We get it. Choosing a solar installer can be difficult.
There is everything from your brother’s mate; an electrician who does solar on the side, all the way up to the big energy retailers.
How do you even know what to look for?
In this article, we are going to help you understand the lay of the land. The 4 main types of solar installers are:
- A man in a van
- New upstarts
- Established solar companies
- Energy retailers
A Man In A Van
To install solar, one needs to be a certified installer with the Clean Energy Council. Many electricians decide to take the certification to diversify their business. Lots of people are looking to go solar, and so it’s a good service to be able to offer.
As with any trade, there are good solar installers working for themselves, and there are bad ones.
The Pros: The good ones will answer the phone if you have a question (not as common as you’d think!), fix things if something goes wrong, stay up to date with the latest technology and safety requirements, and so on. Essentially, they are trustworthy and provide good customer service because they understand the importance of referrals and having a good name.
Unfortunately, this isn’t all that common.
The Cons: The biggest issue we have in the solar industry is that cheaper brands often don’t perform as well as they should. Many installers, both big and small get caught out with an increasing number of service calls and warranty claims. The bigger solar installers tend to go insolvent and re-appear a few days later, but for a sole trader or a ‘man in a van’, they will typically not have the resources to do that, and so take a different approach.
This is to basically operate their business through a mobile phone, and if a customer needs help they simply block the number. Problem solved… at least for them.
The Solaray support team gets calls every week from people trying to get their system working again after giving up on their installer who just doesn’t answer their calls. There isn’t an office customers can go to, and taking legal action is a pain, to say the least.
To make matters worse, in many cases the panels and inverter are from Chinese companies with no Australian office, so there really isn’t anywhere to turn when things go wrong.
But what about getting a good quality system installed at a discount?
Choosing good quality panels and inverters is important, and often a ‘man in a van’ will be able to install them for you at a discounted price. At least it will seem like a discount in the sense that it can be a bit cheaper than what larger solar installers will offer.
The problem? Well, there are a few.
Firstly, this ‘discount’ will normally mean that the installer hasn’t priced in any post-installation support or service. Basically, for a sole trader to be making money, he needs to be up on the roof installing panels. If he gets a service call, it will have to be done after hours the next time he’s in the area. Hopefully, that’s not more than a few weeks away, and yes, it will probably cost money. $200 or so seems to be a typical call-out fee before any work is actually done.
The other major issue is that because the installer is ‘up on the roof’, it can be very difficult to keep up with the industry. We’ve seen installers quote an Enphase system without the communications gateway, and we even had one customer buy a system from us after cancelling an install when he caught the installer watching YouTube trying to learn how to install Enphase microinverters for the first time. For more information, check out our blog post: Why Are My Quotes So Different?
The final point is to do with the world we now live in.
Manufacturers are going under, supply chains are disrupted, and prices are rising fast. Smaller installers just don’t have the leverage to solve problems when things go wrong. During Covid, many installers were left high and dry because they were not able to get their hands on stock. As supply becomes tight, the larger installers are buying everything as it comes in, making it difficult for smaller installers to be able to install the better brands.
Because of this uncertainty, it’s worth emphasising that smaller solar installers can simply quit. Over the last few years, many have gone back to being electricians. It’s great for them to be able to keep food on the table for their families, however, for their customers, it means they no longer have support if something goes wrong. The warranties become next to impossible to claim, and people are having to pay inflated prices for any work that needs to be done once they find an installer that is willing to help them.
New Solar Installers
Solar is booming, and it’s fashionable. The idea of starting up a solar company is exciting and many are giving it a go.
It’s easy to start a business these days. Simply launch a website using a nice template, get a few friends to give you a testimonial, and buy some stock photos to make it look like you’ve installed lots of systems.
Over the years, we have seen a staggering number of solar installers come and go. Typcailly, they last about 6 to 12 months before realising just how competitive the industry is, and how difficult it is to compete with established companies that have much better purchasing agreements in place with the main suppliers.
The Pros: There is nothing wrong with choosing to go with a new upstart in terms of getting a good quality installation done. Often the customer service is fantastic because everything is exciting and new.
The Cons: The main issue here is the risk that the installer not being around by the end of the year.
So how can you tell? A simple ABN lookup could be a good starting place or have a look at their blog to see when their first post was published.
Mid-Sized Solar Installers
The solar industry is competitive to the point of being cutthroat. This brings out the best and the worst in companies as they try to compete for your business.
The Cons: The downside is that many companies will really put pressure on you to ‘buy now’. They will use high-pressure sales tactics, they can be sleazy, and often they won’t be interested in designing a system that suits you. It will simply be one-size-fits-all and it is on sale until Friday so hurry up and get your order in.
This flows through to the install and service, where it is often difficult to get problems resolved.
We often see contracts where the warranties are actually back-to-base warranties, which means that you need to organise the removal and reinstallation of a broken inverter or panel yourself.
At least in that case it’s in the contract.
What’s much worse is the horror stories we constantly hear about the repercussions of solar companies bidding out installations to the cheapest installer. The branding of the solar company looks great, but then it turns out that they have nothing to do with the actual installation. There are often ads on Gumtree looking for backpackers to come work as a solar installer.
What this can mean for their customers is that if something goes wrong the solar company tells you to talk to the installer, but the installer is long gone. They are working for a different company or have simply disappeared. It’s really important to check that the solar company you are signing a contract with is fully responsible for the installation.
The Pros: The upside is that many solar companies are looking for a competitive advantage. This will mean that customer service is exceptional, the sales team will consult rather than sell, and the marketing will be about education rather than the latest sale.
Customers generally will find the company that suits them.
If you are after a deal, you will find one, but it will often come at a price. That may be poor service (if any), or it mean that you will be talked into buying a system that doesn’t quite fit your needs.
Other customers will be looking for a professional installation of a system that is designed to maximise performance, longevity and reliability. And when something goes wrong, they will want to know that the installer is there to offer support & professional advice.
Based on that, you can probably guess what all of us in the Solaray Team are striving for!
And if you are wondering how to tell, simply give us a try. Call us, as well as a few other solar installers and see how it goes. It normally doesn’t take long to understand what we are referring to here.
The Big Energy Retailers
Yes, many of the energy retailers install solar.
It’s a bit of a strange one because the bigger the system, the less energy you will be buying from them, and so in our opinion there seems to be a bit of a conflict of interest happening. But if you’re a solar retailer and your customers are going to get solar, you may as well try and win that business, and that’s fair enough.
The Pros: Energy retailers will often have a small number of packages that you can choose from at a fair price. They will be clearly displayed on their website and you can often buy them online without even talking to anyone. If you know what you are looking for and one of the packages fits, then it could be a good option.
The Cons: Typically, this will mean that things aren’t personalised, in that you are just a number in a big machine. If things go wrong, you call the call centre and hope the wait time isn’t too long. The person that answers your call will typically be offshore and have no practical knowledge about solar, but nonetheless, they can take your call and create a service ticket for you.
Larger companies are well aware of their warranty obligations so it’s relatively safe in that regard. Call-out fees for a service check typically start at $200, and normally wait times are going to be a little longer than average. So you will get looked after if there is a warranty claim or the like, but it may not be as quick and easy compared to your local solar installer (the good ones, at least).
So where to from here?
Now that you have a better idea of your options, we would recommend calling a few solar installers to get some advice. See which companies are willing to listen to you, and be aware of the companies that go for the hard sell.
Once you have a better idea of what solar system you need, you can then start comparing prices.
Be sure to check the installer’s history and reputation for after-sales support. A simple Google search can reveal a lot, especially if a company has changed names over the last few years.
If you’d like to give our team a call, we’d love to help you. It normally takes around 15 minutes for us to be able to give you 3 key numbers:
- The right-sized system for your home
- The price points for various systems
- How much you can expect to save
You can request a callback here: