Brian Sadler talks about the types of solar panels that are commonly used in Massachusetts, how to determine the right solar panels for your needs, the warranties and guarantees that come with solar panels, the importance of how solar panels look, and inverter selection.
John Maher: Hi, I am John Maher and I’m here today with Brian Sadler, vice president at Solaris Renewables, a solar company in Massachusetts providing premium solar and storage technologies with exceptional customer service; and designing, installing and servicing solar systems in Massachusetts, Southern New Hampshire, and Maine. Today we’re talking about evaluating solar panel options. Welcome Brian.
Brian Sadler: Hi John. Nice to meet with you today.
Types of Solar Panels in Massachusetts
John: You too. So, in terms of different types of solar panels, Brian, what are some of the ones that are most commonly used here in Massachusetts?
Brian: Yeah, that’s a common question on digging into technology a little bit. Without getting too technical, there’s a few major types of cell infrastructure and therefore panels. And then over the years that technology has evolved and improved slightly. But I would say that really the basic technology is really the same thing we put into space back in the 1950s. Now it has evolved into an application that we put on residential homes and businesses, and it needs to withstand the impacts of weather, wind, snow load, things like that. And we have this type installed on a roof or on a type of structure application. So, we commonly see the panels fall into two general buckets. There’s standard efficiency, and then there’s premium or premium plus often, and those are the performance, the aesthetics, and then the warranty categories of the panel.
So, standard efficiency. When I started 10 years ago in the industry, a standard efficiency, a commodity type of panel, would have a silver frame and blue cells on the panel and all the wiring would be quite visible, and generally speaking have white diamonds on it where you can see the back sheet to help cool the panel. And those panels might be somewhere in the 15 to 17% efficient and maybe be somewhere in the 250 to 270 watt range. Then, maybe a premium product at that time, a couple points higher efficiency, and 10 to 30 watts more of productivity as well.
And now we’re at a place where most panels are in the area of 20% efficient. Aesthetics for the residential application especially has been considered, and the manufacturers have heard that, and you see more black frame or all black panels and trying to mitigate the bus bars or the really visible wiring on the face. So they have come a long ways for the application, they have improved in terms of not only the performance but the aesthetic as well.
How Do I Know What Solar Panel Efficiency To Choose?
John: And how do I know what efficiency is best for my needs? Is it always the case that the more efficient panels are just better or are there cases where I don’t necessarily need the high efficiency panels and I could save some money by getting the standard efficiency?
Brian: Yeah, that’s a really great question. So that’s something that we do consider. We tend to limit our offerings and use top of the line products, but there are cases when you don’t need the very, very best. For instance, if you have a ton of roof space, for instance, and maybe it’s not visible, it’s in the back of your house and you have a dormered back and really no one’s going to see the panel faces themselves, you could consider a bit of a lesser efficient product and potentially buy more panels to get to a similar place. Similar in a ground-mounted solution. So, if you have a large field and you’re going to put a ground mount out there, you don’t necessarily need the most aesthetically pleasing or the highest watt panel in all cases.
But I would say that the market has moved to a place where they have gotten more efficient and they have gotten higher watt, so you’re going to get something that’s similar in the market. But again, we still have a few different buckets. You still have a standard panel, and a lot of those standard panels we see more with what’s called TPO or third party ownership, which is the leasing type of options. The customer doesn’t own the product, it’s more of a commodity. It’s more of swapping your bill or swapping your utility for a “free solar installation” that you pay for for the next 25 or 30 years.
That model of financing,and way to go solar, tends to use lower end equipment across the board, so probably lower wattages, lower efficiencies, whatever they can get the best buy on for inverters, electronics, mounting, railing, things like that. And then you’re going to have premium, which is the mid-grade panels that are going to be a little more efficient, a little higher watt. Then you have premium plus area where it’s going to be the top of the market. You’re going to have the panels that are pushing the boundaries on the highest efficiencies and wattages as well.
Solar Panel Warranties and Guarantees
John: And then are there warranties and guarantees that come with these solar panels as well and is there a standard type of warranty?
