8 things to look out for when buying cheap solar panels

There are a hell of a lot of companies offering cheap solar panels right now, and as with all free markets, that is driving down the prices and the margins of solar power installers and suppliers.

The question I get asked the most is this:

“How do I tell if this deal from XYZ solar (which is heaps cheaper than anyone who quoted through your site) is too good to be true?”

So here’s your answer:

Imagine you see an advert for a 1.5kW system, (six cheap solar panels plus inverter) installed for an incredibly low price compared to everyone else. (I’ve seen a few)

Everyone loves the idea of getting a bargain. So is this a great deal or not?

Your first port of call should be to see what experiences previous customers have had. I’ve collected thousands of reviews of almost every solar installation company in Australia. Check out the link to see them in all their uncensored glory.

But back to the super cheap offer, let’s analyse it:

1) They typically claim that you will get a “Fully Installed” system. But a close examination of the fine print may reveal that you must arrange and pay to connect it to the grid yourself with an import export meter from your local electricity distributor…

Now – in many jurusdictions the installers are not legally allowed to do the final grid hookup.

But the good guys will:

a) make this clear to you when they quote, and give you an indication of the extra cost to you and

b) arrange the grid connection for you so that it gets done soon after the install and you don’t have to navigate the bureaucracy of your local energy network.

So beware firms who don’t even mention the grid connection of your solar system!

2) Beware of companies that won’t tell you what brand of cheap solar panels you are getting! One way to keep your prices down is by buying panels on the “spot market” in China – getting the absolute cheapest panels they can. (Don’t get me wrong, some great solar panels come out of China, just make sure you Google the brand and also use this solar panel comparison tool to make sure it is a reputable one. Finally you can see customer reviews of solar panels here.

3) Ditto – inverters, it is a warning sign if they won’t tell you the brand.

4) There may be an extra charge for a pre install inspection.

5) Additional charges may apply for “non-standard” installations…

The full terms and conditions may reveal some or all of the following “extra charges”:

“Additional charges may include:

  1. Houses more than XXkm from the CBD may incur an additional charge.
  2. If your roof does not have a sufficient slope there may be an additional charge per panel.
  3. Your fusebox may need upgrading.
  4. If you require additional wiring, a surcharge may apply at the discretion of our installers.
  5. If you have a two storey home, this may incur a cost.

So you could have to pay a lot more that the headline price if: you live more than 50kms from the CBD, if your roof is not between 20 and 45 degrees, you have fuses instead of circuit breakers, you require “additional wiring” whatever that means, you have 2 storeys without “easy access”.

Now most companies will charge extra for more difficult installs. Look for companies that are completely transparent about any extra charges and explicitly identify them before any deal is done.

6) Let’s have a look at some other terms that may exist while we are here:

They may insist that your system is “serviced” every 2 years or the warranty is voided.

So if you don’t get your system “serviced” every 2 years (whatever that means) you are potentially only getting a 2 year warranty, not the heavily advertised “25 Year Warranty” that you see every man and his dog promising.

7) Now let’s talk about what kind of install you could be at risk of getting with super cheap deals. The chances are that they are going to be sub contracting the install. Every installer I’ve asked tells me that the going rate to do this well is about $1000. Ask the solar power company if they subcontract the install, and if they do, how much they pay the installer for the install (If they think that you don’t have the right to know this then move on to another, more transparent company!).

If they are paying closer to $500, then corners may be cut to make that price. What kind of things? Possibly the mounting frame/technique, the wire may not be put in conduit (in which case it will only last a few years in the Aussie sun), the little components that make a big difference to the longevity of the installation may be the cheapest that can be sourced. And when they rock up to your house they probably won’t have a whole lot of time to make sure all the panels are in the optimum position to maximise output.

8 ) You get what you pay for in this world. It is very rare that this rule is broken!

