Are you stranded with a faulty solar PV system that should still be under warranty but the solar company has been wound up?
There may be hundreds of thousands of solar systems across Australia 'orphaned' in this way. We advise how best to avoid this, and what to do if you're in this situation.
CHOICE Help, the consumer advisory service for our members, hears from a lot of solar owners with various issues but at least 10% of these involve companies that have liquidated, leaving the member with a faulty system and little recourse.
In a CHOICE survey of more than 1000 solar owners, 30% reported they had a problem with the solar company and four percent reported they had a problem getting warranties honoured.
Fair Trading NSW confirmed that in the last financial year they've had 29 complaints about liquidated or deregistered solar companies and 245 complaints about refunds, repairs and warranties in the solar industry.
The boom-and-bust nature of the solar industry, often due to the prevailing government policy, has led to many honest and not-so-honest companies going under.
Markus Lambert, general manager of solar and energy at LG, has been compiling a list of ASIC notices of companies with 'solar' in their name that are in liquidation or proposed deregistration since 2011.
"It's currently at 610," he says, "and we check every four to six weeks and add 10 to 12 companies every time."
Lambert estimates that there could be approximately 600,000 solar PV systems 'orphaned' this way, out of the approximately 1.9 million installed in Australia. That's about 31%.
Finn Peacock, a chartered electrical engineer and solar energy expert, has watched companies rise and fall in the industry for more than 10 years and says many genuinely run out of cash.
"Solar is hard on cash flow and margins can be slim. One big commercial job that goes bad or is not paid for can kill a company."
- Check the status of the company by doing an ACN, ABN or business name search on the ASIC Connect website and at the ASIC register of insolvency notices.
- If the solar sales company is still in operation but not responding to calls or resolving a problem, CHOICE Help advises customers to make a complaint to their state-based consumer affairs or fair trading agency, which can negotiate on your behalf and arrange mediation where necessary. You can also contact the ACCC and the ombudsman.
- However, if the company has been wound up, consumer rights advisor Meredith Cridland says you can contact the electrician who installed it, or the manufacturer of the inverter or panels if that is the problem. "Unfortunately, if that doesn't work," she says, "there might not be any practical way to get a free repair."
Peacock says Solar Quotes can provide the contact details for a good solar electrician who will come and diagnose the problem for about $200–300 dollars. If the sparky finds that the problem is with the panels or the inverter, then the warranties pass to the manufacturer or importer.
The Clean Energy Council has more advice on solar PV warranties, complaints and disputes.
When solar companies rise up under a new name
Illegal 'phoenixing' is also recognised as a problem in the solar industry. This is when the director of a company that winds up forms another company under a new name doing exactly the same business, without any of the liabilities or debts of the previous entity.
"In Australia it's easy for Solarshine to become Solarshinier in the wife's name," quips Lambert.
Morris has been vocal about this issue for some time.
Phoenixing is a problem in Australia – it's way too easy for a business to leave its debts and responsibilities behind and restart under a new brand, and a new website.
"There are very few cases of successful prosecutions because companies that do it tend to be very good at concealing who is really involved. And it certainly happens in solar."
Peacock says he sees a new company and website selling discounted solar systems pop up every week and wonders who is behind them all.
How cut-price solar PV systems are contributing to the problem
According to Simon Green, operations manager from solar company OTG Energy, there are now many solar retailers offering systems at prices that no quality provider can match.
"Ten percent of our business is going in and fixing up these problem systems. A lot of them aren't even functioning," he says.
"A lot of them have quality SMA inverters, but the panels are low quality and the installation itself is substandard. One of the systems we fixed up had a collapsed roof because the racking wasn't installed properly.
"The companies make their money by cashing in the STC rebates which can cover the cost of the components of the system."
The retailer then squeezes the subcontracted installer with such low margins that he or she can't possibly spend the time needed to do the installation properly.
"To make a living, the contractors are forced to cut corners to do two to three jobs per day. It's just not possible to do a quality, compliant job in that time, with all the right checks," adds Green.
It's not just the solar owners and underpaid sub-contracted installers who are left out of pocket. We all pay for STCs through our electricity bills, because the electricity generators who must buy them pass the costs on.
Green says, "Often we just have to remove and replace the panels, but the previous company has claimed the STCs for 15 years yet they've only lasted two to three years."
The sales company gets the same money for the STCs if they supply top-of-the-range solar panels that should perform for 25 years, or cheap and shoddy no-name panels that have been rebranded and may need replacing in three to five years.
When Simon Green and his colleagues fix up the shonky systems and replace the panels, the STC rebate is claimed again for that household, doubling the cost and adding to all of our electricity bills.
- Look for a CEC-approved solar retailer in your area.
- Check the status of the company by doing an ACN, ABN or business name search on the ASIC Connect website and at the ASIC register of insolvency notices or phone 1300 300 630.
- Search reviews, articles, comments and recommendations about the company, the panels and the inverter on Solar Quotes.
- Avoid ads pushing very cheap systems with 'offer ends soon' lines. Industry sources we spoke to say that prices like these can only be reached when costs are cut so severely that you'll likely end up with an inferior quality system installed in a rush – and likely to have problems within the first few years.
- Look for a company with a local presence that has been around for a while. Seek testimonials directly from local people who've had their solar installed for a number of years, not recent installations that may yet fail.
- Ensure the panels and inverter models are good quality and specified in the contract, and check that the fine print doesn't allow for them to be swapped.
- Be wary if the company asks for a large deposit (more than 10% or 20%), or if they ask for full payment before the installation is completed and functioning properly.
- Choose a solar company that doesn't sub-contract installation.
- Don't sign up to annual maintenance service agreements that cost you money and purport to void your warranty (they don't).
- Don't be baited by discounted prices (check current average solar system prices at Solar Choice).
Your installer must give you a certificate of cover under the Home Building Compensation Scheme if the total cost of labour and materials is $20,000 or more. (However, we found the value of this insurance to homeowners to be negligible.)
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.