How To Buy Solar Well

by Finn Peacock, Chartered Electrical Engineer, Ex-CSIRO, Founder of SolarQuotes® 

Q. What is the secret to buying solar well?

A. Recognising the five types of solar installer, and choosing the one that works for you.

If you’re reading this, you’re thinking about taking the plunge and requesting solar quotes for your home.

You will have undoubtedly seen prices for new systems online, on the telly and in the papers – and you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed about what to expect.

At time of writing, if you are in the market for, say, a 5kW system (which is roughly 20 panels), you could be seeing prices from $4,000 up to $9,000+ advertised and quoted for a 5kW inverter and 5 to 6.6kW of panels, fully installed.

That’s a big difference. What’s going on?

Welcome, my friend, to the exciting world of solar sales!

I have written this article to explain the difference in pricing, but most importantly help you choose the solar system that is right for you. A good solar power system will be on your roof for decades, and you will rely on it every day. So, choosing wisely now is important.

The five types of solar system

  • Type #1: Crap Solar
  • Type #2: Cheap but Decent Solar
  • Type #3: Happy Medium
  • Type #4: Expensive (craftsman)
  • Type #5: Expensive (rip-off)

I obviously recommend avoiding type #1, Crap Solar, and type #5, Rip-Off Solar. You’ll find types #2, #3 and #4 are the ones I try really hard to refer through SolarQuotes®.  And each of those 3 types suit different buyers.

If I’ve done my job properly, you should never be referred to types #1 or #5 if you arrange your quotes through this website. If you give us a go and think you have, then 'Houston – we have a problem'.  Email me ASAP and we’ll get to the bottom of it together.

If you want a budget system with no frills, live in a metro area, and have a straightforward installation – then type 2 could be the best match.

If you want a good mix of quality and price, a non-standard install and some extra functionality, then type 3 is probably better for you.

If you want the best quality and cutting-edge special features (like batteries, advanced monitoring, microinverters, or hot water diversion), plus a really consultative sale and a really well-planned install; or perhaps on a difficult roof, or a sensitive home (like mine – it is made of straw!) then go for number 4, and you should get a very diligent installer that has the time to do everything just as you want.

Some of the companies I refer will focus only on either 2, 3 or 4 level pricing.  Some will offer a good/better/best pricing that encompasses all three.

Let’s go through each type in more detail

Installer Type #1: Crap Solar

In my opinion, a company that sells crap solar has the wrong values. Because they have the wrong values their only point of difference is price. They are in a race to the bottom.

This infects their whole culture. They buy crap hardware if it is cheaper, they are relentless in trying to sell you their systems (you’ll get pestered on the phone to buy), their installs are unlikely to be done with the care and rigor that a high voltage electrical system on your family’s roof deserves. Their customer unfriendly warranties often breach Australian Consumer Law, but they get away with it because most consumers don’t know their rights.

Guess what – I don’t recommend these companies, and do everything I can in my 24 point vetting procedure to screen these guys from being in the SolarQuotes® network of companies that I refer when you get quotes.

Installer Type #2: Cheap but decent solar

When I first got started in the solar game almost 10 years ago, there were 3 price levels for solar power systems: cheap, mid-range and expensive.

To get a decent system, well installed with good after-sales support I strongly counselled people looking for good-value to go mid-range. The cheap stuff inevitably cut corners, and the companies generally shirked their responsibility to support you down the track when things went wrong.

But as the solar industry has matured, I have seen good companies come onto the scene selling cheap (but not the absolute cheapest) systems that are well installed, using reputable, big brand panels and inverters, and supported if anything goes wrong.

This new breed of cheap solar company offers cheaper-than-average pricing by being ruthlessly efficient in their operations and offering a no-frills (but professional) service. They are not for you if you want a long conversation with the installer/designer, lots of options to choose from, a complicated install, advanced features or lots of follow up/hand holding to get the most out of your system once it is installed and running.

But if:

  • your house is a simple layout,
  • you live in a large metro area,
  • want a decent solar power system installed of a standard 3, 5, 6 or 10kW size,
  • and are happy with a Jetstar style experience over Qantas.

Then this type of company can work for you.

