06-Apr-2018

Questions to ask before getting solar PV installed

Solar PV prices having rapidly fallen over recent years, whilst energy prices seem to keep increasing. Having a solar system installed on your roof can be a smart investment. Panels will often pay for themselves in less than 4 years, however generally have an expected lifespan of 25 years, meaning that you may save tens of thousands of dollars, depending on a range of factors.

It can be overwhelming to work out what size system you need, which panels and inverter to have installed, which installers to use – amongst many other variables.

Fortunately, there are several guides available that can help you to get a better understanding of the process and some of the important questions you should ask along the way. Always make sure that you get several quotes, and take some time to do a bit of research yourself so you are comfortable with your choices.

We’ve summarised some of these questions here, and there are links at the bottom to find additional information.

What size system do I need?
This can be a relatively complex question, which depends upon how much money you are willing to spend, the orientation of your roof, how much energy you use and when, and whether you are willing to invest in energy efficiency measures. It’s not as simple as looking at the total amount of electricity you use on your latest bill – as not all of this will be daytime usage!

A good solar installer will visit your home and talk to you about your energy usage. There will be a range of things to consider, such as where you could first reduce your total energy demand and whether you can switch some of your demand to during the day. For example, pool pumps and hot water systems can be switched to a daytime tariff, and you could choose to use your dishwasher and washing machine when the sun is shining. Feed-in tariffs currently offered in Queensland are relatively low, so it doesn’t make sense to overinvest in a larger system that is exporting electricity to the grid.

You will need to decide whether you are looking to cover all of your daytime load, or just a portion. This decision will be influenced by how much roof space you have, what direction it faces, and whether it is shaded for part of the day.

Are the products you install sourced from an Australian-based supplier?
Solar panels should last – and often carry – a 25 year performance warranty.

If you have issues with your panels and need to make a claim, having an Australian based supplier will make a big difference. Read any warranties carefully, and discuss with your installer what the process would be if you need to make a claim, as some require you to ship your faulty equipment overseas, back to the original supplier – and it is cheaper in this case to buy a whole new system than to repair or replace your existing system under warranty!

Make sure you ask your installer:

  • Who manufactures their inverters and panels.
  • Does the manufacturer have an office in Australia?
  • Does the manufacturer have a strong presence in Australia and no intentions of leaving?

If your installer tells you that they will manage any warranty claims themselves, be sure to also do some research about this company (see below), as solar companies can go out of business.

While we’re talking about warranties…
Solar panels typically come with 3 different warranties:

An installation warranty: usually 1-2 years, often with the option to extend to 10 years. Make sure you ask questions about what is covered in this warranty, as it can vary substantially between installation companies. For example, check whether you will be charged a call-out fee, whether you will be required to pay to send any faulty parts back to the manufacturer (a ‘back to base’ policy), and how the warranty applies to work carried out by sub-contractors. Also be clear on exactly what is, and isn’t, covered under the warranty, and be aware that a longer installation warranty may indicate the company has greater confidence in their work.

Solar panel product warranty: Usually offered for 5-10 years, this covers defective materials or workmanship in the panels themselves. It is provided by the manufacturer of the Panel, not the solar installation company, although your installer may still be the one who helps you to make claims (and you should ask your installer about this process). Be aware that if your supplier does not have an Australian office, you may be required to ship the panels back to them – which may cost more than the panels themselves! Seeking a 10 year product warranty is important, as issues can arise over these timeframes.

Inverter product warranty: 5 years, sometimes with an option to extend to 10 years for some brands. This is actually the most important warranty, as your inverter is the component most likely to fail. It is very important to ensure that your installer has positioned the inverter correctly, with enough ventilation and appropriate weatherproofing, or it may void your warranty.

Performance warranty: Almost always a 25 year warranty, this warrants against the degradation of the cells to a stated amount (for example 10% after the first 10 years and then another 10% over the next 15 years). Be aware that there are many ways that manufacturers can avoid having to fulfill on this warranty, and many in the solar industry believe that performance warranties are not particularly valuable.

Some questions you should be sure to ask include:

  • If problems arise with your system, what services will they provide and for how long?
  • What workmanship and product guarantees do they offer?
    • Who is responsible for the warranties?
    • What happens to the warranties if they go out of business?
    • How long has the product manufacturer or importer been in the PV industry?
    • If you have to deal with the panel or inverter manufacturer or importer in future, do they have an Australian office?

Clean Energy Council Approved Retailers have committed to provide a minimum five-year whole of-system warranty.

How long have you been affiliated with your current product suppliers?
If the installer has been working with a product supplier for a longer time, they will have installed more of the systems and have a better knowledge of how the product perform over time, and how well the manufacturer or supplier responds to warranty claims.

Can I speak to some of your former customers?
You can often find reviews of solar installers and suppliers online. Many people leave reviews through the dedicated solar website Solar Choice, and you may find others on Google Reviews and the Whirlpool forum. You may also be able to speak to some people in your local area who’ve had solar installed to hear some tips and their experiences.

Where else can I save power in my home?
Reducing the amount of electricity you use is often cheaper than additional solar panels. Ask your solar installer what your biggest energy users are, and what you could do to cut this down, before working out the size of the PV system. Some important places to look include your hot water system, air conditioning system, pool pump and spare fridges, as these are likely some of the biggest energy users. By adding some shading or a lighter coloured roof, upgrading your hot water system to a more efficient type, upgrading your pool pump or considering how long it needs to run, turning off under-utilised fridges and upgrading to LED lights, you could save yourself money.

Can I upgrade the system in the future?
Ensure that your system is ‘battery-ready’, if you’re not getting batteries installed, as the price of batteries is rapidly falling and it is likely that you will want to add these to your system in the future. You may also wish to discuss options for adding more panels to your roof in the future. Electric vehicles are likely to become standard within 10-20 years, and you may require additional solar capacity at that time. You may be limited by your roof space and orientation, but make sure that you discuss with the installer these options to make sure you aren’t limited by your choices now.

Are there any additional costs?
When you have solar panels installed, you will most likely have to also have your meter box upgraded – and depending on your home, there may be other installation costs and requirements. Ensure you ask your installer whether there are any additional costs, and that the quote includes everything you could possibly be charged for. Ask to have this in writing.

What kind of after-sales support do they offer?
Have a conversation with solar providers about after sales support, including the process for making warranty claims, how any maintenance requirements will be conducted, and what their process is for responding to after sales enquiries. These may be questions to ask previous customers or online forums, if you would like to get feedback from people’s previous experiences.

Some good sites for more information:
www.cleanenergycouncil.org.au/technologies/solar-pv.html
www.solaraccreditation.com.au/consumers/purchasing-your-solar-pv-system/solar-pv-guide-for-households.html
www.solarchoice.net.au/solar-power/solar-power-installers

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