Investment Grade Solar Systems
We Take The Guesswork Out Of Investing In A Solar System For Your Home Or Business.™

 

There are three basic grades of solar systems that are available on today's market.

1. Investment Grade Solar Systems: Offer documented performance specifications that meet a minimum set of standards. Solar modules that are used in these systems are manufactured by large publicly traded or U.S. based manufacturers. The balance of system components are made by well established name brand companies. The standards that are required to meet investment grade status typically result in higher, more reliable performance and a far better return on investment.

2. Hybrid Grade Solar Systems: Mix name brand high performance products with one or more name brand, average performance products in a system. These systems tend to be reliable and offer lower cost. Hybrid configurations typically result in average performance and reliability and an average return on investment.

3. Generic Grade Solar Systems: Mix non-name brand, low cost, poorer performing components with one or more name brand high performance components. These systems tend to be less reliable and offer poorer overall system performance. These systems typically results in a poorer return on investment and may even result in a high risk for a loss of warranty support early in the system's projected lifetime.

  

Many consumers will purchase a solar system this year with absolutely no consideration of their system's potential return on investment.

Some will buy solar systems that include solar panels that are manufactured by tiny overseas companies that have a high probability of not existing in the next 3 to 5 years resulting in a total loss of warranty support and eventually their entire investment. Others will buy name brand products that offer poor performance that will result in the loss of thousands or even tens of thousands in potential energy production revenue or the lifetime of their system.

The problem lies in the fact that most consumers have very little knowledge concerning solar technology which forces them to rely entirely on the knowledge, experience and integrity of the dealer that they've chosen to deal with.

In a mature industry where performance and reliability standards are well known to the typical consumer, relying on a dealer's recommendation would normally be acceptable. But when you consider the fact that more than 95% of the solar dealers in existence today possess less than 2 years of experience in the solar industry, relying solely on the average dealer's recommendations is clearly not the safest way to invest such a large amount of money.

Choose an experienced dealer, but still do your research.

With more than 16 years of experience exclusively in the solar industry, we posses the knowledge and experience that provides us with the expertise to know which technologies simply perform and which technologies perform beyond expectation. Over the past 12 years, we've seen many manufacturers come and go and we know exactly why they did not survive in this industry.

We've used our knowledge and experience to select the following neutral biased criteria for choosing a solar system that not only has a greater potential to enhance your return on investment but also provides piece of mind in knowing that the manufacturers of these products are far more likely to be here decades from now to honor their 25 year warranties. Applying these eight criteria to any solar dealer's offering makes it easy to separate a poor performing generic system from a higher performance investment grade system.

The following eight criteria must be used in its entirety for a system evaluation to be effective. For example investing in a solar system that offers a great brand name and a great PTC rating while offering a poor negative tolerance rating can cost you thousands of dollars in lost revenue over the life of a solar system. Again ALL of the following criteria MUST meet the minimum standards that are indicated below in order for a system to be classified as a true investment grade solar system.

 

1. NAME BRAND SOLAR PANELS

Minimum Criteria:  A large publicly traded, government sponsored or U.S. based manufacturer. Or a manufacturer that offers a warranty that back by 3rd party insurance.

How To Verify This Information:  Always ask for the manufacturer's stock symbol or U.S. module (not cell) manufacturing facility address.

With the flood of solar panels that are entering the U.S. market that are coming from hundreds of tiny, financially unsound overseas manufacturers, it is important that you stick with the big name brands. By the term "big name brands" we mean large publicly traded or large U.S. based manufacturers.

The reason for this is simple. If a catastrophic manufacturing defect were to occur and a major portion of a manufacturer's production were to result in a recall, it would be highly unlikely that a small privately held overseas company would be able to survive the replacement of even a moderate portion of their production. In a case like this, most of these small manufacturers would simply file bankruptcy and would re-open under a different name, which would result in the loss of your warranty protection. A larger publicly traded or U.S. based manufacturer would be far more likely to posses the financial strength to honor their warranty.

Case in point: REC® Solar, a very large European solar manufacturer began selling solar modules in the U.S. about two years ago. In 2009 it was announced that the junction boxes that they were using had a serious defect which affected approximately 420,000 solar panels which represents about a quarter of their 2007 production and nearly all of their 2008 production. REC® Solar has accepted full responsibility and has launched a recall and will repair or replace all of the affected modules. Now keep in mind  REC® Solar is one of the world's most well funded companies that uses the latest high tech manufacturing equipment available. This will cost REC® Solar approximately $56 million dollars to correct.

If you purchased non name brand solar panels that were manufactured by a small underfunded company in an attempt to save a few nickels per watt, and this would have happened, even on a much smaller scale, the plain and simple reality would be that your chances of having your defective solar panels replaced under warranty would be almost zero.

