Beware - Cheap Solar Systems

Cheap solar systems can cost you money

See Australian samples of poor solar installation practice. You do get what you pay for.

Please make sure your solar system is installed according to the latest Australian Standards with quality panels, inverters and also quality balance of system components.

In a cheap system all components are purchased at the lowest possible price including warning labels and accessories. Here is a sample of a cheap system warning labels after 1 year of installation. In sample 1 the label has been under the verandah in full shade near the switchboard and still looks similar to when it was installed.

Fading of warning labels after 1 year of installation

Sample 1

In sample 2 the label is on the 1st inverter and is exposed to the sun for a few hours a day. You will notice a clear case of fading. In sample 3 the label is on the 2nd inverter and is in the sun for many hours a day and has completely faded after 1 year.

Firstly the inverter is installed in full sun, which has the potential to reduce the lifespan of the inverter and also the faded label now presents a safety risk. Ask yourself : How will this solar system look and work in 5,10, 20 and 25 years. I do not like its chances. With poor quality cheaper systems it's all about giving the appearance of a quality buy, but you will be let down.

Sample 2

Sample 3

Arguably, the quality of your solar panels as well as the inverter are the most crucial factor in selecting a solar system. Over their 25 year expected lifespan solar panels will be subjected to more than 100,000 hours of relentless sunshine, extremes of heat and cold, wind, rain, hail and more.

It is an extraordinarily harsh climate for an electrical device. You have to be sure that the panel you buy will be able to deliver that performance during its lifetime. A good quality panel differs from a cheaper one in the sealing materials used such as backing sheets, the soldering and the efficiency of the solar cells. For example, whilst LG panels will cost slightly more they are designed to deliver year after year performance.

In Australia solar systems with inferior product are now failing after only relative short periods on the roof. Unfortunately in some cases the installation companies have closed shop and the consumer is left sorting the issues. 

http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/failed-sa-firm-unleash-solar-shifted-millions-to-us-before-its-collapse/story-fni6uo1m-1226750169682

http://www.cbs.sa.gov.au/assets/medicomms/mrelease_unleash.pdf

We recommend to buy only from reputable installers and preferably high quality branded components. 

Solar panels generate high volatage DC electricity and therefore have to be installed as per precise Australian Standards to ensure a safe system. Here are some samples of lower quality solar panels  failing in the Australian sun.   

Cell damage due to hot spot

Hot spots can lead to fires

Cell damage due to hot spot

Hot spots can lead to fires

PV yellowing

Yellow and Corroding solar panel

PV Yellowing

Yellow and Corroding Solar Panel

Delamination occurs when the bond between the plastics (on the back) and the glass (on the front) separate. This is problematic for a solar panel because it allows air and moisture to creep inside which will cause corrosion and imminent failure.

Delamination will occur if:

  1. Inferior plastics are used or
  2. If the thermal properties of the plastics are poorly understood so it doesn’t melt to exactly the right point or
  3. The plastics or the glass are not perfectly clean and compatible or
  4. The laminating machine is inferior and poorly regulated for pressure and temperature

Bubbles, creases or imperfections on the plastic rear surface are an indication of the workmanship in lamination and can be an early sign of delamination.

Arguably, the quality of your solar panels and the inverter are the most crucial factors in selecting a solar system. Over their 25 year output warranty period, solar panels will be subjected to more than 100,000 hours of relentless sunshine, extremes of heat and cold, wind, rain, hail and more. Australia and New Zealand offer an extraordinarily harsh climate for an electrical device. A good brand like LG, with our extensive testing and quality control helps ensure that you get the most out of your system.

Please see below: LG panels being pressure tested for long life performance.
LG solar panels pressure test

Sealants are used to seal the junction box on the rear of the solar module to prevent moisture getting into connections and sometimes to bond the laminates solar panel into its aluminium frame. If poorly matched, some sealants can react with the plastics causing premature degradation. Although non-flammable sealants are available, cheaper, flammable alternatives are sometimes used to reduce costs.

