In-House Vs Sub-Contractor Solar Installers: Which Is Best?

In-house vs sub-contract installers

When wading into the murky waters of rooftop solar for the first time you may have come across people advising you to check that the solar company doesn’t use sub-contractors to install their systems.

Dig a bit deeper and you’ll find companies proudly advertising that they only use in-house installers. Beware the sub-contractor or suffer the wrath of Helios the sun god who will strike down your system inoperable before it’s use-by-date!

Is there any truth to these blanket allegations, or is it a baseless advertising ploy? The poor subbie seems to be copping a lot of flack. Is it warranted? Read on and you’ll find that, as usual, the answers aren’t always black and white.

In The Subbie’s Defence

Before we jump in, let me pose you a question; If you were given a job to do in your chosen field, would the quality of your work be different if you were paid wages compared to if you invoiced the client? I’d be surprised disappointed if you answered ‘yes’1.

Having worked as an electrician and a solar installer myself – on wages, as a sub-contractor, and also as a contractor, I can tell you that it was the same person doing the job every time. I had the same skill set and the same work ethic.

Sure, some days were more challenging but good or bad, it was still me, whether or not I was a wage earner or a subbie.

So, which is best, an in-house or sub-contract solar installer? My answer every time – it depends on the person, or in the case of a company – the people.

Eddy’s Take On Sub-Contractors

Eddy May from NRG Solar nails it in this short interview with SolarQuotes founder Finn Peacock earlier this year.

Finn:
“Eddie, you’re in the solar business. Are in-house solar installers better than sub-contractor solar installers?”

 

Eddy:
“It’s certainly easier to get your processes and culture followed with in-house installers, but it’s not impossible with sub-contractors. If you have a good culture, good processes, and good sub-contractors that are good people, it really doesn’t matter how you pay them.”

 

Finn:
“So don’t necessarily knock back a solar company because they use sub-contract installers?”

 

Eddy:
“If you’re looking at somebody’s reviews, and their reviews are great, and the customers are getting great experiences, and they look like a solid company. They’ve come out and done the design properly, then really, how they pay the person installing the system is pretty irrelevant.”

 

Finn:
“Is it fair to say that a lot of really good solar installers don’t want to be someone else’s employee?”

 

Eddy:
“Yeah, it is fair to say that. We’ve got in-house installers at NRG, and we’ve got sub-contractors as well. I would love to employ some of our sub-contractors, but they’re like “Bugger you, I’d rather go fishing than work for you on Fridays.” They get that choice as a sub-contractor, but it doesn’t make them any less of a good installer.”

 

Finn:
“If you say you’re not going to use sub-contractors then there’s this whole pool of brilliant guys that are never going to work for you.”

 

Eddy:
“I can tell you now, we’ve got this shortage of people now in this industry. (Virtually) every solar company is trying to employ a sub-contractor. We can’t afford to wait four years for an apprentice to finish their apprenticeship to then learn how to lead a team.

 

So what do you do? You go out there and say that guy’s a great sub-contractor, I’d love to give him a job. “No thanks, I’m happy doing what I’m doing and I’m actually getting paid pretty well for once in my life!”

 

Having said that, I can see why businesses that have only in-house installers promote that heavily. I can see why the average person might accept that, but what they don’t understand is that there’s a big difference between a sub-contractor to one of the huge companies like AGL (than a smaller company).

 

(With the bigger company) the person selling the system will never ever meet the sub-contractor, have a relationship with them, or ever talk to them. With someone at NRG Solar, the contractor and consultants know each other. They attend our meetings and are friends. It’s a lot different of a dynamic.”

The People Factor

Eddy’s words sure substantiate my theory that it’s the people who count and not the method they’re paid or the contractual arrangement between them and the solar company employing them to do the job.

In his case, the sub-contractors are a small group that are known to him, and well-versed in his company’s procedures. Each party relies on the other to make sure their business partnership goes forward with the least amount of hiccups.

Accreditation And Licensing

All in-house and sub-contract installers must be CEC accredited to install solar, and be licensed appropriately for the type of electrical work they do in their respective state. There’s no difference in that regard.

In addition to that, all electrical jobs must be signed off by an electrical contractor. And herein lies a potential problem further down the track.

The solar company that sells the rooftop solar system carries the manufacturer’s warranty for the product and performance of the system components, but who is liable for the installation and workmanship if something goes wrong?

If it’s an electrical problem, the buck stops fair and square at the feet of the electrical contractor who signed off that job. So who is that? Does the solar company have a contractor’s licence? In NSW, QLD, SA, ACT and NT the company must have its own contractor licence, but in VIC, WA and TAS the company can rely on a subcontractor’s licence.

I’m talking about something much more serious than a warranty issue here. If an electrical inspector deems a system unsafe or not up to standard due to a shoddy install, they will chase the entity or person nominated on the contractor’s licence. You’d want to hope that’s the person or company who sold you the system.

These are questions that rarely come up before a rooftop solar system is sold to a customer. Am I being overly paranoid here? I don’t think so. I would say it’s not unreasonable to ask the question, and see evidence of that before you sign on the dotted line.

In the case of Eddy May’s video above, his company holds the contractor’s licence and is liable for any issues relating to his company’s rooftop solar installs regardless of whether it was an in-house or sub-contract installer. For other companies, I have no idea until I research them.

Electrical contractor's licence

Before it expired, this hard-earned piece of paper meant that I could be hunted down and made criminally liable for any electrical boo-boos I made.

Due Diligence in Solar

My personal opinion – I wouldn’t feel comfortable buying a rooftop solar system from a company that didn’t have an in-house electrical contractor’s licence.

That licence gives the company credibility and gives me confidence that I’m dealing with a one-stop shop with technical and industry expertise and can deal with any issues down the line. Whether they use in-house or sub-contract installers is of secondary importance and largely irrelevant.

On SolarQuotes, all companies in our installer network display their relevant Contactor Licence(s) on their review page:

electrical contractor licence information

 

Due diligence is sometimes a long, painful process that involves many steps and a leap of faith. Sorry folks, but here’s one more thing to keep you awake at night.

Footnotes

  1. And I wouldn’t hire you in the first place if I knew that.
About Kim Wainwright

A solar installer and electrician in a previous life, Kim has been blogging for SolarQuotes since 2022. He enjoys translating complex aspects of the solar industry into content that the layperson can understand and digest. He spends his time reading about renewable energy and sustainability, while simultaneously juggling teaching and performing guitar music around various parts of Australia. Read Kim's full bio.

Comments

  1. Thanks Kim. I’ve wondered for a while, say government decided to go down the path Saul Griffith often (I think correctly) advises, of focusing much more on households in the transition to renewables. Which would foreseeably mean dramatically accelerating rooftop (residential and commercial) solar installation. What capacity would the industry have to dramatically accelerate in this way, are there enough skilled people out there?

  2. I was very happy that the sub-contracted install electrician from 5 years ago, was still around to do a second install for me this year (directly contracted).

    The original, highly regarded installation company was wound up due to ownership issues – nothing to do with finances, staff, or quality of designs and installs. The only complex bit was doing a recent warranty claim for an optimiser, as the system owner. To my relief, both Jinko and SolarEdge were easy to deal with, in resolving my warranty claim.

  3. George Kaplan says

    Some large electricity retailers offer solar systems and\or solar batteries to clients, but rely on subbies to do the actual installation. Which subbies do they use? Depends on whose available to do the job. Odds are you won’t find out who is doing the work until they turn up, and you probably won’t be able to research them because they’re simply nameless contractors working for your retailer. If they’re complete cowboys how are you supposed to know? Oh if they’re too bad no doubt your retailer will cease using their services, but by then they may have installed quite a few systems.

    That’s not to say all subbies are bad, or as this article says, “… it’s not impossible with sub-contractors …” to have ones with good processes and culture, but it is far harder to research them.

    By contrast you can usually look up company reviews to get a feel for the standard of their work and thus make an informed decision.

  4. While there may be merit in the proposition that a good subcontractor with whom one has a good relationship is as good as an in-house team, the reality is that sales companies using 100% sub-contractors have weaknesses not discussed in this blog post::

    1/ They have zero in-house resources for post-installation support. Sure, they might say they can pay a sub-contractor to fill that role, but if you were a sub-contractor and your choice of how to fill your day was a few service jobs at $200 a pop or one install worth to the subbie, say, 34c/watt, what are the subbie priorities going to be? How excited is the sales company going to be to pay a subbie at subbie rates to go do diagnostics?

    2/ Weak to no hard technical skills inside the solar company

    3/ An in-house team is more likely to have done vendor-specific training and be more familiar with the equipment installation requirements. Many subbies will be doing several different brands in a short period of time. No one can be expected to be across that in detail. The caveat is the subbie has only a few clients and becomes familiar with the products being sold.

    4/ Most sales companies have no solar-accredited people on their payroll.

    Eddie May’s hybrid model definitely has merit and is a good way to access additional good teams. IMHO, subbie installs should ideally be performed under the head contractor license, not the subbies.

    We have a few subbie-only sales companies in my area; we typically know who the subbies are. In some cases, I’d be happy to have those people work on my own home. In others, yeah, nah.

    At the end of the day, the end customer doesn’t want or need to be caught in the crossfire. They need a single point of accountability. They need to check their solar company has the capability to provide post-installation support.

  5. I had subcontractors install my first Powerwall 2.
    They were working on behalf of major retailer Natural Solar.

    They did a crap job.
    Battery was wired incorrectly so when I switched on my kettle at midnight the Tesla app was reporting I was generating 3kW of energy.

