Choosing the right company

Dominic O'Leary General

Why your solar decision is even more important than you realise!

Solar horror stories are a dime a dozen these days. Unfortunately, there are many less than scrutable installers out there trying to make a quick dollar by installing sub-par components and/or cutting corners.

A good quality solar system should last you 20-25 years, with an inverter being replaced at the 10-15-year mark. However, no two solar systems are the same, because no two buildings have the same electrical footprint. There are multiple benefits to choosing your solar company carefully: On-site operational analysis and understanding; Premium quality equipment and installers; Full warranties and reliability; On-going support, monitoring and reporting as well as longevity.

It is not uncommon when discussing solar in any scenario to hear someone chime in with a story about how they have been stung by solar energy, or an unprofessional installer or company. Half-finished installs, non-compliant work, faulty connections or components or poor system design are not uncommon.

No one likes the idea of having to fix someone else’s mistake, least of all solar installers. Often when taking on the repair or inspection of another installer’s work, it can be quite difficult to locate the root of an issue as the whole system is entirely unfamiliar. This can lead to very time-consuming physical inspections and testing of all system components. To ensure a smooth and reliable solar installation, it is important to do some homework on your chosen company before signing up.

Some of the best ways to ensure you’re dealing with a reputable company can include reviewing testimonials, requesting referral clients whom you can talk to directly to understand how the company operates and what the experiences have been so far, checking accreditation documents and reviewing the website to find out more about the company.

Typical Solar System Faults and Problems

Faulty Connections and a defunct solar company
SolarMax was a swiss inverter manufacturer renowned for its reliability until the parent company went bankrupt in 2015.

A recent visit to a new clients site revealed a 5-year 5kW old solar system which was supposedly connected to the house. It was pretty clear from their electricity bills that there was an issue with the existing system as they had not received any feed-in revenue for well over a year and their electricity bills were still reasonably high. Upon inspection, it was discovered that the solar system was, in fact, connected to the bore pump used for vineyard, lawn and garden irrigation. Not only was the solar system not connected to the right electricity supply, when the actual system was physically tested, but only half of the solar system was also actually properly connected and operational.

Essentially his 5kW system was actually a 2.5kW solar system. After 5 years of operation, his solar system was more likely down to 2.37kW. Certainly not enough to service his household or bore pump consumption needs. To top things off, when contacted about his lack of feed-in credit, the retailer did some simply digging and discovered they had been billing the client incorrectly for over two years (this is now being rectified and will be back-paid to the client).

Last but not least, the inverter he was supplied with is from the manufacturer who is now defunct, meaning that there is not, nor would there have been a viable warranty attached. Whilst it is not common to see so many problems on one install, it is not uncommon for at least one of these issues to be present.

Non-Complaint Work

The price of poor-quality workmanship and cheap components can sometimes be much more costly than just paying for premium equipment upfront.

The price of poor quality workmanship and cheap components can often be more costly than just paying for premium equipment from the beginning.

Another common solar flaw is non-compliant work. Certain installers and operators take less care and consideration when performing installs than the majority of companies operating today in order to save a few pennies, earn a few more pennies or squeeze more work into less time. Non-compliance can come in a myriad of forms: Non-approved components being used; Electrical design and industry standards not being adhered to; Lack of safety components or low-quality components substituted at the last minute, just to name a few.

A large winery in McLaren vale whom we have done some work for in recent years had a 100kW solar system installed by another company who was less than concerned with the quality of work they delivered. Originally quoted and contracted for 2 x 50kW solar inverters, what they ended up receiving was 6 x 15kW inverters and 1 x 10kW inverter. This was due to the inverter manufacturer going out of business and discontinuing many of its models before it went fully defunct.

Since installation in 2014, two of the six 15kW inverters have had to be replaced and due to the company having been liquidated, no warranty was present meaning the client had to pay for the replacement out of their own pocket, with no original install company present to come to the party.

Certain companies who do not honour their warranty claims

Details of any and all workmanship warranties or guarantees should be obtained in writing before proceeding with any works.

Details of any and all workmanship warranties should be obtained in writing before proceeding with any works.

Another client in Langhorne Creek had a 30kW solar system installed on their winery. When we entered discussions with them in regard to their cellar door, they mentioned the issues they were having. They had installed a 30kW solar system on their winery back in 2015. Since then they experienced one full year of a good quality system and production before the problems started.

There were multiple issues with this solar system when we first inspected it. For starters, there was no data being communicated to the portal because the communications components had failed. Whilst a relatively simple problem to fix, the install company would not pick up the phone nor return phone calls and so the problem continued unchecked. In addition to this, their solar system would shut down for days or weeks at a time due to water egress into some of the isolators. This was simply due to poor quality isolators and the cool, damp conditions which surround this region for many months of the year.

Not only was half the system not operating, but there was also no relevant data easily accessible to confirm which portions of the system were underperforming, or not performing at all. It was not until a full site analysis had been performed and system performance data collected for as much of the previous four years as possible and an effective report produced, that the winery was able to get their original installers into to rectify the issues that they were having under the still-standing warranty.

More than 8 months of system shut down or 30% operational capacity resulted in substantial savings loss for this company and it took an external solar company to take the time to determine the on-site issues and the solutions for these issues before the original company picked up the phone.

