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Before installing a solar electric system, check local building codes, subdivision covenants, and zoning ordinances or regulations. Contact your local electrical or building inspector to determine requirements. The National Electric Code (NEC) Article 690 provides requirements for designing and installing a safe, reliable and code-compliant solar electric system. Using NEC criteria will ensure local code official approval. Check whether a building permit is required if installing a system on an existing building.
Review the covenants and contact the HOA Board or the management company if you live in an area with a homeowner’s association (HOA). You may need to educate local building code officials and local representatives if you are the first in your area to install a renewable energy system. Contact your utility company to ask if it requires a specific Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL)-certified inverter. The UL has developed a series of inverter safety requirements (UL 1741).
Other installation issues might include: historic district guidelines/restrictions, and future shading. Will any trees on your property or nearby property grow and shade the system panels? Be sure to communicate with neighbors about your plans and determine if they might plant trees or add a second story to a home that may shade your panels. Some government jurisdictions have solar access zoning regulations that prevent the blocking of the sun required for operation of any solar energy system. Montana law (70-17-301) allows the creation of easements to protect solar and wind energy rights. This requires negotiation with neighboring property owners. Some Wyoming cities and counties have solar access-related codes.
Proper installation of your solar electric system will ensure maximum electrical output. Hiring a qualified company or contractor is recommended because proper installation entails numerous considerations and requires attention to safety (roof work, electrical hook-ups, etc.). Some manufacturers will extend a system’s warranty if installed by one of their trained contractors. Some utility rebates will only be given if a system is installed by a trained and certified professional. Protect yourself and feel confident you are hiring a qualified professional by asking questions about experience, licensing, certifications, and customer service.
Does the company or individual contractor have experience installing and providing maintenance for the type of system you want installed? Do they warrant their installation work? Do they provide system commissioning? Ask for the contact information of other customers, and if possible, take time to see those systems and ask the owners about their experience with the system and the level of customer service received.
Some states require a contractor to be licensed. The States of Montana and Wyoming currently do not require licensing for the installation of any renewable energy systems. It is suggested you hire a contractor with either an A, B, C-10, or C-46 license. Note: A licensed electrician is required to connect grid-tied systems to the utility’s grid.
Be sure to ask about and see confirmation of liability and workman’s compensation insurance. Have they taken safety training?
Many installers take specialized training and exams to receive certifications. The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) is one group that tests and certifies solar electric and other renewable energy system professionals. Their website lists NABCEP-certified professionals in each state.
Ask the company or installer if he/she is a member of a trade organization such as the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Are they a member of the Better Business Bureau (BBB)?
Many companies now offer a system monitoring service that allows them/you to monitor the system through a web-based computer program.
The Solar Energy Industries Association and its state chapters often provide lists of solar energy system companies by state or city. The Montana Renewable Energy Association (MREA) website provides information on Montana companies and individual contractors that install renewable energy systems and lists their certifications. Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service maintains a similar list on their extension energy website. You can also search the local phone book yellow pages.
Get bids from more than one company and compare. Have bids specify the system type, size, electricity output, and maintenance requirements in addition to cost.
If you decide to install your own system, be sure to educate yourself and take time to attend classes, workshops, or trainings where you can learn from qualified instructors.
Whether you hire a contractor or install the system yourself, make sure it is done correctly and safely.
Montana Department of Environmental Quality. (2011, April). Net Metering and Easements. Retrieved April 8, 2011, from http://deq.mt.gov/Energy/Renewable/NetMeterRenew.mcpx
National Renewable Energy Laboratory (produced) for U.S. Department of Energy. (2009, January). Own Your Power! A Consumer Guide to Solar Electricity for the Home. DOE/GO-102009-265
U.S. Dept. of Energy. (2010, Oct.). Community Solar Access. Retrieved February 8, 2011, from http://www.energysavers.gov/renewable_energy/solar/index.cfm/mytopic=50013
U.S. Dept. of Energy. (2011, Feb.). Installing and Maintaining a Small Solar Electric System. Retrieved February 16, 2011, from http://www.energysavers.gov/your_home/electricity/index.cfm/mytopic=10820
U.S. Dept. of Energy. (2011, Feb.). Local Codes and Requirements for Small Renewable Energy Systems. Retrieved February 16, 2011, from http://www.energysavers.gov/your_home/electricity/index.cfm/mytopic=10690