Inverters Binned, Panels to Waste: The Harsh Reality of Solar Standards

solar panel installer with scrapped solar equipment

Pat Southwell is an Electrical Inspector, solar installer and electrician based in metropolitan Melbourne.

Picture this: Mike, a seasoned solar installer with over 15 years experience, is compelled to bin a perfectly functional solar system—inverter, panels and all—solely because of inflexible Australian Standards.

This scenario is all too real in an industry hindered by well-meaning but outdated standards. Brace yourself as I dive into whether Australian Standards act as guardians or stumbling blocks for solar’s full environmental potential.

When Alterations Lead To Landfill

I frequently get calls from frustrated solar installers like Mike, struggling to navigate standards when making alterations or adding equipment. What installers want is reasonably straightforward: the flexibility to repurpose older but reliable solar gear rather than sending it straight to the scrapyard.

However, Australian Standards often classify older equipment as non-compliant for relocation or reuse, forcing installers to replace systems that are still operating smoothly.

“Why toss out something that’s still working fine?”

…asks Mike, echoing the sentiment of many installers dealing with this solar headache. The root of the issue lies with safety-focused Australian Standards struggling to keep pace with the industry’s rapid evolution. Let’s break this down.

The Importance of Safety Standards

First, acknowledging Australian Standards’s vital role in upholding safety is key. No one, especially a licenced inspector like me, disputes the need for standards ensuring installations meet stringent quality and reliability criteria protecting consumers.

However, the solar sector’s dynamic nature means frequent tech breakthroughs quickly outdate existing standards. The prolonged standards development process then lags behind innovation. For example, updated in 2021 after years of review, the main Australian solar installation standard, AS/NZS 5033 is already outdated and causing problems for installers. Such sluggishness hinders progress.

Binning Brilliant Inverters

With solar technology and techniques advancing swiftly, installers must adapt continually to remain competitive. However, strict standards compliance gets in the way.

Veteran installer Bruce recently wanted to relocate a still-functional SMA inverter from 2008 to accommodate a customer’s renovation. However, the standards classify relocations as “alterations”, which mandates that any hardware must be up to the latest Australian standard. Much to Bruce’s frustration, he was forced to discard the still-performing SMA inverter. Those old SMA inverters keep on going and going, and it’s a real shame to euthanise them.

vintage SMA inverter

SMA (rebranded BP) inverter installed in 2008, still working – removed

Grace, another seasoned installer, suggested moving a reliable 2010 Fronius inverter to make space for upgraded capacity. Once again, the standards wouldn’t permit relocating this perfectly working inverter.

Grace told me:

“How do standards expect me to integrate new technology when they won’t let me move existing gear that works fine?”

Rigid standards put installers in a tough spot, sometimes making them look like they’re just after a sale. They have to tell customers that they need to replace kit that’s still doing its job. These rules are more of a hindrance than a help, blocking the way forward instead of paving it.

Scrapping Superb Solar Panels

Mike wanted to shift solar panels from a 2008 system to another onsite building needing extra capacity. Despite output uncompromised by age, Australian Standards dictated discarding these solar panels for brand new ones—an absurd sustainability outcome! Surely, with some regulatory creativity, it should be possible to balance safety with sustainability here.

bp solar panels

BP modules installed in 2008 – still working fine, sent to the scrapheap

Revamping Solar Standards: A Four-Step Plan for Sustainability

I’ve pinpointed the problems, so what’s the fix? Here’s a four-step plan to get Aussie solar standards back on track:

  1. Speed Up and Sync Standards with Innovation: Work closely with the industry to ensure rules keep up with tech advances. Safety is essential, but it shouldn’t stop progress. When done well, safety and innovation can go hand in hand.
  2. Boost Installer Training: Regularly update training for installers, focusing on real-world standards. This will help them handle new setups and changes easily. Skilled installers mean fewer hiccups and better compliance.
  3. Make Rules More Flexible: Allow the reuse of still-good older equipment instead of just ruling it out. This approach honours both sustainability and safety.
  4. Consider Environmental Impact in Standards: When setting rules, consider the planet, not just safety. Involve waste management experts and sustainability experts to make more balanced decisions.

