Solar Power Buying Tips

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Sometimes a 5 kW system has been offered by some companies for under $5,000 after rebates. Meanwhile a 5 kW system has also been advertised for $15,000 by another company.  The question is, how can one company offer ‘the same thing’ for a third of the price?  As you may know, there are literally hundreds of solar companies in Australia. Each has their own offer, and there can be a significant gap between the cheapest and the most expensive. This buyer’s guide has been created to allow you to make an informed choice about your solar power system purchase. And it all comes down to quality!

1. Quality of solar panels
As the saying goes “you get what you pay for”. And this is no different in the solar industry where there is a wide gap in the quality of solar panels. Some companies like SunPower, Trina Solar and Yingli have been in business for decades, and charge a premium price for an established brand and highest proven reliability.

These companies have been around long enough to know that their panels will stand the test of time. Unfortunately there are also a lot of poor quality panels on the market, particularly in the last few years.  This has prompted the industry leaders and even a Federal Environment Minister to write extensively on the dangers of “landfill solar”.

They may have a 10 year product / 25 year power output warranty, but how do you find that company if your panel fails? And how do you trust a 25 year warranty from a 1 – 5 year old company? Are the manufacturer’s products warrantied nationally, or only based overseas?

So buyers beware. Do your research and ensure that your solar panels are from an established and reputable brand. EnviroGroup recommends these quality range of panels.

2. Quality of inverters (This is possibly the biggest issue with cheap solar power systems)
The inverter is the heart of the solar power system, and is responsible for converting the solar electricity into household AC electricity (240 V). If you buy a cheaper inverter, it is common to see failures well before or just after the warranty has expired, leaving your investment in doubt.

As with solar panels, there are a number of cheap inverters on the market without a proven track record, which comes back to the warranty issue again. Some of the better known and respected brands of inverter are SMA (Sunny Boy), Fronius and Enphase.

Again. Do your research!

3. Quality of workmanship - who is installing your system?
In Australia it is quite easy to become a CEC (Clean Energy Council) Accredited Installer – this is like having a driver’s licence to install solar and is a required minimum check.   But not all drivers are good drivers!

Unfortunately, poor equipment quality and installation practices have resulted in many unsuitable and unsafe systems. Common problems include systems being installed with incorrect roof orientation or in significantly shaded areas. In some cases incorrect or very cheap electrical breakers and isolation switches have been installed resulting in dangerous malfunctions and house fires.

A few companies in Australia have also been given the status of CEC Approved Solar Retailer by passing very thorough assessments by CEC for the highest quality and safest solar installations in the industry. EnviroGroup is proud to be a CEC Approved Solar Retailer with a dedicated in-house team of full-time installers.  We are also ISO Accredited for Safety, Quality and Environment.

cec-approved-retailer                         iso-standards

Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions before you buy.

4. Paying 100% deposit upfront (Don’t do it!)
This is a popular method which has recently become big business for some solar companies, but you should NEVER pay large amounts of money upfront before the work is carried out. Some solar buyers found that their system wasn’t installed for nearly a year after the paid a deposit. Other customers have had their inverter installed on the wall within a few months, but had to wait nearly a year for their solar panels to be installed!

It’s also important to ask if your deposit is refundable should there be a significant change in STC prices (read more about STCs). Needless to say, when you pay large amounts of money upfront, you expose yourself to a great deal of risk. Make sure you thoroughly investigate the deal before you hand over your hard earned money!

5. Contracts and clauses
Before you sign, read the contract and clauses carefully. Two of the most important aspects to review is – installation and warranties.
Installation: The company that you purchase the system from is not always the same company that installs the system, and this provides a lot of headaches for you as the consumer. Some companies outsource the installation to a small electrical contractor (with or without the necessary training), and if your system is not installed properly, or there is any damage caused by the installers, the supplier of the system is not liable for any repairs. This means you could be chasing a small contractor that you have never dealt with, trying to get your system fixed up. Read carefully through your contract and ask questions!
Installation warranty: In addition, sometimes the warranty on installations is as little as 1 year, so you might not realise that you have a problem until after your warranty expires. As a comparison, EnviroGroup offers a 10 year workmanship warranty, and you should expect no less than that.
6. Service and ongoing support
Some companies choose to cut costs by not providing their customers with necessary post-installation administrative support required to actually get their system up and running. Actually receiving the feed-in tariff and arranging for the installation of your new bi-directional meter is normally as pleasant as pulling teeth. It is an unnecessarily convoluted bureaucratic nightmare and can really tarnish the whole solar power experience – one that should otherwise be an overwhelmingly positive one.

At EnviroGroup we do all the paperwork for you. We arrange your smart meter to be reconfigured (or installed) and lodge paperwork to claim the rebates (STCs) on your behalf. You’ve paid enough for your system, so why should you have to struggle with masses of paperwork and constant phone calls to electricity retailers and power distributors?

7. What do you know about the company you are dealing with?
This is a critical issue, and one which is becoming more of an issue every day. As we saw with the insulation debacle, generous government rebates can cause a huge influx of ‘fly by night’ companies, who are in it to make a quick dollar. A quick check of solar companies in Australia shows that a lot of them were established after 2009, to coincide with the popularity of the Solar Credits Scheme.

This is to be expected, but be wary of companies that offer large warranties if they have only been in business a short time. This doesn’t give you any peace of mind, as most of the components have been manufactured by no-name companies who may or may not be around tomorrow. If your solar company closes the doors, you will have to contact the manufacturer (if you can locate them and know how to speak their language!) to have your warranty work carried out.

In fact there have been over 500 solar installers that have gone bankrupt in the past few years in Australia.  Unfortunately these customers now have limited warranties or assurances for their systems and have to do the leg work on their own if something goes wrong.

It is also strongly recommended that you only install with a company who demonstrates a true commitment to the environment. Is their heart in the right place? Are you buying solar from a used car salesman who would have you install solar even if your roof was completely shaded? Make sure whoever you choose carefully considers your individual situation and who makes recommendations that are clearly for your benefit, not just theirs.

A simple way to find out if an installer’s reputation is by doing a quick google search. Online forums like Whirlpool are ripe with angry customers who have been let down by dodgy installers.
At EnviroGroup, we pride ourselves on our honesty and commitment to the environment and our customers. If your house is not suitable for solar, that’s exactly what we’ll tell you.

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