What traits define the best solar companies and how to use these to find local solar providers?

The release of aggregated consumer reviews data on more than 3,500 solar installations in 2017 by SolarReviews in February 2018 gives consumers rare and valuable insight into how to choose the best solar company to install solar panels on their home.

What are the key findings of the aggregated solar ratings data released on solar companies by SolarReviews ?

That the solar industry continues to enjoy very high rates of customer satisfaction compared to many other trades and services with an average review score in 2017 of 4.63 if all companies are included and 4.71 if the three companies with the worst reviews are excluded; and

The three biggest residential solar installation companies in America, SolarCity, Vivint and Sunrun each have overall customer reviews scores much, much lower than that industry average. The concern for these companies is that they do not appear to have improved customer service much at all and their aggregated customer reviews scores in 2017 remain at 2.84. This is only a slight improvement over the all time low for these companies recorded in 2016 which was 2.67.

What type of solar company does the data suggests is the best solar company for consumers to use ?

The reviews score data points to certain characteristics that tend to identify solar companies that have particularly satisfied customers.

The identification of characteristics that tend to correlate with a solar panel installation company having high customer satisfaction is important information for consumers because it will allow them to sort between whatever solar companies happen to be quoting for their business.

Rather than us giving consumers a definitive list of solar contractors, most of whom may not operate where they live, we think giving consumers the characteristics to look for will better allow them to rank their local solar installation companies wherever they may live. This research would most likely also hold true outside the USA although it is based entirely on research in the USA.

Here is the list of the top 25 best residential solar installers in America in 2018 based on their reviews scores received in 2017.

The best solar companies tend to be family owned and/or privately held?

It may not be easy for consumers unfamiliar with the solar industry to draw conclusions from the list of top installers above but because we here at Solar-Estimate run the “largest solar quoting marketplace in America” we deal with quite a few of these companies and so are aware of their ownership structure, geographic coverage and their size.

Nearly all of the solar companies who are in this list of top rated installers are family owned privately held companies. In fact I am not aware of any of these solar energy contractors that are either publicly listed or part of a publicly listed group of companies.

The highest rated solar companies tend to operate in limited geographic areas?

Another things that is common to almost all companies on the list above is that they operate in only a handful of geographic markets and have deliberately limited their coverage areas.

Unfortunately many solar entrepreneurs have seen the solar industry over the last 5 years as a land grab and have aggressively pushed out sales teams into wider and wider geographic areas. Most of these companies have then struggled to keep up with the installation and customer service needs of having customers over a wide number of territories and who are customers of a wide range of utilities.

In most cases these companies have failed to meet the expectations of their customers in terms of either installation timeliness, after sales service and warranty support.

Often it was the venture finance backed companies that were pushed into this expansion by investors who did not understand the logistical difficulty involved in having solar installation crews and support infrastructure across a wide geography. It is typical of venture backed companies in many industries to ignore logistical difficulties and to be blinded by the need for rapid growth to support higher and higher valuations.

It seems that the family owned solar panel installers have been more aware of these difficulties, have limited their geographic expansion and are now enjoying the fruits of higher customer satisfaction.

Interestingly enough we are now seeing some of these family owned companies slowly expanding their coverage reach as their businesses mature and they have a larger and more skilled workforce. The irony is that I think these companies will largely succeed in their expansion efforts because it has been slower, more organic and some now have enough human infrastructure to support it.

The best solar installation companies tend to be “mid-sized” and employ between 15 and 100 employees?

The release of the SolarReviews aggregated consumer reviews data for solar also shows that there is a meaningful correlation between customer satisfaction and the size of the solar company.

For this analysis I divide solar companies into three classes:

  • Micro-solar installation companies with less than 15 employee’s- average reviews score 4.58
  • Mid sized privately held solar companies with 15-100 employees- average reviews score 4.72
  • Large corporate solar installation companies- average reviews score 2.84

What are the pros and cons of buying solar from a very small solar company ?

Amongst the very smallest solar power companies  can be found both the best and sometimes the worst of customer satisfaction experience.

These companies tend to be family run with the owner of the company often having a direct involvement in either the sales process or the installation process (or sometimes both). I would estimate that around 80% of these micro solar contractors enjoy very high ratings because they take their reputation very personally. However, what drags this group down is that it contains the start ups and  fly by nighters. There are many people that enter the solar industry that simply do not have the skills to run a business and lack an appreciation for the long term nature of the warranties and customer support obligations you take on when you sell a homeowner solar panels.

This is why overall this group in aggregate has lower customer satisfaction scores than the slightly larger localized installers. However, within this group can also be found some really, really good little solar companies and so I wouldn’t simply ignore this group.

However, if I was choosing a contractor out of this group I would look for an installer with at least 10 customer reviews online and at least 6-8 employee’s

Should SolarCity, Vivint and Sunrun complaints put you off buying solar from a large corporate installer ?

The largest residential solar energy companies in America such as SolarCity,Vivint and Sunrun have made giant strides forward during 2017 in opening their business models up to have competitive offerings for consumers that want to own their own solar panels.

All of these large installation companies had originally grown large by offering zero down PPA and lease agreements where the solar provider retains ownership of the solar panels and sell the homeowner the power generated by the panels. Over 2016 and 2017 falling solar prices meant that more and more consumers wanted to buy their solar panels outright because with an outright purchase much more of the savings generated by the solar are retained by the homeowner.

The largest solar companies reacted to this and  now offer much more competitive options for both cash purchases of solar systems and also zero down loans for those wanting to own their solar panels.

So would I buy solar from one of the big corporate solar installers ?

The short answer is, No. I believe in almost all cases that you can find a local installer that will offer an equivalent product at an equivalent or cheaper price but will offer you a much better customer service and after sales support experience. In short you will be more likely to be treated like an individual job rather than a number.

People often perceive that a large company is more stable and more likely to be around in the future. However, in the case of listed solar installers in America I disagree with this logic. Most of these very large solar companies are not profitable and so their continued existence depends on continuous financing. When I compare this to a mid sized local installer who is profitable, operates only in a smaller area and typically has a much lower cost base than a large corporate installer I actually think the local company is more likely to still be in business in your local area for the longer term.

However, having said all this I still think that the vast majority of homeowners that do purchase solar from a large corporate installer do end up happy and so if you were to buy solar from one of these large companies it is likely you would be happy too. An important thing to remember about reviews is that unhappy customer write reviews, happy customers are much less likely to bother to do so and I’m sure all of the largest installers have many thousands of happy customers.

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