We need to drag our standards into the 21st century to give the solar industry a real boost. This approach can spark more innovation, ramp up safety, and benefit everyone – consumers, installers, and the Earth. The opportunity is huge, but it’s up to our industry leaders and policymakers to strike the right regulatory balance.

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. Glenn Rawlins says

    Great article. It’s so true, Quality will look after you well after the price of purchase is forgotten.

  2. Similarly I had a perfectly functional inverter, that had been operating for years, binned because it only met a euro standard.

    • David Anderton says

      Unfortunately there are a couple of issues that will hinder this.

      1) standards are only allowed a maximum of 3 amendments. So they do not like to make frequent changes that will trigger the requirement for a while new revision.

      2) standards committees generally have a lot of members from the manufacturers and some less honourable businesses. Requiring people to throw out still functioning systems means more sales.

    • Cliff Russell says

      Mate, your dealing with the government, anything that just makes common sense to normal people will just be ignored by government departments because they might actually have to change something which means extra work.

  3. Matthew Wright says

    Lots of desperate people in remote areas of the country living on really crappy 12,24 and 48V systems could do with quality panels being sent there way.

    • John Maunder says

      Surely then if the solar setup is off grid, those stringent standards would not apply?

    • I fully agree with your statement. I have had an old 1.5Kw system removed and replaced with a much more efficient 6.6Kw system. My intention was to give the old panels to a neighbor in Bundeena, and was informed it was illegal. The installer then arranged with a Fijian gentleman who picked them up and shipped them to Fiji to be installed in low cost housing. Had our Politicians been intelligent enough, they could have had done the same thing for outback Australians. Something is definitely wrong with the system, and I don’t mean solar.

  4. This is bordering on criminal, and certainly criminally stupid.
    Nothing less.
    But I’ve come to expect that from “Australian standards” in sooo many areas.
    (If in ANY doubt, just look at all the fires caused by rooftop isolators, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg in many fields.)

    “Australia, the smart country.”
    Yeah right!
    Sad.

    At the very least why can’t these solar panels be offered to farmers for off grid installation? The only cost involved should be transportation, which I’m sure many would be happy to pay for.

    A friend recently had well over 8kW of perfectly functioning solar panels, AND a great brand of ultra reliable inverter, binned- because just two panels were broken by hail, and all this paid for by us ALL via insurance premiums. .

    This is utter madness.

  5. This is not a new hurdle – it is nice to read about it from time to time and solutions are fairly obvious.
    Lazy or risk adverse installers and companies/businesses play its part too. Standards are high level frameworks, they are not procedural documents, but in absence of any real interpretation or translation they often become the “bible”.

    Often it is easier to start with a blank slate than to have to deal with extra administration, risk mitigation, exemptions, or communication required for older systems

    DNSP also have there own rules and standards that have just as much, if not more, inertia that lead to unnecessary waste of panels and systems. Some just make no logical sense with modern solar design or systems.

  6. An apparently absurd situation when viewed from sustainability, economic and productivity points of view.
    I wonder if the Productivity Commission has shown an interest in AS/NZS 5033?

    • And to add insult to this you have to pay $268.88 to get a look at the standard through the monopoly publisher – SAI Global. The ability to access Australian standards from our local library was terminated several years ago due SAI Global’s aggressive commercial practices.
      Inability to access Australian Standards for a modest fee is scandalous and not doubt not an insignificant impendent to Australia’s productivity.

  7. Lyle essery says

    Couldn’t the said panels be used in an offgrid situation? I just had my whole grid connected system replaced under the circumstances outlined in article and while the working grid tied inverter went to scrap recycling, I sold the panels to an offgridder for reuse as an offgrid energy system.

    • Erik Christiansen says

      My take is that off-grid DIY is viable only for ELV array and battery voltages. MPPTs charging a (nominal) 48v battery is OK. (E.g. My imminent LiFePO₄ 46 kWh battery will only be charged to 55.2v, for good battery life, at the cost of a bit of absorption time for the last few % of SoC.)

