Which Residential Installers are the Best Solar Companies?

best-solar-companies

How do you find the best solar companies?

Each of the best solar companies has its own unique story and even among the five largest installation companies in the US, the number of systems installed in a year varies dramatically. To help you in this process, we’ve created this cheat sheet comparing the top 5 residential solar companies. We look at the companies’ age and size, customer reviews, and offerings to homeowners.

What to Look for in a Solar Company

When deciding on what solar company to work with, you must look at a variety of factors – not just total installation cost– to ensure that your installation and the company continue to meet your needs throughout the life of your agreement.

First, we’ll look at the size of each solar company, how old the company is, and what states they work in. This gives us an idea of the expertise and experience of each. The solar industry has exploded in the last 10 years, and many of the best solar companies are just 4 or 5 years old. But what they lack in age, they balance with a staggering number of solar installations each year.

Secondly, we’ll look at customer reviews, giving us an idea of the customer experience, the quality and timeliness of installations, and the ongoing level of customer service after the installation is complete. By comparing the average online rating of different solar companies on sites like Google or Yelp, we can see what sort of experiences their customers have had and how they fare compared to other solar companies.

Lastly, we’ll look at installation options each company provides, as homeowners need solar installations tailored to their energy use and financial situation. Most national solar companies offer fairly similar options, there are differences in their sales and installation processes as well as the equipment they offer. Being able to compare all these different facets will allow you to choose the company that best fits your needs.

Comparing the Biggest Solar Energy Companies

The solar companies below are the top 5 residential installers in the US by size. All of them take customer from initial sales to installation, either through their own company or an affiliated subcontractor. For each company, we highlight potential pros and cons at the beginning of each section, then further discuss the businesses’ history, reviews, and customer offerings.

SolarCity

Pros

Largest residential solar company, works in 20 states, low prices 

Cons

No production guarantee for PPAs

SolarCity is by far the largest residential solar company in the United States, installing about 40% of all systems in 2015.

Founded in 2006, SolarCity is considered one of the “older” solar installation companies – its  old age a testament to the youth and explosive growth of the entire industry. With over 13,000 employees, the company is publicly traded and in August 2016, accepted a bid from Tesla Motors to purchase the entire company for $2.6 billion. The company, like many national solar companies, has yet to turn a profit – a byproduct of the PPA/lease agreements that are so prevalent in the industry. SolarCity is vertically integrated – meaning they take care of everything in house, from the initial sales to installation to ongoing maintenance.

Online reviews for SolarCity generally applaud the streamlined sales process, high level of communication, and general professionalism. However, after experiencing technical problems after the installation was complete, some reviews mentioned poor customer service.

  • Yelp (San Mateo): 4/5 from 650 user reviews
  • BestCompany: 7.8/10 (BestCompany), 6.2/10 (from 252 user reviews)
  • Reviews.org: 8.3/10 (Reviews.org), 6.4/10 (from 1600 user reviews)

SolarCity offers PPA and lease agreements as well as loans and upfront cash. Unlike some other companies, SolarCity doesn’t offer production guarantees with PPAs – so if a PPA system produces less than what’s estimated in the contract, the homeowner receives no bill credit. The company however does offer storage options in areas where it’s financially viable.

SolarCity works in 20 states, focusing mostly in the west and northeast, including California, the four corners, Texas, New York and surrounding states, as well as Oregon and Washington, and North Carolina.

Vivint Solar

Pros

Streamlined process leading to fast turnaround 

Cons

Works in fewer states than SolarCity

A relative newcomer, Vivint Solar was founded in 2011 in Lehi, Utah. It is a publicly-traded company and like SolarCity, is vertically integrated – meaning it sells, finances, and installs systems in-house. Its parent company is Vivint Inc, a door-to-door home security system company that began selling home energy management systems in addition to its traditional products, then branched into solar as well. Vivint has applied this door-to-door technique well in its solar venture, becoming the fasting growing solar installation company in the industry. The company accounted for a little over 10% of all residential solar in 2015, giving it a strong second place to SolarCity in number of installations.

Online reviews for Vivint Solar mention respectful sales staff and an easy installation process. However, some reviewers mention confusion around legal paperwork and the process not being communicated clearly.

  • Yelp (San Jose, CA): 3.5/5 stars based on 30 reviews
  • BestCompany: 7.1/10 based on 328 reviews

As a company, Vivint is all about streamlining. They purchased Solmetric, a manufacturer of roof measurement tools specifically for solar installations, in an attempt to speed up the sales and roof evaluation process. They also exclusively install Enphase microinverters, leading to simpler solar systems that are more easily adapted to a variety of homes.