Shopping Tip: If the solar module that you’re considering is publicly traded, always check the manufacturer’s stock value. Is the company financially viable enough to back there 25 year warranty ?

We won’t mention names but one solar panel manufacturer that is currently being offered by many of our competitors is on the verge of being de-listed from NASDAQ because their stock has devalued to “penny stock” status. If you buy this U.S. based manufacturers solar modules and this company goes bankrupt, you’ll be left without any warranty whatsoever.

Shopping Tip: Be cautious of dealers that use terms like "Engineered in the U.S.A." or "100% U.S. content" or "U.S. based solar manufacturer". Engineered in the U.S.A. or Made in North America content does not mean "Made In The U.S.A." and just because a company claims to be a U.S. based manufacturer does not necessarily mean that the solar panels that are in the system that they are offering were made in the U.S.A. If you bought a system from one of these dealers and feel that you were intentionally mislead into believing that your solar panels were made in the U.S.A. when they were not, we recommend that you contact the Federal Trade Commission.

 

2. PTC RATING

Minimum Criteria:  A PTC to STC ratio of at least 90%

How To Verify This Information:  Visit the following government sponsored website to compare PTC ratings. Incentive Eligible Photovoltaic Modules in Compliance with SB1 Guidelines - Go Solar California

There are two different performance ratings that are associated with a solar panel. One is the STC rating or (Standard Test Conditions) and the other is the PTC rating or ( PVUSA Test Conditions). The STC rating is a standardized test that is performed by the factory and is sometimes referred to as (Factory Test Conditions) and is basically the same as the label that is placed by the factory on the back of the solar panel. So if the factory test results indicated that a solar panel produces approximately 200 watts, then the factory will place a 200 watt label on the back of the solar panel. STC are 1,000 Watts per square meter solar irradiance, 25 degrees C cell temperature, air mass equal to 1.5, and ASTM G173-03 standard spectrum.

PVUSA test conditions were developed to test and compare PV systems as part of the  PVUSA or (Photovoltaics for Utility Scale Applications) project. PTC are 1,000 Watts per square meter solar irradiance, 20 degrees C air temperature, and wind speed of 1 meter per second at 10 meters above ground level.

The PTC rating, which is lower than the STC rating, is generally recognized as a more realistic measure of PV (solar panel) output because the test conditions better reflect "real-world" solar and climatic conditions, compared to the STC rating.

This all may sound rather complicated, so to simplify: The higher the PTC rating the better the real world performance. The great news is that a list has been prepared by the State of California which shows the PTC rating of most solar panels so you can easily do a side by side comparison.

To calculate a PTC to STC ratio, simply divide the solar panel's PTC rating by its STC rating. For example if a solar panel has a 200 watt STC rating (Factory name plate rating) and a PTC rating of 175.7 Watts then it has a PTC to STC ratio of .8785 or 87.85 percent. 

Again the point to remember is "The higher the PTC to STC ratio the bigger your rebate in many states and the better the real world PTC performance"

 

3. NEGATIVE TOLERANCE

Minimum Criteria:  Negative 3%.

How To Verify This Information:  Always check the manufacturer's specification sheet. (The lower this number the better)

Negative tolerance used to be one of the industry's best kept secrets. And is still a subject that many manufacturers try to avoid. The negative tolerance rating of a solar panel is the amount of power that a solar panel can be "off specification", new, right out of the box.

For example if you purchased a 200 watt solar panel with a 9% negative tolerance rating then that solar panel might provide only 182 watts and the manufacturer would consider this within normal specifications.

If the same 200 watt solar panel had a 5% negative tolerance rating then that panel might only produce 190 watts and would still be considered normal by the manufacturer.

3% might be only produce 194 watts. So as you can see, the lower the negative tolerance rating the better the guaranty you have of getting the power that you paid for.

 

4. WARRANTY

Minimum Criteria:  25 year manufacturer's warranty.

How To Verify This Information:  Always check the manufacturer's written warranty policy.

A solar panel's warranty is becoming an ever more important issue which unfortunately is typically ignored by most consumers. Most solar panel manufacturers offer a 25 year power production warranty. There are several important things to consider when discussing a solar panel manufacturer's warranty.

1. Never take for granted the financial strength of the company that's backing a solar panel's warranty. Hundreds if not thousands of U.S. consumers purchased solar panels this year that were manufactured by tiny, non name brand, overseas manufacturers that probably will not have enforceable warranties in the next 3 to 5 years.