      The array voltage is the sticking point. Even the one “camping style” MPPT I have will tolerate two 45v panels in series, several in parallel, but that’s getting out of ELV territory, at least according to one of the several differing definitions I’ve read. To DIY even that modest array would be both irregular and potentially lethal in amateur hands. (DC is even less forgiving than AC.)
      I’ll reserve that unit for a modest off-off-grid install on a farm shed.

      The off-grid 31 kW array I’m hoping to have up in January will be done by a CEC approved installer, as there’ll be string voltages around 400 Vdc. Even as a retired electrical engineer, I’m neither inclined to try mounting 66 470W panels up there, nor fiddle with 400 Vdc at age 70, thank you very much. (Not allowed to, either. even an engineer doesn’t have the A grade licence needed. All he’s allowed to do is design and specify.) The installer will also have a clearer idea of where the batteries and inverters can go while remaining kosher.

      My brother is a marine engineer, and won’t touch LV electrics, as electrons are too small to see, and will kill you as soon as look at you.

      Mind you, even the 48v battery will put you in hospital with severe flash burns, and temporary blindness and deafness if you drop the torque wrench across the terminals while torqueing up the busbar nuts, so a DIY battery is probably also only for cognoscenti. Draping a thick blanket over the busbars is non-discretionary discretion, I figure.

  8. An engineering friend pointed out to me (I am just an older medical doctor) that many AS are ‘owned’ by private industry – like so many services which ought to be in public hands, they are farmed out to private interests – so, I cannot even access the standards for tiling bathroom floors without paying some bugger for the privilege of knowing …

    Standards, like medical Guidelines, would normally be written to current knowledge, then re-written, revised, submitted for legal examination, considered by a meeting or three, sent to the printer … they are 3 years old at the point of publication in an industry moving faster than that.

    So all of the article comes as no surprise. Perhaps there is room for a black market in these old but functional units?

  9. Standards can be very hobbling. Of course there must be standards , and regulations to enforce them, but regulators seem to get carried away with their own importance . This applies everywhere, I find.

  10. I just binned a working inverter because the parameters could not be changed. No one could find a grid lock code. Frequency fluctuations too wide with our new power system. Horizon power. 6450.

  11. Container loads of mostly used but also some seemly new in the box panels are shipped to Africa every week by African Australians ….they pay 10-30$ per panel and apparently make good money once landed ….generally won’t take inverters or rails because of cost /weight of shipping obviously the panels are the gold

  12. Great information which supports what an installer told me when I had a working 1.5kW system replaced with a larger 6.6kW system. Fortunately the Installer knew a Fijian who collected the panels for shipment to Fiji. There they are installed in poorer communities to supply lighting and replace unhealthy lighting systems. This raises community standards and their health.

    • 1. Yes. Disposal of electronic waste is a growing problem. In the hierarchy of sustainability of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Disposal is not the desirable endpoint.
      2. Recycling imposes a cost to disassemble and separate component materials. It is a price we will pay for recovering the finite amount of resources this earth provides.
      3. Standards follow technology. Technology is developed through innovation and design and a desire to get an advantage over competitors.
      Standards are for safety and interoperability, which ultimately benefits society. Standards get adopted for a variety of reasons, but are mostly negotiated by the dominant institutions of the day.

      I think the problem with AS/NZS 5033 is that any alteration of a fundamentally safe and functional system will force that system to be scrapped, – if the components have dropped off the CEC list of approved inverters, panels, batteries, devices, etc.. It is the forced scrapping of a system that generates the waste.

  13. John Mitchell says

    Why can’t they just grandfather in those old systems? We don’t make you throw away your 50 year old classic car if you decide to put on a new set of wheels. Or convert it to an EV. Still won’t be as safe as a modern vehicle but if the owner takes on the risk, what’s the issue?

    Perhaps a better argument than “save the planet” which doesn’t tend to resonate with myopic regulators.

  14. Lawrence Coomber says

    Thanks Pat a timely reminder:

    Three observations based on my industry experience over many years locally; and internationally around this subject.

    It is a huge subject and if we don’t start correctly it will be impossible to put the genie back in the bottle and start again with the wisdom of hindsight.

    We need to act with foresight – not hindsight.

    1. It is a community based TECHNICAL EQUIPMENT REFUSE DISPOSAL issue rapidly unfolding, and needs well considered and fit for purpose regulations put in place; and the methods must be predicated on a ZERO ENVIRONMENTAL RISKS MANAGEMENT strategy.

