There's never been a better time to install solar – energy prices are going up, solar panel prices are coming down and the technology is as good as it's ever been.
But if you're feeling overwhelmed by all the technical information out there, you're not alone. It's hard to know where to begin.
We explain the four steps to getting solar, to help you decide if it's right for you.
Is solar worth it?
For most households, solar is worth the upfront cost.
"Households paying hundreds of dollars per quarter for electricity will definitely benefit from looking into solar. So will households with low electricity consumption, though their payback time might be a bit longer," says Chris Barnes, CHOICE's solar expert.
How much does solar cost?
It's cheaper than ever to install solar – prices have fallen by around 58% in the last six years. A 6.6kW solar system (which is the typical size requested currently) can cost you around $5500–9500 in a capital city, depending on your choice of components.
How large a system you need – and therefore how much it'll cost – depends on a number of factors. Our article on sizing your solar panel system can help you figure out what you'll need.
How long do solar panels take to pay for themselves?
Working out your payback times is complicated and depends on where you live, the size of the system, what you paid for it, your energy use and so on. But broadly, a 6.6kW solar system on most Australian homes will take between three and five years to pay for itself.
Solar will generally work anywhere in Australia, but it will work better under certain conditions. You'll need to consider:
- Location: Southern regions like Hobart receive less sunlight than northern areas like Darwin.
- Roof: Check which direction your roof faces. North-facing panels catch the most sunlight, but even south-facing panels can still produce about 80% of their rated power.
- Shade: Ideally there should be no trees, power lines or other structures shading your roof.
- Council: Find out what approvals you'll need from your local council.
Solar for renters and apartment dwellers can be more difficult to achieve – but it's still possible in many cases.
Solar PV systems are complex, but there are two main components you need to know about: the panels and the inverter.
Other components of your solar PV system include:
- a mounting or racking system used to mount the panels on the roof – this is an essential part, but most of these are much the same and it shouldn't be a major part of the overall cost
- a monitoring system to help you easily track how much power your solar PV system is providing (and also diagnose problems if they happen), which is optional, but can be very useful
- a storage battery, which is also optional, but increasingly popular.
Solar panels generally come with two warranties – one for the panel itself and one for performance.
How many panels you need depends on your energy use.
A typical home uses 20kWh per day, which equates to a 5kW system. But most people now opt for a bigger system such as 6.6kW or more, as panels are relatively cheap and powerful, and any excess electricity generated helps pay off the system through your feed-in tariff.
If you're thinking of adding a battery or buying an electric vehicle in the future, then it makes sense to get a bigger solar panel system now, to ensure you have enough power to comfortably keep the battery and EV charged. It's usually easier and cheaper to install a bigger solar panel system up front than try to add to it later on.
If you're getting a quote, make sure to look at the price of the whole system and installation, not just the panels.
Our solar panel reviews reveal that the tested panels generally perform according to their claimed power capacity, so you can feel confident in most of the panels we've tested. The main differences are price and warranty.
Panel price alone isn't an indicator that one panel will be better than another. More expensive panels may work better in the long term, but with cheaper panels you might be able to put more onChris Barnes, CHOICE solar expert
"Panel price alone isn't an indicator that one panel will be better than another," says Chris. "More expensive panels may work better in the long term, but with cheaper panels you might be able to put more on."
You need to consider warranty too. Solar panels generally have two warranties – one for the panels themselves, and another for the panels' performance. Make sure you're clear on which warranty a retailer is talking about. A 25-year warranty sounds great, but if it's only for the performance you could be left in the lurch if the panels themselves are faulty.
An inverter turns the direct current (DC) from your panels, into alternating current (AC).
When the sun hits a solar panel, the panel turns the energy into direct current (DC) electricity; the electricity from your power points is alternating current (AC) electricity. An inverter converts the DC to AC so you can use that energy to power your house.
"The inverter is a complex piece of electrical gear. In the first 10 years or so of your solar PV system's life, if anything fails, it's probably going to be the inverter," says Chris. "Most inverters will last the distance, but it's important to know what you're getting, and especially to know how good the inverter's warranty is."
See our solar inverter buying guide to help you decide what's best for your home.
Battery prices are falling, and electricity costs are rising.
For most homes, batteries don't make complete economic sense yet – they're expensive and have long payback times. Keep an eye on the market, though, as battery prices are falling and electricity costs are rising, so they could soon be a good option.
If you think you might install a battery in the future, you should ensure that your solar PV system is battery-ready.
"If you're thinking of getting a battery, you should look at upsizing your solar PV system by at least 1–2kW, depending on your needs," says Chris. "And find a good installer who can analyse your needs and advise you properly."
If you're interested in batteries, our battery storage buying guide has all the information you'll need.
"Finding a good installer is a really important part of the process – it shouldn't be underestimated," says Chris.
"Solar PV systems are a complicated bit of technology and most people don't understand how they work – so you need to make sure you can trust your installer."
You won't be eligible for rebates if you're not an accredited solar installer and your installation may not be covered by insurance
If you're tempted to do the installation yourself, we advise against it (unless you're an accredited solar installer, of course).
Correctly designing the system takes skill and training, and the electrical work must be done by a licensed electrician. You won't be eligible for rebates if you're not an accredited solar installer and your installation may not be covered by insurance.
"Overall, it's beyond most people to DIY," says Chris.
To find a good installer, look for:
- CEC (Clean Energy Council)-accredited designer, installer and components
- CEC Approved Solar Retailers
- companies that have been in business more than five years
- companies with sales and technical support in Australia
- companies that will visit your home and tailor a system specifically for your home and needs.
Beware door-to-door salespeople
We strongly advise against taking up any door-to-door sales offer, and any deals that sound too good to be true or that pressure you to sign up there and then.
Instead, talk to friends and family who've had solar installed to see if they can recommend a company; look up reviews of the installers online; and take your time to get quotes from a few reputable installers to give yourself some options.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.