Frame sealants need to stay flexible over time and in varying temperatures to allow for thermal expansion and contraction between the glass laminate and the aluminium frame.

When you are assessing a solar panel, look very closely for evidence that the sealants are applied precisely and carefully as a sign of good workmanship. Excess sealant oozing onto the glass indicates poor control over the dosage and could mean that too much is in some places, and too little in others.

Yellowing or browning is typically caused by an uncontrolled chemical reaction between materials causing the (usually) white plastics to turn yellow or brown.

It has also been known to occur on the surface of the cell, in a chemical reaction between the chemicals on the surface of the silicon cell and the chemicals used to treat the glass. Yellowing and browning usually occurs in the first few years of exposure to sunlight. The jury is still out as to the long term effect on performace when panels have turned yellow or brown, but naturally it's not an attractive look. It is a sign that something uncontrolled is happening. If you had a solar system installed and when you are assessing the panels from time to time, look very closely to make sure there is no evidence of yellowing or browning.

In the photo below, the brown spot is the start of corrosion, due to water penetration in the panel.


Inverters are complex electronic devices and like any such device, they can be built to a price or built for robustness and performance. Unless you happen to be an electronics engineer, it is very hard to know how the quality of the components used in a given inverter will translate into life expectancy. However, there are a few things that you can use to guide you.

Firstly, the rules of experience, commitment, transparency and size of the manufacturer play a role. So ask yourself, is this inverter manufacturer one of the 2 or 3 leading manufacturers. Have they been making inverters for a long time and developed and improved the product over years? Have they got Australian service centres to address faults with the inverter quickly? How about the warranty conditions and how long is the warranty. Is labour for repairs during warranty included? If so, make sure you get this in a written document, which you keep with the receipts for your system in a safe place.

Secondly, you can tell a bit about the product by the quality of its construction; are the materials used high quality? Is it built to keep out insects and weather? Has cooling been carefully considered? Does it have a good set of features and not too many gimmicks? Where is it made and which company backs it?

Although inverters have reduced in price significantly in recent years, as a general rule, you get what you pay for. From the outside they all look like a colourful box, but it’s the inside that makes a big difference in years to come.

Performance is typically measured through features, conversion efficiency and the inverters ability to deliver power under a wide range of conditions. We recommend reading the inverter datasheets and asking your installer for advice. Avoid offers that seem too good to be to be true.

The majority of solar panels are fitted with aluminium frames which provide mounting attachment points and protection for the edges of the glass laminate. Importantly, the expansion and contraction ratio of aluminium and glass are different and hence the materials used to join them together are important to avoid stress build up.

Most manufacturers use butyl rubber or flexible double sided tapes which allow some movement but ensure the glass is retained within the frame. Obviously, the long term adhesion strength and UV stability of these materials is crucial and cost saving measures through the use of inferior materials have demonstrated rapid failure of the bond. The old rule, you get what you pay for applies.

The frame itself can come in various types from double walled and highly rigid, to quite thin walled and relatively flexible. Both serve the same purpose when attached securely to quality mounting systems. In double walled frames, it is important that the cavity between the walls is vented so that water can evaporate and ice cannot build up inside and split the frame in cold climates.

Some frames are screwed together and some are joined using push fit mitre joints. LG’s frames are screwed together. Have a look at our detailed product datasheets to find out more about our product advantages.

When you are assessing a solar panel, look very closely and observe the type and integrity of the materials used to bond the frame to the glass laminate

Quality and certified to Australian standards accessories are essential for the long term peace of mind performance of your solar power system. All quality products like your LG solar panels, known European brand inverter and branded mounting system accessories will help you extend the life of the system. Don't forget LG panels have a 25 years efficiency warranty and you want all parts of the solar system to last as long as possible. While cheap solar inverters regularly break down after a year or two - despite 5 year warranties (if the manufacturer is gone bankrupt, a warranty is worth very little) quality inverters installed in 2005 are still working today.

switches

Solar panels generally come with an output or performance warranty (in LG's case it is 25 years) and a manufacturing guarantee (in LG's case 10 years).