About Finn Peacock

I'm a Chartered Electrical Engineer, Solar and Energy Efficiency nut, dad, and founder of SolarQuotes.com.au. My last "real job" was working for the CSIRO in their renewable energy division.

Comments

  1. I was very happy and refreshed to read this blog and see you have the courage to expose those in this industry who are in for a short term kill and who offen leave a trail of destruction behind them.
    We are a wholesale and retail business and believe strongly in the quality message. Corners can be cut with substandard wiring and plugs, breakers, racking and on it goes. The unfortunate consequence will be the risk of electric shocks and possible fires. We have already heard stories of circuit breakers catching fire.
    Cheap equipment poorly installed will not deliver the promised return and over time, will not deliver much benefit to the home owner. Insist on quality.

  2. You are an absolute IDIOT…
    I am an accredited installer.. I do installs for large companies and small companies. ALL PANELS COME FROM CHINA…some companies might be german or american owned but they are MADE in China.. All companies quote for the install only and then you pay extra for the level 2 electrician to install your meter and ALL companies charge for all those little extras like extra stories tilt kits and so on.. and the reason it costs more if there are fuses is because majority of those meter boxes have no room for the solar meter therefore they need to rearange the meter box. ALL companies also have a manufacturers warranty.. I work for large and small companies and there is alot more quality control in the small companies because they have less to control unlike these big companies like [censored by defamation lawyer] which sub contract out to [censored by defamation lawyer] that then subcontracts out to joe blow solar who then has other subbies mohhamed and ali which have all theyre cousins working for cash.. This is the reality… You dont get what you pay for.. please dont take this morons advise… shop around reasearch your panels and inverters there are many reviews on the web. And pretty much all these companies sub contract out the work.. so it makes no difference…

    • Thomas Krusch says:

      I am new here so please be patient. I had my systyem installed by “The Mark Group” and I am certain I ordered a 3kW system. In my invoice on letterhead paper it sais 3kW as well but the install;ed system is only a 2kW ome. I complainmed to the company and needed to telephone and email numerfous times witghout reply. SO i called the consumer affairs dept and they could not contact them at first. After a while I was told that the invoice is a typo and I signed for a 2kW system only.
      By the way, they demanded that I pay the entire bill in full before they sent the installers to my place.
      I’m not very happy, thje invertert is limited to 2kW so I can not “upgrade” te system
      Thomas

      • Robert Grant says:

        I am the CEO of Mark Group and I feel I must respond to the outrageous claims made by Mr Krusch. There are always two sides to every story and like any company we occassionally get it wrong, but we have grown to be one of the largest installers of solar power in the world by doing it right, installing great products and looking after our customers. Indeed Mr Krusch bought a 2kW Canadian Solar Solar PV system from Mark Group on 20th April 2012. We have a contract which clearly states that and the price charged is correct for a 2kw system. On the 26th April we sent a design of Mr Krusch’s 8 panel system for his approval. The design clearly indicated an 8 panel 2kw system. Mr Krusch approved the design and did not at that point notify us of his (now stated) view that he had been sold a 3kw system. We proceeded to install Mr Krusch’s system as quoted and designed and he signed off on the paperwork for a 2kw system.Unfortunately we supplied a Tax Invoice on the day with a typographical error that said 3kW, not a big mistake, but one that has since been rectified for Mr Krusch’s records. We take payment on the day of the installation, not before as claimed. Mr Krusch has repeatedly tried to claim that what he bought from Mark Group was a 3kw system and took it to Fair Trading. After Mark Group supplied the facts to Fair Trading they cautioned Mr Krusch about making false claims and wasting Government Agency time. We had an agreement to deliver a 2kW solar PV system to Mr Krusch, which we have done and he has paid for. All warranties and service will be honored despite the fact Mr Krusch is claiming, wherever he can, that we have not done as agreed. This is not a view shared by Fair Trading who advised us that there is not a case to answer. Mr Krusch calls and emails the office almost daily and will not give up on this issue despite the fact that Fair Trading have told him there is no case to answer. He seems now intent on damaging our reputation by making false and malicious claims on this website. I cannot understand how Mr Krusch had trouble contacting our office as the phone number is on the contract and his calls, no matter how vexacious, have always been received with civility and respect.
        I wish Mr Krusch many happy years of clean energy production with his 2 kw system.

