Complaints about the solar industry have doubled in the last year – here's what you need to know to get a quality solar PV system that lasts for years.
Australia's residential solar industry is growing – in 2017, 3.5 million panels were installed, creating a capacity similar to that of a medium-sized coal-fired power station.
The boom has brought a rise in complaints about solar companies. Our consumer advice service, CHOICE Help, reported a 116% surge in members wanting guidance for problems with solar investments in the last year.
Clean Energy Regulator inspections of residential solar installations show that about 16% of units are underperforming or not configured correctly and 4% are unsafe.
Without trusted advice, investing in solar can be daunting and confusing. We explain your rights under Australian Consumer Law and talk to industry insiders to show you how to buy a quality solar PV system at a fair price to suit your energy needs for many years to come.(Note: In the picture at the top of this story, a man is walking on the solar panels. This is not recommended as it can cause micro cracks.)
The good news for consumers is that the solar industry has more accreditation than ever to protect consumers and maintain standards. The trick is knowing what accreditation to ask for and where you can check it.
When you're buying and installing a solar PV array, it's likely you'll be dealing with:
- the sales company (it may be a retailer)
- the system designer (who puts the panels, inverters and battery design together)
- the installer (who gets on the roof and puts the system in place)
- a qualified electrician, who must sign off on the system and provide a Certificate of Compliance for Electrical Work (CCEW).
In some cases, one person (for example a local electrician who specialises in solar installations) can cover all four roles. It's also not unusual for larger retailers to secure the sale and contract, and then subcontract out the installation.
The accreditation body for the designer, installer and the components is the Clean Energy Council (CEC), which is funded by industry. The CEC also has Approved Solar Retailers.
The CEC lists 4800 accredited solar installers on its website. It also lists the categories of accreditation from design-only to install-only to design and install. Off-grid systems need separate CEC accreditation.
Are the panels and the inverter accredited?
The CEC also maintains a register of approved modules and inverters that meet Australian standards. Be sure the components for the system quoted are clearly specified by make, size and model, and are CEC approved.
No accreditation, no rebate
If the components, the designer and the installer are not CEC accredited, you won't receive the government rebate of Small Scale Technology Certificates (STCs). A 3kW system can generate a subsidy from STCs of around $2000, depending on its location.
The Clean Energy Council runs the voluntary Approved Solar Retailer program to help you find a quality supplier. Endorsed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), it aims to raise standards in the solar industry.
Look for the logo and check the list of CEC Approved Solar Retailers to verify if a supplier is actually approved.
About 55 retailers have been approved by the CEC, demonstrating their commitment to its voluntary code of conduct, including:
- responsible sales and marketing methods
- a five-year whole of system warranty
- ensuring a CEC accredited designer designs your system
- ensuring a CEC accredited installer sets up your system.
Beyond the CEC Approved Retailers, there are around 400 solar panel companies and 4800 accredited installers in the market. As with any major investment, you should seek a number of quotes and vet the company before signing anything.
- A company that has been operating for more than five years.
- Does the company have an Australian office and local phone number?
- Ask to talk to previous customers to enquire about the service pre and post installation. Were there any issues with the system? Did the company follow them up? How was their communication? Don't rely on online testimonials.
- The company should visit your home to establish what your site needs and your energy load profile.
- Check your system design is by a CEC accredited system designer and that it suits your needs and your budget.
- Ask the salesperson who will install the system. Check for CEC installer accreditation.
Avoid companies that:
- Use aggressive sales techniques such as asking you to sign on the spot, use door-to-door sales, or say 'act now before government rebates end' or 'limited time only'.
- Quote with a one-size-fits-all system.
- Offer systems well under the usual market rate – you'll end up with a poor quality system.
- Make exaggerated claims such as 'no more energy bills' or unrealistic investment payback times.
Has the system design in the quote been done by an accredited designer?
Pat Southwell is a technical and compliance specialist with the Clean Energy Council and solar consultant with Neotech. He advises buyers to ONLY talk to companies that use a CEC accredited designer for pre-design of the installation BEFORE you sign a contract.
"You know then that it is designed by someone who is qualified to do so. This will shrink your list [of retailers] by 90% and reduce your risk of signing up to a disaster."
Finn Peacock, solar industry blogger and owner of solar brokerage company Solarquotes, writes in his blog that choosing solar systems on price alone is a recipe for disaster.
"The solar business is a challenging one, and margins usually don't allow for deep discounts. We recommend calling around for a few quotes to establish a base cost for battery storage and installation."
Some of the problems with cheap quotes that he's seen include:
- Baiting the customer with good quality components and then swapping them for cheaper ones, while covered by terms and conditions of sale that reserve the right for the supplier to swap out for 'equivalents'.
- Baiting with a low price based on cheap components and then upselling to more expensive ones, or simply adding lots of surcharges.
- Cutting corners with rushed installations or unqualified staff, resulting in unsafe installations.
To get an idea of a fair price for a solar PV system, look at Solar Choice's guide to residential solar power system prices.
Even if solar panels and inverters are CEC accredited, it's not a guarantee of their quality. Components can be modified once on the market and this can mean a drop in quality.