Like most national solar companies, Vivint offers PPA and lease agreements, as well as loan and upfront cash.

Vivint operates in 14 states, compared to Solar City’s 20 states, focusing on the southwest and northeast. However, unlike SolarCity, Vivint also operates in Florida.

Sunrun

Pros

Works with local installation and sales subcontractors, who likely know the local area well

Cons

Working with dozens of subcontractors in different areas can lead to poor communication between different departments and to customers

Sunrun was founded in 2007 in San Francisco, CA, by its current CEO Lynn Jurich and her business partner. Sunrun claims to have started the ‘solar as a service’ model wherein the solar company provides electricity to the homeowner through a lease or PPA of a roof-top solar system. Though Sunrun installs just a percentage of what SolarCity installs, they still fall within the top 5 largest residential solar companies in the United States.

Sunrun went public in late 2015, raising $250 million dollars. At its founding, the company initially only offered solar financing, leaving the installation to other companies. While they’ve expanded since then and now have the capabilities to install in-house, they still work with numerous subcontractors, for both sales and installation, in their many service areas. Similar to SolarCity, Sunrun has yet to make a profit as a business – again due to the PPA and lease business model.

Many reviewers note great experiences and fast installation times, along with great sales staff. On the constructive end, others mention poor customer service and lack of communication from sales or project management staff.

  • Yelp (San Francisco): 3/5 stars based on 138 reviews
  • BestCompany: 7.5/10 based on 136 reviews

Sunrun offers all the standard agreement types: PPA, lease, loan, and cash payment. Like SolarCity, Sunrun offers storage options as well. In fact, they were the first solar company to install a solar-plus-storage system in Hawaii.

Sungevity

Pros

Engages with customers almost exclusively online 

Cons

Depending on the individual, the pro above could also be considered a con

Sungevity began in 2007 in Oakland, CA. Raising capital through private investment for the last 9 years, Sungevity announced in summer 2016 that is was going public. Sungevity was the 4th biggest solar installer in 2015, controlling about 3% of the market share. Like Sunrun, Sungevity uses subcontractors to install systems.

One unique facet of Sungevity is that it almost exclusively works remotely with homeowners, using satellite imagery to design solar installations and providing quotes to homeowners online. Like others, Sungevity still isn’t profitable, but they are expanding offline into Lowe’s stores.

Sungevity has solid online reviews, though like other solar companies, reviewers have different experiences. Some report great sales staff, others report pushy staff. Some installations go off perfectly, with very happy reviewers, and others run into numerous issues that could have been addressed through better communications and organization.

  • Yelp (Oakland/San Francisco area): 3.5/5 based on 144 reviews
  • BestCompany: 8/4/10 (BestCopmany), 8.4/10 based on 86 user reviews

Sungevity offers PPAs, leases, loan, and cash upfront purchases. Unlike some solar companies, lease customers can pay a down payment to lower their total monthly costs.

Sungevity operates in 13 states, focusing on the west and northeast.

NRG Solar

Pros

Well established parent company active in numerous industries, so less chance of bankruptcy or closure than companies purely active in the solar market.

Cons

Limited agreement types, poor online reviews, and working in only a handful of states

NRG Solar is owned by NRG Energy, a large corporation based in New Jersey that also works in the electricity, natural gas, and wind industries. NRG takes customers from sales up to the point of installation, at which time homeowners are handed over to a subcontractor for the actual installation. NRG Solar owns about 3% of the solar market – about equal to Sungevity.

NRG Solar has fewer online reviews than the other solar companies reviewed here –they also have the lowest reviews of all the companies reviewed here. Reviewers focus on poor customer service and internal communication.

  • Yelp: Not enough reviews to report
  • BestCompany: 6.7/10 (BestCompany) and 3.4/10 based on 116 user reviews

NRG only offers solar leases – No options to purchase outright and no PPAs. They currently work in New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts.

So Which Company Is Best?

Is size indicative of the best solar company? In truth, as each homeowner’s energy use and lifestyle are different, this question will depend on your needs. Each of the biggest installers offers different agreement types, works in different states, and has different backgrounds.

And this is only part of the industry. While the above 5 companies account for about 60% of all residential solar installations in the US, the other 40% is installed by much smaller companies that don’t make the top 5 list. Many of these smaller companies are local installers and throughout the US there are hundreds of these small, local solar installation companies.

