Opinion by Teresa Settas, Marketing Director of the One Energy Group
The solar energy boom has given rise to a proliferation of fly-by-night contractors that have suddenly sprung up trying to cash in. Not a day goes by that we don’t hear of an unsuspecting consumer getting taken for a ride and ripped off with either a bad deal, lousy outdated technology, wholly unqualified installers and non-compliant installations, and even being sold counterfeit and stolen goods. In some of the worst cases, these fly-by-nights have disappeared with large deposits.
Don’t be lured into the many cheap solutions being punted on the market by drop-and-go shippers and be especially wary of the many unqualified fly-by-nights who have popped up recently. The installation and management of solar PV systems is a complex and highly skilled undertaking sitting on top of your most expensive asset – your home or business, so you don’t want to get it wrong. Absolutely no one becomes a solar specialist in a few months! Work with qualified professionals with long standing track records, qualifications and experience in the market, and do your due diligence on your solar installer thoroughly.
Also consider that the lifespan of your solar PV system is a good 20+ years, so this isn’t a short-term relationship with your provider – you need to be sure that they will be around for the ongoing back-up, support, warranty management and servicing of your system and that there is a succession plan that comes with working with either a national group or franchise network.
The bottom line is that the journey to greater grid independence is a complex and highly technical undertaking. With so many new solar products and changing technology, it’s difficult to know what the right system and tech is for your needs now, and in future. Every component in your system needs to be compatible – not every inverter is compatible with every battery, and even different makes of municipal electricity meters can prove problematic. And even the best equipment will fail and perform badly if they are not installed and programmed correctly. The consequence of a non-compliant installation is poor system performance, premature battery failures and in the worst cases, an outright safety/fire hazard. And if the worst should happen, any insurance claim will be rejected due to non-compliance.
One Energy has compiled a checklist of all the important aspects that you should be assessing in your solar investment:
- Track record – Choose a partner with the technical expertise and proven track record over time so that you get it right first time, for the long haul. No one becomes a specialist in 6 months. Ask for client references and do the necessary due diligence. Think carefully before working with solo operators – what is the succession plan to provide ongoing back-up and support on your system which has a 20+ year lifespan if the original installer is no longer around, for whatever reason? How prepared are you to pay upfront deposits of 70% or more to solo operators where you have no recourse of a head office if things go awry? Whether you intend to finance your deal or pay upfront for it, consider working with bank-approved solar providers who have been through the stringent vetting, quality and compliance checks in order to become bank-approved solar installers.
- On-site consultation and audit – before any installation happens, does your installer provide an onsite consultation and energy audit at no charge to you? Has a site assessment and energy audit been done to ensure that your proposed solution is fit for purpose and your needs. Does your installer fully understand your expectations and are the capabilities of your proposed system aligned and capable of any required future expansion if needed?
- Finance options – For many homeowners the upfront capital outlay of financing a solar PV system upfront is not manageable. But be circumspect on the type of finance option you go into. There are many solar rental options that have sprung onto the market offering seemingly low initial monthly instalments, while the contract fine print leaves you cold with hefty initiation fees and above inflationary annual escalations, never-ending ‘ever-green’ rental terms for systems you will never own, hefty penalties for early cancellations, and are simply not financially sound. Rather finance your solar PV system for your home, in the same way that you finance your car or other asset with trusted financial services providers, taking full ownership of your system after the loan is repaid. One Energy is a Nedbank-approved solar supplier. Unlike many rental options, there are no penalty fees should you choose to settle your loan earlier. Commercial clients have the option of fixed-term rental options with no escalations whereby you own the equipment at the end of the finance term.
- Scalability – Many people start with a scalable solar hybrid solution that takes care of immediate needs for back-up power during load shedding and power failures – much like a UPS – and then allows you to scale up in future to self-generation by adding solar panels and additional batteries if needed. However not all inverters offer this scalable functionality so it’s essential to work with a solar partner who is experienced in this field and understands your objectives.
- NRS-097 regulations – Check that the inverter specified is on the list of Inverters/Equipment in terms of NRS 097-2-1 and that they can be legally connected to the grid. Do your research on the proposed components and be comfortable that the products are best-in-class.
- SSEG Registration – all councils require you to apply for authorisation of an embedded generation system such as a rooftop solar PV that is connected to the grid. As the property owner, you would need to make this application in person, or your installer may offer to do this for you at a fee to handle the documentation and application process on your behalf. It is one of the reasons why we only install inverters on the NRS-097 list so that your equipment is compliant with any SSEG registration process. Be especially wary of any provider who does not inform you of this important process upfront or says it is not required.
- Safety and Compliance – A non-compliant installation has significant implications for your safety and your insurance cover if things go wrong and you need to claim. Make sure that you receive an electrical COC for your installation from a qualified electrician – this will be a supplementary COC for the solar installation only and you will need your valid initial COC for your home or business premises in place already. Does your installer comply with relevant health and safety regulations during your installation?
- Membership of a Professional Industry body – Check whether your provider is registered and a current member of professional industry bodies such as SAPVIA. Is your installer a certified PV GreenCard installer?
- Insurance – does your installer have the requisite business insurance such as public and contractor’s liability and goods in transit cover to insure your goods while in storage and transit to your site? If your contractor is involved in an accident or their vehicle is hijacked and your equipment is damaged or lost, are they suitably insured for the hardware which you have likely paid at least a 70-80% deposit for? Once the equipment is delivered to your premises and installed with a valid COC, the liability for its care and safe keeping then sits with you, and needs to be added to your insurance cover.
- Warranties and product quality – Does your installer have the financial backing and proven reputation of standing by all product warranties and money-back guarantees? What are the warranties on the equipment? Be especially wary of pricing on equipment that is too good to be true – it probably is. Theft and resale of stolen equipment is rife, as is counterfeit/rip-off goods – those rock-bottom prices are often indicative of the many cheap, counterfeit goods flooding the market from dodgy dealers. Work with installers who only procure their equipment from legitimate vendors who can provide certificates of authenticity and are authorised importers of OEMs.
- Quality Management – check whether your provider has a CRM system which records the detailed installation and service history of your system, which means consistent quality control, warranty management and business continuity for you. Is there the back-up of a national franchise or branch network if your original installer is no longer around in a few years’ time for whatever reason?
- Handover – What is the handover process of the solar plant once installed? Typically this will involve an overview or induction of how your system operates, details regards monitoring and maintenance and setting up of your details for remote monitoring, handover of warranty documents and the COC once checked and signed off by the qualified electrician and establishing any service requirements.
- Back-up and support – Check that your solar installer provides ongoing support, annual site inspections if needed and services – solar geysers and heat pumps require an annual service as just one example, and inverters and batteries will need firmware updates from time to time. Does your provider offer remote monitoring, maintenance and technical support to keep your system working optimally?
The journey to grid independence is a big and important step and you need to be sure that the steps you take today are right for your needs down the line.