How to choose a reliable solar power installer

Living Well | Sue Hewitt | Posted on 28 January 2020

Don’t get burnt by unreliable solar power provers and systems.

As Victorians flock to solar as a cheap and sustainable power source, serious questions have been raised over the reliability and safety of some systems. 

News that solar installer Space Solar has been banned from selling systems through the state government’s Solar Homes program due to safety concerns highlights the need for buyers to be vigilant when choosing home solar.  

Australia has the highest penetration of residential rooftop solar in the world, with an estimated 2.1 million homes now with solar systems. But last year ABC TV’s 7.30 program warned that in our enthusiastic uptake of solar, Australia had become a dumping ground for sub-standard equipment from overseas.

Two men installing solar panels on a roof

In a damning report late in 2018, the Australian National Audit Office said it was likely there were hundreds of thousands of substandard installations and tens of thousands of unsafe solar systems around the country. Australia’s Clean Energy Regulator, which audits about one per cent of home solar systems, has found that one in six home solar installations is sub-standard and one in 30 is unsafe. In October, shortly after announcing its ban on Space Solar, the government also suspended the sole director of a second installation company, the failed Sandarra Electrics, from its rebate scheme due to breaches in safety standards.  

In the five years to mid-2019, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade attended 36 fires caused by faulty solar power systems and there are concerns that some ageing systems might have parts that deteriorate, causing further problems. 

RACV senior product manager for energy Kieran Davies says the Space Solar scandal, where independent inspections found that 15 out of 26 systems tested were either unsafe or needed fixing, served as a timely reminder for people to do their due diligence before buying solar. 

He says people should buy systems only from retailers approved by the Clean Energy Council who use accredited installers.  

“Consider going with bigger brands which operate other businesses, not just solar, so you know they’re not going to go out of business overnight,” advises Kieran. “When dealing with smaller or dedicated solar businesses it pays to do your research online and look at reviews to ensure they have the right focus on quality.” 

He says things are getting tougher for rogue operators thanks to audits by Solar Victoria, the state government agency which administers the rebate scheme, as well as the federal Clean Energy Regulator, and Energy Safe Victoria, a state energy regulator.

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“There are three cops on the beat auditing these companies and they are ramping it up to make sure only the good operators get through [accreditation],” says Kieran. 

He warns buyers to be particularly wary of ‘cowboy’ installers who resort to pushy sales techniques and promise low but unrealistic prices.  

The average Australian household needs at least a five-kilowatt system with about 16 to 20 solar panels to meet their energy requirements, and this should cost between $7000 and $9000, less the government rebate, Kieran says. 

RACV offers a solar health-check service to help ensure household solar systems are working efficiently and safely. Callers to the service can get free advice over the phone on simple ways to check their system.  

If necessary, RACV Solar qualified electricians can carry out an on-site inspection including checking if any recalled products are still in use and need replacing, inspecting the configuration of panels, testing for any faults and providing a system report. 

This service is popular with people who buy a house with an existing solar system and know nothing about it or how it should perform. 

Kieran says a common fault is with the DC rooftop isolators – the switch that shuts off the DC power flow from solar panels to the inverter which converts DC solar power to AC electricity for the home. 

Meanwhile, the government advises those who have bought systems through the discredited Space Solar company to have their systems double-checked by an independent electrical safety inspector listed by Energy Safe Victoria. Customers are advised to go to Consumer Affairs Victoria to discuss their rights, but the government expects Space Solar to cover the costs of any repair work. 

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