    This will need new methods processes and technologies to deal with the disposal issues without fuss, at a high scale, and ad infinitum.

    2. Forget thinking about RECYCLING TECHNICAL REFUSE. It is simply not commercially viable and good money should not be invested in conservation at this runaway train level. Spending $2 to recover $1 is never good policy. It is best to let the market evolve the changing technological imperatives when it comes to cost effective technologies and materials usage moving forward.

    3. Standards are not to blame though. There is a positive that can come out of this unfolding issue, because it requires new technology to be developed, and from that community and national innovative commercial opportunities for Australia are possible.

    Lawrence Coomber

  15. Craig Iedema says

    I see in the UK there is a charity that will take secondhand panels and inverters that are working, but destined for landfill and send them to developing nations for use in various projects. Sounds like there is an opportunity to do something similar here.

  16. Nicholas Reid says

    I agree! When I built a new room on top of my house, I was forced to throw away perfectly good solar panels, simply because I wanted to move them to the new roof.

    In my case, the panels were ‘guaranteed’ for twenty years, but the importer only maintained their ‘registration’ for five years and that meant they had to be thrown away. Outrageous waste!

  17. Müjdat Gunsan says

    This article is so true, there is no balance in the standards towards innovation and sustainability. Standards and regs for renewables sustainability is just like one way traffic, there way or scrap a perfectly working system.
    There needs to be changes to incorporate innovation and sustainability otherwise this madness will continue.

    I believe standards and regs should be used as a guide rather than a bible.

    We have very intelligent and upcoming people in the electrical industry, but if cannot use our own ideas and incentives then we will always be held back.

    In many ways we as Australia are no different than Saudi Arabia. We as a nation depend on our underground resources for income. We buy our technology and innovation from Asian countries and we don’t have any credible manufacturing left.

  18. David Walsh says

    Replaced my Sungrow inverted only 2 years old with a Hybrid at add battery. Wanted to relocate the Sungrow inverter as a second inverter at my holiday house but had to get a new one because not the latest model. So the almost new Sungrow sits in the shed.
    Also wanted to install hot water heat pump. But to claim the solar credits I had to destroy two, two years old hot water tanks and destroy the perfectly working solar tubes. An insane rule I said no.

  19. Yep, I just had the panels replaced with higher output units and was told that if I replace the inverter I’m up for replacing cables to the ground mount array etc etc. So at the moment I have an over-driven Fronius Symo. This will lead to people trying to cobble up installations themselves to bypass the regs. I wasn’t aware of the inverter relocation issue – that’s just stupid. Mine needs to be moved a metre inside my farm shed – I can’t see how that justifies such complication

  20. Australian standards are a protectionist racket. Designed to deny people any sort of DIY and to protect the suppliers and installers. It’s disgusting.

  21. Yes those of us who want cheap off grid panels just have to look at what turns up for sale at the local tip shop. So many to choose from.

    What I understand having talked to some people who have involved themselves with the setting of Aust. standards. There is always an element of manufacturers pushing the adoption of rules that will help with sales of the products they have available. Call me a cynic, but just saying, it can be a bit like the local real estate agent also running the local council.

  22. Daryl Richards says

    Whilst it’s a concern, not a massive issue. Along with others, I like to buy 2nd hand panels and connect into 12/24/48v systems for off grid / hybrid use, so if installers are binning them, then they are doing the disservice. Put them up on marketplace for fair price and they will get snapped up by the right people wanting to reuse them. That being said, installers are missing an opportunity to assist the home owner to augment their use in a shed perhaps with a hybrid/off grid system reusing their own downgraded panels.

  23. Amelia Langford says

    Hi. Newbie to solar here. Bluetti, Ecoflow, Jackery, Anker etc sell batteries for camping, blackouts etc. i.e. have AC power plugs. I have a Bluetti EB70, which came standard with charging cables with MC4 ends to attach to solar panels.

