Going solar explained: Your solar questions, answered

Living Well | Peter Barrett | Posted on 26 October 2020

Solar power is a hot topic right in Victoria now. Here's what you need to know.

With the state government recently promising $1.3 billion in rebates for rooftop solar power, solar hot water systems and battery storage, solar power in Victoria is a hot topic right now.

To help demystify a market that includes hundreds of providers, we chat to the RACV’s Kieran Davies, Smart Living senior product manager, who has been selling solar systems since the RACV entered the fray in October 2017.

Here's his guide to going solar.

Solar panels on roof

Why is now the right time to go solar?

Over the past five to 10 years we’ve seen quite a reduction in the price of panels and inverters. That, coupled with the three incentive schemes that are available to households, and particularly the latest one, means in terms of financial incentives it’s the best we’ve had it since 2009 and possibly ever. 

How do I work out if solar is a good option for me?

The easiest thing to do is get a copy of your electricity bill and speak to a solar provider. With that they should be able to give you a good idea of what you can save and if you can install solar – they’ll look at your roof using imaging software and work out if they can fit enough panels to match your power consumption.

How much does it typically cost?

Good-quality systems range from $4000 up to $10,000 depending on the size. Kieran says the average for a quality 5kW or 16 to 18-panel system here in Victoria is around $7000 to $9000. Solar is one of those products where it pays to invest more for a better system. Cheaper installations will often lack the generating capacity of a more expensive system. 

How long would it take to pay off a $10,000 home solar system?

As a general rule of thumb in Victoria we’ve been looking at less than a seven-year payback term, depending on how the home uses power, but that was before the latest rebates were announced. We’ve even seen systems with sub-four-year paybacks, so they are starting to be really quick. If you’re eligible for these latest ones you’re probably looking around five years.

What kind of roof do you need to have?

If you’ve got a tin or a tile roof, lots of north, east and west sun, and few obstructions that’s perfect. More exotic roofs can change the cost benefits around. For example, slate roofs are real doozies to install on, and most solar providers will tend to stay away because of the risk of breaking tiles.

What size system do I need?

RACV’s head of Home Trades and Services, Kieran Davies, says the size will be determined by two considerations: the available roof space and the household energy consumption. “A good solar sales company will look at your roof electronically and in person and work with you to design a system that matches your needs,” Kieran says. “This should all be obligation free.” 

How much will I save?

Your savings will depend on the size of the system, your feed-in tariff and how you use your power. Obviously a larger installation will mean more power generated and therefore a smaller energy bill. 

The feed-in tariff is the rate you are paid for any excess power you generate that is fed back into the grid and is determined by your supplier, but the minimum is 9.9 cents per kilowatt exported. 

To get the best out of the system you may have to change how you use your power, for example operating large appliances such as washing machines, dishwashers, pool pumps and air-conditioning when the system is generating most of its power in the middle of the day. 

Do I need a solar storage battery?

Solar batteries are getting a lot of press at the moment, but do your sums before you hand over your cash. Finn Peacock who runs the independent advisory website solarquotes.com.au says a Tesla Powerwall will cost about $14,000 and take about 15 years to pay for itself, but has a warranty of just 10 years. He suggests householders may want to install solar panels now but wait for battery prices to come down before they add a battery to the system. There may also be additional battery rebates available through the Solar Victoria scheme from 1 July 2019, although details are not yet available.

Do you need planning permits to put the panels on?

Generally speaking, no. If you’ve got a heritage overlay there can be some constraints about what’s visible from the street. As part of the new solar package the government announced changes where people who own solar panels can now object if people try to build high-rise buildings next to them that will shade the panels. So, it’s actually going the other way a bit. 

What should I be looking for in a solar system?

Quality, a tailored solution and ongoing support. Start by choosing long-lasting systems with 10-year-plus product warranties, along with high panel-outputs and high inverter efficiencies. Find a provider who is going to work with you to match your consumption (it should be bespoke, not pre-packaged). Finally, both the household and the provider should have access to a monitoring platform to make sure anything untoward is fixed and the system stays efficient.

What else should you be looking out for?

Be wary of any provider offering a really cheap price compared to everyone else. I’m not a fan of door-to-door sales tactics or anyone who’s cold-calling. Also, the longer the conversation – the happier people are to listen to you and work with you to find the right solution – that’s the sign of a good installer.

What about maintenance?

They’re pretty self-sufficient. Sometimes the panels may need to be cleaned but the monitoring means that the systems will send an alert if they spot anything. The next cost you’re looking at is maybe an inverter replacement and if you get a good system that should be at least 10 years-plus down the track. 

When is solar a bad idea?

Renters and landlords find it hard to see the benefits of installing solar. Then, if you’ve got a very small roof, or you’ve already filled your roof up with solar hot water heaters, it might be hard to get around that. Finally, there’s a group of people who have such exceptionally low energy use it might not offset the upfront costs. The average household uses about 15 kilowatt hours a day, so if you’re using five or fewer you might not get the financial benefit of solar.