The implementation of ICE’s Net Metering, Distributed Generation solar energy program has created a rapid increase for the demand of quality installed, solar energy systems amongst home and business owners in Costa Rica.
Spurred by the country’s already high, rising cost of electricity, ICE’s progressive solar energy program encourages energy consumers to produce their own electricity from renewable sources, while transmitting excess energy generated back into the utility grid.
The innovative program allows consumers to significantly reduce their electricity bills, namely during peak Demanda hours.
As with any rapid growing industry, the probability of inexperienced, fly by night companies looking to cash in on the opportunity rises, increasing the importance for savvy consumers to choose the right solar energy provider.
We asked Mr. Lester Sacks, founder of Costa Rica Solar Solutions (CRSS), one of the country’s leading solar energy providers, what home owners and business operators looking to convert to solar should look for in a service provider.
As an experienced nuclear engineer of 20 years and having participated in the development, design, supply and/or installation of many various sized residential and commercial solar energy systems throughout Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua and the U.S., Mr. Sacks emphasizes the importance of doing your homework before making any long-term, energy investment decision.
Below are some helpful tips Lester recommends to would be consumers, when choosing the right solar power provider for your project;
- Qualification: Possibly the easiest way to check to see whether a solar installer is qualified, is to know their qualifications. Are they a licensed electrician or engineer, are they registered as a solar installer. There are organizations that certify solar installers, the NABCEP is probably your best bet in terms of the quality of work offered from their certified installers. Not only do they have their potential installers pass a rigorous set of tests, but prior to receiving their certificate an installer must also have two years of experience in solar system installations.
In the case of solar installers that claim to have enough experience to do the job without certification, it is important that you ask them to provide you with as many references as possible. This will be helpful to know not only how much experience they may have, but may provide insight as to the quality of work that they hold as standard. It is also important to ask about the range of solar systems they have installed, and how many of those are similar to the system you are considering.
2. Licenses/Insurance: The last thing anyone wants is to be on the receiving end of a liability claim due to an accident during installation. Should an accident occur, most solar installers have general liability insurance, workers compensation insurance, and a contractor’s license, all of which are designed to protect you from anything that could go wrong while they are on the job. More than often, if a solar installer does not have these basic protections or is not willing to verify that they have them, you’re probably safer choosing a different company.
3. Financing: One of the best ways to know your installers level of capability, especially in a commercial install scenario, is whether or not they can help you finance your system. Are they able to help put money where there mouth is? Is there an experienced finance company willing to stand behind the installer, while literally investing in the installation and workmanship?
We suggest commercial clients in Costa Rica consider leasing a system from a company like ArcStar Energy S.A. – This requires little or no up front capital and includes complete operating and maintenance throughout the duration of the lease program (15-20 years)… insuring the system will function optimally with minimal time or risk committed by the business operator. It also insures warranty will be up to spec, because the client doesn’t pay unless the system is working properly. This is one of the safest overall solutions when investing in solar in Costa Rica, because often the locked in monthly lease rate is less than the consumers previous monthly ICE bill, permitting immediate savings with minimal risk. This finance method also protects the business operator from future rising rate hikes without having to take on the responsibility of operating the system.
4. Interconnection with ICE: In Costa Rica it is possible to connect a solar or other renewable energy system to the ICE distribution grid. This means that as an independent power producer you can produce your own energy while feeding your excess energy back into the ICE grid. You then will receive a credit on your electric bill for the energy that is produced every month earning you up to 33 cents US per kWh. While choosing to participate in this progressive program, it is advisable you choose an installer who has experience in interconnections process and agreements with ICE. The more experience the installer has in this department, the better. An experienced installer may even help handle the application process with ICE and will coordinate the date and time your system will “come online” while connecting to the grid. Ask your installer how many grid connections he has participated in, and don’t feel shy to ask to see previous interconnect agreements he has received from ICE.
5. Referrals/Track Record: Look for an installer who has been contracted to do other systems in your neighborhood or region. Ask to be taken to some of those other sites to view the quality of your installer’s workmanship and don’t be shy to ask the system owners if they would choose the same company if they had to do it all over again. A quality installer will be proud of the other jobs he has completed in the community and will have maintained close relationships with past customers, making it easy for you to determine the company’s level of integrity.
6. Design: Each solar energy system is as unique as its owner. The system’s components and size of the project will be contingent on the needs of its owner, requiring a unique design based on geography, energy demands, location to the grid, mounting equipment (rooftop or ground mount racking), area of coverage (footprint) and budget. Beware wary of installers who recommend “in a box systems”… one size does not fit all.
