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.)
Is the company accredited?
Ensure your system is designed by a Clean Energy Council accredited designer and installed by a CEC accredited installer. Image: Ian Bray.
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
- 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 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
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.
How to pick a retailer
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.
What else should I look for in the company?
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
- 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
- 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
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."
One-size fits all quotes, pushy sales techniques and hard-to-believe pricing should raise red flags. Image: Andre van der Berg.
It's possible these trees grew after the solar panel installation, but shade will reduce the output of any system. Image: Newman Mundy.
The price should be right
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.
Picking a quality solar panel and inverter
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
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
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.
What does 'Tier 1' mean?
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'.
Seek independent advice about the system and components
"Installers will always push you to some extent to their favoured
components and technologies," says Damien Moyse from the Alternative
Technology Association (ATA).
"Independent advice is still very useful and ends up with a better result."
The not-for-profit ATA offers a one-hour energy consultation service for $225 ($175 for their members) that will look at your energy
loads (e.g. hot water, heating and cooling, pool) and determine an optimum
system size and design for your needs. It will also help you source and
Related: Solar panels buying guide
What should be detailed on the written quote?
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
- 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
What should you expect for the warranties?
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.
says that the industry minimum standard is a 10-year product warranty, with
some manufacturers offering longer guarantees, such as the 15 years offered
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.
Cooling-off periods may apply!
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.
The ACCC has more
information for consumers on entering into a contract.