When it comes to choosing the right solar PV (photovoltaic) system for your house, it can seem like the market is flooded with options and all of them look the same. So, do you go for Chinese solar panels or German solar panels? Should you pay a premium for a Sunny Boy inverter, or is a generic one going to do you just fine? Will you see the sorts of savings your solar installer promised, or are you going to be disappointed by the reality of how much energy your PV system produces? Now, a comprehensive CHOICE survey of solar power system owners around the country can reveal the answers to these burning questions and more.

We are also running a lab test of solar panels, to see how they measure up to their claimed performance.

What did our survey find?

Our survey uncovered many interesting issues around solar panel ownership. Some of the key findings included:

What does an average solar PV system look like?

When it comes to price, size and brand, what does the average solar PV system in Australia look like?

Average size of solar PV systems

  • Most systems installed are below 3.0kW.
  • Our data suggests that bigger systems have gained popularity over the years, with around 50% of all panels installed in 2013 and 2014 over 4.1kW.

Average cost of solar PV system including solar panels and inverters

CHOICE has previously estimated the time it takes for consumers in different states to pay off the cost of their solar systems through energy savings. In this survey, we asked our members to tell us how long it took to pay back systems in the real world, and we found some interesting results.

  • On average, members paid $8783 to buy and install their solar PV system after all discounts and STCs/RECs.
  • 31% paid $5000 or less.
  • 38% spent between $5001 and $10,000.
  • 30% spent $10,001 or more.
  • 15% of all owners surveyed said that their system had already paid for itself, with an average payback period of three years and two months.
  • Systems installed in 2010 or earlier are more likely to have paid for themselves already (not at all surprising, considering the fact that governments have been winding back solar incentives).

Solar PV system brands

  • 12% of people bought the most popular solar panel brand Suntech, 6% have Trina and 6% have SunPower
  • SMA (20%) and the SMA-made Sunny Boy (18%) were the most popular inverters in our survey.

Solar panel and inverter countries of origin

  • Of the 71% of survey respondents who knew where their solar panels were manufactured, 41% owned panels made in China and 13% in Germany, while the remainder were made elsewhere. 
  • Of the 67% of respondents who knew the country of origin for their inverters, 37% reported theirs were made in Germany and 17% in China. 

Solar panel, inverter and installer comparison 

It's all well and good to know what sorts of systems consumers have installed, but how do the various brands of solar panels and inverters compare, and are there any differences in solar PV system installers?

Chinese-made vs German-made

While experts have previously told CHOICE that country of origin shouldn't make much of a difference, our findings indicate otherwise. According to our survey, when it comes to choosing between systems, German inverters are your best bet if you're looking for longevity and reliability, while Chinese systems can be cheaper.

  • German inverters are less likely to have issues than Chinese ones.
  • 17% of owners of Chinese inverters have experienced problems, while only 11% of those with a German inverter have had issues.
  • 16% of owners of a Chinese inverter have had to have it replaced, twice as many as those with a German inverter.
  • German panels received a higher satisfaction rating than Chinese panels – 88% for the German compared to 83% for the Chinese.
  • German inverters also rated significantly higher with their owners, with German inverters outdoing Chinese ones 90% to 76%.

But it's important to note that despite the differences between German and Chinese panels and inverters, consumers report a high level of satisfaction with both. Owners gave an average overall satisfaction rating of 84% for both their panels and inverter.

How do solar panel and inverter brands stack up?

  • When it comes to inverters, SMA (90%), the SMA-made Sunny Boy (90%) and Aurora (89%) rated significantly higher than their competitors combined (79%) in terms of owner satisfaction.
  • Owners of Suntech panels gave the brand a satisfaction rating of 83%, which is slightly lower than owners of other brands combined (85%).

How do solar installation companies stack up?

  • 32% of owners reported having problems with their installer.
  • The most common problem reported for installers was a significant delay with the installation work (12%). Major issues such as incorrect wiring or labelling and safety issues were uncommon.
  • Owners in this survey were presented with a list of 13 basic services an installer should provide. On average, owners recalled their installer having provided eight of them, though 4% of owners did not receive any of the 13 basic services.
  • Installers have improved with time – in recent years, more installers have explained factors that would affect system performance, recommended a suitable system size, checked household energy use and explained the pros and cons of different brands.

Issues with Origin

Origin, the most popular installer in our survey, achieved a satisfaction rating of just 62%, significantly lower than other installers combined (79%). There was no significant difference by state or year of installation.

  • One in five owners who used Origin gave it a negative rating of 'poor', 'very poor' or 'terrible', while only 8% of people gave other installers combined a negative rating.
  • Those who had their system installed by Origin were more likely than average to report having problems with the installation.
  • They were also significantly more likely than average to have experienced delay, had incorrect and/or faulty wiring, had the inverter installed in an inappropriate location, had extra costs not disclosed before work began and had incorrect and/or inappropriate labelling.

Common solar PV system problems

  • 25% of owners reported having had problems with their solar PV system.
  • 12% of people experienced the most common problem reported: issues with the inverter.
  • 10% of owners have had to replace their inverter since installation.

Do systems meet output estimates?

  • 69% of owners said the amount of energy generated by their system is more than or about what they were told to expect by their installer.  
  • 13% felt let down by the amount of energy produced by their system.

STCs and RECs

If you're an eligible household, when you install a solar PV system you receive small-scale technology certificates (STCs), formerly known as renewable energy certificates (RECs). The price you get for each STC depends on how you choose to sell them – directly, or through your installer.

Most owners surveyed sold their STCs/RECs to their installer. For the 17% of people who were able to report how much they sold their STCs for, the average price received was $42 per STC. We did find this somewhat curious, given that the set price per STC is $40 and we would have expected consumers selling STCs to their installer to get less. Just 3% of those surveyed reported selling their certificates themselves, and only a small proportion of those people were able to report how much they'd received for their certificates – an average of $33 per STC.

About our survey

Surveyed in August and September 2014, our 700 survey respondents came from across Australia, with 59% living in a capital city and 41% in a regional area. Nearly half of owners reported using more electricity after dark than during daylight hours, while 28% said they use a similar amount and 19% said they use more electricity during daylight hours. Of the more than three-quarters of our survey respondents who reported their household's average electricity consumption per day, the average daily consumption was 17kWh.