Guest Blog by Mark Hickey. Mark has been an accredited designer and installer of on and off grid solar systems in the Northern Rivers for the past 16 years. He also has an extensive background in Electrical Engineering and an interest in sustainability.

Over the past 16 years I have seen many interesting occurrences in the solar industry, through the ups and downs of government rebates coming and going – what has been termed the ‘solar coaster’ and heard from many disgruntled solar owners with failed, underperforming or non supported systems.

I would like to offer you the benefits of my experience, observations and my top 10 tips to enable you to make the best decisions when choosing solar, and now solar storage systems.

We have all witnessed the growth in solar system installation in this area and across the country particularly from 2008 onwards. Australians love solar and we have a great environment to benefit from the sun’s energy in many ways.

On the flip side, many solar installation companies have folded in Australia over the past few years – the figures are astounding with over 500 disappearing since 2011. An even larger number of overseas solar panel and inverter manufacturers no longer exist. This has left many solar owners in Australia with no warranties or support.

Grid connect solar was the beginning, now we are at the forefront of the next energy revolution – Battery Storage – Allowing us to use the sun’s energy at night and giving us many other benefits. Battery storage for solar is actually not new at all, in fact it existed way before grid connect solar. What has changed is the falling price of batteries and associated inverter equipment, as well as increased charges from electricity companies coupled with lower buy back rates from solar surplus production.

When we are looking at solar and/or a solar storage system, what is it we need to look for? Is it about lowest price? Is it about the most convincing salesman? Is it about what our friends bought? Is it about what rebates are available from the government? Is it about having the latest gadget? Is it about the best brands? Is it about the most qualified people?

When making these purchasing decisions, they are usually for our own homes and property. They are intended to be an investment that will last a significant amount of time similar to building an extension, deck, shed or pool.

Not only is it a permanent installation that is meant to last, there are usually some financial benefits to installing such systems, that, if the systems don’t work, the benefits become null and void or at least significantly reduced.

Quality products and installation will mean you may pay more now, but the cost of low quality products failing without warranty support in a short period of time will result in significantly greater costs having to then replace with quality products. It is false economy to look at these long term investments in any other way.

I have observed that low quality solar panels, batteries and inverters generally fail after only 2-3 years and so too generally do the companies that make and install them.

Statistics show that over 50% of installed solar systems are not performing as they should. Of the systems we are asked to fix, around 60% of the faults are due to installation issues and 40% due to product failure.

With so many options on the market, and much of it being very technically orientated it is hard for the average person to know how to make the best decision for their long term energy investment.

In basic terms I would suggest to look for:

QUALITY PRODUCTS – High grade, superiority, excellence

and

LOCAL PEOPLE WITH LONG TERM EXPERIENCE that you use to advise, supply and install the systems for your energy future.

So the question is how do you know who will install a system that is well designed and understood using high reliability components that are manufactured in sustainable ways where ongoing support is always available and if there is a problem it can be fixed without further expense?

When making a major purchase or investment you contact the professionals in that field like a real estate agent for buying a house. So when buying a solar system you contact the professionals in that area such as the companies with experienced electricians and engineers who have designed & installed 100s or 1000s of systems.

Top 10 Tips

1. Product Quality

Look for products from known established suppliers that have been in the market for many years with Australian offices that support warranties which not only cover the replacement but also pay for the labour component of change over and are transparent to other installers should the existing installation company no longer exist

There have been many companies that imported cheaper products directly from overseas, offered huge warranties, then closed their doors leaving the end user with no warranty what so ever.

  • One such company operating here in a neighbourhood program several years ago, imported their own panels and inverters, offering the largest warranties in the market at the time. 30 years on panels and 10 years on inverters. Sounded like a great deal! Around 4 years ago they went bankrupt. The majority of their systems had cheap imported inverters that the last time I saw figures had more than 50% failure rate. Those customers with failed units have had to pay for new inverters to be installed- even though it was well within the originally stated warranty. Not only did they have the cost of the replacement, there was significant loss in feed in tariff savings.
  • Many of the same issues have occurred with solar panels failing. Often the manufacturer or installer no longer exists or the panels are covered for replacement but the labour to do the work is not.