Brian: Absolutely, and this is something we spend a lot of time on with our clients because, again, I would say it’s pretty confusing and we want to make sure to make it simple and easy to understand so homeowners know what they’re getting. So you see it on everyone’s website, be it manufacturers or installers, 25 year warranty, right? So what does that mean? Every panel in the world has a 25 year performance warranty. Basically, it states that in year one, the panel will produce about somewhere in the high 90s of what the stated value is, and then it’s going to decline over time. And generally, in 25 years, that panel will be operating at somewhere between 80 and maybe even 90% of its year one capacity. So that is the performance warranty.
John: So, it just doesn’t produce as much electricity as the years go on.
Brian: Basically, there’s a rate of degradation that occurs with panels from being exposed to the elements and sunlight over time and the cells, essentially, what’s their rate of breaking down. And so there’s a warranty for 25 years on every panel in the world that says it’s going to make this much power over the next 25 years. If it doesn’t, you can have a warranty claim for that panel. Now there’s also a product warranty, so two separate warranties on every panel, and this is the warranty that no one talks about and I think is really important. And that warranty is generally of a lower timeframe and doesn’t include labor, doesn’t include shipping, doesn’t include the site visits to quantify if this panel has indeed failed or the lab testing or any of that. So it’s a prorated warranty and it’s of not much value, I would say.
And what, unfortunately, most of the standard panels and most panels in our industry do is if you have a panel that’s not performing, they point to the other warranty to get out of paying any warranty. So, it’s a frustrating process when you find out later on that that’s how your warranty works. So the product warranty used to be standard, was like 10 years, some companies started to go to 15, and more companies now have gone to 25 years. But that 25 year product warranty is a prorated warranty, which means that in whatever year that warranty claim happened, they will prorate the value of that one panel and pay you that difference.
If it does not include labor, that means that the homeowner needs to pay for their installer to come out, investigate, remove the panel, ship the panel back to the manufacturer, have the panel tested. If, in fact, it is proven to be a failed panel, now they need to get a prorated value for that panel. Now they need to buy a new panel. Now they need to pay their installer to come out and put that new panel on that has been shipped to them. All at the customer’s expense.
So we, long ago, found this is not great messaging to our clients. This is not a great experience. So we have always partnered with and helped manufacturers understand the importance of this, that we want an all-inclusive warranty. So, 25 years across the board, parts, labor, full replacement, shipping, all included. We service them for our customers so that if there is a panel failure, the customer just gets a new panel installed by us, no out-of-pocket cost and they don’t need to chase around the manufacturer or worry about how these warranties work. So we do spend a lot of time talking to customers about this and educating them about that, because we feel it’s unfortunately one of the big misinformation pieces in our industry and something that’s really worthwhile unwinding and educating the customer and how it works.
John: Because they can just look at that, “Oh, it’s a 25 year warranty,” and then just not go into the details of that and they think they’re getting this great deal and they’re not.
Brian: And that’s what they’re going to be told. They’re going to say, “Oh yeah, 25 years.” And you look at a lot of websites out there from their manufacturer and or firm installers, it just says 25 years. There’s no indication of what that means and the nuance to what is and more importantly is not included in that warranty.
The Aesthetic Appeal – How a Solar Panel Looks on Your House
John: Talk a little bit more about the aesthetic appeal of the panels that you mentioned earlier. You said that there are the standard panels, maybe you can see the lines in the panels and maybe they have a silver outline around them, whereas maybe the more premium ones are all black. What are the differences there?
Brian: Yeah, there’s a wide variety and I would say that the manufacturers in our industry have responded over the years and made significant improvements to the aesthetics of the panels themselves. It also comes down to the installation techniques. What type of mounting and railing and wire management and so on and so forth, and the placement and the design elements to that. Are they cohesive? Is it a rectangle? Is it all over the place? Are panels going different directions? Those are all pieces, but the panels themselves have improved in aesthetics.