        • Fair enough. There are always some people who try and take the piss out of companies. Your response and attitude to Mr Krusch is commendable… I wouldn’t be as patient (and I’m a consumer, not a business).

    • In anser wto – “I am an accredited installer.. I do installs for large companies and small companies. ALL PANELS COME FROM CHINA…some companies might be german or american owned but they are MADE in China..”

      There is a huge list of solar panel manufacturers here http://www.ata.org.au/wp-content/renew/101_solar_panel_buyers_guide.pdf

      They have addresses in Germany, Japan, Taiwan, USA etc etc

      For example Sharp panels are made in japan
      http://www.energymatters.com.au/solar-panels-sharp-c-148_172.html

  3. Thank you for your update on Solar Systems. I feel more informed and would like to know if you recommend any particular company at the moment.

  4. Kevin obviously didn’t pay attention when reading the article. I hope he is not the installer when I have solar installed.
    The article itself is sensibly presented and very helpful considering the majority of consumers have only a very limited understanding of the whole solar power field.

  5. Don’t be in a hurry to bag Kevin. The article does us all a service and has been written reminding us to assess these things critically and intelligently.

    Kevin on the other hand is speaking from the point of an installer and with inside knowledge. In fact what he says I have frequently found to be true. You DO HAVE to shop around, and will often be in danger of being ripped off! Nevertheless, there are great deals to be had, everywhere, in all market fields!

    In other words, it pays to make sure you are getting a credible installation, but don’t be a “sucker” and pay “the going rate” just because someone gives you the cliche “thats what they cost”. :)

  6. It bothers me somewhat when I read some of this stuff.Is there experts or inspectors of solar installations you could engage to inspect the installation on completion before final payment is made.As Iam considering solarpanels at the moment if there are I would love hear from some.CHEERS

  7. Kevin,
    Have you heard of SILEX solar?

    http://www.silexsolar.com/solarproducts_solar_panels.html

    Australian made solar panels. They are the only ones made here. But they ARE made here in Australia.

    [Update: 2 Jan 2012 – Tindo Solar are now making solar panels in sunny Adelaide]

  8. I got a quote for a 5kw system Using German panels and German inverter $18000 From energy matters, then another from Adelaide solar $32000 Using cheaper parts. 1: SHOP AROUND, 2:ASK/CHECK WHAT YOU ARE GETTING, 3:LOOK FOR REVIEWS ON THE NET.

  9. Gill Vivian says:

    Can anyone just tell me what a good company is that you can trust, I am now thinking I am too scared too make a move on it because typically they are all hiking the prices up to make a killing. I have had one quote for $8.400 and then $14,000 ??? HELP Gill

  10. I’ve a friend who imported his own panels and inverter from China, independant of any Aussie dealers. Paid a local guy to install it. All went well.

    If u’r investing 10-20,000 in a solar kit, you really should get your head around the panels and their specs, and the inverters and their specs, and how they work together. Do research, it’s all here on the Net.

    We’re doing the same, going thru a chinese company called Aquatooth. They’ve been great so far, giving us all the specs we need, and all their panels and inverter are on the CEC list of approved gear.

    We’re getting a 5Kw system for AUD $10,500 delivered to Melbourne, with 24 panels, 1 x 5kw inverter, frames and rails, and tilt legs as we have flat roof.

    It will cost another $3000 for an approved installer to setup, and a couple of hundred dollars for certificates etc. Then we’ll also have our RECs to cash in, estimated at $3,000 minimum.

    So, for a 5Kw system, which in Aust we’re quoted $19,500, we’re getting for $10,500 installed.

    As long as you research the components, you will sleep well at night knowing you’ve done the best you can. Whether the goods are directly from overseas or locally supplied, should make no difference.

    Just get all the details and understand what you’re buying.

  11. Just wondering what sort of kickback you get from installers you recommend.Currently looking to use mark energy. I am a little confused by all the opinions given.Don’t know who to trust.

  12. Dave Keeley says:

    Fore-armed is for-warned, to have all this info to hand to a complete novice, is great. Spoke to prospect supplier and felt half confident that I had some idea of how it all works and asking some relevant questions. Many thanks for you time and effort

  13. can pls help me which company to trust i’m confiuse .Do you know any?

    • Hi Sami,

      I know this is gonna sound self serving, but if you get 3 quotes through this site, you’ll get up to 3 reputable companies quoting who install in your area. I do my absolute best to keep the ones that I don’t trust out of our network.

      Generally – if they are really, really cheap – that is a warning sign.

      Hope That Helps,

      Finn

  14. Hi all,
    any comments/ experience with Citisolar?

  15. Anyone heard of Illumilite are they trustworthy and what is there product like?

  16. Has anyone used true value solar & was it a good or bad outcome please?

  17. Hey!..thanks to Finn I think I got a great deal with The Solar People who are trading as The Home Improvement Group. I had the sales rep out today and what a straight to the point guy he was. Some things he told me to look out for where the Monocrystal panels, these are not as ecominical as the Photovoltaic panels. the Monocyrystal have cut of corners so these are shaped like diamonds, you actually lose sustainable usage becasue of this. He also said that all the panels were made in China, that was the frist thing he did say. The price he quoted was not high but neither was it cheap, it was very middle of the price range from other companies that have quoted. There is no hidden costs. Also the company is offering a discount if you advertise a sign out the front of your property for 12 weeks. So if anyone is looking to buy, don’t go past this company. Again thanks to Finn I think I made a educated choice that was right for me from the advice that I recieved from him and his website. I must also say I did see this company’s sign in a lot of homes around my area.and my sister also purchased from this company and has not had any problems. Cheers Jula.

    • Thanks for the kind words.

      I think your sales guy was talking BS about Monocrystalline panels!

      Also all panels are not made in China – that is BS too.

      Also getting a discount for signage is a sales tactic that should be left in the 1990s where it belongs.

      This is the kind of salesmanship that gives the solar industry a bad name.

      • Do you have any info on Sungevity Australia, they have quoted me around $8000 for a 3kw system to be paid off over 7 years with a fixed electricity rate of 15 cents per kwh for 15 years. How will the ceasing of the 8c kw feedback price from the Qld Gov affect this.

        • Sungevity in the USA are a great company. Based on feedback from people who’ve had dealings with their Australian arm, I can’t recommend them at the moment.

          $8,000 is very expensive for a 3kW system. You can get an excellent 3kW system for $6,000. Finance it with your mortgage and you’ll almost certainly be better off in terms of cash flow and payback.

          Check for yourself here:

          http://www.solarquotes.com.au/calc3/indexsavings.php

          The QLD FiT ending is not a surprise – the government has been clear it was going to happen for 2 years. You can still get 10c per kWh from retailers, e.g. Click Energy in many parts of QLD. If you are on the Ergon network, then I expect you’ll get between 6c and 14c depending on your location.

    • Hildergarde says:

      While mono and poly panels have now become ALMOST the same, leading to the new “inbetween” panel, monos were originally manufactured for more technical considerations while poly were considered the cheaper to produce, which is still true. In Australian conditions poly is now as good as mono. In fact MOST panels are made in China, including what is advertised as “German” Solar and “Canadian” solar. SOME panels are manufactured elsewhere including the USA , Europe and other places, but the reality is the Chinese ones are now about the best in the world. Most panels in Australia are now “tier 1″ panels and there is not a lot of dumping of cheap product. Manufacturing techniques for panels of a different wattage means that to produce a 250 watt panel is more technically difficult than to produce a 190W panel. ANY company can sell a 1.5kw system for a starting price around $500-00 only there is really not much margin in it – to charge $3,500-00 though is just plain ridiculous whatever Finn says! To say that salesmanship to provide a discount if the company can put a sign up is bad for the industry is something I can’t see – maybe it is because he would like to eliminate the competition from having their name out there? Seems he made the point previously to make sure the company is reputable, so if some one drives around and sees lots of signs outside solar installations from one company or another that’s a pretty good indication that they are reputable I would say.

