Make Solar Inspections Mandatory In NSW Before Tragedy Unfolds

Unsafe solar power system installation

Loose connection on the active conductor inside an AC isolator, evidence of heat damage.

There’s a big problem in Australia’s solar world. Despite ACT, TAS, and VIC inspecting all new rooftop solar power system installations, NSW, SA, WA and QLD don’t – and that’s playing with fire.

In this post, I’m zooming in on NSW – explaining why electrical inspections for solar installations should be non-negotiable. For the safety of Australians and the industry’s reputation, we can’t delay action.

The Dangerous Lack Of Solar Inspections In NSW

Shockingly, NSW Fair Trading lacks a mandatory solar inspection system. This regulatory blind spot fosters an environment where the rate of non-compliant solar installations is now much higher in NSW than across the border in Victoria.

In NSW, while local DNSPs (Distribution Network Service Providers) conduct sporadic inspections, sources familiar with the situation have indicated a shift in focus. Since the advent of the “Power of Choice” initiative a few years back, DNSPs have prioritised network connections over customer installations. Consequently, DNSP inspectors are reducing their behind-the-meter inspections.

When NSW DNSPs find a problem with a residential solar install, they tell NSW Fair Trading, expecting them to act. NSW Fair Trading looks after customer installations and will act if DNSPs report bad work. Fair Trading are the regulators here, not the DNSPs.

missing end clamps on PV panel array

Image of an unsafe installation: Solar panels with missing end clamps.

Victoria: Proactive

In my opinion, Victoria – dubbed the “Nanny State” – has set the gold standard for solar installations.

The Electricity Safety Act of 1998 legislated mandatory inspections for all Prescribed Work – solar power systems fall into this category, and each installation must be signed off by a Licenced Electrical Inspector (LEI), a move that has had a profound impact on the industry’s safety standards.

On top of this, Solar Victoria (an entity within the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action) was introduced to the industry in 2018. Despite a rocky start, an audit program was introduced. Since then, the changes to the industry have been remarkable. Solar installers in Victoria are well aware that they are being closely monitored, and this awareness has led to a significant improvement in compliance and safety. Unsafe installations are at an all-time low.

Random inspections can come from Solar Victoria, Energy Safe Victoria (ESV) or the federal Clean Energy Regulator (CER). With these watchdogs in place, Victorians can trust their solar installations.

NSW: Reactive

NSW is in the dark about the number of unsafe solar installations without regular inspections and audits.

The safety of the public should always be a priority. Incorrect solar installations pose serious risks. Even in Victoria, where inspections are mandatory, I see room for improvement. Do we need a major incident, or even a fatality, before we address this in NSW?

The CER inspects many solar installations across all states under the Federal Government’s Small-Scale Renewable Energy Scheme (SRES) program. But no formal training for NSW’s CER solar inspectors raises questions about inspection quality. As a formally trained and qualified LEI, I shudder to think what I might uncover if I were to inspect solar installations in NSW using the same standards upheld in Victoria.

NSW’s regulatory scene seems resistant to change. My chats with those in regulatory roles reveal a shift: instead of tackling poor solar systems, they’re chasing unlicensed workers across the entire electrical industry. But there are too many examples of properly licenced installers doing substandard work.

Some say NSW Fair Trading lacks funds to inspect due to tight budgets. Yet, in Victoria, the system pays for itself. Electrical contractors cover the costs of safety checks, passing them on to customers. The overall feeling from NSW? Making changes is just too difficult.

The Pressing Need For Reform In NSW

NSW authorities, take heed. The absence of inspections is a catastrophe in the making. The model of the Licensed Electrical Inspector (LEI) in Victoria, who checks all prescribed electrical work before it is energised – including solar installations – is a template NSW should follow. The best NSW installers are itching for such a system.

Recommendations For A Safer Solar Powered Future

  • Mandatory Electrical Inspections: NSW, follow Victoria’s lead. Make electrical inspections compulsory for new solar installations.
  • Transparency and Accountability: Regular audits keep solar installers sharp, driving safety and compliance.
  • Safety Training: Solar installers need top-notch training. Experienced LEIs are vital mentors.
  • Public Awareness: Customers must know the risks of shoddy solar systems, ensuring they demand top-tier installations.
  • Collaboration: Open dialogue between the solar industry, regulatory bodies, and LEIs.

NSW’s solar installation scene is on shaky ground. We can’t wait for disaster to strike. Adopting mandatory inspections, taking a leaf out of Victoria’s book, and boosting transparency are non-negotiables. The time to act is yesterday. Let’s keep Australians safe and uphold our solar industry’s integrity across Australia. If NSW joins the mandatory inspection party, SA, QLD and WA should soon follow.

