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Portland, Oregon: Five Factors to Consider Before Buying DIY Solar Kits

So - you've come to the conclusion that all of these ads and YouTube videos are really telling (mostly) the truth about your power costs. You've considered that owning your own solar array will make a huge impact on your financial wellbeing and future, while also adding tremendous value to your home.


The price!

Yes...I do hear this a lot. And at least a few times a month, I field a phone call from a customer who wants to buy the parts online and have us design the system for them. They might even want to pay us a nominal fee to help them permit the installation. And...why not ask us to apply for your incentives while we're at it?

The reality here for DPI Solar (and every other installer) is this: RISK

When we insert our name into your project, we (on some or even many levels) are making ourselves responsible for your install. And therein lies the risk: if something happens, we could be held liable for your workmanship, lack of proper supervision to ensure compliance with manufacturer specifications, and even have our own licenses and abilities to provide our services severely impacted. This, dear friends, is why we won't extend this service to you.

"But Josh, I'll sign something that removes liability" (you promise)...

Yet when that solar kit that you bought online fails to live up to your expectations (or worse - you can't get a tech support group to talk to you because you're the home-owner), you will inevitably come back to us (or some other installer) begging, and then threatening. Why? Because you spent 10's of thousands of dollars on your kit - and it doesn't work like it should - even though you had us sign off on the design.

Again and again - we've seen this scenario play out - and it's awful for all involved. So, why would someone buy a solar kit instead of hiring an expert?

Money. Plain and simple. Trust me - I get it.

I've also learned the hard way (in my own life) that, just because I CAN do it myself, doesn't mean I should (hint - divorce proceedings that allowed myself and my ex-wife to get a quicky divorce without using those dang old expensive attorneys!) I'll never forget the words my (all-to-late-years-later) divorce attorney said to me: "Josh - if you promise to stop trying to do attorney work, I promise to not do electrical work"

And you know what? That stuck with me! Decades later, I still remember that lesson. (PS: I've since found my soulmate and have been in a mostly-blissful relationship with her for seven years!).

So - without trying to sound self-serving, I'm going to touch on Five Factors to Consider Before Buying DIY Solar Kits and why to avoid them:

1) Solar installations are complex! You need to know the electrical codes from Articles 110, 240, 250, 310, 690, 705, and 712. There's more than just knowing these codes - you need to know how to apply them without somehow accidentally violating a code in a different section. In addition to the code complexity of these installs, you're also likely trying to do something (or things) that you've never done before. For reference, the National Electrical Code is actually one of several sections of the NFPA codes - specifically - section 70. So what does NFPA stand for? National FIRE Protection Association. That's right - our electrical code is first and foremost a standard to prevent FIRES. Hiring a professional contractor helps to ensure that your installation is done correctly and safely. Furthermore, hiring a professional contractor also comes with the added reassurance that your contractor is licensed, bonded and insured. So if the worst DOES happen, your contractor gets to fix it - and not you!

2) Warranty and maintenance. In order for your manufacturers to offer you warranties, you must be able to prove that you installed the system per the manufacturer's specifications - no shortcuts allowed! Your contractor knows this and it's in his best interest to follow the manufacturer's BKM's (best known methods) for installation. Not doing this can void your warranties. Further, not knowing how or even trying to follow these "BKM"s can cause your systems to run inefficiently or worse - have premature failures.

3) Incentives. Some incentives are only available to customers who use "approved contractors". Why? Because the agencies who are offering these incentives want the reassurance that the money they are awarding to your project will be well spent on an installation that will last you for years with worry-free operation. These programs typically also require the contractor to offer you a minimum "bumper-to-bumper" warranty, meaning that all parts and labor associated with warranty work are covered 100%. By buying and installing a solar kit on your own, you're generally going to find that you won't have access to some of the more lucrative incentives associated with solar installations. And giving up that kind of money can have a dramatic impact on the actual cost of the installation. So before you start counting on those cash incentives, you may want to read the fine print to determine whether or not you can apply for those on your own of if the agency in question requires you to use "approved contractors".

4) Cost-effective. While it may seem cheaper to install a solar kit yourself, you may end up spending more money in the long run. A professional contractor can help you find the best quality equipment at a reasonable price and avoid costly mistakes during installation. As previously mentioned, using a professional contractor can also help you qualify for incentives, rebates, and tax credits that may offset the cost of the installation.

5) The age-old adage of "you get what you pay for". Sometimes paying more up front seems counter-intuitive if you think you might be able to save 30% on the project with your DIY endeavors. I won't lie - I'd agree with you in some circumstances. And there will likely come a day when solar becomes a DIY endeavor. What does that day look like? Well, if I had to guess, I'd say that there won't be cash incentives available to perform solar installations, so having an "approved contractor" won't matter anymore. Further, I'd guess that the process will become substantially more "plug-and-play" for the equipment (meaning that they've thought of all of the code requirements for you and built out a design that already complies with all electrical codes for you - so you can't do it wrong!). If you're asking yourself what you get when you use a professional solar contractor, you've already partially answered your own question: a professional installation, backed up with all warranties plus an additional workmanship warranty from your contractor. So if your roof develops a leak, you get to call them to fix it! If the equipment fails, you get to call them to fix it! If anything sort of a force majeure event occurs, not only are you covered, but you'll be supported. This reasoning is largely what I personally use to pick our partners in this business. Yes - sometimes I pay more for parts or services, but on the other hand, I've also had the support of these vendors and distributors when we needed it. It just adds a layer of insurance to our operations.

Ultimately, a solar kit can save you money on the front side. But once you strap on the harness and climb onto your roof to start the install, you may end up changing your mind. And this brings me to another challenge that we encounter several times a year: The customer who bought all of their own equipment, only to realize too late that they bit off more than they can chew - so to speak. We get this phone call at least once every six weeks: a customer begging us to help him/her complete their installation because they can't get it to work or it's harder than they thought or they didn't consider how to get a 70"x40" solar panel onto the roof (much less thirty of them!). Although we don't engage with these customers from a professional or financial perspective, I do try to calm them down and point them in a direction that might help them complete their endeavors. But, then they find themselves being charged hourly by a third-party electrician to finish their installation. And what did they end up with? An installation that didn't qualify for any local cash incentives, that ended up costing them nearly the same amount as it would have if they had hired a professional from the beginning. And what's worse? Many inverter manufacturers won't talk to the customers directly! That's right: the heart of your system is backed up by tech support that will only chat with licensed installers/electricians. Why would they do this? Because these manufacturers got tired of trying to troubleshoot DIY installations for unqualified homeowner-installed systems. So, they won't talk to the home-owners. This came as a shock to me actually: the first time I got onto a tech support line for a product and the message said: "If you're a homeowner calling to trouble-shoot your system, please hang up now and call your local installation company to assist you". That's right! They won't even take your call if you can't give them your licenses and contractor numbers.

In the end, the kits sound too good to be true. And that's because they are for nearly 99% of the folks looking to buy them. There's a very small subset of individuals who can successfully install these systems at the levels demanded by warranties, codes, and complexity.

If you're ready to talk about your needs and want to discuss how we can add more value to your project (than just being a parts supplier!) give us a call at (503) 857-0099 and let me EARN your partnership in this endeavor!

Until next time,

Josh Kopczynski


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