The trick is to differentiate the good value, cheaper-than-average guys from the bottom-of the-barrel, absolute cheapest companies that are likely to disappoint.

If a company is referred to you by SolarQuotes® when you get quotes, we’ve vetted the company and come to the conclusion that they are reputable.

Here’s how, in my experience, a reputable company can sell at lower-than-average prices so you can decide if they are for you:

1. They need very efficient operations. For the larger operators, this may be through investment in an IT system and business processes that makes sure that the process is repeatable, efficient and consistent. Or they may just be a smallish company with low overheads that have been doing this thing for ages and run like a well-oiled machine.

2. They often import their solar panels directly from the Chinese manufacturer by the container load instead of through the Australian office of the manufacturer. This is legitimate – as long as they are importing the panels approved for use in the Australian market – and they are not grey imports. And to be safe these panels must be a big brand-name, like the ones on this list.

The disadvantage of this is that you only have one point of contact for warranty – because the importer and the solar company are the same entity. If the solar company goes under – it will be a lot harder to claim on the panel warranty, than if they were imported by an independent, 3rd party entity.

3. They usually quote over the internet using satellite imagery of your home, to save you both the cost of a initial home visit. Here’s more details so you can decide if that’s important to you.

4. Their prices are based on simple jobs. Usually two roof areas max, no shading issues, conventional roof.

5. You don’t get much choice of solar panels. Usually only one or two brands. Ditto on inverters.

Expect a professional, but not very time-consuming, service. Their business model does not allow for lots of hand holding.

At this pricing level look for companies that have been around for years. This shows that their overheads are sustainable. It is common for new, cheap solar companies to hit the wall when they realise their margins don’t cover their real-world overheads.

Installer Type #3: Happy Medium

These guys set their prices at a level that allows them to run a sustainable business and still offer:

  • A home visit and discussion of your exact requirements.
  • Simple consumption monitoring and on-site shade analysis to get a good estimate of your savings.
  • A choice of hardware.
  • Consideration of any special features including:
    • advanced monitoring
    • hot-water PV diversion
    • batteries – now or in the future
    • tricky or sensitive installs

Basically – more Qantas, less Jetstar.

Installer Type #4: Expensive (craftsmen)

These guys are real craftsmen, their installs should be impeccable with every attention to detail. They will generally only work with the best and most expensive brands (often only LG or Sunpower panels).

If you are thinking of storage, they are usually all over battery technology, standards, and configuration. And will be more than happy to come back to their installs multiple times to make sure the battery control software is fine-tuned to your consumption and the seasons, maximising your battery savings.

If you want a really special system, with the best hardware, killer performance per square metre of roof, bespoke features and an install that could sit in an art gallery, then these guys are a ‘First Class’ choice.  

Installer Type #5: Expensive (rip-off)

If I’ve done my job right, you won’t find these guys quoting through SolarQuotes®.

And even if I accepted them – the SolarQuotes® system would not work for them as their business model is usually based on you only getting one quote – so you can’t see how expensive they are for what you are getting.

They often employ the industry’s most persuasive sales people and they prefer exclusive appointments – either through door-knocking, or annoying unsolicited phone calls from their pushy (usually offshore) appointment setters.

Expect the hard sell from these mobs (and know your rights).

For these guys maximising the sales commission is the name of the game. The higher the price they sell to you, the bigger the commission.

To make matters worse, they often sell mid-range or even really cheap, no-name hardware to make those margins even fatter.

Avoid these guys.

How to buy solar power well

So – now you know how the industry operates your solar buying experience can be much more informed.

Decide what type of system you are in the market for:

  • Budget, but reputable
  • Good mix of quality and price
  • Top, quality, most expensive, bespoke service.

Then use my free service here to request quotes.

And of course – you can email us at any step of the way if you need anything clarified.

If you're considering installing solar panels for your home or business, SolarQuotes can help you get quotes from high-quality installers quickly and easily:

“Many thanks…
I was a lost sheep in a field of wolves without your help”

– Margret, Castle Hill, NSW

 

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. Since 2009 over 330,000 Australians have used my site to get quotes for high quality solar from pre-vetted solar installers.

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