Over the 13 years of my involvement in the solar industry, I have seen some very questionable behavior from solar companies and some activities that are outright dangerous. These companies are not only hurting consumers, they are also damaging the industry and the ethical companies that are trying to do the right thing.
It’s more than cheap poorly built panels and defective inverters; it is more than the out and out lies that are told and the hard sell employed by some salespeople. Professor Michael Porter of Harvard University, known for his theories on economics, business strategy, and social causes, discusses the concept of the “Bad Competitor” in his book Competitive Strategy. Porter describes a bad competitor as focusing on competing on price and ignoring quality, service and other areas. These “Bad Competitors” force other companies to follow them into price competition which in turn, leads to a lowing of product quality, service and worst still a reduction in the quality of installation which in the worst case have caused fires.
This is not all! Forced to compete on price to make sales also leads to, what organisational psychologist call “dysfunctional behaviour”. In layman’s terms, it means misleading, fraudulent, criminal behaviour and in some cases potentially dangerous behaviour.
Companies start taking short cuts to save money. This particularly true when it comes to solar companies that are not run by electricians and do not do their own installing. These companies squeeze installers on price which has led to installers to look for short cuts to save money and time. Cheap isolation switches that burn out, poor cabling connection leading to arcing poor positioning of inverters, overall poor workmanship; I can go on and on.
A British report in 2017 found the following: DC isolators were attributed to as many as 18 incidents of fire, with DC connectors a further 10. Inverters, meanwhile, were said to be the cause of as many as seven incidents of fire.
But installer errors have proven to be a recurring theme of BRE’s research. More than a third (36%) of fires were attributed directly to problematic installations, with just 12% down to faulty products and 5% down to system design. The remaining 47% could not be attributable to any one root cause.
But another common theme within BRE’s research was electrical arcing in PV installations, a phenomenon capable of causing materials to combust in less than a second. Arcing, it said, commonly occurred when electrically conducting parts become physically separated by mechanical movement or misalignment, which again could be the result of poorly completed installations.
It takes time to install a solar array correctly. It cannot be rushed and using poor quality cabling, switches, etc is a receipt for disaster. A good installer will walk away from a sale or a job if the deal is not right. You cannot supply a quality installation at cut prices.
A week does not go by where Symons Energy is not removing and replacing faulty solar systems. More than 20% of Symons Energy’s business is now the removal of cheap systems from people’s roofs and replacing them with quality products with a safe and reliable installation.
One of our competitors came up with the following list and I thought it was worth including.
- Bait & Switch. They use quality components as the bait, advertising genuine Tier 1 solar panels and a top end inverter. They put in their conditions of sale that they reserve the right to swap out the inverter and panels for ‘equivalents’. Then, they install a cheap inverter and panels instead.
- Bait and Switch V2. They don’t advertise the brand of panels and inverter, just a low price. When the customer makes an enquiry, they upsell them to better hardware, with the result that the customer pays much, much more than the price that was originally advertised.
- Cut corners on the Install. An ad appeared on Gumtree. It was asking for backpackers who wanted to earn $17.50 per hour wiring up switchboards and panels for a solar company. It said they needed their own ABN but didn’t need an Australian Electrical Licence. This is a recipe for disaster (and probably illegal). For example, here’s what can happen when a novice works on your switchboard:
- Cut corners on the install V2. Some companies have reputations for paying the lowest install rates in the industry. Guess what – they also have a reputation for poor installations. Most solar power systems operate at high voltage DC. If installed well, high voltage DC is safe. If it is not installed well it is very dangerous. Here’s what happens when high voltage DC goes wrong:
- They use crappy solar panels – but claim they are the absolute cream of the crop. But they are nothing of the sort. Cheap panels do not last in the Aussie sun. Good panels should last 30 years plus. One import statistic showed that around 60% of panels coming into Australia are not Tier 1 and that’s a worry. It was once thought that these companies would start failing because, at their prices, they could not honour warranties. Unfortunately, they now use Phoenixing, to solve that problem. They simply close one company, thereby avoiding warranty claims and set up another and start all over again.
- They use a crappy solar inverter and claim it is the best quality money can buy. A cheap inverter will be unlikely to last 3 years. Inverters are easier to replace under warranty than panels, but still, some manufacturers will blame the failure on ‘grid spikes’ and you’ll either have to fight or pay $1500+ for a new inverter.
Perhaps the last word on the subject should come from CHOICE; the following is a recent article they published.
Solar panel installation gone awry
CALC references a December 2018 report by the Auditor General’s office which found that up to 25% of small generation unit installations inspected in recent years were rated ‘unsafe’ or ‘sub–standard’, a finding that’s well in line with what CHOICE has been hearing from consumers.
Solar businesses gone bust
The CALC report points to an estimate by industry giant LG solar that 690 solar installation companies had a change in trading conditions, went into liquidation or stopped trading between 1 March 2011 and 31 January 2019, leaving 650,000 ‘solar orphans’ in Australia – or installation owners who no longer have a business to contact if there’s a problem.
When we spoke to LG general manager of solar and energy Markus Lambert in our earlier investigation, he said the company adds 10 to 12 companies to the out-of-business list every four to six weeks.
How to avoid a dodgy solar company
- Look for a CEC-approved solar retailer in your area.
- Check the status of the company by doing an ACN, ABN or business name search on the ASIC Connect website and at the ASIC register of insolvency notices or phone 1300 300 630.
- Search reviews, articles, comments and recommendations about the company, the panels and the inverter
- Avoid ads pushing very cheap systems with ‘offer ends soon’ lines. Industry sources we spoke to say that prices like these can only be reached when costs are cut so severely that you’ll likely end up with an inferior quality system installed in a rush – and likely to have problems within the first few years.
- Look for a company with a local presence that has been around for a while. Seek testimonials directly from local people who’ve had their solar installed for several years, not recent installations that may yet fail.
- Ensure the panels and inverter models are of good quality and specified in the contract, and check that the fine print doesn’t allow for them to be swapped.
- Be wary if the company asks for a large deposit (more than 10% or 20%), or if they ask for full payment before the installation is completed and functioning properly.
- Choose a solar company that doesn’t sub-contract installation.
- Don’t sign up to annual maintenance service agreements that cost you money and purport to void your warranty (they don’t).
- Don’t be baited by discounted prices