It is important to know who is providing the warranty – the manufacturer or the importer. In brands like LG the manufacturer and importer is LG Electronics, so if anything goes wrong LG Electronics will be the party responsible. However In the absence of a manufacturer having representation in Australia, the importer is responsible for the warranty.

If the importer changes their business name or sells their business or ceases to be in business, their manufacturer's warranty obligations towards you stops. Because the warranties are for very long time and the solar industry is very volatile it might be better to choose a solar panel from a manufacturer that is diversified (meaning makes a range of products and therefore has multiple income streams) rather than a single solar manufacturer who you have never heard off. Ask the company who is supplying the system to give you in writing as to who is providing the warranty. Also ask them to back the warranty themselves should the manufacturer go out of business.

A system manual that provides operation, maintenance and safety information should be provided by your installer upon completion. This must also include the warranty conditions and a system energy output (kWh) estimate specific for your system in its installed location.

It is important to ensure you obtain written confirmation of statements made by your installer, including performance claims, guarantees, country of manufacture of panels and warranties. For example sometimes panels made in China are sold with European names to give the impression they are made in Germany or other countries know for quality manufacturing. Insist on written information at the time of the quote and also as part of the hand over documents. Documentation will be essential if you need to make consumer, warranty or insurance claims.

The inverter is the most hard working component in any solar power system. The inverter converts the direct (DC) current generated by the solar panel into alternating current suitable for the grid or your home. Every time there is a change in intensity/ radiation of the sunlight, every time there is a cloud covering the sun, the inverter has to adjust the electricity being converted. During the day light hours an inverter never stops working. At night naturally it turns itself off.

In summary: A solar inverter is responsible for reliable yield monitoring and ongoing grid management. For this reason the correct inverter selection is vital to ensure that you make the most out of every ray of sunshine. Your investment in good products like LG solar panels and a known European brand inverter will lead to solid yield efficiency and a longer solar system life.

When a solar panel is being assembled and prepared for lamination it is crucial that no dirt, solder, dust, hair or other foreign particles are caught or they can cause bubbles in the laminate or air gaps which can lead to premature failure. Strictly clean conditions are essential in manufacturing solar panels. LG panels for example are made in semi conductor environments, to remove dust from the environments.

LG's laboratory are dust-free environments for solar cell production

The alignment of solar cells is also an important indicator of workmanship in a solar panel. Poorly aligned solar cells can introduce stress into the interconnections or the potential for current leakage between cells.

When you are assessing a solar panel, check that there are no inclusions accidentally laminated under the glass and that the solar cells are perfectly aligned as this will affect the output of the system.

There are some situations where it potentially makes sense to not buy a solar system. Here are our top tips on when not to buy a solar system:

If you are uncomfortable or suspicious about what you are being offered. Unfortunately, some solar companies try to oversell, overpromise or pressure you into buying a solar system. If you are suspicious of your supplier, don’t feel confident that they will be around to support you or the promises seem too good to be true, they probably are and it may be worth pausing. Be careful of cheap solar deals, that offer quality equipment. Watch for the catch.

If your house is heavily shaded. In some situations, heavy shading can reduce the output of a solar system so much that it can be ineffective. You should consider the impact of current shading and also, the potential for future shading from tree growth or known renovations on closely adjoining properties. In heavily shaded situations a shade analysis is essential and will allow you to decide based on output and economics whether it is worth proceeding or not. (Please note micro inverters can help in partly shaded locations).

Buying at the last minute… although solar systems have become very affordable, there is sometimes a temptation to rush the purchase when incentive schemes are being wound up. Although you may get a better deal during times like this, take care not to overlook the details of what you are buying and most importantly, that your supplier can supply and install it in a time frame that secures any incentives on offer. If your supplier cannot guarantee supply and installation and incentives are crucial, rushing at the last minute may not be a good time to buy solar.