About Pat Southwell

Pat Southwell is a Licenced Electrical Inspector, solar installer and electrician based in metropolitan Melbourne who also travels all over regional Victoria. With experience as a Solar Victoria auditor, CER Inspector, and a background at the Clean Energy Council (CEC), Pat is well-known in the industry. He's a devoted family man, with five children, who enjoys playing park cricket in the summer.

Comments

  1. Sure, phantastic for some electricians and inspectors to make more money. What about a yearly check for $500 every time? Stop checking that things are done correct after it’s done and start doing things right when doing it. Wrong mentality! We need pride in work, not endless control and checks.

    • I recently had a warranty claim on my 3 year old inverter and over the several months that it took to resolve the problem, there was an intermittent burning smell which could not be traced. The warranty issue has now been resolved and the burning smell has not come back. I do wonder what caused it though. If I wanted my solar system checked, who should I contact? I’m in NSW.

    • Licenced Electrical Inspector thinks that there should be more mandated jobs for Licenced Electrical Inspectors.

      No need to back up your arguments with data, nor cost benefit analysis, although you seem to imply there haven’t been any fatalities in NSW despite millions of systems being already installed. Interesting.

      But who will inspect the inspectors? If there’s still room for improvement in Vic why not call for licenced inspector inspectors?

      The experience in the USA of permitting red tape and “safety”-mandated MLPE have helped their systems cost many times typical Australian levels, is this something we should aspire to?

  2. I agree we should have compulsory installation inspections, but I’d gone further and say we should also have compulsory inspections after 10 years and then every 5 years thereafter, of all components including roof components. Sure the older existing installs may have been compliant at the date of install but some wouldn’t comply if they were a new install today, and these should be forced to be brought up to current spec. Plus there are a lot of old installs with perishing and exposed components in NSW, and that’s a huge fire risk.

    • You honestly expect people to have to upgrade their installations to current spec? In many cases this would require a complete replacement of the system. Dear God I hope these sort of ideas don’t get legs.

    • Hmmm – using that logic, perhaps we should have ALL house wiring torn out and replaced with the new spec cabling. Now that would make things MUCH safer …. and keep the trades happy!

      • But we should also do this for all potentially dangerous freshwater and waste water pipes to reduce risk of bacteria affecting and killing us. The Aircon might be full of mould and should also be looked into it at that time.
        Maybe it’s cheaper to just knock down our houses and rebuild every 10 years. Just a thought, you know.

  3. Can you tell me how to get my solar installer to attend a fault on my solar system which has only been installed for 5 months.
    Installer said via SMS he would attend ASAP but after 2 weeks won’t answer my messages. What obligation has the installer to attend to faults under warranty?

    • Finn Peacock says

      The company that sold you your system must honour the warranty in a timely fashion.

      If you got your system through our ‘Get Quotes’ service give us a call and we’ll sort it out 08 7200 0177.

      If you got your system independently, this letter by email and snail mail should do the trick:

  4. What are the common faults/dangers found with solar electrical installations in NSW?

  5. Peter smith says

    I had a problem with my new solar it kept randomly switching off installer sent out electrician and he found that electricians that installed 9.5 klw system only used wiring for 6.5 klw system…
    He probably hadn’t dealt with a larger 9.5klw system before..they then replaced all the wireing fixing the problem…I think the present system works perfectly.and is self regulating…..actually the more ypur force regulations on people…the more corruption ..you get..

  6. Solar PV is installed to save power costs so adding a mandatory regular inspection cost will negate some of that saving (perhaps a lot since FIT dropped dramatically). We don’t mandate domestic inspections for other electrical plant like ovens and A/C do we, owners effectively decide the level of risk.

    Here’s a thought, if a significant proportion of PV fires are from the rooftop isolators installed under the old regulations, maybe the REGULATOR should foot the bill for inspections, or pay to remove the isolators.

  7. Love your thinking and agree fully!

  8. Michael Paine says

    This article from ABC News concerns safety checks of old PV components:
    Solar system DC isolator fire on rooftop a warning for home owners to have ageing equipment checked
    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-10-27/solar-system-fire-maintenance-warning-for-home-owners/103026362

  9. Brenda Debenham says

    I would not know what to look for if I wanted to look for any install issues. It would be helpful if there were pictures with correct fitting vs incorrect fitting. Even the current example pic for missing end clamps needs a comparison pic.

    • Anthony Bennett says

      Good point Brenda,

      I think you’ve just opened a whole new series of posts for me to work on.

      Thanks; I think πŸ™‚

  10. Erik Christiansen says

    I guess I’ll find out in the new year whether our LEIs here in Victoria are DNSP officials as apparently is the case in NSW, as my PV installation will be off-grid. I know there was no inspection of the generator-powered installation completed last year. It would be nifty to have one once there’s HVDC as well LV AC, to spice up the mix.

