued into our job, we found that we got to know the local company just like you might get to know the handyman you call on a regular basis. We could chat with them about next steps, discuss our schedule, and ask "stupid questions" whenever we needed to. They told us approximately when they would be able to start and finish the project and, guess what, they actually met that timeline. We heard stories of friends who had worked with the national company and waited months for their service to be turned on, but the local company made sure that didn't happen to us.
5 They offered a personalized touch that other companies didn't consider. We knew that putting panels in a field was going to be the best return on investment but we also had concerns about placing them right in the middle of a field that was in our view line and offered a lot of potential for future use (what if we wanted to plant another crop there?). This company worked with us to clear some trees a little bit off to the side so that we could preserve more of the field. When they came with their heavy equipment we asked if they wouldn't mind moving a few rocks that were beyond what they needed to move for the trench because that wouldn't help us open up our sledding hill, and they were happy to oblige. They emphasized that they would come back and make sure the grass was installed well, and told stories of how they had helped other clients design landscaping that would hide the panels from the back. They wanted us to like the look of our panels and help them feel "finished" and not leave us with a mess when they were done.
They were so personal, they even came up to get us when they were installing to concrete for the system because they thought the kids might want to sign their names before it dried. Duh, of course they would!
The fact is, going solar was one of the biggest investments we were going to make with our homestead and we wanted to make sure we were making the right decisions. We needed a company we could trust who would follow through on their promises, and this local "little guy" (who had tons of experience, by the way) ended up being the right choice for us. A year later, we have no regrets about the decisions we made working with them as a partner in this project.