Arguably the most important choice you’ll make if you go solar is who’s going to make your panels? I considered four different manufacturers, and discovered that return-on-investment was just one of several values at play in my decision. Here’s my list of pros and cons, at a glance:

Manufacturer Pros Cons
  • most powerful, efficient modules
  • most attractive modules
  • manufactured in Mexico
  • relatively high price per watt
  • slower ROI
  • manufactured in Washington state
  • faster ROI
  • delivery delays reported
  • least attractive modules
  • manufactured in Oregon
  • Green Brand certified
  • relatively low price per watt
  • attractive modules
  • fast, reliable delivery
  • slower ROI
Silicon Energy
  • manufactured in Washington state
  • faster ROI
  • attractive modules
  • announced that no new orders would be accepted in 2014

Itek, located in Bellingham, and Silicon Energy, located in Arlington, are the two in-state manufacturers you can choose from if you want to take advantage of the attractive incentive program currently in place in Washington. Through this program, you can earn 54 cents per kilowatt hour produced by your solar array if you have bought panels and inverters locally. This is the biggest reason why ROI is quicker for consumers with these in-state panels.

By contrast, if neither your panels nor inverters are manufactured within state lines, you earn 15 cents per kilowatt hour. It’s still a nice perk of going solar here, but it’s obviously considerably less, and the ROI for consumers who go this route could be double the amount of time or more.

I was disappointed that Silicon Energy essentially played itself out of the competition for my business by stopping new orders for the year. I would have liked to support a small in-state business.

Itek struck me as a safe, solid choice if I were determined to get those in-state incentives and enjoy the quickest ROI. But ultimately I rejected their panels for aesthetic reasons: their clunky appearance, with old-school gridlines and overly-visible framing, just didn’t appeal to me. My hope is that in the future they will offer more variety in their lines.

So that left me with my two out-of-state options (there are, of course, many more, but it helps to place some limits on the range of choices). For sheer efficiency and aesthetics, SunPower would have been my choice. Their modules are rated at 320-330 watts, while the others come in at 270-280 at this writing. And their Signature Black Solar Panel line is as elegant as I’ve found on the market (all black, no visible gridlines or framing). But I really value local and U.S. made products, and the fact that SunPower is neither was a negative mark I would find it hard to live with, much less sell to my wife!

Although SolarWorld has German roots, its U.S. headquarters in the Portland area produces American-made panels. I have some family ties to Oregon, and frankly Portland seems as local to me as Bellingham or Arlington. It is just an unfortunate river that gets in the way of SolarWorld panels qualifying for the Washington state incentive.

More importantly, because they are a larger and more established company, SolarWorld could get their product up on my roof in about a month, with no delivery delays or drama surrounding inventory. SolarWorld is the only one of the four that had been certified green, a compelling selling point in a competitive market. And finally, from a design point-of-view, their black frame line is second only to SunPower for visual appeal.

The ROI for my SolarWorld array is projected to be 13 years. It is certainly possible that technical advances in panel efficiency in the future will make that feel like an albatross around my neck. But for me, competing values such as reliability, aesthetics, and “local-enough” were enough to impact my choice of manufacturer.

Step-by-step, here’s what to expect when you go solar:

You get a site assessment, in which a trained technical consultant meets with you to listen to what your goals are, and to gather information about your home’s solar potential. This sales consultant will spend some time up on your roof, using a tool like the Solmetric SunEye to measure the impact of shading from any nearby trees, roof vents, and so on. The SunEye factors in things like the orientation and pitch of your roof, geographical latitude, and time and calendar date variables to help the consultant locate the optimal positioning for the array of solar panels.

If you have any special roofing considerations, the solar installation company may subcontract that part of the job to a roofer. For example, my PVC membrane roof required special “boots” to be constructed to ensure that roof penetrations for the solar racking and mounting structure would be seamless.

Photo of roofer working

A roofer preps my PVC membrane roof. Surprisingly, this was actually the most time-consuming part of installing the array.

Next the racking and mounting system is installed. This includes clamps, mounts, and the long rails on which the solar panels are eventually attached. At this point you can really begin to visualize what the array will look like on the roof. The racking and mounting equipment for my array comes from a Washington state company called SunModo.

Solar panels produce DC power, which must be inverted to AC power in order to be usable in your home. This means that a key component of your array is an inverter. You can get a string inverter (or two), which is usually located in the garage, or you can now get microinverters that are much smaller in size and are located on the back of each solar panel. Microinverters are particularly desirable to mitigate the impact of shading, because they free individual panels from being dependent on power flowing from neighboring panels (as they would in traditional string arrays). In my case, because I do have a couple of trees in the backyard, I opted for microinverters from Enphase, the California company considered a leader in the field. The solar installers attached the microinverters to the racking rails, before installing the panels themselves.

Photo of microinverter

The Enphase M250 microinverter is optimized for higher-powered solar panels and carries a 25-year warranty.

Next the solar panels themselves are attached to the racking and mounting system. In theory, this is one of the simplest parts of the overall installation work. But I was glad that my installers really took their time to align the panels precisely along the rails, so the appearance of the array would be as clean and professional as possible.

When it comes to residential installations, the neighborhood “eye-test” is more important than you might think. You want your home’s solar array to be aesthetically pleasing, not an eye-sore.

And finally, all the electrical work of the array is prepared, including connecting the microinverters to the panels, and running wiring down from the array to a photovoltaic load center box, and from that box to the home’s power box as well as two utility meters.

Aside from the panels themselves, perhaps the big stars of any new solar array are these two meters: one a new “production” meter, which records the total power the solar panels are producing either for use in your home or back out to the grid; and the other is most likely your existing meter from the utility, only now transformed into a “net” meter, able to spin backwards if your solar panels are actually producing more power than you are using in your home at any given moment.

And there you have it! There really aren’t that many moving parts to this technology, so installations can be pretty quick and painless compared to other home improvements you might make.

Up next: Money, quality, aesthetics, and ROI. Some key decisions to make as a solar “consumer.”

Perhaps the weirdest thing about getting solar panels installed on my roof was that it all felt perfectly normal. Three friendly, experienced installers from Northwest Electric & Solar came out to the house last Tuesday, along with a roofer who was needed for his expertise in working with PVC membrane roofs, and by mid-afternoon Thursday the job was done.

Photo of solar panels

Twenty black-framed solar panels from SolarWorld in Oregon. The 5.5 kW system is slightly larger than typical residential installations here in the Seattle area.

The array is not “on” yet—Puget Sound Energy will come by in a couple of weeks to ensure that the juice produced works and plays well with the grid—but the infrastructure is now in place for my home to be a power producer, not just a power consumer. Next summer I am guessing the sight of my power meter spinning backwards will not be an uncommon one!

I’ll periodically update this blog with data from my power bills about how the system is performing, and any pleasant or unpleasant surprises along the way (for example, will cleaning and maintenance be more of a pain than I think?).

In my next blog entry, I’ll let you know what I witnessed with last week’s installation, step-by-step. (Just in case there are others out there who are considering going solar at some point.)

Then, in later blog entries, I will circle back to discuss some of the key decisions I had to make in selecting this particular system.