    I’ve long pencilled in that there’ll be no on-roof DC isolators allowed in my install. I’ll have the string combiner box indoors too, thank you. Fuses should be readily accessible. Today’s ABC reporting of yet another rooftop fire just reinforces the lunacy of exposing consumer HV switchgear to the elements, especially in enclosures lacking effective drainage.

  11. Why should inspections be mandated for solar in NSW? Do electrical licenses mean anything at all? The implication seems to be that solar is unsafe and licensed tradespeople can’t be trusted. If this is the csse lets do away with all licenses (including inspectors!) and let homeowners do their own work up to the current (not future) standards, as they do in NZ. Is there a higher rate of electrocution or fires across the ditch? No the reverse is true!

  12. Andrew Milchem says

    Independent inspections are required in all industries to ensure quality and performance. These inspections should not be limited to solar – the extent of building defects and general incompetence is staggering. My solar hot water service had to be installed 3 times before they got it right, my ducted air conditioning was installed upside down in my roof, wired incorrectly and would not work. The entire installation had to be removed and a replacement system installed – South Australia’s licensing authority was totally disinterested in the matter!

    The government collects money every year through trade and business licensing as well as the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) levy so it can well afford to carry out the inspections at no additional cost to consumers.

    I recently heard of a house fire due to the smart meter being installed with loose terminals.

  13. In Qld I tried to help a residential owner resolve at least 6 installation faults with a 10kw system.

    After a hail storm the owner made an insurance claim. Their allocated electrician refused to repair the storm damage until the site was brought up to standard. His report was documented with photos.

    As a friend of a friend I came in to help. I’m a Designer but not installer and know the codes well enough to also document the faults. My report was detailed and referred to the codes.

    I called the installer, (who i had never previously met), we met on site and explained my report. He refused to fix anything.

    So I took it to the CEC, who refused to receive a report from a CEC certified Designer or installer as ” it would be a conflict of interest” wtf! Who would be a better expert? They had 2 reports, mine and the insurances sparky.

    I got on to electrical safety office, who , with the two reports in hand, basically interrogated me before they would eventually act.

    I suggest we only need to go to compulsory inspections because the existing reporting and enforcement systems are a dismal failure.

    Not only is the above shameful, but it is shameful that we need to have 100% inspections. What other profession or industry is so pathetic at self management of quality that they need 100% inspections?

  14. Finn: didn’t the industry lobby for years to get rid of DC isolators? I mean 6 to 10 years?

    Didn’t NZ, working under the same AU NZ code ban roof top DC isolation, like most of the world, many years ago?

    The beauracracy is at the heart of the problem here I suggest and that is where to start.

    Just adding more beaucracy with 100 per cent inspections is following the same dumb path.

    It’s and oft repeated issue. Let me explain.

    Five years ago Australia introduced emissions standards for non road engines. Like 2 stroke lawn mowers that we knew pushed out 40 times the emissions per hour of a car. (Source DEH report , 30 years ago)

    In the end Australia was 20 years behind the USA and EU in regulating no road emissions. Crikey, we were even 10 or 12 years behind China and India!

    One of the Government’s own reports showed that emissions standards will prevent 242 premature deaths p.a. in Australia.

    The regulations took just over 12 years to get from industry consultation to legislation. If the beaucracy I witnessed could have cut down the 12 years to 5, then 7×242 = 1,694 lives could have been spared.

    Beaucracy kills. We need to assasinate beaucracy.

  15. Robert Hepple says

    I’d have liked some statistics to ‘prove’ the improvement of VIC vs NSW otherwise it just looks like a rent grab for a whole new industry of inspectors and a whole lot more expense for property owners.

  16. Would be great if all Inspectors in Victoria did their job. Install in Ballarat I audited installed by Bailey Technologies had so many faults in Clenergy mounting system design and install, conduit installation, cable management, Enphase component rating and design, and the installers response so poor that the system has eventually been removed after a meltdown of MCBs in the new sub-board for the system focused the installers attention.

    2 degree single storey roof and the inspector did not poke his head above the eave and could not see the new panels from ground, The PV Site Information diagram did not identify the existing HV DC installation, or it’s DC cable route and labelling would have a Fireman believing there was no dangerous HV DC, only 240V AC on site,

    Hopefully my report to the CER, Solar Victoria and Energy Safe Victoria will get some action. The Installer needs have to do his CEC training again, re-certification and an audit of random 2023 work (not just solar) as a minimum. The Inspector – an audit of his inspections and sacking if found wanting.

    Quote from the Owners β€œWhen the electrical inspector left the property we both felt that the inspection was cursory and superficial, and did not inspire our confidence. We were very surprised that he did not go on the roof nor make a more detailed inspection of the sub-board and main fuse box.”

  17. We’re going to need inspectors of the inspectors!!

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