Shane lays a panel on the 20-panel array on the south roof of the HCC Common House.

Why you might want to think twice before hiring a small(er) solar installer

Sopris Solar workers install solar panels on the Highline Crossing Cohousing Common House in July 2020. [Photo by Christof Demont-Heinrich]
editors-blog-entry3How many of you out there who have had solar installed on your residence have waited 15+ months between the time you signed the contract and put down a big prepayment with your solar installer and the time that your solar system went online with your utility and was feeding electricity back into the grid?

I hope the answer is NOT too many of you.

Unfortunately, that is EXACTLY what has happened to us here at Highline Crossing Cohousing in Littleton, Colo. with a company called Sopris Solar. More than 15 months after signing a contract with Sopris Solar in May 2019 for our 19.6 kW, two-array system we are STILL not fully online with our solar system — though it finally was installed seven weeks ago, more than a year after we signed the original contract with Sopris.

That, clearly, is just plain wrong. And, sadly, it gives a bad name to solar — something that feels like a total and complete bummer to such a strong solar advocate like me 😖.

How did we end up in a position like this, especially with an experienced solar guy such as me leading our solar task force here at Highline Crossing?

A number of factors contributed to me/us making what turned out to be the wrong decision in hiring Sopris Solar to install our systems:

  1. We were sold by a great sales guy who knew his stuff and who worked hard and committed the extra work it took to persuade an entire community to go solar on its HOA Community Center and its garages [he abruptly left Sopris about a month after we signed our contract with them 😖].
  2. At the time we signed the contract with Sopris Solar in May of 2019, Sopris had very strong reviews on all the major review sites: Google, Yelp and various solar-focused review sites.
  3. My own desire/inclination to go with a bigger/more established solar company was hampered by the previous history of this community which, in a previous long, meandering indecision, turned off one of the best solar installers in Denver, Namaste Solar, in 2011, by going down the path toward solar with Namaste and then pulling out. ARGGGHH!!! Idiotic (and I don’t care if I “offend” some of my neighbors in noting this!). Namaste refused to even visit Highline Crossing when I first called them in the Fall of 2017 due to our history with them. Other larger solar installers we brought in for bids this time around — we had four bids submitted — eventually dropped us along the way due to our interminable  community decision making process here at Highline Crossing, which requires that 93% of 40 households approve measures such as a solar before they can be followed through on 🙄 and which took the better part of a year to unfold.

In any case, I will try to make this column less about my own frustration, disappointment and anger over our experience with going solar here at Highline Crossing — a process that has now taken three LONG years and which is still not 100% completed — and more about useful advice for others considering going solar.

Solar panels are installed on our garage roof here in Highline Crossing Cohousing. [Photo by Christof Demont-Heinrich]

Here are some key takeaways from our own very disappointing experience with Sopris Solar, takeaways that I hope will help others who are making the decision of which solar installer to hire ==>

  1. THINK TWICE before you choose a smaller, less-established solar installer.
    A smaller, less-established solar installer is much more likely to sub-contract much/most of its work out than a larger, more established solar installer. That can, and did, in Sopris Solar’s case, create a HUGE problem that blew up right after we signed our contract with them. We read the reviews of Sopris, which had been around for six years, beforehand, and they were very good. BUT the reviews went bad almost immediately after we signed the contract with Sopris in May 2019. Basically, Sopris got into a dispute with a company it had hired to help it find, and hire, subcontractors. This led to all sorts of problems, legal, financial, and otherwise for Sopris, which were, and still are, reflected in countless online bad reviews of Sopris that, again, came online AFTER (not before) we signed on the dotted line with Sopris. Typically, smaller solar installers work more with sub-contractors than bigger, more established solar installers, and they rely on these sub-contractors more. This adds a whole layer of potential extra failure that, honestly, you don’t need as a consumer. Basically, we had VERY bad luck that things went south with Sopris and its sub-contractors. Your chance of hitting this type of bad luck is LESS with a bigger, older, more established solar installer that uses few to no sub-contractors. I/we learned this the hard way. You do not need to learn it the hard way. Just go with a bigger, older more established company that also has a long line of established good consumer reviews AND ask about how much sub-contracting the installer does, with whom AND if the sub-contractors are bonded or not.
  2. Demand that there be a SPECIFIC installation timeline and DEADLINE written directly into your contract. I do not know how common it is for solar installers to include in their fine print language that states, “Solar installation must be fully completed by no later than — days after the contract is signed and a deposit of X amount made on the installation.” However, ALL solar installers should (be required to) have this language in their contract. I can tell you that I will NEVER work with another solar installer who does not have it in writing that they will install the FULL system and that it WILL be online no later than X date — or you will receive your money back, in full. Sopris did not even START on the installation of our system until more than a year after we signed the contract and after we had handed them a five-figure check. We had, and still have, ZERO leverage to pressure them because there was no specific installation deadline written into the contract. Moral of the story ==> You want to have your solar installer have a installation DEADLINE written into their contract with you, or, at the very least you want to ask them DIRECTLY: When is the absolute latest date you will have our system up and running AND fully connected? I would also recommend that you ask your solar installer to SHOW you concrete evidence of how long their last 10, 20, etc. residential solar installations took — from the time a contract was signed and a deposit was made until the time that the solar system went online and was feeding electricity officially back into the grid with a local utility.

A Sopris Solar worker pulls up a solar racking rail up onto the roof of our “Common House” at Highline Crossing Community Cohousing. [Photo by Christof Demont-Heinrich]

That’s pretty much it for my advice based on our super disappointing experience with one small, six-year-old solar installer here in Colorado, Sopris Solar: You should lean strongly toward bigger, more established solar installers with a long(er) track record and minimal to zero use of sub-contracting. ALSO, be very sure that there is a clear installation timeline and deadline established from the very beginning, preferably in writing. Otherwise, you could be waiting months, or, in our case, for well over a year between the time that you sign a contract with a solar installer and hand them significant amounts of money to when you actually see that solar installer complete the job and you are officially feeding electricity back into the grid.

We are still waiting for the green light to turn on our arrays here and feed electricity back into the grid — now because of a snafu between Sopris and our utility, Xcel Energy, about which I have little to no information because, frankly, the CEO of Sopris is not a good communicator and waits for us to badger him repeatedly before/if he replies at all.

In sum, we are still waiting here at Highline Crossing Cohousing to see our 19.6 kW worth of solar actually be allowed to go online and feed electricity back into the grid more than 15 months after signing a contract and putting down hefty five-figure deposit. That is just not right, not right at all.

My hope is that I/we can save other consumers from going through a similar experience, an experience that, sadly, has soured many of my neighbors on solar, an outcome that is exactly the OPPOSITE of what a strong, decades-long solar advocate such as I would like to see. 😞😞😞