Unsafe solar installation

Some operators are bypassing safety considerations in their effort to cash in on fast-disappearing government money.
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02.Safety guide

If you believe your PV system is incorrectly or unsafely installed, and you can’t reach an agreement with your installer, here’s who to contact:

  • Sub-standard installation can be reported to the CEC.
  • If the installation is not meeting the forecast efficiency gains, the local consumer complaints body or electrical authority.
  • If the installation is unsafe, the first port of call is the local electrical authority.
  • If a system doesn’t meet the requirements of the Renewable Energy Target legislation, contact the Compliance Manager of the ORER on either (02) 6159 7774 or by email on compliance@orer.gov.au
  • Breaches of Australian Standards or state legislation are dealt with by state and territory governments. 

Dangerous installation case study

Once Alice* decided to install solar panels at her home in NSW, she did her homework and sought quotes from a variety of companies. So when in October 2010 she chose a large, reputable business with a long history of solar installations, she thought she would be in good hands.

“I didn’t go into it blind. I knew about potential problems, about how the system could be rorted,” she says. “I covered every base, but I still got caught.”

The first hurdle appeared almost immediately. The quote Alice accepted was incorrectly designed, and a more expensive configuration was necessary. Even though it was a technical mistake made by the designer, Alice was told she’d have to bear the burden. Because the typical industry contract allows for pricing variations, and due to changes in the NSW solar scheme, there was nothing Alice could do. “The changes to the NSW feed-in tariff came through on the day I signed the contract, so I was backed into a corner.”

After extended delays, Alice’s ground-mounted system was finally installed by subcontractors in May 2011. But because of the holdup, the summer-positioned panels needed to be tilted for winter. She was told this was a simple, DIY process. What happened next was shocking – “I did it, and then one panel fell off – it hadn’t been screwed in. When I checked the other panels, some of them were also missing screws. They weigh over 18kg, and my kids and I had been out there!”

To top it off, the panels were positioned poorly – in the winter tilt position, the back row was shaded. “These things are concreted two metres into the ground. There’s no easy fix. There’s plenty of room so there shouldn’t be shading issues.”

*A pseudonym has been used as the dispute resolution process is ongoing. 

Insulating against risk

The not-for-profit Australian Solar Energy Society (AuSES), which is launching an industry certification program in August, says a good quality PV systems should provide energy output for decades.

CEO of AuSES John Grimes believes the surge in solar demand has led to a race to the bottom among some installers. “As the market has ramped up over the last couple of years, we’ve grown increasingly concerned about the quality of components and workmanship of installations. Competition means people are trying to get the lowest possible price for components, and installers are paid a very small amount, so they have to do multiple installations really quickly.

“In most cases an investment of an extra $1000 will secure top quality components that will last 20 years or more.”

To make sure you get a long-lasting, problem-free system, shop around for several quotes and look out for the following warning signs:

  • Refusing to visit the property and take note of roof angle, sunlight, shading and temperature before completing a design and quote.
  • Not including grid connection and/or metering costs in the quote.
  • Ignoring or not looking at energy consumption trends in the household.
  • A lack of accreditation with the CEC, or the use of inverters, modules or other products that aren’t approved by the CEC. Accreditation and approval information can be found here.
  • A quote that is significantly cheaper.
  • A short warranty period. Most installers guarantee workmanship and materials for at least five years.
  • A warranty provided by the importer rather than the manufacturer of products used in your installation.
  • Failure to provide you with a system manual that provides operation, maintenance and safety information, and estimates system output.
  • Poor or no feedback about the installer on web forums such as Whirlpool and Alternative Technology Association forums, and reluctance, or inability, to provide contact details and references of previous clients.
  • In NSW, failure to provide a certificate of home warranty insurance before commencing installation if the total cost is $12,000 or more.

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