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I have an old solar system which is getting tired and not meeting my needs. What are my options?

My name is Markus Lambert, and I head the LG solar division. I started in the industry in 2006 when solar technology had 175W panels and a 1.5 kW system cost $12,000. Soon after the Howard Government Rebates of $8000 for a 1.5kw system were introduced and end customers paid around $3,950 for a 1.5 kW system with 6 x 175W panels and a SMA 1.5kw SunnyBoy inverter. This typically only supplied 20% of a households power needs and owners often still had high electricity bills.

In 2008, the Rudd Government stopped the flat $8000 rebate and a new rebate scheme based on panel capacity started. These older systems not only got a healthy rebate, but also qualified for a lucrative feed-in-tariff (FIT) from the electricity retailer. In NSW the FIT ran for 7 years and finished in 2016, but in other states like in Queensland a 44 cents FIT still had a run for more than a decade. Due to these legacy feed-in-tariffs many older systems still earn decent cash flow.

Can I add to my old solar system?

At the time the 1.5kw solar systems were sold, many solar sales persons indicated that there would be opportunities to add panels to the small system in future years. The reality today is somewhat different.

Some of the key reasons home owners look at adding panels and capacity to an older system are:

  1. Customers are looking to realise the potential of an “oversized inverter” often sold to them as “expandable” or “upgradable” as the sales person indicated in the future it would be with the promise it would be easy to add more panels. Unfortunately this promise is almost impossible to keep, as Governments changed installation standards and generally old solar panels from that period are not compatible with modern modules (more on this later).
  2. With generous feed-in-tariffs ending the financial benefits of small solar systems are much reduced and owners, looking at bigger bills, want a larger solar system capacity to compensate.
  3. There is plenty of spare roof space available to expand the system.
  4. The owner’s circumstances changes and they now have a higher electricity consumption.
  5. The inverter recently died and the owner is looking for the best option to move forward with solar.
  6. The homeowner is exploring batteries and realises the existing system size is not adequate.

Specific reasons why upgrading solar old solar is difficult:

  • Modern 60 cell panels are not compatible with older style 72 cell, 165W to 200W panels, which typically had 6 or 9 panels in a single string going into a string inverter.
  • Fire ratings required by legislation on modern 300W+ panels mean they will not burn, even when they have a hot spot or other malfunction. Second-hand older panels did not have this requirement, and due to the new standards, it is now illegal to install such older style panels.
  • Installation rules have changed significantly. With early solar systems, for example, you could run a bare electrical cable from the panels straight to the inverter. Nowadays all solar cabling needs to be in special conduits and clearly labelled. In addition a new safety feature called a roof-top isolator has to be added, to allow the fire brigade or any other person to turn off the solar supply from the roof.
  • Some state-based feed-in-tariffs (FIT) which are still running specify that the solar power system is not allowed to be expanded, without losing the FIT.

So for all these reasons adding new panels to an existing system is not a solution that is possible.

What are your options?

1) If your existing system has stopped working because panels or inverter has failed, then you are allowed to keep the system going again by exchanging like for like. Meaning if you had a 1.5kw inverter you can replace the old 1.5 kW inverter with a similar one. The same applies to panels, if your existing panels have water ingress or other issues. In most cases those panels would need to be replaced with 2nd hand panels. In this case the new fire rating rule for new panels does not apply to the older 2nd hand ones as long as you do not change the system.

2) Many owners of older systems keep their old system running as is, or if it has failed decide to remove the old system and start again. So the option is either get a brand new quality system, such as one from LG installers which can be found here: https://www.lgenergy.com.au/dealer and have it run together with the old one, or have a much bigger new LG panel system installed, after the old one has been removed.

While PV systems and especially panels have come down in price significantly, the Australian market has attracted the cheapest of the cheap and quality at the bottom end is actually reduced compared to the quality of the solar panels in the earlier panel systems. They are designed to be cheap, not for a long life. We recommend you read the Beginners Guide for Solar https://resources.lgenergy.com.au/solar-beginners-guide/ to give you some clear guidelines of the best options available today, and how to avoid the many pitfalls of cheap solar today.

Solar and Batteries

For most households the older, smaller solar systems common 5+ years ago are usually not big enough in kW size to supply the household and a battery with sufficient renewable energy to create an efficient outcome, meaning keep the battery appropriately charged during the day, to have the full battery capacity available at night.

The most applied solution is to add a 2nd solar system with batteries. This 2nd system would then include a hybrid inverter which can charge the battery. In some instances the new hybrid inverter can also take the solar power from your old smaller system to charge the battery.

Please note: If you change and older system’s inverter with anything other than like for like the solar system installer will have to change the whole solar system to the new Australian standard – as per legal requirement. Often the cost of this upgrade is more than the remaining value of the solar system. Also the installer via this upgrade, than takes on the legal liability of your older system, and some installers do not wish to have that responsibility; therefore getting older systems upgraded can be a difficult endeavour. Talk to your LG Authorized solar installation specialist about the potential solutions. Please check here for the closest installer near you. https://www.lgenergy.com.au/dealer

And when considering a purchase consider this old home truth – buy quality buy once, buy cheap by twice.

Happy solar researching from your LG Electronics Solar Team.

A typical 1.5kw solar system from 2009 with SMA SunnyBoy inverter

A typical 1.5kw solar system from 2009 with SMA SunnyBoy inverter

A typical 1.5kw solar system from 2009 with SMA SunnyBoy inverter