Cheap solar has become a serious problem here in Australia, with cowboys out to make a quick buck, and unfortunately, it is only getting worse.
However, it is great to now see the Clean Energy Council taking action to clean up the market.
Many of the brands you often see advertised on Google Search and in the papers have now been banned, plus, over time a lot of these companies have either gone bankrupt or removed themselves from Australia once the warranty claims started adding up.
Our support team get dozens of calls a week from people who can’t get in contact with their original installer and are desperately trying to get their system back online, and unfortunately, a lot of the time the replacement/service costs aren’t cheap.
The three main pitfalls of cheap solar systems are:
• Below average output
• Broken components that often cannot be replaced under warranty.
• A sub-standard or unsafe installation
1. Below Average Output
One of the biggest traps with cheap solar systems is that there is no easy way to keep track of the system’s output, so households are often left in the dark.
If your spring bill is $650, and your summer bill is $850, there is no easy way of knowing if you used $200 more power, or if your solar system suddenly stopped working as well as it should. If you don’t have access to real-time online monitoring, many months can go by before you realise the system isn’t working. Even worse, there is almost no easy way to tell if the system is underperforming.
Solaray director, Jonathan Fisk, explains: “if you don’t buy a ‘smart solar system’, you will need to learn how to read your inverter’s little LED display to get the system’s output figures.
“You could keep track of your monthly figures on an excel spreadsheet, and then compare it to the monthly figures provided by the Clean Energy Council, factoring in your roof’s orientation, angle, any shade, and yearly degradation of the panels which is typically around 0.5%-0.8% per year etc. You could then cross-check these numbers against your power bill to see how much power was used in the home and how much power was sent to the grid. I would estimate less than 1 in 100 households actually do this, but it’s the only way to accurately measure the performance of a cheap solar system over time.
“The next problem is working out what to do if your system is under-performing. Without panel-level insights into your system, you are going to need to pay someone to get up on the roof to test every panel. In many cases, there isn’t going to be anything obviously wrong.
The SMH article on the 1st of June provides an eye-opening example of this common problem:
“Pieter Lindhout, from Annandale in Sydney’s inner west, installed solar panels on his family home about six years ago. After purchasing a monitoring device to track energy production and consumption, it showed “no electricity being produced…
“That was a shock,” he said, estimating the system had been dormant for up to four months. Mr Lindhout replaced a broken inverter… but another issue soon emerged – cables into the solar panels were touching the roof, and the panels short-circuited when it rained.
Without monitoring “I would not have been aware that my system was working at 60 per cent,” Mr Lindhout said.
The article also reveals that in Sydney, the bottom 25% of systems output at least 16% less power than the top performing 25% (Hasham 2018).
Jonathan Fisk, Solaray director, continues: “Most people don’t regularly check to see if the inverter is even on, so it’s no surprise to me that many households are getting stung at the cheaper end of the market.”
The Benefit of a Smart Solar Power System
Solaray specialises in Smart Solar Power Systems, where our customers get access to free online monitoring for the life of the system. We can also install a smart meter in your meter board giving you have full consumption monitoring, allowing you to compare your system’s output to how much power you are using in the home.
This allows households to maximise the benefit of the solar system by using power when the sun is shining, reducing their reliance on the grid, which is still predominately powered by coal and gas.
All our Smart Solar Systems are connected to one central hub, where we monitor the output of every individual panel, plus we get automated alerts if something isn’t right. We also provide an estimate for every system’s output based on the site’s conditions, allowing us to automatically track performance against the industry guidelines on a monthly and yearly basis. All of this is also provided to our customers. On average, our systems output over 110% of their expected performance, clearly illustrating the value of buying good quality brands.
2. Sub-Standard Installations
According to information obtained by Fairfax media from the CEC, of around 4100 residential solar systems inspected last year approximately 800 systems didn’t meet the Australian Standards (Hasham 2018).
Yeah, the title really isn’t clickbait!
This is also on par with the previous year, where 22% of systems were substandard.
One of the most serious problems the CEC finds with dodgy installations is when water gets into the electrical components, causing a fire risk. Cheap components can also be a nightmare, especially DC isolators, many of which are now illegal or have been recalled.
Buying a solar power system involves a lot more than just choosing brands. The installation should be done by an experienced team of CEC accredited installers, who have the time and budget to perform good quality work.