2. If your dealer is trying to sell you a solar panel that offers less than a 25 year warranty while almost every other manufacturer in the industry offers 25 years, ask your dealer why his manufacture offers a lesser warranty. When you consider that a solar panel should offer a 30 to 40 year life expectancy, why would a manufacturer offer less warranty support ?

Is there something that they're not telling you about the life expectancy of their solar panel ? You would be surprised at how many people in your neighborhood bought solar panels this year with only a 20 year warranty when they could have easily paid less for higher performance, name brand solar panels that offer 25 year warranties.

The bottom line here is, always ask your dealer to show you a copy of the manufacturers written warranty policy. Never assume that you're receiving a 25 year manufacturer's warranty.

3. Who is actually providing the warranty for your solar panels ? Several dealers have begun the practice of selling factory defective solar panels that offer no factory warranty whatsoever. These small dealers, many of whom are home based businesses are private labeling factory reject solar panels that have no U.L. approval and are actually printing their own 25 year dealer warranties. A non U.L. approved solar panel cannot legally be installed on an occupied dwelling which also means that you cannot apply for a rebate.

Again, always ask your dealer to show you a copy of the manufacturers written warranty policy. Never assume that you're receiving a factory warranty.

 

5. INVERTER EFFICIENCY

Minimum Criteria:   97 %.

How To Verify This Information:  Visit the following government sponsored website to compare inverter CEC efficiency ratings. List of Eligible Inverters per SB1 Guidelines - Go Solar California 

Unlike a solar panel's efficiency which has very little impact on payback in a typical sunny environment. Inverter efficiency is directly related to a solar systems financial payback. The lower the inverter's efficiency, the smaller your rebate in many states and lower the amount of energy that you will produce over the system's lifetime.

There are literally tons of unsold, low efficiency inverters floating around the market that have been picked up by dealers looking for a bargain to resell. Make absolutely sure that you know the CEC efficiency rating of the inverter that is being used in your system. When you consider that the inverter is very small part of your overall investment, compromising on efficiency in order to save a few hundred dollars up front, can cost you thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars worth of lost energy production over the life of your system.

 

6. MOUNTING SYSTEM DESIGN AND THICKNESS

Minimum Criteria:   6105-T5 Aluminum Extrusion.

How To Verify This Information:  Visit your dealer's showroom and ask to see a sample of the mounting system that will be used in your solar system and ask to see its spec sheet. 

In an effort to save cost, several solar panel mounting system manufacturers have opted to use thinner gauge aluminum in the design of their mounting rails choosing to push the limits of engineering instead of offering heavier duty, heavy gauge aluminum rails. 

This might be beneficial to the dealer who is selling the solar system due to increased profit margins but in our opinion it offers absolutely no benefit to the consumer. In fact a thinner mounting rail requires that more holes are drilled into your roof so that more mounting points can be installed to provided the rigidity necessary to secure your solar panels. 

A simple test that can be performed to compare one brand of rail against another is to lay a sample of the proposed mounting rail on the ground on its side and stand on it. If it bends to the point of damage then it is probably composed of thinner gauge aluminum. When you consider that the mounting rails that you choose is securing more than 90% of your solar investment to your roof, it's not really an area that you want to skimp on.

When reviewing the quote that you have received from any dealer always make sure that the brand and model of the mounting system that will be used in your system is specified. If the dealer uses generic terms like "Includes solar mounting rack" or makes no mention of the mounting system at all then the dealer will probably be using the lowest cost options available. Again, always demand to see in writing, the brand and model number of the mounting system that will be used in your solar system.

Shopping Tip: A popular gimmick that is used by many solar dealers to enhance their price per watt is to sell name brand, solar panels and name brand inverters mixed with the lowest cost, thin aluminum, mounting system available on the market. Many dealers know that consumers typically focus on the name brand of the solar panels and the inverter and will pay no mind to the brand or model of the mounting system.

If you've been provided with a quote with no mention of the brand or model number of the mounting system that your dealer is using, then the dealer is probably trying to sell you the cheapest available racks on the market. This is a common practice amongst less reputable dealers.

Always demand to see a full list of material including brands and models and ALWAYS ask for a copy of the mounting system's factory warranty not the dealer’s warranty.

The bottom line is this: If you feel comfortable with the idea of securing more than 90% of your solar investment to the roof of your home with the cheapest, thinnest mounting rails on the market while drilling more holes into your roof in order to provide the rigidity needed to support your solar panels, so you can save a few pennies per watt, well then what can we say?

On the other hand, like most consumers, if you don't feel comfortable with that idea, then give the quote back to your dealer and ask him to upgrade your solar mounting system to a heavier duty version. It is simply not worth the few pennies per watt that you might save to compromise your investment.

 

7. MODULE EFFICIENCY

Minimum Criteria:   16.2 %.