Before we make a decision on which solar company is best, it’s important to consider these smaller companies. While we can’t give a list of the best solar installers in each area of the US, as that would be an endless project, we can lay out some key differences between national solar companies and local installers to help you narrow down your search.

Local vs National Solar Companies

Unlike national solar installers, in which there are a handful of well-known companies that dominate the market, there is an endless variety of small local installers in cities all over the United States. In the Denver, CO, area alone, there are 98 solar installers on Yelp! In San Francisco, there are 217! While these numbers do include national companies working in the area, it just goes to show how many installation companies are out there!

Cost

With a national installer, cost is likely lower. Due to the size of their organization, they can purchase equipment in bulk and at discounted prices, hire remotely, and create streamlined processes.

Customer Service

When comparing local companies vs national chains, regardless of industry, most think of the local company providing more attentive customer service. Local solar companies will likely be working with a few number of customers at any one time and therefore customer service will be more ‘hands-on’. Because of their smaller size, local companies are more flexible and it’s easy for them to stop by if you have any concerns or issues both during and after the installation.

Most national solar companies assign a project manager to each homeowner they work with. These project managers are meant to answer questions, prepare customers for the installation date, and prepare any necessary paperwork. As national companies often work in 10-20 states, project managers don’t necessarily reside in the area they work in and therefore all communication is online or over the phone. Large companies that focus on streamlining the installation process and hiring knowledgeable, competent staff can create excellent customer experiences.

Post-Installation Support

Just like before and during the installation, local companies can more easily continue to provide attentive support throughout the life of the installation. If something goes wrong, it’s easy to call up the company and have someone check out your system.

Post-installation support with national companies will be more standardized. If equipment malfunctions or energy production decreases, homeowners likely will call the company’s customer service for help and, if necessary, to schedule a maintenance or repair visit.

Available Financing Types

Before deciding to work with a local solar company, keep in mind one large drawback. The most popular financing for solar installations in the US is a lease or power purchase agreement. These agreement types allow homeowners to install solar for little to no money down and all maintenance and repair of the system is the responsibility of the solar installer for the life of the lease, which is usually 20 years.

Solar companies that offer solar installations for no upfront payments need huge sums of money, in the millions of dollars, to offer these agreement types on a large scale. National solar companies partner with banks and investment companies to fund the thousands of leased solar installations across the US. As you can imagine, it would be difficult for a small local company to raise the kind of capital to offer leases and PPAs, so most work with customers that finance their solar installations through cash or a 3rd party loan.

If you want a lease or PPA, the decision between a national or local solar company is probably already made for you, though it’s certainly worthwhile to call a few local companies and ask what financing types they’ve worked with in the past.

Experience of Companies

One more thing to consider when deciding on a solar installer, whether national or local, is the experience of the installer both in the solar industry as well as in the local area.

First, be sure to ask how long the installer has worked in the solar industry and how many installations they’ve completed. The solar industry is still somewhat fledging, so don’t be surprised if the installer is just a few years old (keep in mind SolarCity, the largest residential solar installer in the US, is only 10 years old). More important is the number of installations they’ve completed. Since the company’s installers are the ones who will actually install the system, feel free to ask how many installers they have and how long most of them have been with the company. This will give you an idea of the experience of the installers as well – it doesn’t matter how old the company is if they have high employee turnover and hire new, inexperienced workers every month.

Next, ask how long they’ve worked in your specific area. Each city, county, and utility has their own set of rules, regulations, and processes and companies that already are familiar with these will be able to have faster installation times and avoid hiccups further down the installation process. As members of the communities they serve, local installation companies will likely have a better understanding of their area, since national companies work in hundreds of cities and town across the US and knowing the intricacies of the building departments and utilities in each small area is all but impossible.

Lastly, if your home has any special considerations, tile or wood shake shingles for example, be sure to ask if they’ve previously installed on similar homes. If you have vaulted ceilings, live in a mobile home, want a ground-mounted system, or anything else out of the ordinary, be sure to bring this up from the beginning to feel out their experience and knowledge in the situation.

So Which Solar Company to Choose?

With so many options, both national and local, that becomes a much more difficult choice! No matter who you choose to work with, you need:

  • The right agreement type for your needs
  • A price that works for you
  • Guarantee of great customer service before, during, and after the installation
  • Good reviews, either online or through word-of-mouth for local companies

If all of the above is covered, you’ll have a successful solar installation, regardless of who you work with.

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