Its a minefield out there. Companies both large and small have taken the fall due to unethical management, poor product selection, and wild regulatory changes. How does one compare solar companies and get a valid warranty?
Is it a case of ‘3 quotes’ from a trusted blogging site? What about the biggest company on tv? Should you go with your local electrical contractor? Are they all the same?
Solar is a fast moving field and carries increasing complexity. Very few companies can offer it all and most specialize in a type of service delivery or product offering.
The Sales Company
These are the guys you see on TV. Their business model is made up of sales and marketing people that specialize in selling. They carry low amounts of technical expertise and very rarely have any installation capability. They specialize in the lowest price, but have very high operating costs, as most of their business is acquired through mass market advertising. History has shown that these types of companies are the most likely to fail. If you’re after a slick sales experience with budget equipment then these guys are for you. The easiest way to catch them out is to read their reviews on Whirlpool or Facebook.
The Regional Specialist
These companies advertise, but also make up a lot of their sales through referrals and word of mouth. They are often an electrical contractor with ties to the local community that has chosen to specialize in energy. Their business model started with an owner and a field team, soon followed by an office manager. These companies may have one or more sales people, that specialize in custom service and tailored design. They carry high levels of technical expertise across all levels of the business and have proven installation capability.
The Electrical Contractor
This is your local electrician large or small that does a bit of solar on the side. They offer a limited product range and standard designs, but they do it competitively to the best of their ability. They’re unlikely to have sales support, but will often have an office manager. They carry full field capability, but it is not specialized and can struggle with complex systems. The easiest way to sort chaff from hay, is to ask them to compare system types and explain why this is the best type for you.
These operations consist of one person and may have an office assistant. They spend their money on website advertising and use sub contract labor. They claim to be national companies with detailed experience when really all they’re doing is posting photos of other people’s work. Ask them to speak to your installer. Chances are it won’t happen.
Which model will work for you? It’s the regional specialist that is going to provide the best outcome in most cases, but if you’re after the cheapest system on the block, then just maybe The Sales Company is for you. We would suggest that shopping with The Salesman is a terrible idea in all cases, but The Electrical Contractor has their niche delivering no-frills solutions with low technical expertise.
How to Compare Solar Companies?
1 Have they been in business for longer than their warranty offering?
If a company has been in business for 4 years and are offering a workmanship warranty that lasts 10 years; how would they know what it is worth? These companies fail by not allowing for long term installation issues and often takes chances on new brands with unknown fail rates. Eventually it catches up with them and that long warranty is suddenly worth zero. You can check how long a company has been in business by using the Australian Business Register. Sometimes it will show that they dont exist!
2 Read their reviews.
Not the ones on their website – the ones on Facebook, Google, Whirlpool and so on. It is still entirely possible to manipulate these reviews, but it becomes a lot harder. Dont read the good reviews – head straight to the bottom and see if they have any complaints. Most regional specialists will have nil.
3 Who is the designer and who is the installer?
Despite what the national solar companies say, it is *impossible* to guarantee quality at a national level by using sub contractors. If your solar company are using sub contractors, its likely you will have a complicated warranty path with shared liability. Avoid this situation and find out who your installer will be!
4 How do they generate sales?
Are they appearing on tv or at your local football club? Chances are their business model isnt sustainable, or theyre playing any number of tricks to make a quick buck. You’re looking for a company which generates at least some of its sales through referals.
5 Do they have a diversified offering?
The solar industry has been a roller coaster for many years now and one of the ways some companies have survived is by diversifying their offering. Some install air conditioning, or carry our general electrical work. Only The Regional Specialist and The Electrical Contractor are capable of doing this and therefore offer the strongest warranties.
6 Where are their terms and conditions?
If they’re promising a warranty then one would assume that its in writing. Ask to see them. Companies with no terms and conditions open themselves up to increased liability risk. Anyone that is offering a ‘lifetime’ warranty is either offering nothing, or are sure to fail. Many companies will use their terms to try and rule out a valid warranty claim. Many Sales Companies will state that their warranty is only valid if the system is regularly serviced, or rule out paying for things like labor and travel. In some cases, your warranty could cost more than its worth!
7 Are they pushing quality and offering a budget range, or are they selling cheap?
History has shown us that there is no such thing as a quality Chinese inverter. Companies which sell the latest rebadged inverters apply the same philosophy to their entire installation. Their material costs are half that of a quality solar system and in just about every known case, both the manufacturer and the installer have failed.
8 Where do they purchase their materials from?
This is a more recent development which has come to light due to parallel importing of solar panels. It works like this. A quality solar manufacturer manufactures a batch of solar panels and a certain percentage fail the quality tests. Those panels are then sold to an OEM reseller whom then adds a brand name sticker and onsells them *primarily* to Australia. Why here? Because we have developed a reputation for accepting some of the lowest quality equipment in the world. Sad but true. The customer then gets a very cheap solar system, with panels that have already failed a performance test. When they fail, the customer discovers that their solar company has gone bust and that there is no wholesaler to pursue. They then place a call with their brand name manufacturer, whom informs them they dont have genuine panels and therefore have no warranty.
9 Do they offer a detailed design and performance guarantee?
There are a lot of factors which can affect the output of a solar system. Is your solar company willing to model and guarantee your output in writing?
10 Do they have proven capability?
If you are going to compare solar companies, ask them to show you some photos of a job similar to yours. Whilst anyone can put these together, most quality companies will have a library of photos on their website, or on social media. Do they have photos of under the panels? Is their work neat and tidy? If youre buying a battery system, then look for an actual dealer with proven experience. Despite what The Sales Company will tell you, these systems are complex and much harder to design to perfection.
Is there an easier way to perform all these checks? Yes. One of the most thorough audits available is the Clean Energy Council Approved Retailer program. Ecoelectric are one of 30 or so companies which have been retailer approved. The process involves submitting things like terms and conditions, warranty statements, sales process and complaints strategies to ensure they are inline with industry best practice. If you want to quickly see which companies mean business, take a look here;
If The Sales Company can sell me a system for $3,500 then is it really worth spending $6,000 or more with A Regional Specialist, or an Electrical Contractor?
In some rare cases such as installing on an old home, it may be worth chasing a cheaper price for a higher return, but generally speaking it would still be better to ask The Regional Specialist for a budget system. That will ensure you get a quality installation where the only difference is the selection of PV equipment.
PV systems can and do fail. DC isolators have caused more than 200 fires in QLD alone due to cheap and defective components combined with poor installation methods. Facebook now has an entire group dedicated to ‘Crap Solar’ and its pages grow more shocking by the day.
If your cheap PV system pays itself off in 3 years, but then fails after 5 or 6 or 7 or even 10; who has received the better deal? You? Or your neighbor who purchased quality and has a system that lasts 10 or 20 or more? In exchange for a slightly increased pay back period that is often no more than 4 or 5 years, the quality system will safeguard your investment and ensure that it actually returns.
A quality solar system may cost more, but a defective solar system outputs nothing and may actually add liability and fire risk to your home.