Why we need a Kelley Blue Book for solar

More solar panels are sprouting from rooftops these days, and consumers can choose from a growing number of solar models and installers. Although a solar system is a hefty investment, there are no good consumer guides to help people compare shop and avoid scams. We think the time has come to create one.

What we need is something like a Kelley Blue Book for solar. Here’s why: Consumers not only need help looking for new equipment; they also want to know how to evaluate used equipment. A good online pricing guide will become more important as manufacturers roll out equipment that aims to simplify the installation process and cost and perhaps entice people one day to try to install the equipment themselves.

Informative websites can help play a role in educating consumers about solar. So, too, can some trusted authorities, such as Consumer Reports, offer some solid advice. In addition, California, the largest solar market in the country, keeps an online list of registered installers and urges consumers to get at least three bids. But I haven’t found any site that provides objective reviews and ratings of various equipment models, manufacturers, installers and their services.

The current online used market

Selling used equipment isn’t a novel phenomenon. E-commerce sites such as Craigslist and eBay (s EBAY) offer some listings. But you would have to be well versed in solar technology to know whether you are getting the right gear and a good deal.

Some listings simply show photos of solar panels and a sentence or two about the price. On eBay, you can get 4 Siemens solar panels made in 1997 for $999.99. If you want to get a small solar panel for, say, charging your gadgets, you can find whole or broken solar cells for sale. One such ad I found even gave a link to a YouTube video showing how to solder the cells together.

Putting a value on used solar equipment is difficult, however. Solar manufacturers typically offer a warranty of 20 to 25 years on their goods, but most of the grid-connected residential solar systems haven’t been around that long. A leap of faith is required to invest in used systems. When consumers buy used equipment of any kind, be it a car or flat-screen TV, they want assurances that although they are getting gears that aren’t going to perform like brand-new ones, they can still count on a certain level of solid performance.

A trusted system

A trusted authority on new and used solar gear also could help the growing number of homeowners who want to know how to put a value on their rooftop installations when they want to sell their homes. A rooftop solar system isn’t so portable after all, and people often don’t live in the same place for decades. The California Energy Commission recently launched an online calculator that spits out numbers showing how much in energy savings can be achieved by a solar system at a particular address over the remaining lifetime of a system.

While the energy savings information is nice to present to prospective buyers, it doesn’t necessary indicate how much the next homeowner will save. How much and how quickly a homeowner can get a return on her investment depends partly on how much electricity will be used. Two sets of owners for the same home can have wildly different utility bills. Home buyers also may not want to keep the solar panels and opt to sell them.

Right now, generally only well-off people can afford to buy solar rooftop panels, since it can be as expensive as a new car, if not more so. Some of these early adopters often aren’t as concerned about getting paybacks quickly as they are about doing something that is good for the environment. Others who want to do the same but don’t have the cash to buy the equipment are starting to find financing options. Used solar equipment offers yet another opportunity for more people to go solar.

Given that the solar market is relatively new – California launched its residential rebate program in 2007 – there aren’t a huge number of used systems available. As the market grows, however, you will find more people trade up their solar equipment for a more efficient version or get rid of it for a host of other reasons. It’s not too early to start amassing performance data and organizing it in ways that help consumers find the best systems they can afford. The trick is to do it right.

Photos of Solar Decathlon courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy