Solaray In The News – Australians paying the price for cheap, abundant solar

Solaray’s co-founder and director, Jonathan Fisk was in the news today discussing the growing problem of cheap solar systems with pv Magazine Australia.

The Solaray Team is currently being inundated with service enquiries from homeowners who are trying to get their broken solar systems fixed, and with 1 in 4 Australian homes now powered by the sun, we are worried there is going to be a major problem in the coming years if the current rate of system failures continues.

What’s more, there is a growing problem in Australia with solar systems starting house fires, which is directly linked to outdated technology that is being used in these cheaper systems.

“A lot of the problems we’re seeing are cheap products, cheaply installed. This leads to very poor results for everyone,” Jonathan Fisk told pv magazine Australia.

“Over time, these systems start degrading or failing, leaving many consumers with no recourse or remedy as often the installers have long since left the market.”

It’s something we have been warning people about for years, and things are only getting worse.

Certain solar installers (often using call centres based in Asia) are advertising prices that are many thousands of dollars cheaper than the industry average. You would think this would be a good thing, but it’s turning into an absolute disaster based on the number of service calls we are now receiving.

We are seeing two main types of ‘cheap solar systems’ being offered:

  1. The best brands (such as LG Solar, Enphase etc.) discounted by $1000 or more compared to the industry average. More on this here…
  2. The cheapest possible brands being sold (typically a ‘6.6kW system with tier 1 panels and free wifi’) for under $4000 – what we call ‘Cheap Solar’

The ‘cheap solar’ disaster: 1 in 4 solar systems are faulty

When homeowners start searching online for solar power prices, the first thing a lot of people see are ads like this:

And what about this one! The bottom of the solar market just keeps getting cheaper:

If you are new to solar power, your very first online search could have you believing a good quality 6kW solar system costs between $2500 and $4000. These ads use words like ‘premium’ and ‘tier 1’.

Most of these cheap solar systems you see advertised online use no-name panels, and we hear stories every week of people being left high and dry by installers who go belly-up. From experience, we know this is happening because the installer can’t afford to keep up with a growing number of warranty claims, and so they simply close down the business and start a new one. This practice isn’t limited to small operators either, a lot of very large solar installers have done this repeatedly over the years, leaving their previous customers without support if or when something goes wrong.

This unethical practice has become such a problem, it is estimated an incredible 1 in 3 solar systems in Australia are unsupported due to either the manufacturer or the installer going under.

It’s Easy Come, Easy Go

“The cost of entry of setting up a solar company is negligible. Put up a good website, claim to be Australia’s leading solar installer with years of experience and there’s no recourse around that.

“If we go back a handful of years, Australia’s largest solar installer is no longer trading and we’ve seen this happen three or four times over the last six or seven years. And generally, the largest installer in Australia is the one that sells systems at the cheapest possible price, or at least advertises the cheapest possible price,” said Jonathan Fisk.

The largest solar installer in Australia in 2017 was renowned for selling cheap solar systems, and it came as no surprise to us when they recently went into liquidation. They join nearly 1000 installers in the last few years that have now left the industry. As many industry insiders say, the warranties that come with these systems aren’t worth the paper they are written on.

The strange thing is, most people know all about the dangers of buying a cheap solar system. The entire industry often gets a bad wrap because of the reliability issues with these systems. From faulty components to dodgy installations and non-existent service. There are thousands of horror stories posted online, and we get dozens of calls a week from people trying to get their system back online after people give up on trying to get help from their original installer.

There is growing pressure from industry groups to increase the standards for solar operators using regulation, however until this happens, for now, it’s a case of ‘buyer beware’.

It Gets Worse: Cheap Solar & The Risk Of Fire

Last year Firefights attended 139 solar panel fires across NSW, and there have already been 18 fires to January 26 this year.

Fires are being caused by what is known as a DC arc, where high-voltage DC current ‘jumps’ through the air when two conductors are close enough together. The heat from a DC arc can get so hot, the surrounding material can easily catch fire:

Solar systems that have high-voltage DC power running from the panels down to the inverter have to be closely monitored for arc faults, which pose a significant risk of fire. Even the smallest equipment failure, such as a damaged cable or a loose electrical connection can cause an arc fault. Once an arc fault is triggered, it can be difficult to stop because the voltage in DC systems is constant, and you have to be able to interrupt the circuit or the arcing will continue.

A DC Arc fault typically occurs in a faulty DC isolator, a switch that is used in solar systems so that firefighters can turn off a system in the event of a fire. This switch isolates the electricity being generated by the solar panels.

Standard solar systems that use a central inverter don’t have Rapid Shutdown functionality like an AC system, and ironically it is often the safety switch itself that is causing the fire.

If a system is installed poorly there is a risk that over time a fault in the system will start a fire. We are seeing more and more examples of this, and it’s really worrying.

There Is Already A Safe Solar Solution, It’s Been Around For Years!

Enphase Micro-InvertersThere has actually been a solution to this serious problem for years, and nearly all of our customers since 2014 have been choosing Safer Solar.

The risks of DC solar systems have been known from the early days of the solar industry over 10 years ago.  Because DC arcs only occur above 80 volts, DC Arcs do not occur on solar systems that use microinverters, as well as some systems that use DC optimisers that automatically reduce the DC voltage to safer levels in the event of a fault.

Microinverter systems avoid the risk of DC arcs because the DC power generated by the solar panels is converted to AC underneath each panel using a microinverter. This means there isn’t high-voltage DC power in the cable that connects the panels down to a central inverter. There is also no need for a DC isolator.

What’s more, a microinverter system turns off automatically if there is a blackout or a fault. This is called Rapid Shutdown and it should be compulsory in Australia.

Microinverter systems have been recognised as a Safer Solar Solution across the world for around 10 years. In fact, in 2014, the United States even went as far as making Safe Solar compulsory with their Rapid Shutdown legislation.

All these years later, the lag in regulatory oversight in Australia means that it is still a case of buyer beware, and it is probably going to result in hundreds of preventable solar panel fires across the country for years to come.

Jonathan Fisk stated, “We warn people looking at cheaper solar systems how easy it is for the cowboys to strip $500-$1000 out of an installation, but it is hard to get the message across and to explain exactly why this is such a safety risk.

“Telling people that their installer may be using a cheap DC isolator will go straight over someone’s head, until they see the photos of the fires. Then it starts to sink in.”

The pv Mazagine Article by Bella Peacock is available here: Australians paying the price for cheap, abundant solar

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