The U.S. solar industry reached the landmark milestone of 2 million solar installations in 2019, and it will surpass 3 million arrays in 2021, according to Wood Mackenzie. Millions of solar arrays are going to continue to be installed each year, and with that ramp-up comes the creation of new PV installation and manufacturing companies, and along with that, no doubt, the shuttering of others.
When a company goes out of business, it often leaves unanswered questions for labor and manufacturer warranty fulfillment. And with a number of new components coming out each year, product longevity can only be verified with in-lab testing.
“You’ve got 3 million systems, times 25 components on-site — you’ve got 75 million components out there related to this stuff, growing at an exponential rate and all of it’s supposed to run for 20 years and none of it’s been tested in the field more than five years,” said Derek Chase, CEO of SunSystem Technology, a national O&M company servicing residential, commercial and utility market solar arrays.
Commercial and utility customers are often afforded access to legal teams capable of tracking and fulfilling warranty obligations, Chase said, but residential customers might not have the same support. So, solar maintenance, installation and insurance services are trying to fill in that gap left when companies go out of business and leave homeowners and their arrays in the dark.
Establishing a nationwide maintenance network
When SunSystem Technology started, it entered the solar maintenance field intending to focus on utility-scale arrays, but, due to the demand, was drawn into the commercial and eventually residential markets.
“I didn’t really understand how big the market was there, and a lot of groups didn’t want to do it because you’re talking $200, $300 a service call,” Chase said. “You’re dealing with homeowners. It’s way easier to go to some field in the middle of nowhere and do your work than deal with a homeowner and all the risks that are associated with that.”
Since its start, the company has established 20 service centers across the United States in “high-density” solar markets, where technicians can visit multiple homes a day. The majority of SunSystem’s customers come from partnerships with larger installers, but the company still accepts calls from individual homeowners after their original installer goes out of business.
SunSystem can fulfill certain manufacturer warranties, but not labor-related warranties. Technicians are most often dealing with inverter issues on residential arrays. Having a microinverter on every module increases the chances of multiple failures, and locating which one failed is no easy task when monitoring programs are inaccessible. If it’s in the center of an array, technicians will have to take apart the whole system, and if it’s not under warranty, “it’s a lot of work that turns into a $3,000 service ticket,” Chase said.
Although many installers promise a workmanship warranty at signing, if they go out of business, the system owner likely won’t see that post-installation support. Unlike the automotive or HVAC industries, solar doesn’t have an established nationwide network of maintenance service providers. Certain installers will offer maintenance for the life of the system, sometimes with a fee attached, but that isn’t always the case.
“If I go buy a car, I don’t worry about whether Toyota’s going to be able to take care of it. I know I could go to any service repair shop, I could get these parts anywhere, but that doesn’t exist in the [solar] infrastructure we have today,” Chase said.
He suggests that part of the problem could come down to the sales process. Solar sales companies can be entirely separate entities from the subcontractor installing the system. And handing full ownership of the solar array to homeowners instead of a lease-to-own setup can mean they’re fully responsible for the system off the bat.
“The group who sold it to you technically has this warranty liability, but they don’t have any infrastructure because they just subcontracted the job to somebody for the lowest price and this guy who did it for the lowest price, he’s not going to give you a 10-year warranty,” Chase theorized. “We’re trying to build something to where a homeowner is never truly abandoned. We’re building out infrastructure on their home so they can feel confident that if an issue arises and their installer is out of business, that there’s someone there to help them out and fix their system.”
Creating 30-year warranties and covering orphaned solar
Solar Insure opened its doors after founder and president Ara Agopian saw a gap from manufacturer warranties in the solar and wind industries. The company offers a one-time purchase, zero deductible, 30-year warranty on labor, racking, panels, inverters, optimizers and roof penetrations on systems up to 200 kW.
“There are things that happen that make it very difficult to stay in business,” said Dean Chiaravallotti, VP of partnerships at Solar Insure. “This is one of the most complicated construction projects you can do for a home, not only because you deal with the city, but you deal with the utility and all the different parts.”
The warranty package needs to be purchased at the point of sale, so if the installer or manufacturer goes out of business, that labor and hardware is covered. But Solar Insure just debuted its “Smart Energy Home Warranty” program to help cover orphaned solar systems. The insurance package includes more smart home elements than solar, covering household appliances and electrical systems, for a monthly fee.
Like SunSystem, Solar Insure is trying to be an option for homeowners and solar contractors alike to support arrays for their operational lifetime. But the company is working to keep legacy systems operating, and honors the warranties of hardware like SolarWorld modules after the panel manufacturer filed for bankruptcy in 2017, and has a growing list of approved manufacturers it can warranty.
The warranty, which is offered as a separate line-item by the solar installer, is structured so that a company like SunSystem could be called for maintenance, paid to do the labor and reimbursed for replacement components through Solar Insure. The service uses the original installer if available, or one on Solar Insure’s approved list of contractors.
“We get calls or emails every week from customers that have abandoned systems that don’t have our product…so they’re stuck,” Chiaravallotti said. “Then there are companies that don’t want to take the liability to go and work on a system they didn’t install, so it’s hard to find anybody that will be willing to work on their system.”
Handling installation and maintenance
Palomar Solar & Roofing of San Diego primarily installs solar in the Southern California residential and commercial market, originally just offering post-installation maintenance to its customers. But the company started taking on maintenance calls from people outside of its customer pool after hearing from them so frequently.
“It’s daily,” said Adam Rizzo, partner at Palomar Solar. “It used to be monthly. Now all those old systems that had 10-year warranty inverters are starting to fail and lots of companies that installed them are out of business and these people have nobody to turn to.”
There are often instances of companies still in business that aren’t returning customers’ maintenance calls, he added, leaving these arrays and their owners stranded. Palomar offers maintenance checks for non-customers, but the company isn’t able to fulfill labor or manufacturer warranties. Those new customers must pay out of pocket for any labor and component replacements, and it typically isn’t cheap, Rizzo said.
The failing arrays outside of Palomar’s installed customer base commonly have dated components that could be upgraded instead of replaced. In addition to inverter failures, roof leaks are another frequent issues the technicians encounter. The company also set up a roofing unit to meet that need.
The systems Palomar does install come with panel-level monitoring through Enphase. Per-panel monitoring gives technicians and system owners the ability to see when an individual panel or inverter goes out and determine array issues quicker. If it’s a component on warranty, it’s no charge to the customer and it’s replaced. Otherwise, technicians are spending the day taking a system apart, troubleshooting and trying to determine an issue, “so something that should cost $120 turns into $3,000,” Rizzo said.
“That was never part of our equation, but the way that we’re looking at it is we’re trying to uphold the reputation of the industry has left. It’s pretty sad the amount of people that call and the amount of money they’re spending for us to fix it,” he said. “In some cases, They would have been better off staying with the utility company. If consumers spent the same amount of research in finding the right company initially as they are in finding someone to fix it, they could be avoiding this situation altogether”
As the solar industry continues to grow, specific services will fill in the gap for oversights like post-installation maintenance. SunSystem continues to take service calls and Solar Insure will work to honor the warranties on new installations to prevent orphaned systems. But Rizzo believes solar contractors themselves should be invested in the lifetime of an array.
“I really think it comes down to the installer’s integrity,” he said. “That’s why we choose to partner with companies that have good reputations, like Enphase and LG. There’s certainly cheaper products in the marketplace that I can make a lot more money from, but I’d rather install great products and sleep like a baby at night knowing I’m not going to get calls like that.”