Finally, you need to be able to use the electricity your system generates. If you are never home during the day and do not run freezers, aquariums, pool pumps or other heave electricity consumables during the day, then maybe solar is not right for you right now. Look at solar again in a few years, when cost competitive solar electricity storage solutions are on the market.

If the company which has sold you the system has closed down, you still have the recourse of calling the accredited installer who installed the system.

After the installation of your system, you would have been given a copy of the installation certificate. The installer contact details and license number is given. The installer might still be liable to check the system if it falls within the workmanship warranty period. Call your local Department of Fair Trading for advice.

If the original solar install company does not trade anymore and you cannot locate the original licensed and certified solar installer, you have the option to call another local solar installer. Explain the issue with your solar system and be frank that you have not purchased the system from him, but that you need professional solar support. Be prepared to have to pay for a call out fee.

To avoid such problems in the future, we suggest you should look at an established network of qualified installers, like the LG solar dealer network to install your system n the first place.

Lease board on a company that has closed its business

modern solar inverters

Like any product or a system, the solar system can develop a defect. The defect can come in the inverter, panel or the electrical installation. Traditionally nearly 80% of system failures or automatic shut downs are related to inverter issues. That's why we recommend to pair our quality LG panels with a high quality, top of the range inverters.

There are safeguards built into the inverters and electrical systems. If you feel that the system is not performing well or has stopped working, you should get in touch with your original installer or call a certified solar tradesman to inspect the system. Do not attempt to fix the system yourself by turning switches and buttons on and off. If the solar power system has shut down a serious defect could have occurred. You are dealing with high voltage electricity, a field safely left to the experts. Call your local solar dealer.

The life span between a cheap and a quality solar system differs. For example high quality inverters on average can last longer than a decade, while some very cheap inverters may have high failure rates after only a few years. Solar panels do not have any moving parts and if they are of a good quality can last a long time. LG solar panels, for example, are expected to reliably generate electricity for 25 years. 

In general you should look at the following as the minimum life of a system:

  1. 10 year manufacturing warranty on Solar Panels
  2. 25 year limited warranty on power production of the solar modules
  3. Minimum of 5 years manufacturer’s warranty on the inverter. Some solar inverter manufacturers offer a 10 year warranty(parts and labour) or the option to extend the inverter warranty for 5 years to 10 years for a small extra fee.
  4. Also confirm that the installer gives you a long workmanship warranty on their installation work.

Solar systems are safeguarded against electrical current leakages, lightning strikes, power surges through circuit breakers and non-electricity conducting railing and racking systems. Quality products increase the life of the system and your safety. There have been cases where illegal copies of quality circuit breakers were used, and over time these circuit breakers malfunctioned, meaning the home owner lost their solar electricity for some time before they realised the system had permanently switched off. Cheap components can cost you money in the long run.

Water damage in circuit breaker

  1. High pressure sales tactics - buy today and you will get a special rebate is one of the most common pressure tactics. If the deal is so good, it deserves proper examination. Do not sign and ask for time to consider the deal, ALWAYS.
  2. The rebate is ending next week - is another favourite sales line in solar. While this was true in years gone past when rebates changed regularly. The key solar rebate being the solar certificates is now a consistent scheme and there is a sudden deadline is not very likely. Ask for any such claim to given to you in writing and check it out on the net or call your local authorized LG solar installer.
  3. The Big System push – some companies will advise you on buying a larger solar power system and tell you that it will reduce your electricity bill to Zero. Be wary of that claim. A decent size solar system can reduce you electricity bill significantly, but a Zero bill is quite unlikely, as solar systems do not work at night and cannot take away your nightly electric consumption. Understand the solar system generation offset with feed-in-tariff and your consumption in detail before you go for any such claim. Try our system income calculator
  4. Install the system in any direction, solar works in any direction, as long there is light. Some companies follow the unethical practice of installing solar systems on the South / South West direction on the roof due to lack of roof space availability, or because this is the area with the easiest access. Only consider the North, North East and North Western roofs. South roofs will need special North facing tilt frames to work.
  5. Cheap Price Offer – some companies offer you a very economical quote as compared some other solar companies. They seemed to have installed lots of systems and offer long term warranties. What could go wrong? They usually give you a good plausible story why their solar system is so cheap, like “We buy direct from overseas manufacturers” or “We are buying in big volumes and pass the saving on” or “We are just running a special and this is one of the last systems left”. Please do not get swayed by it.
  6. Remember that if the solar system is offered very cheap then there is a good possibility of lower quality materials being used to offset costs. The system might not be as efficient as claimed or worse fails to last for any prolonger period. In Australia in 2012 over 150 solar installers and manufacturing companies like Sunny Roo or Aerosharp went into liquidation. http://www.adelaidesolarrepairs.com.au/Sunny-Roo-Inverter-Repairs.html

