The process of buying solar panels is very different from the process of buying something like a car. You cannot just walk into a showroom and drive home with a shining new solar power system.
In the case of solar, it needs to be highly customized to your home and your requirements. The first and one of the most essential steps in going solar is the initial solar site inspection, also known as a solar site survey. A site inspection helps collect important information that will help design a system that is suitable for your home.
Traditionally, site inspections have been done by solar engineers visiting your home. However, as technology becomes smarter, virtual site surveys are becoming more and more common. This has become even more pronounced after the pandemic, where virtual meetings, virtual site visits, and virtual everything started becoming the norm.
But now that the pandemic has subsided, do homeowners still need to go with virtual site visits, or is an in-person inspection the best option? Before we talk about the pros and cons of in-person and virtual inspections, let us take a quick look at what a site inspection involves, from both in-person and virtual perspectives.
What is a Solar Site Inspection?
The purpose of a site visit is to analyze the site to inspect its suitability for solar, as well as take measurements and pictures that will help design a perfect system. A typical site visit involves looking at the following things:
Since your solar panels are mounted on it, your roof becomes an important point of analysis. Your installer will check if your roof is facing the optimum direction and has the correct pitch (angle). In New Zealand, North facing roofs are ideal, but East or West facing may also work. You can also install solar panels flat on a roof, although it will have its own pros and cons.
Some installers can also recommend microinverters or power optimisers for an imperfect roof.
It is also important to check the health of the roof. This means the installer will ensure that your roof can take the weight of your solar panels for its 25-30-year lifespan. They may even recommend a roof replacement if your existing roof is nearing the end of its life.
In an in-person site inspection, the engineer will measure your roof, its angle, and take plenty of pictures. They will also inspect the roof health by being up-close, looking for any wilting or cracked shingles. In a virtual site visit, the installer will ask you to send pictures and maybe the measurements of your roof, which may or may not be easy for you to take.
Exposure To Sunlight
You may have a perfect roof, but it may be shaded by a nearby tree or building. A good solar installer will make sure to measure the solar exposure on your roof. They can do this by being physically on your roof, where they measure the sunlight exposure and possible shading using tools such as the Solar Pathfinder.
However exciting it may seem, it may not be a good idea for you to be on the roof, especially without the safety equipment that the installers may have.
If you are going the virtual route, the installer can also use other, online tools such as PVSyst or Aurora Solar for the same. However, a physical inspection is always more accurate, as online tools use satellite imagery, which may not offer the best clarity at all locations.
Some installers who offer/prefer an in-person visit also use drone imagery, which provides much better images of the roof.
Electrical Layout And Installation Spaces
Another key aspect of a site survey is inspecting your electrical systems’ compatibility with your new solar energy system. The installer will need to know the type and location of your electricity meter. They will also need to know how and where your home’s main switchboard is installed, along with its age and condition.
A typical energy meter in NZ (source: Northpower)
An switchboard that needs upgrading (source: Stuff)
A well-designed solar system will have minimum wiring length, to reduce power losses and improve efficiency. The knowledge of the above-mentioned things allows the installer to install panels and inverter at locations where the wiring length could be minimum.In a virtual site visit, the installer may ask you to send pictures or videos of the meter and electric panel. They may also need to see if you have safe, free space on your garage wall or other locations to install the inverter and the batteries. Battery installation can be particularly tricky, and a physical site visit is always more advisable over a virtual one.
Benefits of an In-Person Solar Site Inspection
Needless to say, getting an in-person site survey comes with undeniable advantages. Let us go over the key benefits:
To some extent, we already discussed how in-person site inspections allow for a more accurate analysis of your roof and home. While you can send pictures and videos and some basic measurements, the installer knows properly where, what, and how to measure things. They will even look for and note aspects of your home which cannot be shared virtually.
As mentioned in the roof analysis point above, your installer can also conduct a more elaborate site survey in a safer manner.
Better Communication from the Start
In spite of the flexibility that virtual stuff provides us, we all agree that it does not beat physical, in-person interactions. If your installer conducts a site inspection at your location, you can ask them as many questions as you need.
The way your installer’s representative conducts themselves also gives you an idea of the professionalism of the company you are choosing. If your installer is willing to invest time and effort before installing your system, it is quite likely that they will attend to any issues after the installation. Overall, an in-person site visit will help you gauge if you are choosing the right installer.
No Surprises on Installation Day
Let us assume that you do a virtual site inspection and your installer is satisfied with the information you have submitted. The system is designed and you receive a quote and the purchase agreement is signed.
On installation day, the installer is about to begin work according to the approved design. Now, suppose the the installation crew suddenly finds out that the roof health was not correctly determined in the virtual site inspection. Or that the electrical panel may need upgrading, and this was not caught in the images, or a tree shades half the system, and the online tool somehow did not capture this.
These are certainly not pleasant surprises, especially when you are paying thousands of dollars for your system. When the installer conducts a site survey themselves, the likelihood of such errors and surprises is greatly reduced.
Avoids a Tentative Quote
When an installer relies on information submitted by you in a virtual site inspection, they know that there is a likelihood of the above-mentioned unpleasant surprises. Therefore, many installers do not present a firm quote. Their proposal may include clauses that make the price subject to certain conditions during installation.
As such, it may turn out that the price changes by another 10 or 20% to account for some error in the virtual inspection. A physical, in-person site inspection allows the installer to design a more solid, more accurate system, making the pricing firm.
Benefits of a Virtual Solar Site Inspection
Unlike in-person visits, a virtual site inspection does not offer a ton of advantages. Among the few benefits, one applies to homeowners with somewhat remote addresses. If you are located farther away from the cities and have trouble scheduling an in-person site visit, virtual site visits can help move the enquiry further.
Secondly, homeowners who are not comfortable having someone at their place before they have made a final decision can also opt for virtual site surveys.
The Bottom Line
Virtual meetings, online doctor consultations, and other virtual stuff may have brought us a lot of freedom and flexibility, but there are certain areas where virtual isn’t necessarily the best approach. When it comes to solar site inspections, the more traditional physical site surveys are always more reliable.
This is especially true because it involves more than just consultation - it involves analyzing and collecting information, and it involves a large price tag. In-person visits are more accurate, more reliable, and they also help you meet and know your installer properly.
Unless you are located away from most installers and having trouble scheduling a site visit, we recommend going for an in-person solar site inspection.