Unsafe solar installation

Some operators are bypassing safety considerations in their effort to cash in on fast-disappearing government money.
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01 .Solar panel safety concerns

Solar-panels-needing-replacWith solar photovoltaic (PV) panel feed-in tariffs being wound up or restricted around the country and generous federal subsidies being cut, consumers are rushing to get systems connected before time runs out.

While opportunities to make a quick buck are fading, there are still plenty of fly-by-night installers keen to get their fingers in the solar rebate scheme pie. Corners are being cut by inexperienced operators entering the market and rushing to complete jobs. 

Government solar rebate schemes at fault?

“Mostly the big, established solar companies are very good. But we hear a lot of bad stories about the jockeys who come in for a quick buck,” says Dan Cass, a clean technology lobbyist and long-time climate campaigner. “It comes down to bad policy from state and federal governments, who treat solar as a vote winner, not as a serious industry. Solar rebates and other incentives are very stop-start, creating a boom-bust cycle. This encourages bad players to move in, undercut with cheap components and bad installations and then fold.

“I don’t want to totally dump on the government schemes because rapid growth has been great for employment. But it hasn’t been a particularly responsible policy, and safety hasn’t been given priority.”

The evidence

The Clean Energy Council, an industry association representing Australia’s clean energy sector, delivered a presentation at the Appropriate Technology Retailers Association of Australia (ATRAA) Professional Development Day on 4 May 2011. The presentation, which outlined details of audits conducted by the CEC, indicated:

  • A recent decline in the quality of installations – in 2009, 58% of audited systems were rated as high quality, and a total of 12% required attention or were substandard. In 2010, only 7% of systems were high quality, and 29% required attention or were substandard.

Ausgrid also presented defect statistics. Their report, based on information gathered during their audits over the previous year, states: “With the rapid rise in solar systems comes higher defect rates. New, inexperienced people [are] entering the industry… Rushing to get work done creates errors.” Ausgrid says that the number of installers has increased by 67%, from 2572 to 4322, since July 2010.

The most common defects found by Ausgrid are:

  • Incorrect wiring and circuit breakers.
  • Incorrect and missing labels.
  • Water ingress (water getting into the system).

Incorrect meter installation was also identified as a problem, but is not an installer issue.

Seeking intervention

Solar-panels-shading-issueThe industry associations National Electrical and Communications Association (NECA) and the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) were so concerned about the quality of solar panel installations in early 2010 that they approached Energy Safe Victoria (ESV), an independent electricity, gas and pipeline safety and technical regulator.

“There was evidence that non-electrical tradesmen had undertaken installations and that they weren’t done to the required standards,” says Graeme Watson, Secretary Director of Electrical Electronic Industry Training Ltd, which is affiliated with the ETU.

“We were hearing there were plenty of problems - everything from panels falling off roofs, through to the wiring being done incorrectly,” explains Dominic Feenan, spokesperson for NECA. “We don’t want another pink batts [insulation] situation. We wanted further regulation.”

ESV audit

ESV commissioned an audit of solar systems around Victoria, and in its report, published in July 2010, revealed:

  • More than 32% of the 81 systems audited had problems.
  • 17 systems were non-compliant with Australian Standards due to poor labelling.

The other nine raised more serious safety concerns including incorrect switches or circuit breakers. “The use of a wrong switch is unsafe because of the potential to ignite and cause fire,” the report states.

There is some debate over the magnitude of the safety risk. ESV sys the risk is minimal, as switches are designed to fail safely. The report says that to become a fire hazard, ignition would have to occur while being switched off under load and the switch housing would have to fail. Flammable material would also need to be close by.

But Mr Watson believes the fire risk is significant, particularly for contractors and electricians. “It’s of a major concern to all, including contractors, not just the installer. In the future an electrician may attempt to cut into that system assuming the correct components had been used, which would be a disaster.”

Issues to date

Dr Muriel Watt, chair of the Australian PV Association (APVA), says there haven’t been any major problems thus far, but “electricity is always potentially a dangerous thing. If you use the incorrect wiring there are possible problems such as fires.” However, Dr Watt says that most wiring issues have been rectified as a result of tougher inspection regimes.

The Office of the Renewable Energy Regulator (ORER) has ramped up the auditing of installations, with more in-depth inspections of systems. The ORER will look at a number of systems each year to ensure they comply with relevant guidelines. A spokesperson from ORER says these inspections are due to begin before July this year.

The Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency has also been made aware of safety issues. “There have been some instances in the past in Australia of non-compliant circuit breakers and wiring,” a spokesperson says. “The CEC wrote to all accredited installers in late January 2011 reminding them of their compliance obligations and requiring them to review their installations and confirm their compliance in this matter.”

Image attribution

Image 1: A roof that had to be replaced due to installer damage. Photograph originally appeared in the Clean Energy Council's presentation "The good, the bad and the ugly", delivered at the ATRAA Professional Development Day on May 4, 2011.

Image 2: An example of a solar panel system with a shading issue. Photograph originally appeared in the Ausgrid presentation "NSW solar update", delivered at the ATRAA Professional Development Day on May 4, 2011.


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