      • I’ve got no problems with signage. But customers should let the installer put up a sign because they are delighted with his work/service, not because they are bribed a few hundred bucks to do it!

  18. Hi Guys , can someone advice me if they have come across ” GO FOR SOLAR ” company they have offered me a 3.5kw german panels and inverter for $6300/- i am going to signup if any one has any info pls shoot me a mail. will be ever greatful.

    • Hildergarde says:

      It’s a bit expensive. Should be able to get a good system for about 4 grand. However it may cost more depending on considerations, i.e double tracker inverter may be required, tilt frame may be required, difficulty of access, lots of influencing things, but if it is a basic install then the price is excessive. Also do you REALLY need a 3.5? what size panels? I would go for 250W panels, which means you would have 14 of them, with 190 W panels you would have 19 and have a 3.6 kw system. The inverter has to “fire.” So it has to mesh with the system size etc., The main thing is to get an Australian warranty, not one from the re seller OR the installer but a LOCAL warranty issued BY the manufacturer no matter where the panels were originally made.

  19. hi can someone tell if ultra greensun solar is good they are in hobart l got an offer of 5kw inverter and 24 panals for $9500 all up

  20. Insurance:
    Question to 5 to 6kw systems owners, what do you pay for insurance? Surely you must have insurance on the system that will cover the panels against hail damage and the like, and the weak link, the inverter. I’ve seen quite bad hail here in WA in the last 5 years, so I am naturally cautious.

    Warranties:
    I’ve read the small print on some panels and I’m a bit concerned about warranties, exclusion for “power outages” and “lightning”. Am I a bit over sensitive here?

    Website Calculator:
    Lastly a question to Finn, should the calculator not include insurance or is it already factored in?

    Really appreciate the help!

    • HI John,

      Most building and contents insurance will insure your solar system at no extra cost – check with your insurer – and defect if they don’t!

      Hope That Helps,

      Finn

      • Thanks for the nice little tip there Finn.

        I am still curious about the panel warranty an the exclusions stated, specifically “power outages”. I mean honestly there’s always power outages, at least once per year. Does that mean the warranty is no good?

        Regards,
        John

  21. I’ve found the WHIRLPOOL FORUMS to be pretty good for many electronic stuff, internet providers and even other things (e.g. buying from USA).. … mainly consumers’ comments who have experience of various systems.. for solar panels see http://forums.whirlpool.net.au/forum/143… takes a bit of navigating but when you get the hang of it it is very useful methinks… (and impartial-ish)

  22. Hi I have been quoted 8,500 for a 1.5kw mono Solar power system! This has 25 year warranty in W.A told is the top unit in Australia? From Dimond company Perth !
    Please advise me sounds like it’s expensive.
    Chris

  23. Had a look at some of the company reviews – without being able to get more details it can of course be quite confusing. Was looking at Euorosolar and they generally get a good write up but one or two shockers as well – anyone have experience with them in WA as all reviews are from eastern states. Many thanks, jOHN

  24. Hildergarde says:

    Well it is now November 2012 and the price for all these systems is SUBSTANTIALLY less than what this person has posted.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Typical prices for solar power systems of different kW sizes are shown here. If the cost of your quotes solar system is substantially less, then make sure you are getting a bargain, not a liability by reading this post. […]

  2. […] I just received a long email in response to my blog post about what to watch out for with ultra cheap solar power systems. […]

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