Checking the credibility of your chosen solar company:
Clean Energy Council Approved Solar Retailer - P4B Solar - Adelaide
Clean Energy Council Accredited Installer Logo - P4B Solar - Adelaide

Every solar company will have testimonials either on google or on their website, likely both if the company is half-reasonable. Reading these can give you a good idea of how some clients have felt after signing up with a specific company but this is not always sufficient to gauge a company’s ethics or conduct. Requesting to talk to previous clients of the company can be more helpful as you can hear directly from a client’s mouth how it was dealing with said company.

To install solar in Australia, all electricians must be accredited by the Clean Energy Council, along with holding the relevant building and electrical licenses. Further accreditation which can help when making decisions about which company you put your trust in is the CEC Accredited Solar Retailer Program. This is a voluntary accreditation program put forward by the Clean Energy Council as a way to standardise certain installation standards and install practices, as well as to ensure companies have a binding code of conduct to comply with.

In a bid to weed out some of the less professional installers/retailers out there, the Accredited Solar Retailer program requires companies to provide evidence of their works, to offer specific warranties which cover the entirety of their works completed, ensure all marketing and advertising material is compliant with all relevant consumer acts and contains no false or misleading information.

There is a webpage on the clean energy council website where anyone can search through the list of approved retailers to determine whether a company is approved under this accreditation program or not. Whilst this isn’t the make or break detail, it is a good place to start.

The benefits of choosing a quality solar provider for your investment:

Initial Analysis and Operational Understanding

Some of the benefits of choosing your solar company carefully include on-site operational analysis and understanding; Premium quality equipment and installers; Full warranties and reliability; On-going support, monitoring and reporting as well as longevity.

When entering into discussions regarding a solar system for your house or business, it is extremely important that your solar company understands your needs and wants in terms of not only how much electricity you’re consuming but also the conditions under which you are consuming the electricity, whether there are going to be or have been any changes to your situation or infrastructure which may need to be considered; The size of system your consumption pattern ideally needs and whether or not hours of operation and downtime need to be taken into account.

Understanding the technology

It is extremely important to understand as much as possible about the equipment you will be purchasing to ensure you are getting the greatest value for your money whilst also making the most impact on your electricity bills and also your carbon footprint.

For example, one of the most commonly known solar panel brands globally is LG. LG has made a name for themselves by offering the highest efficiency panel on the market. As much as 20% higher than some other household brands such as Jinko Solar or Canadian Solar. This sounds like a whopping difference in output, however, the price on an LG solar panel is at least double the price of a Jinko or Canadian solar panel.

It becomes a question of is there increased financial outlay going to be justified by the Return on Investment and the payback period. In almost every case the answer is no, but as I mentioned earlier, no two solar systems are the same and there are always exceptions to every rule.

Understanding the technology can be vitally important as well. Most solar systems installed today are of the traditional string-connected configuration. This means that the inverter acts as the maximum power point tracker, regulating the volumes of electricity being sent in my any panels on the roof.

These panels are connected in strings, or rows of panels, up to 42 panels in a row. If any one panel in the said string is underperforming, maybe due to shading, dirt or soiling, debris blocking or animal ‘deposits’, all panels connected to that string will be dragged down to perform at the efficiency of the least efficient panel in the string.

Alternative technologies for solar

The two alternatives for a traditional string-connected solar system are an Optimised solar system or a Micro Inverter solar system. An optimised system takes power regulation out of the inverter and attached a small component, a DC optimiser, underneath every single panel in a residential installation or every two panels in a commercial install.

These optimisers allow each panel to operate independently of every other panel in a solar system providing greater performance in areas affected by shade, high soiling rates or solar irradiance issues. In addition, an optimised system allows you to monitor the output and performance of every panel (or pair) across the entire system giving greater transparency and ability to track savings and ROI.

A Micro Inverter system operates similarly to an optimised system except for one big difference. With microinverters, there is no need for a central inverter as each microinverter performs the DC to AC energy conversion immediately on the roof.

As such you save money on the central inverter but due to each microinverter needing to be a much more complicated piece of technology, there are added costs to each of these components.

Clear and easy-to-understanding reporting

Ensuring a reliable and trustworthy solar company means you should also be getting some kind of performance reporting regarding the quality of your solar system. All solar systems (worth anything) will come with a monitoring portal where you can view your system’s performance. Most of these monitoring portals provide you with an output volume, and possibly system health as a percentage of what it should be not much more.

Opting for an optimised or microinverter solar system gives you a much better understanding of how your system is performing and whether or not the components you have received are performing according to initial expectations.

A recent client of ours had a solar system installed by a previous company five years ago and there have been some issues with their system. One of which was a solar fire caused by a faulty isolator on the roof, which is not directly a result of the original company’s performance but still presents issues for the client. In addition to this, the original company comes out to perform an annual maintenance inspection which was dry enough and technical jargon-laden enough to put you to sleep even after half a dozen coffees.

Almost impossible to read for an electrical professional, it was unclear how the end-user was supposed to interpret all of the electrical readings and values spread across 10 pages. Understanding your maintenance report and your performance report expectations and needs are vital when discussing plans with your chosen solar company.

There is much more to a good quality solar decision than just your bottom line. When you vie for the cheapest system you can get, you’ll inevitably encounter at least one of the above problems, if not multiple. Take the time to really consider your choice and ensure you’re comfortable with your decision. For your safety and savings sake!

For more information on understanding your solar offerings or quotes, give Peter or Dominic a call today!