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Stylized Text: Solar Hot Water Q&A.

Each solar domestic hot water dealer claims to be the best and to install the best system. How do I decide who to contract with?

The answer to this dilemma, one that applies to any home improvement project, was provided by Tim Merrigan, former FSEC Research Engineer, and FSEC's John Harrison.

You can make an informed consumer decision on which solar domestic hot water (DHW) system to purchase by comparing price, efficiency, service options, dealer reputation and warranties.

Collectors are important components of solar DHW systems. They must be efficient in order for the system to be cost-effective. "Thermal Performance Ratings" contains an efficiency rating for each solar collector certified for sale in Florida. The ratings document also identifies an approximate efficiency-per-dollar comparison method you can use as a guide for rejecting grossly inefficient or overly expensive collectors.

Make sure the systems you are considering have been approved by FSEC. After obtaining price and equipment estimates from several dealers, request the names and phone numbers of previous customers. Ask the system owners about performance of the system. Does it provide sufficient hot water? Was it installed properly? Inquire whether service has been necessary and if it was satisfactory.

Since the manner of installation can radically affect the reliable operation of the system, check on the installer's qualifications. By meeting certain requirements and passing an examination, installers can now obtain a solar contractor's license issued by the Florida Construction Industries Licensing Board. In addition, many solar dealers/installers in the state belong to the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association and abide by its Code of Ethics. Your local Better Business Bureau can also reveal any service or installation complaints registered against a dealer.

Solar systems are generally regarded as a long-term investment. Consequently, you may wish to compare material durability. Usually, the more durable materials are more expensive (as in the case of glass versus plastic collector glazings). Solar system materials must withstand prolonged high temperatures and harsh exposure. Keep that in mind when you compare material quality and cost.

Warranties are offered by many manufacturers and dealers to support their claims of material reliability. A warranty is no substitute for system performance, however, and you should not be expected to pay extra for one. A reputable solar dealer/installer will normally repair or replace a system component that malfunctions in the first year if the problem is caused by faulty materials, workmanship or installation. Check with the dealer's previous customers to determine the company's policy on handling such service requirements.

In summary, the purchase of a solar system is no different than buying any other home improvement. With a little research into test ratings, you can compare a measurable quantity - collector and system output. Through common sense and talks with other customers you can judge the quality of a system. Putting those two together with the cost estimates will give you an informed basis on which to make a wise investment in your energy future.