It used to be a rare occurrence to see solar panels on someone's roof, but it is becoming more and more common. We've all heard that conventional power sources hurt the environment by producing harmful emissions while solar power, produces absolutely no harmful emissions by utilizing the sun's natural energy. If you're like us you're probably wondering if solar energy is just a passing fad or if it truly is a money-saving power plan. In order to get answers, we did some research and contacted several different solar companies.

We learned that the average solar panel lasts 20 to 30 years, which means that switching to solar power can be a long commitment. We also learned that while solar panels themselves are a relatively big investment, the perks that come with solar energy can sometimes make up for the costs. Making the switch with a reliable solar installer can make all the difference.

The Best Solar Energy Companies

When considering solar panel installation, you want to make sure that the switch will be worth it. Some houses don’t have the roof space or the sunlight necessary to make solar panels worth the cost. There are many solar contractors that just want to sell you their products, but the best companies will first evaluate your roof size and positioning to determine if making the switch will help you save money.

Solar panels need to have lots of direct sunlight to run at their optimal power, which is why dependable solar panel installers will only install solar panels on south, east or west facing roofs in areas that get a lot of sun. As a side note, solar panels can still produce about 30 percent of their usual power on foggy, cloudy, snowy or rainy days. Solar companies like SolarCity will evaluate your average daily electrical use to determine if you will save money using solar panels. Most companies, including Vivint Solar, will then offer various agreement plans, warranties and energy monitoring services and will even explain how these plans affect your tax credit eligibility.

SolarCity

SolarCity is a sister company to Tesla Inc., which means it benefits from the technology and research done through the smart energy company. This solar company offers some of the most sleek and affordable solar panel plans while backing its work with strong warranties and guarantees. Its services are available within 21 states for homeowners, businesses and government planners alike.

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Vivint Solar

Vivint Solar offers four payment plans in addition to warranties and solar panel performance monitoring. This solar contractor can help you save money on your utility bill while decreasing your impact on the environment. With operations in 16 states, it has the third largest coverage in the United States.

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Why Use Solar Energy Companies?

You might be wondering if you can save money by installing solar panels yourself without getting a solar contractor involved. This definitely is an option; however there are some perks that come with having a solar company install your solar power. Most solar installers will monitor your solar panels' energy output and efficiency to make sure they are working properly. If something is wrong the company will send someone to make repairs. These monitoring and maintenance services usually come free with solar installation plans. If you try to monitor panels on your own, you might miss technical issues that lead to more costs in the long run. There is also a decent amount of government paperwork, engineering permits and housing codes to follow, not to mention getting approval from your utility provider. A quality solar company will take care of these details for you so you won't have to.

Some states will give you tax breaks of up to 30 percent if you have solar panels installed on your home. A lesser-known perk is that solar panels can add tens of thousands of dollars to your home's resale value. Of course, this doesn't diminish the cost of the initial investment. Luckily, the best solar energy companies, like Sunnova, offer multiple agreement plans to give you some truly affordable options. Legend Solar will even reimburse you if your panels don't produce a certain power percentage of what the company quotes you it will.

Legend Solar

Legend Solar only uses solar panels made by SunPower, a company that’s been in the solar industry since the 1980s. These panels tend to be costly, but they also last longer than others. With its strong warranty and guaranteed energy production, Legend Solar is an excellent option if you live in one of the seven states it does business: Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, Washington and Oregon.

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Sunnova

Sunnova is a competitive solar company with good guarantees, warranties and monitoring service. It’s easy to find answers to your questions on the company's extensive FAQs page and through its representatives. While the company does not install your solar panels itself, it works with trusted partners to get the work done. Sunnova does business in 17 states, including Oregon, Colorado, Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Pennsylvania, New York and Hawaii.

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Warranties and Guarantees

Many solar companies will offer you a roof warranty to cover costs if the solar panels cause damage over the years. The best solar warranties span 20-25 years and cover the exterior glass of the panels along with the inverter – the part that converts solar energy to electricity. The inverter is constantly being used so it often is the first thing to break down. When something goes wrong, the best companies make repairs at little to no cost to you. A qualified technician will frequently monitor your solar panels to make sure they are working like they should. If you want your house to be as modern as possible there are some companies, like Sunrun, that can help you view your solar production via mobile app.

Sunrun

There are many solar companies out there, but Sunrun is one of the best. It provides roof and workmanship warranties on all of its installs and has a multiple payment plans to choose from, so it is easy to budget for your new solar panels. The one downside is it can be a little difficult to get ahold of the company.

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Solar Costs and Payment Options

You might be thinking that installing solar panels isn't a good idea when you aren't sure you will remain in your current house that long. Many solar contractors have thought about this and will help you transfer your solar agreement to the new homeowners once your house sells, which means you won't be stuck with the solar bill when you move. This does mean you’ll need to find buyers who want to inherit a solar power plan.

According to energysage.com the average cost for residential solar panel installation as of 2017 is $16,800. Federal and state tax credits can reduce this price by a few thousand dollars depending on where you live. Over time, the reduced price of your utility bill can not only make up the difference in cost between a traditional power bill and a solar one, but will also have the potential to save you thousands of dollars in the long run. The most common payment options offered by solar companies are purchase, loan, lease and PPA. Each company's specific payment agreements will vary, so if you prefer a specific plan be sure to find a solar company that offers it. While some payment methods require a down payment of some kind, many offer $0 down plans.

Purchase – By purchasing the solar panels from the get-go, you will own the energy right away. If you can afford this, there will be no additional monthly payments. Since you are the sole owner of the solar panels, you will get tax credits.

Loan – This situation is much like paying off a vehicle. The equipment is yours but you need to pay fixed monthly payments until the panels are paid off. Depending on the company you go through, you might not need to make a down payment. You will be eligible for tax credits if you choose this agreement option.

Lease – You will get the energy benefits of using the solar panels, but the panels will be owned by the solar company. This method can make your utility bill much cheaper, but it bars you from getting the tax credit for installing the panels. Should something happen to the solar panels, it will be the installer's job to fix them. Many people will find that the total amount charged for the lease plus the remaining power bill is less than their previous power bills.

PPA – This stands for power purchase agreement. Basically, it means that a developer will take care of the design, permitting, financing and installation of the solar panels on your property at little or no cost to you. The developer will then sell the power that these installed solar panels create to you, usually at a rate that is cheaper than your local utilities. Should something go wrong with the performance of the solar panels, it will be the developer’s responsibility to fix it, not yours. You will not be eligible for tax credits if you choose a PPA.

You can use government incentives to lower the cost of your utility bill each month. Net metering is a credit/debit system used by utility companies that gives you the ability to lower your power bill if you create more power than you use. There are also Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs or RECs), which are earned for every 1,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) your solar panels produce. Unlike net metering, which deals with credit and debit, SRECs are turned into pocketable cash when you sell them back to your utility provider.

On the Grid Vs. Off the Grid

Many people mistakenly think that having solar panels installed on their house will make it so that city blackouts won't affect them. This is only partially true. Many solar companies only offer grid-tied solar plans. Whether or not you can get off the grid depends on the grid laws in your state as well as the solar installer’s ability to help you.

PetersenDean

One of the most important things for a homeowner with solar panels is the ability to contact the company whenever you need to. PetersenDean's customer service is very fast and knowledgeable. The warranties offered by this company are stronger than some others we encountered, and the ability to purchase backup batteries of multiple sizes through this solar contractor is definitely a plus.

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Some companies, like PetersenDean, offer backup batteries that will provide power for your home in case of a blackout. These batteries are a cleaner alternative to portable generators and can sometimes help you get off the grid. Once again, whether or not you can get off the grid will depend on your local laws. In most cases these backup batteries must be purchased in addition to the solar panels. Backup batteries tend to be expensive, necessitate a lot of maintenance from homeowners, and usually require being on a one-year or two-year waiting list before installation can occur.

The danger with being off the grid is that if you accidentally use all your power during a cloudy week or in the middle of the night, you will need to wait until your solar energy recharges before you have power again. Keep in mind that off-grid solar systems are not eligible for the money saving incentives of net metering or SRECs.

Solar power has become far more affordable in recent years and has the potential to help you save money on your energy bill. There are many solar companies out there, but the best will provide you with strong solar panel warranties, various payment options and the ability to transfer your power agreement should you need to sell your house. Solar power installation won't reduce the power bill on every house, so make sure you find an installer that will correctly evaluate your home's energy needs.

Contributing Reviewer: Rebecca Spear