In 2017, the CEC introduced random spot testing of PV panels on the market, as well as stricter compliance standards.
Blair Pester, Managing Director of Taiwanese panel manufacturer Winaico says, "The increase in requirements has done much to weed out lower quality manufacturers who took advantage of relatively lax standards to register vast numbers of modules.
"The quality of product has improved a lot in the last six years since a lot of lower grade manufacturers are dropping off."
On the other hand, James Martin from solar brokering company Solar Choice suggests only buying well-known brand name panels and inverters from companies that have a history operating in Australia.
It's not unusual for the retailer or installer to go out of business by the time an issue arises with your system. At that point you'll need to contact the importer or manufacturer to make a claim.
You can face practical challenges when trying to enforce your rights under a warranty (or under the ACL) where a manufacturer is based outside Australia.
DNV GL publish a PV Module Reliability Scorecard that lists top panel performance based on randomised lab results, but it's incomplete and misses some of the good quality brands on the market in Australia.
If you buy solar through a major energy retailer, you may have more recourse if something goes wrong, as the energy industry is heavily regulated and held more accountable.
Australian solar retailers will often talk about 'tier' ranking for solar panels, but tier rankings are designed for commercial solar investors rather the buying public and are not usually publicly available.
The tier ranking comes from Bloomberg New Energy Finance industry research and ranks the company on how big it is, how many solar farm projects its panels have been used in and how many financial institutions have invested in these panels.
Martin says you can ask the solar seller to produce a certificate or other independent verification to prove they really are 'tier one'.
"Installers will always push you to some extent to their favoured components and technologies," says Damien Moyse from Renew (formerly known as the Alternative Technology Association), a not-for-profit organisation offering advice on sustainable solutions.
"Independent advice is still very useful and ends up with a better result."
Renew offers a one-hour energy consultation service (priced at $199 for their members, and $275 for non-members) that will look at your energy loads such as hot water, heating and cooling, and pool pump, and determine an optimum system size and design for your needs. It will also help you source and compare quotes.
According to Pat Southwell, there are some essentials to look for in the quote, as well as some red flags:
- Never accept a hand-written quote or receipt.
- All labour and parts should be itemised with prices, including GST
- Components (solar panels, the inverter, the battery etc.) should be specified by quantity, brand and model number. Otherwise they may be swapped for cheaper parts.
- STCs should be included in the quote.
- The installer should be named on the quote. Are they a sub-contractor or in-house? The latter is preferred.
- An estimate of the system's performance should be included with the system design.
- Look for the product warranty for the inverter and panels, and an installation warranty (see below), as well as the standard 25-year performance warranty on the panels.
- Look for details of post sales service and a maintenance schedule. Who should you call?
- An estimated timetable for supplying and installing the system.
- Business terms such as payment method, deposits and timetables and how long the quote will be valid for.
- Additional costs. Retailers must make it clear that additional costs which arise at or after installation will not be borne by them. These costs can include things like meter exchange or reconfiguration and upgrade of meter box.
As mentioned above, any company which is signed to the Clean Energy Council's Retailer's Code of Conduct MUST offer a whole of system cover warranty for a minimum period of 5 years. This means that no matter what happens, the company must cover parts AND labour on any component in your system.
Outside of the CEC Approved Solar Retailers, solar systems are generally covered by two types of warranty, known as the product and performance warranties.
Performance warranties for the solar panels generally last for 25 years and guarantee that solar panels will produce a minimum percentage of their rated capacity, which slowly reduces as the panels degrade over time.
The solar panel product warranty covers physical and electrical problems in a PV module, that either cause it to fail or under perform. Examples include moisture ingress, breakage of the glass, frame or back-sheet, and diode failure in the junction box.
Blair Pester says that the industry minimum standard is a 10-year product warranty, with some manufacturers offering longer guarantees, such as the 15 years offered by WINAICO.
Pester says, "In addition to that, some manufacturers cover the removal of the PV module as well as the replacement. Some will only provide new modules and not the reinstallation. That can be up to the consumer."
Read your warranties to check if they include the labour and transport costs of removal and reinstallation.
The Inverter product/manufacturer warranty is very important as the inverter is most likely to be the first thing that needs replacement.
Jeff Wehl, General Manager of Ecoelectric says people should expect that the inverter manufacturer's warranty should cover parts AND labour for five years, and then another five years for parts only.
"Be aware that depending on what it takes to identify and replace the unit, there could be additional costs involved," says Wehl. "A typical outcome is a call out fee of up to $160 to diagnose and remove the unit, followed by the actual replacement which is paid for by the inverter company."
If you have a warranty claim, it should go to the retailer or installer in the first instance. If they are not contactable, then go to the importer. If it is a problem with the component and not installation, you should contact the manufacturer as they have responsibilities under Australian Consumer Law.
When you sign a contract that has arisen from an unsolicited sale, a 10-day cooling-off period applies in which you can exit the deal.
Some suppliers may offer a 10-day cooling-off period in their terms, regardless of whether it was an unsolicited sale or not. Be sure to check.