    For my second battery I got a local guy who does the work himself. Experience was night and day.

  6. Hi, I entered the solar industry in 2012 gaining my accreditation and for the first four or five years I did sub-contract jobs for outside companies. being in a small central Qld town we had a lot of door-to-door salespeople selling rubbish at inflated prices and I refused to work for them. The jobs that I did do were for reputable companies selling good gear. I broke my cardinal rule and agreed to do a job for a Brisbane-based company called Impact Corti.
    I never got paid. They gave me the run around for weeks and then disappeared. That was it. No more subcontract jobs again ever.

  7. HEG recently installed our solar, roof insulation and a heat pump. Three groups of the best subbies ever. They all did a great job, consulted us about everything, made sure that everything was installed correctly and in the right place and explained everything to us carefully when we asked questions. They all made sure that we were completely satisfied with the job that they did and that the charges that we had been initially quoted for were correct. We were delighted when some of the jobs came in at less than the original quote. The solar job had to be considerably modified from the original plan and we were very pleased with the final installation.

    Our solar is working brilliantly and has passed all of the required inspections.

    Subbies? Yes, absolutely!

    • Interesting. My experience was that I am glad the subbie had a better design concept than the main contractor. The design layout I was given I thought was strange. I queried it but contractor said no that can’t be done. I said ok. When subbie arrived on site he said I would do it like this, what do you think? I said that’s what I asked for but ..
      He said no problems this will work and is a better layout. I didn’t bother telling contractor. On reflection I wondered if contractors designer had not allowed for roof slope and had used “plan dimensions”? Seems likely to me but I’ll never know. I did NOT get this contractor through Solar Quotes!!

  8. John Simpson says

    Thank you Kim for this very useful blog. I’m about to have a solar system installed and I’ve always thought that I shouldn’t go with a company that uses sub contractors. After the company explained to me that they always use very good sub contractors and I also read quite a few very good reviews from happy customers I eventually accepted their quote and the process has now started. After reading this blog, I can now relax a little.

  9. Blaine Rose says

    Wow….I had a great business recommended by Solar Quotes and the electrician was not up to date with solar. Luck I had done my own research. I already had a Fronius Meter installed …you dont need that…he installed a Catch Green….it has it’s own internet connection…um, no it doesn’t…..had to come back because wiring was wrong….took ownership of the installation in the app….which I asked them not to do…..changed it back to me before I paid them…..oh..and one solar panel wasn’t bolted down. Now I’m not complaining, and I would go with them again. All was fixed without any problems. I read everything on Solar Quotes to become knowledgeable.

  10. A very timely discussion, for me.
    Have been wondering who or what to blame for my situation. where $25,000 system has been sitting idle for 3 weeks bc of emergency shut down by Tigo optimiser monitoring module losing comms with “TAP”, whatever that is.
    But issue seems to be that a junior working for subbie installer stripped thread on one of the connections for wires to module but installed anyway with dodgey connection. Now, for sake of a $10 part from Jaycar waited for Tigo part to arrive despite knowing the problem for over 2 weeks, and taking week to respond in first instance. Now, installer can’t commission new lit, bc, wait for it, his model iPhone sometimes doesn’t work with thr Tigo ap. So when I get home rom travels I have to do it myself with Tigo customer service guiding.
    Was wondering if this would have been resolved quicker had the retailer EMPLOYED the installer rather than subcontracted it. Definitely NOT a fly-by-night retailer with glowing reviews here.
    Tigo technician customer service has been 1st.class by the way.
    Your article has answered that to a large extent.
    My prob now will be whether to provide honest review here and elsewhere of retailer; would have to be a name and shame exercise if so, and risk any sort of cooperation if when further issues arise.
    Any future issues, will be requesting a different subcontractor though.

  11. I’ve now had my solar installed for about a week and a half now. My installer was from one of the three quotes that I received from SolarQuotes. My final choice was based on the installer that provided me with the most comfort that the installation was going to be done better than the other two companies. I even paid a premium because of this so it was a huge surprise when the van that pulled up to my house on the day of the installation wasn’t from the company that I chose and then I subsequently learned that they use sub-contractors. Felt all my due diligence went out the door. I would have thought I would be informed about this but now reading this article, I didn’t do a complete due diligence. I’m still trying to figure out if the install was good or not as one of my inverters and battery hasn’t worked after the install. I’m not getting clear information on why things are not working only knowing that the inverter needs to be replaced and then they can figure out the battery. Maybe things will get all sorted out and be fine and dandy but I did want to leave this comment so others can make sure they ask this question when assessing the quotes as right now I’m not sure if the issue is with the installer or equipment manufacturer. On the back of my head I wonder if it’s the installer as it wasn’t the company that I chose.

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