Budget Solar: How to Save Money While Avoiding Disaster

March 26, 2020 12:02 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

So, a tailor-made solar system is outside of your budget, but you still want to create a greener future? Not to worry, you can still reap the benefits of renewable energy without spending a fortune! It might take a little longer to find the right fit for your house or business, but there are solutions on the market that can match both your energy needs and wallet size. 

Here are some useful tips when shopping for budget solar energy:

Your Choices Will Be Limited

If you’re looking to save money, you’re going to have to sacrifice choices and customisation. A system custom-built to your specifications costs extra. Unfortunately, if you want to buy an inexpensive PV system, you won’t be able to select components based on your budget; you’re limited to what installers have on offer. Even if you request lower-cost components, it most likely won’t result in savings. There are several reasons why:

  • Installers order their solar panels, inverters, and other hardware in bulk for a better price. Requesting a one-off purchase will almost always be more expensive than the installers’ bulk discount.
  • It takes time to safely install unfamiliar hardware, resulting in extra labour cost (passed onto you) if you order something they lack experience with.
  • The cost of after-sales support is calculated based on the equipment the provider is comfortable working on.

Finally, the most important reason you can’t mix and match system components is:

  • Installers must uphold their reputations. An installer who takes pride in their work will likely refuse to use components they suspect won’t be reliable or are simply unsure of.

It’s pointless to try to convince a good installer to use low-cost hardware they dislike. If they care about the quality of their work, they might reject the project. This is not an unusual reaction. Consider another analogy: A fancy eatery comes under new ownership. If the new employer of said restaurant requested that the chefs prepared week-old vegetables for a raw salad rather than crisp, market-fresh items, any self-respecting culinary artist would look for new employment. 

Be Wary of Systems That Are ‘Too Cheap’

Thanks to the falling cost of solar, it’s not difficult to find a decent quality system installed by prideful workers offering quality after-sales service. Sadly, there are far too many ultra-budget offerings around the internet or in local newspapers that are too good to be true. Often, these offerings have low-quality labour or substandard hardware. Either can create a disaster for you in the form of compounding repair bills or dangerous electrical work. You must use discernment to find an appropriate balance. 

Consider this scenario: A potential customer found a 6.6-kilowatt solar system advertised for only $3,499. While tempting, even if the solar panels and inverter were of acceptable quality, which is unlikely, the $3,499 has to pay for:

  • Sales costs
  • Solar panels
  • Solar inverter
  • Racks, clamps, and other mounting hardware
  • Cables, fuses, DC isolators, clips, conduits, and other items
  • Labour, other operating costs, and capital costs
  • After-sales service including repairs and replacements during warranty periods and potentially beyond

Ultra-Cheap Solutions Cut Corners

To fit all of the equipment costs and labour into the bill, providers are forced to cut corners somewhere. To install it at this price while making a profit, they will be focused on getting the system on your roof as cheaply as possible. There are many places that a budget installation might go wrong:   

  • They may convince you to purchase a system that is cheap and easy to install, rather than focusing on your energy needs
  • They may not inform you, or completely ignore shading and other issues that reduce system output.
  • The panels may be cheap and fail to last 5 years without major deterioration. (Standard panels can last 20 plus years!)
  • The solar inverter and other hardware may be of low quality and soon fail, leaving you reliant on the grid and a sunk cost on your rooftop.
  • They might rush through installation. A rushed job with low-quality mounting equipment may result in damage to your roof and can cause leaks.
  • Rushing and haphazard installation lead to neglect with wiring and weather sealing can create electrical and fire hazards.
  • Incorrect clamping can cause solar panel deterioration and if not properly secured to the roof. An intense storm can rip off a poorly attached system, leaving you ‘in the dark’, and poor-quality racking can buckle and warp, damaging panels.
  • After-sales service can be abysmal. If you have a problem, don’t expect care and attention at that price point. Expect to pay out of pocket for any post-installation woes.

The Disappearing Act

Unfortunately, it’s common that low-cost companies change names and phone numbers, or simply go out of business. When a problem arises, you may find the company has vanished. If the provider also imported the panels, inverter, or other items, the manufacturer warranties may disappear with them. When shopping, look for a company that has a track record, rather than taking advantage of a ‘new’ company’s discounts. 

Factor in Labour quality 

Even if all the components are top-notch, if the installer is incompetent, you will have problems later. It’s entirely possible to experience problems shortly after installation. Those selling the lowest cost solar systems will pay the absolute minimum required to complete their jobs. Low-paying jobs and lack of adequate training will inevitably spill over into your system. 

Spot the difference between high and low-quality workmanship

Solar installation standards in Australia are globally recognised. Certain requirements like where switches are installed compared to the positioning of solar panels and the quality of the solar panels are some of the affecting factors.

When significant cost is cut from the installation itself, there is usually a very clear sign that corners are being cut. During installation, lower prices can be attributed to shoddy subcontractors or inexperienced labourer.