    One of the reasons for solar companies going into liquidation is to avoid growing warranty claims.

    http://www.cbs.sa.gov.au/assets/medicomms/mrelease_unleashAdministration.pdf

    http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/failed-unleash-solar-boss-dion-perdikoyiannis-sets-up-shop-in-us/story-e6frea83-1226593502384

    http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/business/sa-business-journal/sunrise-solars-collapse-linked-to-unleash-solar-failure-16-jobs-lost/story-e6fredel-1226607037121

    We recommend to use solar panel manufacturers you have heard of, and that these manufacturers have multiple product streams, so your long term warranty has some meaning. For inverters stick with the biggest companies in the industry, the ones that have local warranty/service centres.

  7. Finally some solar companies offer no deposit finance or a higher than average feed in tariff.

Please read these contracts carefully. Whiles there are some decent offers on the market; there are also others where you pay the cost of interest or cost of the extra feed in tariff via the system price, which is overpriced. It’s not really such a good deal in that case.

Make sure the installer comes to your house and has a look, before you get the quote. Internet based solar companies quote you for a system over the phone can spell trouble for the install quality, as they cannot truly appreciate the individual set up of your house. Are the tiles brittle ? Where are any surrounding trees, which can cause overshadowing?What about antennas and chimney locations - which in the future through overshadowing can affect the system output significantly? How old is your switch board and does it need upgrading to handle solar? All these questions only become clear through a proper home inspection.

old electricity meter

When internet or call centre based solar companies sell you a system they use the one size fits all approach and give you a standard price. They then negotiate with a sub-contract installer to install your system for an agreed price. So the sub-contracted installer holds all the risk should your system requires extra cabling or is a particular labor intensive installation. It is more likely in this situation for the installer to find the quickest way, not necessarily the best way to install the system. Being a sub-contractor to the company that sold you the system, the installer's relationship with your system is one of "get in and get out as quick as possible".

Should you, in years to come require support for your solar system, the internet based solar company might not be around anymore, or should they still exist are very likely to send a new sub-contractor to check out the issue. It is better, like with your car, to have the same reliable mechanic undertake the ongoing work. Someone who is familiar with your particular circumstances/system.

In general the quotation should provide solar system specifications like quantity of panels, brand and model of panels, system size and likely output per annum in kW/h, capacity and output of the inverter or if micro inverters are to be used the brand and warranty conditions.

A proper, considered quote should include also datasheets of the supplied products. In general make sure your quote includes:

  1. Solar PV modules - brand, model and manufacturer's warranties;
  2. Mounting frames - brand, warranties and which part of the roof to be installed;
  3. Inverter - brand, capacity and manufacturer's warranty;
  4. Any additional metering cost - if not included in the price, make sure this aspect is clearly outlined in the quote;
  5. Travel and transport requirements if not included;
  6. Any trench digging if solar to be installed on outbuildings e.g. farms.

Make sure the installer at hand over gives you a system user manual.

The quotation should also specify a total price, together with proposed start and completion dates. The quotation should form a basis for your contract with the designer/installer. Deposit requirements for the system should not be excessive. Usually the majority of the solar system needs to be paid for on the day of installation.