7. Subcontracting: Subcontracting can be a touchy subject when it comes to photovoltaic solar installations. If your solar installer subcontracts any of their work, this may not be the ideal choice for you. You may trust your solar installer, but not necessarily the subcontractor who will ultimately be assigned to your project. Also confirm if your installer’s company insurance covers sub contractors. The last thing you want as a consumer is finger pointing when trying to figure out why your system isn’t working.
8. Location, location, location: The location of your proposed project in relation to the area your installer operates out of may play an important role in choosing the right installer for your job. The closer they are to your location, the better. Not only can this help to decrease some of the costs while minimizing travel time, it may also result in the installer being more familiar with local building codes and connection requirements. In addition, if the installer has performed other work in the area then they will be more familiar with what is required to leverage local weather conditions in terms of maintenance plans, which may prove to be beneficial in saving costs while improving your overall energy outputs.
9. Brands Used: Unless you’re willing to risk some potential problems later on in the life of your solar energy system, do not let yourself get roped into being a science experiment for your installer to try new, unproven technology on. It is important that your installer is familiar and comfortable with the component brands being used, as well as their methods of installation. More importantly, it is imperative that your installer recommends a brand of panel and inverter that will be in business tomorrow, to protect your warranty.
10. Warranty: Because most solar projects can be considered a large, long-term investment, it is crucial that your solar panels come with a reliable warranty. A photovoltaic system can take anywhere from 3 to 5 years to pay for itself in Costa Rica, therefore a warranty less than 10 years should be unacceptable. The solar panels themselves should have a reliable warranty of 20 to 25 years, covering degradation (annual decreased efficiency) of no more than 3% a year. A 5 year limited warranty on labor should also be sought, allowing time for your installer to mend any malfunctions free of charge should materials malfunction or require warranty. On this note, it’s imperative to choose an installer who has a successful track record and will be in business in the years to come.
Also worth noting, choose an installer who recommends the use of solar panels manufactured by a company that will likely be in business in 20 years from point of installation, in the event warranty is necessary.
Ask your installer about modules manufactured by known companies with diversified interests, to offset their balance sheets during times of solar economic trouble. In the world of commercially operated, utility scale solar projects, this is called “Bankability.”
A reputable installer who plans to be in business for the long haul, will not only be thinking about minimizing his clients long term risks, but also his own.
11. Economies of Scale: Many have found that choosing the route of the “one stop” solar installation company can prove to be beneficial when it come to costs and ease of installation. Choose a company that can perform all of the necessary steps, from the beginning consultation to the final electric hookup to the grid, without you having to call upon outside contractors. Not only will this prove to be more convenient for you and the installation company, but will generally help expedite the process. In addition, often times the solar installer can pass along savings made by ordering services and components in bulk, due to ordering larger quantities based on “economies of scale.” Therefore, the busier the company you choose is, the more affordable their services may be.
12. Locating a Solar Installer: Historically, word of mouth is always one of the best ways to find any type of products and/or services. Ask your neighbors or associated companies who they may have recently had systems installed by, or ask them if they know of any others who have recently had systems installed.
Another way to identify quality installers is to leverage the internet, but don’t always believe everything you read. Again, do your own due diligence thoroughly, researching the companies you are interviewing.
13. Common Sense: While considering all of the above factors, the ultimate decision of choosing the right photovoltaic installer in Costa Rica comes down to you and your comfort level. Remember, this is just business, so don’t get too personal or feel badly about choosing one company over another. This decision can be a big commitment and the comfort and/or reliability of the operation of your home or business may be dependent on it, therefore do not always go with the cheapest quote – Going too cheap could end up costing you a lot more in the long run.
Be satisfied with how quickly the companies you contact respond to your calls and questions and feel confident that they are knowledgeable when answering, no matter how trivial the question may seem. A company that does not respond to your calls reliably, will likely not be in business long.
Your solar energy solutions provider in Costa Rica should be more than just someone you temporarily hire, but rather a professional you trust to make a long term investment with. An experienced, reliable PV installer will make the installation process painless, while providing you a reliable means of significantly reducing your carbon footprint… while saving you a lot of money in the process.
The Solar Gazette is a media related company dedicated to global change through the reduction of harmful toxins and greenhouse gases being released into the Earth’s atmosphere. In doing so, The Solar Gazette advocates the use of clean renewable energies as economic replacements for outdated fossil fuels, through a variety of related publications. The Solar Gazette thanks Lester Sacks and Glenn Kawamoto from Costa Rica Solar Solutions (CRSS) for their cooperation in the creation of this article.