We have a saying at Solaray that goes a little something like this:
“If you go looking for a $500 discount on our quote, you will eventually find someone willing to take $500 of work out of your installation.”
One of the main problems with the bottom-feeders in the solar industry is the practice of auctioning off installations to the cheapest bidder. Along with this arrangement, is the handoff of all responsibility for the installation.
The solar company you gave your money to doesn’t want anything to do with your service request, and the installer’s phone number never gets answered. That’s often when you pick up the phone and end up speaking with a reputable solar installer about coming out to fix the mess.
But wait, there’s more!
We will often agree to replace an inverter for a household, however, it isn’t until we get out on site that we can accurately quote a service job. The Australian standards have been significantly revised in recent years, and if we touch a system, we need to bring it up to code. A cheap solar system often needs all of the cables to be replaced to bring it up to code, which ends up costing well more than what the initial system cost, especially if it was a Sunday paper bargain!
The whole thing can be a complete mess, and we get a lot of people telling us to just take off the old system and start again.
“Let’s do it properly this time!”
3. Broken Components
All solar panels come with a warranty. They have to. But a 10-year warranty isn’t always worth the paper it is written on.
Back in 2013, there was a headline based on the high-profile bankruptcy of Suntech:
“How China’s Solar Boom Fizzled and Went Bust”
The article also states in no uncertain terms the risks associated with the Chinese solar manufacturers:
“The fallout in China from the global solar-panel meltdown extends far beyond Suntech. As of 2012, China’s 10 largest solar-panel companies had a cumulative debt of $27.7 billion, said Yuanta, the Taiwanese financial firm, in a recent report. Their average debt ratio—debt as a percentage of total assets — was an eye-popping 75.8%, Yuanta calculated.
“Soon after Suntech declared bankruptcy, the Bank of China, one of the country’s largest lenders, reported that 21% of its solar loans were “nonperforming,” meaning they were in or near default. The bank said it had set aside only enough money to cover 11% of those loans going bad, Religare Securities Ltd., an India-based firm, noted in a recent report (Ball 2013).
For a warranty to be of any value, the manufacturer will need to be solvent for the life of the warranty, the company must have an Australian based office and a telephone that actually gets answered.
When the manufacturer goes under, theoretically the warranty obligation is passed on to the distributor, however, most of the cheapest panels do not come through the main distribution channels and it can be next to impossible to figure it all out, especially when no one answers your calls.
We’ve even heard of a few cases where people have been told to ship the panel back to China for a free replacement!
We take service very seriously
All Solaray customers enjoy full-service warranties and our support team are a central contact point for all customer support. Our most popular panel, the NeON range LG Solar, now offer an incredible 25-year warranty on all panels, and their support is lightning fast on the extremely rare occasion we need to swap out a panel. Solaray is now the largest installer of LG Solar panels in Australia, and it’s fantastic that our customers are seeing such value with a top of the range panel.
All Solaray customers get the direct phone number to our support team, which means no call centres, no long wait times, and personalised service. This additional support is worth many hundreds of dollars, and it is one of the main reasons why we have such great customer feedback & online reviews.
Why Buy Quality
We’ve got entire articles about the benefits of good quality panels, however, it can be summed up with three words:
Having already discussed performance and reliability, let’s take a quick look at longevity.
Solar panels degrade over time, and top-quality panels such as the LG NeON R range are warranted to output at least 88.4% of their original output after 25 years. The industry standard is 80%, however, we are finding that over the years the cheaper panels are often degrading at a much faster rate. Again, this would normally be covered under warranty, but getting free service and finding replacement panels can sometimes be… tricky.
There are other studies that show that on average, a good quality panel will last more than 10 years longer than the cheaper ones. This has now been backed up by LG Solar extending their product warranty to 25 years on the NeON panel range, a full 15 years longer than almost all other manufacturers.
Thank you for taking the time to read the whole article. We are dedicated to providing as much information as possible so that you can make an informed decision before choosing a solar system.
For more information, please submit your details below and one of our solar experts will call you back. We only sell the top brands, but if you don’t want a good quality system by now, perhaps you never will!
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Ball, S. 2013. How China’s solar boom fizzled and went bust. Quartz. https://qz.com/93368/how-chinas-solar-boom-fizzled-and-went-bust/
Hasham, N. 2018. One in five rooftop solar units deficient, official figures show. The Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/one-in-five-rooftop-solar-units-deficient-official-figures-show-20180601-p4zixo.html.