 

2. Installation Quality / Experience

Experienced installers are essential for the quality, longevity and safety of theses systems. There’s no point in paying for top quality equipment if the installation itself causes it to fail or not perform as expected.

Another question to ask is: Are the lead people installing employees of the company you bought the system from who have pride and attention to detail in what they are doing or are they subcontractors who are paid a fixed rate for each job and as a result, install as quickly as possible, cutting corners anywhere they can?

Poor installation can result in roof leaks, wiring failures, fires in HV DC cables/connectors and isolators. At best the system just stops working, at worse a dangerous fire can result.

Again, in many cases, these may lead to costly repairs at the owners expense.

 

3. CEC Accredited installer

Do the leading people installing the job actually hold the accreditation and have the experience or are they junior apprentices and is it someone else back in an office with the accreditation.

It is worth asking when the person designing and installing the system first received their accreditation for design, solar and battery components.

 

4. Holistic view of the sale

Does the company you purchased solar and storage from look after the whole process so if there is an issue you can have it easily rectified at one point of contact.

It is worth asking do they:

  • Research latest products from multiple suppliers
  • Perform a site visit and if necessary actually get on the roof to measure up and accurately analyse shading issues and optimal panel placement
  • Design systems to suit your individual needs, analysing power bills, monitoring your energy consumption patterns, factoring in your energy usage of major appliances – rather than just selling you the biggest system they can
  • Advising you of energy efficiency measures and methods of energy management such as home automation systems
  • Being available to answer all your questions before, during and after the installation
  • Physically install the system
  • Provide you with training on the operation of the system with a detailed, specific system manual – not just give you the manuals that come with the inverter
  • Provide you with ongoing after sales support, maintenance and free monitoring of the performance of the system

Or are they just a ‘sales’ company and contract some or all parts to others so if there is an issue, it is always someone else’s problem.

 

5. Design

Does the company use engineering to accurately size and predict the operation of your solar and storage system. Using just ‘rule of thumb’ or no rule at all in many cases can lead to an under performing system, poor battery life or an excessively oversized system that you are paying too much for.

 

6. Licensed Electrical Contractors

NSW Department of fair trading requires companies selling electrical equipment that are installed on domestic, commercial or industrial properties to be Licensed Electrical Contractors. This protects the consumer from issues that may arise with the installation and ensures your rights are protected. Always ensure the company selling you the system has an electrical contractors license number showing on their documents and that they ask for no more than 10% deposit as legislated by department of fair trading.

 

7. Company history

How long has the company been in business? And if a short time, were they working in the same or closely related field before?

Does the company do other things not just solar & storage – to keep them viable when the markets are slow? Such as general electrical work, phone and data, IT, Air conditioning, Home automation systems, etc

You don’t want someone who is just there to make a buck in the short term then off to the next opportunity leaving your warranties and support non-existent.

 

8. Track record

Can the company you choose show you customer testimonials and detailed photos of installations they have done?

Do they have customers who are willing to be contacted about the experience they have had with their installation?

 

9. Community Support

Does the company support local community owned renewable energy projects?

Are they involved in community events related to renewables and sustainability?

Do they provide free advice and supportive installations to non-profit groups?

 

10. Trust your instincts!

If something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

Remember that you are making a long term investment of a system that will be a part of your home and you want to be as certain as you can on the return on that investment, that it will operate safely in your home over its lifetime and that anytime in the future you need support, the company and people you have entrusted will be there.

Should you have any questions, feel free to come over and talk to us at the Light Touch Solar & Electrical Solar Showroom at 9 Centennial Circuit, Byron Bay, or email info@lightouchelectrical.com.au or give our team a call on 0419 867 530.