And I would say that a lot of manufacturers have gone to either exclusively, or focusing on, an all-black panel, meaning that the cells themselves are black, which again is important, and then have a back sheet or a sheet that they sit on that is also black. So, it gives it a more cohesive appearance on each individual panel. Having a black frame has become more standard and common in our industry as opposed to previously having a silver frame, which just stands out more. You see the outline and delineation between each panel more obviously when it’s silver and more reflective from the sun as well when you have silver wiring on the face and the silver frame. So now that they’re mostly all black, they blend in together, it looks a little more cohesive, it’s more aesthetically pleasing.
John: It’s almost like you just have one big large panel on your roof instead of seeing the individual rectangles.
Brian: Yeah, it blends it in considerably better, I would say. And then a lot of customers have darker roofs, so if you have a darker roof, it’s a little more cohesive blending, and this is a concern. So we, long ago, responded because customers specifically on the front of their homes, say, “I don’t want it on the front of my house.” I’m like, “Well, that’s the side you want it on. That’s the most productive side.”
John: It’s facing south, your house is facing south, so it really has to be on that side.
Brian: That’s what we’re talking about. So we have to put them at ease. So we’re always showing them the work that we did and what it does look like front, back, side, so on and so forth. And the panels that we use and close ups of the panels and really digging into that. We have samples of all the products and services that we show them so they can either touch and feel or see it virtually and whatnot and provide spec sheets and things like that. And then real world photographs, so they can really understand what these things look like.
It has evolved a lot. For instance, the two manufacturers that we partner with, one has no wiring whatsoever on the face of it, so it’s a fully black panel. It looks really like a LED TV screen. It’s a different animal all in itself. It’s the only panel that looks like this, it’s the only panel that has these. It gives it more efficiencies, it gives it more power as well. And then the other panel we use has limited and very fine wiring on the face. They use different technology that allows them to do that as well. So both of the manufacturing partners that we have been working with for a long time have an aesthetic really that’s second to none.
How to Choose an Inverter
John: And then finally, talk a little bit about the inverter panels and what are they, why are they needed, and if I have a certain type of solar panel, do I need to use a certain type of inverter or can I choose?
Brian: Yeah, so generally speaking, companies like ourselves have partnerships and have chosen an inverter and electronics manufacturer that makes sense for the type of installations, the type of panels, the type of market we’re in. Other companies might just choose based on what they can get the best buy on and maximize the profitability. We want to be experts in what we do and we want to be really familiar and have a relationship that gives us the highest level of support from the manufacturer. So if there is an issue, we can react appropriately and support the customer to let them know that we’re going to get them back online, we have access to replacement parts and those services. So that’s really important, I would say.
But the importance of the electronics is critical. Basically, panels sitting on a roof essentially do nothing without the electronics. We need those electronics, or the inverter, to invert that DC power that the panel is making to AC power, which is what our homes and appliances use.
So the electronics and solar panels are both of critical importance in order for the system to operate properly and effectively. So we take the inverter, and electronics is super important. Let’s be honest, it’s the most common place that there would be a failure. It’s electronics. So we want to make sure that we are using great product that is backed by a great warranty and great support from the manufacturer, and we have that relationship to make sure that we’re keeping our customers up and running.
And another level that we think of, in our state specifically, is we’ve had a net metering cap. So there’s been a cap on the inverter or AC system size that you can have to get the full benefit of electricity savings or the net metering program in our state. That’s been at 10 kilowatt. So if you are going above that, you get a little bit of a watered down net metering program to the tune of 60%. So it can be a significant hit to your system’s production and how you can save money.
So we want to make sure that the panels and the inverter are sized appropriately for the customer to get the utmost out of their system in terms of savings, productivity, and all the incentives. That’s another important piece. So we have chosen a manufacturing partner that we can hit that mark, and then it gives us a lot of flexibility on our design and installations because of the inverter selection that we’ve made.
John: All right. Well that’s really great information, Brian. Thanks again for speaking with me today.
Brian: Thanks, John, I appreciate it.
John: And for more information, you can visit the website at solarisrenewables.com or call 781-270-6555.