With more than three million solar panel systems now on Australian homes, you might think that solar installation is a routine and quality-assured job. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Regulatory bodies report many hundreds of complaints every year about faulty or under-performing installations.
Here's what you need to know and the questions to ask to get a quality solar PV system that lasts for years.
Australia's residential solar industry is big, and getting bigger. As of 31 January 2022, there are more than three million rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) systems installed across Australia.
The boom has brought a rise in complaints about solar companies. In recent years our consumer advice service for CHOICE members, CHOICE Help, reported a surge in members needing help for problems with their solar PV system.
The Clean Energy Regulator has also conducted inspections of residential solar installations that have shown that a small but significant number of installations are underperforming or not configured correctly, and some are actually unsafe.
We explain your rights under Australian Consumer Law and 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 damage the panels.
Is the company accredited?
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 actually 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.
New Energy Tech Consumer Code (NETCC)
The ACCC has authorised the NETCC program. It's a way for solar PV, battery storage and other new energy tech businesses to demonstrate commitment to responsible practices, including sales and marketing, the installation itself and warranty support. The program is intended to improve consumer protection standards in the solar and storage industry.
NETCC Approved Sellers commit to a high standard of quality in:
- advertising and promotion
- marketing and sales
- solar PV systems that are fit for purpose
- quotations and contracts
- payment options
- delivery, installation and activation of the system
- compliance with all relevant laws and standards
- user information
- customer service
- warranty and complaints.
Clean Energy Council (CEC)
The CEC is the accreditation body for the designer, installer and the components, and is funded by industry.
Many solar installers have opted to not go for NETCC approval, but they should at least be CEC accredited.
The CEC lists more than 8000 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. It's highly unlikely that a reputable installer would be using unapproved components, but if in doubt, you should check that 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 subsidy (the "solar rebate") of Small Scale Technology Certificates (STCs). As of 2023, a 6.6kW system can generate 72 STCs, which at $40 per STC would give you a subsidy of $2880, depending on its location. Try the SolarQuotes STC calculator to see the STC value for a system on your home.
CHOICE has partnered with SolarQuotes to create the CHOICE Solar Estimator. It's free to use, and will help you estimate a suitable solar PV system for your home. If you want to, it will also connect you with reputable installers in your local area for obligation-free quotes.
As with any major investment, you should get a few quotes for your solar PV system, and have a look at each company's history and reputation before signing anything.
- Are they NETCC approved or CEC accredited (see above)?
- Have they been in business for several years?
- Does the company have a local office and phone number?
- Can they refer you to previous customers so that you can ask about their 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 only on online testimonials as these aren't always genuine or comprehensive.
- The company should visit your home to establish what your home needs, based on your household energy usage, the location, the roof condition and aspects, whether an upgrade will be needed for your electrical meter, and so on.
- Will the work be done by their own staff, or do they subcontract the installation to other companies or independent contractors? Are those people also accredited solar installers?
- The design of the system, fully specifying all the components and how they'll be located and installed on your home, plus any related electrical work, should be supplied before you sign any contracts.
One-size fits all quotes, pushy sales techniques and hard-to-believe pricing should raise red flags. Image: Andre van der Berg.
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' (they aren't ending any time soon!) 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.
- Don't 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.
- The quote should be clear about any agreed substitutions for components. E.g. if the agreed panels aren't available at time of installation, any replacements should be of similar specification and price. Beware of last minute downgrading of components, or upselling to more expensive ones.
- STCs and other rebates and incentives 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.
- Make sure to ask the installer whether there will be any other work required, particularly an upgrade of the house's switchboard or meter. Older houses especially might need this work done in order to get solar installed.
- If you have a tile roof, the installer may ask you to have spare tiles on hand, as inevitably some may be broken during the installation.
- Additional costs. A site visit when planning the system should mean that the installer isn't caught unawares by additional work, such as needing to replace your electricity meter. All the same, the quote must make it clear that additional costs which arise at or after installation will not be borne by them.
Finn Peacock, founder of solar company SolarQuotes, says 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.
Australian solar retailers will often talk about 'tier one' 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.
While it's reassuring that a solar panel has qualified for 'tier one' status, it's not a guarantee that it's a premium product.
You can ask the solar retailer 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, 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.
Any company who has signed the Clean Energy Council's Retailer's Code of Conduct MUST offer a whole of system cover warranty for a minimum period of five years. This means that no matter what happens, the company must cover parts AND labour on any component in your system.
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.
Product warranties cover physical and electrical problems in a solar panel, that either cause it to fail or under perform. Examples include moisture ingress, breakage of the glass, frame or back-sheet, and electrical failures. This warranty is usually for at least 10 years, but 12- and 15-year warranties are becoming common. Some panels come with 20-, 25- and even 40-year product warranties.
It's fair to wonder whether the manufacturer would even still be around in 20 years or more, but at least these longer warranties are an indication of confidence in the product. Some warranties cover the removal of the PV panel as well as the replacement. Some may provide the replacement modules but not the reinstallation.
Some warranties cover the removal of the PV panel as well as the replacement
However, note that replacement of solar panels under the product warranty is pretty rare, partly because they are generally reliable, but also because it can be hard for a consumer to prove that panel failure after several years is due to a manufacturing fault.
See our solar panel buying guide for more information.
Inverter warranties are very important as the inverter is most likely to be the first thing that needs replacement. They are typically five years, but can be for 10 years or more. See our inverter buying guide for more information.
If you have a warranty claim, it should go to the retailer or installer in the first instance. If they are not contactable, then contact the manufacturer's Australian office. 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.
The Australian Consumer Law (ACL) offers protection for you if there are any problems with your solar PV system, whether that's with the service provided by the installer, or the components of the system.
The provision and installation of the solar PV system is a service by the solar company, and as such, according to the ACL it must:
- Be performed with proper care and skill
- Be fit for a particular purpose or achieve the result you expected
- Be delivered within a reasonable time, or by the end date in a contract.
If you have a complaint about the service provided, see our guide to resolving issues with bad service under the ACL.
The components of the system (including the panels, panel support racks, inverter, and electrical components) are covered by the ACL, just like any other product or appliance that you buy. Under the ACL, the components must be:
- of acceptable quality
- fit for purpose.
If the product fails to meet either of these conditions, you should be able to claim a repair, refund or replacement, depending on the nature of the problem.
See our guide to your rights with a faulty product for more advice on how to use the ACL to address any complaints with the installer or manufacturer.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.