Thursday, January 3, 2008

Selecting A Contractor, Contract, Delayed Start

This blog started when our solar panels were being installed and the contractors were on-site. There was actually a lot that happened before that point that I'd like to share now.

On April 21st 2007, the City of Beaverton held a Neighborhood Summit on "Living Greener". I was invited, via the Oregon Electric Vehicle Association, to display my electric truck. There were two solar contractors that where there at the town hall event too. I picked up cards from both and started investigating Solar PV installers. It was surprising how many there were in Oregon. Some only do hot water or system design and work with other companies for the install. Many turned out to just be one guy that works out of his house. "Green" is the new fad, so I wanted to avoid anyone just jumping in for a quick buck. One-stop shopping from one vendor that would design and install the system seemed like simpler plan. The Energy Trust's list is a good place to start looking for contractors. Several of the contractors sent us information packets, references and some even had pictures of prior projects. This was very helpful. After several phone interviews, check them all out on Angie's List and the State Contractors licensing and bonding site, and talking to prior clients, we finally settled on Mr. Sun Solar. They were the 2nd Solar contractor that we seriously considered.

Dave Baasch (1,2) was our sales rep. He came out and did the initial site inspection and plant design. Dave and I discussed many many options for our house. I could have used less effective panels, used more roof space and gotten to the same 4kW size for a slightly cheaper price (more in labor, but less in parts). The savings was not great and by consuming more roof space, this would limit my ability to expand the system in the future, so we settled on the high efficiency 205W Sanyo panels.

Contract negotiations: I have a general rule of dealing with sales guys; if they make a promise, I don't believe it until I see it in the contract. Dave immediately got this and was willing to put his pen where his month was. Because of this, my contract is different than most they do and Mr Sun himself, John Patterson, had to approve it. Dave said that they were going to put many of these changes into their standard contract and that I scrutinized it more than any of his previous customers. This is not the first time I have heard this. I want to fully understand anything I sign. Sounds reasonable, yet I am amazed how often I hear "No one else reads this, they just sign it." If you are not dealing with someone that is willing to give you the time to understand the details, you should not be doing business with them. Dave and Mr Sun passed this test. We actually did most of the contract stuff over email. I like this for a couple reasons, it gives you time to read it without the pressure of someone waiting for you and two, if there are any clarifications or discussions that happen, you have them in writing.

We started the contract negotiations on June 7th. We came to our initial agreement on July 11th. There was often daily email exchange during this time. Work was scheduled to start on August 30th. We continued to work on details until July 25th, when I signed the contract and dropped it off. As we approached Aug 30th, the panels are not available. These high efficiency panels are in demand and Germany and California are the ones that are getting first dibs on them. These are the big solar markets and the manufactures give them priority. I had the option at this point to either wait or go with some other panels that they could get. I choose to wait. So the start date is rescheduled to "late August".

August 8th, I paid the deposit so they could order parts. Soon after making the payment, I was informed that they could not get the 205W panels at all. So I could use 190W or 200W panels. The 200W panels had an availability of early October, or 190W panels late this month (Aug). The 190W panels were cheaper, but dropped the system below the 4kW mark. I wanted to make sure that the system could generate enough power for the truck and some for the house too. So I went with the 200W panels. More contract adjustments, and a small price reduction. So here it was in August and I have paid a deposit for work to start in October. I asked for my deposit back and they complied.

In late August the Energy Trust and Solar Now! ran a $200 rebate special. It seems silly to me to think that anyone would make a multi-thousand dollar purchase based on a $200 coupon. However, since we were already in the process, I happily filled out the paperwork to get the $200 check.

September 21st. I pinged Dave to see if he wanted the new contract with the 200W panels signed and dropped off. The panels were scheduled to arrive on October 8th. And I did not want to pay the deposit too soon again. His response, "I found out this morning that delivery has been pushed out about a month for ALL Sanyo panels. I have THREE customers waiting on them now... one with a 12 kW system, and all with money in hand". Delayed again. :( I started wondering if this was turning into a Chinese Democracy. Then I recalled that I could had other panels installed weeks ago. I was willing to wait for these panels, and I still think they are the right ones. Plus, the peak season must be over by now and availability should increase. Maybe I could even get the 205s.

This was also when we first started discussing the monitoring options. For the inverter that I have, there are three options and it seems that, at least as far as info on their website goes, they are all afterthoughts for SMA, the inverter manufacturer. I could not find clear answers to which one has which feature and how they connect to the inverter and the Internet. I eventually settled on the WebBox and was happy with the results.

October 11th: Dave tells me that the panels should be in on November 1st. The inverter was in and they could get started with it as soon as I paid the deposit (again).

October 16th: I paid the deposit and talked to Sarah about scheduling the work. This is when the blog started and I'll finish up the story in the upcoming Install recap.

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