How To Verify This Information:  Always check the manufacturer's specification sheet. (Don't confuse the cell efficiency with the module efficiency) 

In most real world applications efficiency is really not that important, which is why we rate it at number five on our level of importance. The term efficiency is probably one of the most misused, misunderstood terms in the solar industry that can have multiple meanings depending on which salesman you happen to be talking to at the moment.

Some manufacturers will use the term efficiency to represent power as in "the most powerful solar panels in the universe" while failing to mention their relatively poor negative tolerance ratings and high cost. When it comes to a solar system's power rating, a 5kw system is a 5kw system, no matter what the efficiency rating is. Otherwise a higher efficiency 5kW system would be rated at 5.1kW or 5.2kW and so on.

Other manufacturers will avoid the term efficiency like the plague or will manipulate their ads so that they talk about the "high efficiency" that's used in their manufacturing process or how "thin and sleek" their solar panels are or that their solar panels offers the "highest efficiency" in their class. Never mind that their product's class offers one of the lowest efficiency ratings in the industry.

So what's the truth about efficiency ? It's simple, the higher the efficiency that the solar panel offers the smaller the solar panel. And since efficiencies only vary by a few percentage points from panel to panel, in most cases you are only talking about a difference of a few square inches.

So if your roof has sufficient space for the solar panels that you're considering, why pay thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars more for higher efficiency solar panels. On the other hand if you can buy solar panels that offer a higher efficiency rating at a lower price than lower efficiency solar panels, then why not.

The second truth about efficiency is that you may receive a very small advantage when operating your your panels under low light conditions. But in reality how often will your system experience low light conditions ? And again is that small advantage worth the thousands more that most "higher efficiency" solar panels garner. 

When it comes to efficiency it is far more important to consider the system overall efficiency which includes the PTC rating of the solar panels and the conversion efficiency rating of the inverter.

 

8. PRICE PER WATT

Minimum Criteria:   No more than $2.25 per watt (equipment only) or $3.20 per watt installed* before incentives for a typical, high performance, investment grade 4kW system using a standard string inverter. The higher the system wattage, the lower the average price per watt.

How To verify This Information:  Always ask for a written quote from any dealer. (always make absolutely sure that you are comparing apple for apples.)

Price per watt is a quick and easy way to compare two identically sized and equipped solar systems. To calculate price per watt, simply divide the price of the system before rebates and other government incentives by the wattage of the system.

For example if system (A) consisted of a  5.0 kilowatt system that was priced at $19,020.00 then system (A) would have a price per watt of $3.80 per watt. If system (B) consisted of a 5.0 kilowatt system that was priced at $20,230.00 then system (B) would have a price per watt of $4.04 per watt.

If both systems included identical solar panels, racks and inverter that were made by the same manufacturer, then obviously system (A) would be the better buy.

If system (B) included an inverter with a higher efficiency rating that gave you a bigger rebate and more power production over the life of the system and heavier duty mounting racks and solar panels with a longer warranty, then system (A)'s lower price probably no longer makes sense.

Price per watt only makes sense when your comparing apples to apples. Meaning same size, same manufacturer, same model and same warranty. If you're using price per watt to compare apples to oranges and it's the only tool that you are using to make your comparison, then it's real easy to get caught up in the "price equals value trap" and forget that your buying a product that should be designed and built to provide you with 30 to 40 years of service.

*The above $3.50 per watt example would not include tilt legs or unusual engineering or permitting requirements. Tile roofing may or may nor affect this installed price per watt.

When It Comes To Buying A Solar System, Value Is Not Measured By Pricing Alone.

No two solar systems are created equal. Differences that may appear to be minor on the surface can mean the loss of tens of thousands of dollars worth of avoided utility bills over the 30 to 40 year life expectancy of a typical solar system.

When shopping for a solar system, you may find pricing that's 15 even 20 percent lower on non name brand solar panels that have been manufactured by tiny, non publicly traded, overseas manufactures that has a small likelihood of being here 25 years from now to honor their warranty. But over the long haul, any savings that you earn now will be absolutely worthless if your system provides you with 30 to 40 years of inferior performance or your left with non working equipment and no warranty to protect your investment.

 

All of our Investment Grade Solar Systems meet or exceed every one of these eight minimum criteria. If the solar system that you are buying does not meet or exceed ALL eight of the above criteria then in our opinion, you are simply buying a Hybrid system which is ok as long as you are paying accordingly. In all cases we recommend avoiding the purchase of non name brand Generic Grade Solar Systems. With prices as low as they are for Hybrid and Investment Grade Systems, it simply isn't worth the risk of buying a non name brand or even name brand, poorer performing, generic grade system.

 

 

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