    If solar panels destined for the tip are suitable to attach to these types of batteries, then I *think* owners of these batteries could want them for peace of mind to use during a blackout. The PV Input section of the EB70 instruction manual states:

    PV Input
    Power 200W Max.
    Open Circuit Voltage (OCV) 12-28VDC
    Current 8A Max

    For upcoming, or dearer models e.g. Bluetti AC70, the instruction manual says: Make sure your solar panels meet the following requirements:
    Voc: 12V-58V
    Current: 10A Max.
    Power: 500W Max.

    My unlearned read of specifications of the LG MonoX2 (285W) that I have on my roof, suggest that one panel could work within those voltage limits, and that they use MC4 connectors.

    Foldable panels marketed towards such batteries cost about $400–750+ brand new (120W–200W).

    • Anthony Bennett says

      Hi Amelia,

      This is where a good deal of old solar goes I’m sure. The sticking point is Open Circuit Voltage. Many of the cheap camping products like the EB70 you mention simply don’t have enough OCV rating for 54, 60 or 72 cell panels that come from houses. Generally old house panels will be 38 to 45 VOC so you need a decent Victron MPPT to deal with them. Sadly most of the camping orientated solar panels, with low output voltage, are questionable quality and poisonously expensive.

      • Lawrence Coomber says

        Think long term:

        Safe; and very large economy of scale community disposal strategies; new management technologies; and facility types, are the only ways forward for dismantled solar PV systems and battery stacks, NOT repurposing or relocating these products into the hands of DIY Power Plant systems integrators under any circumstances.

        Typical PV string voltages can kill instantly on contact, and typical full load [or less] battery stack short circuits and arc flash will easily blow heads off in close proximity.

        Leave energy generation and storage technologies at every stage of its life cycle, to the experts.

        Safe work practices in the hands of formally qualified engineers/electricians is critical for the industry survival.

        There may only be a handful at best, of CEC Licenced Electricians with formal industry qualifications to Safely Assemble and Disassemble High Voltage Battery Stacks; typically those used in EVs, but also increasingly used in alternative Standalone Battery Storage and PV System designs.

        This qualification is a mandatory one for Engineers and Technicians involved in the US EV Battery Industry and is run by the American Society of Engineers [SAE] University in Detroit US. It is open to Australian CEC Technicians and Engineers to enrol in.

        I have completed this course, it is extensive and I thoroughly recommend any CEC Licencees considering expanding into the “innards” of the Australian EV technology space moving forward, to contact SAE and enrol.

        https://www.sae.org/learn/professional-development/sae-innoenergy-battery-academy

        Lawrence Coomber

    • Australian Standards are not all mandatory, while you would have to an expert to make an alternate case, unless referred to by legislation are a guide (that includes references to references).

      eg AS3000 Electrical Installations must be followed, some others not, they are voluntary.

      To quote Safework Australia:

      Standards are not laws, so there is no general requirement on you to conform to a Standard. However, conforming to a specific Standard is mandatory if there is a law which says you must conform with it.

  24. Philip Keeble says

    My neighbour and I had kept our old solar panels in the hope of using them again sometime, somewhere but never did . They found a guy online here in W.A who buys old panels for $10 each and ships them to Africa in 40 foot containers . Problem solved. He even picks them up . No doubt that they will make good use of them over there.

    • I replaced my 18 190w panels with 21 440’s. I asked the installer what happened to the old ones and he said the same thing. There was noting wrong with them aside from being 12 years old and me not having space to upgrade without removing them.

  25. I upgraded my system to a 10kw one. The WA installer had a guy originally from Africa come around while the install was going ahead and pick them up for shipping to Africa to repurpose them.
    Unfortunately my old SMA Sunny Boy inverter was dead. A good example of recycling.

  26. Getting my head around all these Regs! A little left field of the ‘used’ panel situatiion ….. are the panels in this scenario able to be used on a new instal – new PV panels, never installed, not had STC’s claimed, BUT, have dropped off the CEC list of approved panels on which STC’s can be claimed?

    • Anthony Bennett says

      Hi John,

      As far as I know any panel made after 2014 will be fire rated, so whether they’re on the CEC list or not doesn’t matter. Installing them is electrical work to be done by an electrcian who has to adhere to AS5033, but if you’re not claiming STCs then you don’t need the CEC endorsement.

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