If your system is not installed by a professional, there is a vast assortment of things that can go wrong with installation due to the complex nature of these systems. Even transporting panels improperly can damage your system, lead to disastrous results in just a few months.  Examples of low-quality work include: 

  • Panel placement is inefficient due to shade from trees or even the panels own wiring
  • Visible corrosion on the panels or the wiring
  • Inverter plugs are loose or hang low
  • Exposed cabling or wires
  • Panels are discoloured or yellowing, have visible cracks or microcracks, are scratched across the surface, or have delamination issues
  • Solar Panels are not uniformly installed. The look of them is haphazard
  • Panels are too close to the edge of the roof or are hanging over. Perhaps you might even see a "panel pagoda", where it hangs completely off the roof!!

When something goes wrong, the expense involved in discovering the source can cost significant time and money. These are just a few problems that can occur from substandard workmanship.

By installing properly the first time, using professional workers, you can avoid many simple problems that have disastrous effects. Labour quality is one of the easiest ways to ensure your project will last as long as it should. 

Consider Purchasing Panels from Tier One Manufacturers

Brands that represent great value for money with excellent warranty backup are Jinko, JA Solar, Trina, and Canadian Solar (among others). Every quarter, Bloomberg New Energy Finance releases a new list of manufacturers they deem as "Tier 1". Tier 1 doesn’t tell the full story though as it doesn’t automatically qualify any manufacturer as being good quality. There are other considerations.

The trick here is to purchase from a reputable company who can take care of warranty claims on your behalf.  

How to Avoid Problems with Cheap Solutions

Substandard quality materials impact the lifespan of the solar system significantly. Inferior quality solar systems consist of cheap inverters, cheap solar panels, or a combination of the two. 

Carefully consider the quality of the system sold by the retailer. Ask about the panel and inverter warranties if they fail to mention them. These warranties ensure the safety and life of the product. Do not sign a contract before looking at these warranty factors. 

Quality differences in Solar Panels

The Australian sun eats away at inferior panels at surprising speeds.

High-calibre solar panels will last 20 years and beyond. If substandard plastic/glue is used in your panels, or if poor manufacturing processes are followed, a process called delamination can take place. Delamination occurs when the bond between the plastic and glass of your solar panel detaches, allowing moisture and air to penetrate the panel. Delamination causes corrosion and failure.

Besides, poor panels also suffer from micro-cracks and cell damage which quickly decreases the overall efficiency of your solar cells. Inefficient cells equal less energy production!

Many solar panel manufacturers also fabricate efficiency and power tolerance ratings to make their products appear of a higher quality. Before purchasing seemingly impressive panels, ensure their stats have been verified by independent testing authorities.  

Beware of companies who will not tell you what brand of cheap solar panels and inverter you are getting! 

Inverter Failure

The solar inverter lies at the heart of your system. This is a sophisticated piece of electrical equipment responsible for the conversion of DC electricity into AC electricity; controlling the voltage of the system to extract the maximum power available; reporting on the solar system’s performance.

As a result, inverters are where the most faults in a solar PV system occur. 

Cheaper inverters can fail prematurely, putting your whole investment at risk, with replacements costing thousands of dollars. The bottom line: use a reputable brand inverter.

Fire Risk

Most people haven’t a clue about DC isolation, even after they have a solar system installed. Almost all solar systems operate at a high voltage DC. If installed well, high voltage DC is safe. 

If not, it is very dangerous and can cause all types of problems, including fire.

If you buy the cheapest solar system you can find, there is a higher chance that the installer will cut corners on the quality of electrical components. Quality DC isolators are around 5 times more expensive than the cheap ones. Don’t put your home or your life at risk. Invest in safe equipment. 

Protect yourself: Double-check the Product Warranty. 

Solar panels come with two warranties: A product warranty and a performance warranty. Because a 25-30 year performance warranty is standard, you cannot distinguish panel quality from this warranty. It’s the product warranty that indicates how much confidence companies have in their product. 

Most panels are usually supplied with a product warranty of 10 or 12 years. Unfortunately, product warranty is not necessarily a reflection of quality. Protect yourself by making sure your panel is either Tier one or from a reputable manufacturer, backed by a well-established retailer.

Look for Value, not for Cheapness

Rather than being influenced by the offer of a cheap solar system, consider a fair price for experienced installation. Educate yourself on the installing company. Look for companies with longevity and stability that can provide after-sales support when needed.

Buying Budget Solar Correctly

When it comes to buying a solar power system, the quality of your equipment and the reputation of the installer are the most important purchasing decisions you will make. This is why we recommend you choose quality products, go with a solar company with a strong reputation and a company that offers full warranty support, service, system monitoring, and a fair (rather than cheap) price. If you are ready to invest in a high-quality solar system, make sure to get in contact with us at Westside Energy today.

This post was written by Nick Mazis