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Choosing A Solar Panel Installer

In Australia, the most important factor when choosing a solar panel installer is to ensure that they are “Clean Energy Council Accredited”. This is a qualification that they need in order for the government to pay out its rebates. And even more important than that it means that you can be confident that they have been trained in the safe installation of Solar Power Systems.

If you get 3 quotes through solarquotes.com.au you can rest assured that all the suppliers on my books use Clean Energy Council accredited installers.

So once you have a number of quotes, how do you choose which supplier should work on your home?

There are 4 main criteria you should look at which I explain below:

1. Cost

Obviously this is very important, but it may not be the most significant factor in your purchase. Remember, this is a system that you will depend on every day for 20-40 years, so it is critical that you have a system that has a quality and performance that you are happy with.

As is true with most things in this world: you generally get what you pay for. If you have been offered a system that seems spectacularly cheap then you may want to read this blog post which highlights some of the drawbacks common to a lot of super cheap solar deals.

If you are wondering what a reasonable, ballpark price is for a decent solar system, typical prices for different sized solar systems can be found here.

2. Warranties / Maintenance

What performance warranties does the supplier provide? All PV panels degrade 0.5% to 1% per year, but your supplier should provide a written performance guarantee that guarantees the performance of your panels over at least 25 years. Unfortunately the solar panel performance guarantee is a very easy one for the manufacturer to wriggle out of for the reasons I go into here. The solar panel warranty that you can depend on is the solar panel product warranty. This should be 10 years minimum.

Inverters should carry at least a 10 year warranty.

Workmanship should carry at least a 5 year warranty.

Check that the warranty is backed by an Australian Entity. I've seen cheapo deals where the Chinese manufacturers warranty states that the owner has to post the panels back to China at the customer's cost to get them tested!

Ask them how you will know if your system is performing properly. Some contractors may monitor your system over the internet, others may have a service scheme where they inspect your system regularly. AT the very least they should come back after you have had the system for a month or so to look over the electricity production figures and confirm you are getting the performance that they promised.

Above all, if the installer has good experience with the hardware he is installing, and has been doing it for at least 12 months, then he should be confident enough in his product and install to give you a minimum performance guarantee (i.e. minimum kWh per year produced) in writing.

If you really want to understand the warranties that you'll be getting for your big investment, I highly recommend reading this blog post.

3. Craftsmanship

A well fitted solar panel can be a beautiful thing. What kind of mounting system does your contractor use and how do they look and do they allow air to flow under the panels? There should be at least a 100mm gap between the roof and the panel.

Your solar system is in one hell of a harsh environment - the Aussie Sun - and unprotected cables will not last more than a couple of years on your roof. Don't accept an install that doesn't have all external wires in conduit if you want the system to last 20+ years. And good quality UV protected conduit at that.

Ask for some referrals and go look at previous installations if at all possible. Inspect the workmanship, and overall simplicity of the installation. Do they use stainless steel nuts and bolts to prevent galvanic corrosion with any aluminium framing? If there is an aluminium frame on a tin roof, have they used an insulating separator to prevent galvanic corrosion? Have a look at the inverter installation. Are all the cables tidily attached to the wall (ideally in trunking). Is the inverter protected from direct sun (othewise it will not last very long).

(Note: Galvanic Corrosion is when dissimilar metals react to each other and corrode.)

Ask them how many installs they do in a day. More than 2 and they may be a bit rushed.

4. Compatibility

Having a good relationship with your contractor matters a lot for such an important project. A good relationship will ensure any problems are fixed up quickly and in a mutually beneficial way. Choose a contractor that you are compatible with. For example: If you like to ask loads of detailed questions, go with someone who enjoys explaining things in terms you can understand!

Here’s a list of questions you may like to ask:

  • Who designs my system?
  • Is the designer accredited by the Clean Energy Council (not just the installer) ?
  • What brand of panels and Inverters do you use? Can you point me to 3rd party reviews or tests of them?
  • What is the negative tolerance on the panel power rating? (This is the amount of "leeway" the manufacturer has given himself when quoting minimum power output - the smaller the better 0% is excellent, more than 5% could be a warning sign) More details on solar panel specifications here.
  • How many systems have you installed?
  • Who does the electrical hookup to the grid?
  • Does the price quoted include all the necessary metering changes and paperwork for my local electricity supplier? (trust me - you don't want to have to organise this yourself!)
  • If the panels are installed on different roof areas facing slightly different directions, will you use an inverter with separate inputs for each string of panels? (this is essential)
  • Can you provide me with references in my area?
  • How will I know if my system is performing to it’s max potential on a day to day basis?
  • Do you handle all the rebate paperwork for me so I just have to pay the difference?
  • What is the lead time from my payment to getting electricity from the panels (including new meter)? Can I have this in writing?
  • Do you give an accurate, written estimation of system electricity production with your quotes? What is my comeback if I don't get that production?
  • Are all the external cables in UV protected conduit?
  • Will you place the inverter in a shaded position? Will you go to the extra effort to mount in in my garage if my garage is suitable?
  • Which guarantees/warranties are your responsibility and which are the manufacturer's?
  • Are the installers employed (and trained) by you or are they subcontracted?
  • If I have to deal with the panel or inverter manufacturer in the future, do they have an Australian office?