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Before installing a solar hot water system, check local building codes, subdivision covenants, and zoning ordinances or regulations. Contact your local zoning and building department representatives to determine requirements. If you live in a subdivision with a homeowner’s association (HOA), review the covenants and contact the HOA Board or the management company. You may need a building permit if installing on an existing home. If you are the first in your HOA or town to install a renewable energy system, you may need to educate building code officials and local representatives.
Possible installation issues might include historic district guidelines and future shading. Will any trees on your property or nearby property grow and shade the system? 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 system. 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.
Because proper installation of a solar hot water system entails numerous considerations and requires attention to safety (roof work, electrical hook-ups, etc.), hiring a qualified solar hot water company or contractor is recommended. Some manufacturers will extend a system’s warranty if installed by one of their trained contractors. And, some utility rebates will only be given if a system is installed by a trained professional. Protect yourself and feel confident you are hiring a qualified professional by asking questions about their level of experience, licensing, certifications, and customer service.
Does the company or individual contractor have experience installing and providing maintenance for the system you want installed? 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 solar hot water system installers to have a plumber’s license or a solar contractor’s license. Confirm licensing with your state’s licensing boards. The State of Montana currently does not require licensing for the installation of any renewable energy systems.
Be sure to ask about and see confirmation of liability and workman’s compensation insurance.
Many installers take specialized training and exams to receive certifications. The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) is one group that provides training and certification for solar hot water and other renewable energy system professionals. The NABCEP website lists NABCEP-certified professionals in each state.
The Solar Energy Industries Association and its state chapters provide lists of solar energy system companies by state or city. The Montana Renewable Energy Association (MREA) website (www.montanarenewables.org) provides information on Montana companies that install renewable energy systems, including solar hot water, and lists each company’s certifications. Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service maintains a similar list on their energy extension website. You can also search the phone book.
Get bids from more than one company and compare. Ask for bids on Solar Rating and Certification Corporation (SRCC)-certified systems and have the bid specify the system type, size, energy output, and maintenance requirements in addition to the cost. Ask that the bid include the following costs: installation, initial set-up (pressurizing the system, etc.), all hardware, permits, sales tax, and warranties. Some companies will research and complete the paperwork for any available federal, state, local and utility incentives. Be sure to ask if they are including incentive deductions in their cost estimates, and be aware incentives may arrive later (rebates, etc.) and that you will typically need to pay the full, initial cost up-front.
If you decide to install your system, be sure to educate yourself and take time to attend classes, workshops, or training 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.
National Renewable Energy Laboratory (produced) for the U.S. Department of Energy. (2003, December). A Consumer’s Guide: Heat Your Water with the Sun. DOE/GO-102003-1824.
U.S. Department of Energy. (2010, October). Building Codes, Covenants, and Regulations for Solar Water Heating Systems. Retrieved February 8, 2011, from: http://www.energysavers.gov/your_home/water_heating/index.cfm/mytopic=12920
U.S. Department of Energy. (2010, October). Community Solar Access. Retrieved February 8, 2011, from: http://www.energysavers.gov/renewable_energy/solar/index.cfm/mytopic=50013