Solar Buyer’s Guide

solar-buyer-guide

A Solar buyer’s guide:

We don’t live in a perfect world. So, things can get dodgy sometimes.

If you’re buying solar panels for your home or small business, you should consider few things before you pick up that phone or fill out a form for quotes.

You’ll never regret the decision of going solar. But if you are not prepared enough, you may regret the outcome.

Not all solar companies are created equal. And you can’t differentiate if you don’t know how to test them. One of the goals of this guide is to help you test out the good companies from the bad ones.

In this guide, I have put together a checklist of things that I believe are critical to your buying process. To simplify a bit, I have grouped these guidelines under three time stages:

  • Before you receive quotes,
  • After you receive quotes, and,
  • After picking your solar company.

So, here we go. You can also jump to the section you want to read about by clicking the links below.

Stage1: 7 to-dos before receiving solar quotes.

Stage2: After receiving solar quotes: 4 things to compare and 5 things not to compare.

Stage3: You picked the solar company, what’s next?

 

First stage: 7 things before receiving solar quotes.

  1. Access your own need: This should be the first step in buying guide of solar power system for anyone. Take sometime and learn:
    • how to read KWH you consume in a day, from your electricity bill. This is also called your usage or consumption.
    • check to see if there is light, moderate or heavy shading on your roof, and,
    • find out orientation of your roof with empty space.

     

  2. Sizing your solar power need: If you don’t know how to size your need, I have a post dedicated just for that. You can read here.
  3. Types of solar panels: Do you want mono or polycrystalline panels? I have written in detail about this on another page.
  4. Government rebates: If you’re buying solar power system, there is government rebate program to reduce your initial investment. Once you know your size requirement, find out how much you can save for your location. This will help you budget your project.
  5. Aesthetics: This could be an important factor for many folks. There are panels that look better than others. Read my “Types of solar panels” to get an idea.
  6. Solar Batteries: Do you want to use solar power even at nighttime? Buying solar battery alone will very likely double your solar investment today. But do you want to be able to add batteries in couple of years when they become cheap? Make up your mind. 
  7. Contact your electricity retailer: Some retailers are friendlier than others when it comes to solar. Before you buy solar, contact your retailer to find out how it will impact your existing electricity rates. Ask if they have restrictions on maximum solar size they allow.

Next…

Second stage: After receiving solar quotes

4 things to compare and 5 things not to compare.
Okay, you have decided to buy solar panel for your home or small business. And now you have received multiple solar quotes from various solar companies. But the quotes aren’t exactly apples to apples. What do you compare between the quotes? And what you don’t?

First let’s talk about the things you should compare:

I am going to help you breakdown the quotes in four different categories and for each, you can see how each quote compares..

  1. Products offering: Solar panels and inverter are the products you buy. Look out for:
  • Solar panel technology; monocrystalline or polycrystalline.
  • Solar panel manufacturers grade and brand: are they Tier 1 grade? You want to make sure you get tier 1 grade panels. Have you heard of the brand before?
  • Inverter type and manufacturer: String inverter or micro inverter? Who is the manufacturer.

Depending on what kind of product mix the company is offering, the price of the system can vary significantly. So, it is important you understand the differences when you have those quotes handy. 

The second thing to compare between the quotes would be,

  1. Financing: If you asked for financing option, look for:
  • Upfront down payment
  • Length of finance term
  • Interest rates
  • If you are a small business owner looking for finance, you might want to consider secured loan as well. This usually means lower rates and longer payback term. Ask for quote that includes secured as well as unsecured finance option.

The third item you should look for in the quotes is,

  1. Identification of the solar company: Check the background of each solar company offering you the quote. Look for:
  • Reputation: use sites like Google reviews and productreview.com.au for reviews by verified purchasers.
  • History: Each Company has registered ABN, you can use ABN lookup tool to find out how long they have been in business.
  • Certification: Look for Clean Energy Council (CEC) certification logo or any mention in their quote.
  • Good companies standout every step of the way:
    • Did the salesman visit your site?
    • Did the salesman answer all your questions?
    • Was the salesman NOT pushy at all?
    • Did he arrive on time?
  • Local presence: This is important in case you have issues with your panels or inverter in the future. Do they at least have an office in Australia that you can contact?

The fourth and the last thing to look for is,

  1. Warranty: There are two kinds of warranties. One for the product and the other for installation work.
  • Product warranty for Solar panels: Solar panels have two separate warranties. One is for output performance (which you can care less; example can be 80% output after 20 years). The other warranty is the workmanship, which essentially covers the wear and tear on the panels. Typical is 10 years. More is better and this is more important than performance warranty.
  • Product warranty for inverters: Inverters usually come with five years warranty. 
  • Workmanship warranty: This is the warranty on the installation work performed by the solar company. Find out who has the best warranty, time wise and coverage in case something goes wrong in the near future and long-term future.

There you go… those are the four categories of information you should extract from each quote and do a side-by-side comparison for each company before you decide whom to purchase from. Don’t settle based only on the price differences.  

Next I am going to talk about what to avoid while comparing the quotes. Basically, what I mean is, don’ t pick a quote based on one or combination of these criteria.

So, let’s get started.

  • Annual solar power generation or expected yield (#1): Don’t make your solar buying decision based on the highest power-generating quote. Simply because this is not a guarantee. It is hard because there are too many variables that can impact power generation over the year. Nobody discloses which variables were accounted and which ones were excluded; the comparison won’t be apples to apples. Tips: Mono crystalline panels will produce more power compared to poly crystalline panels. But they also cost more.
  • Savings estimate per year (#2): Again, it is impossible to forecast a reasonable savings estimate based just on your monthly bill but many solar companies still do. One has to do hour-by-hour comparison analysis of your usage and power generation over the year to give you a closer estimate of the savings. If you have savings estimate on your quote, this number has no real meaning to it.

If you have a quote that saves you $900 per year and another that saves you $1000 per year, it will give you a rough idea on the range of your savings. But don’t pick the $1000 quote automatically.

Savings is about power generation and how much of that power you’re likely to self-consume. Generation is somewhat easier to predict while self-consumption is hard.

  • Smaller system (#3): Your consumption and Peak Sun Hours (amount of sunlight in your area) are the two variables that determine the size of your solar system. It is easy to manipulate those two variables and lower the quote price with a smaller size. If a company promises you to deliver your power need with a smaller Kilowatt system, be careful.

This is why I recommended you understand your size need before asking for solar quote.

  • Freebies and limited stock offerings(#4): Some solar companies offer you “free panel” with the purchase. I personally try to avoid such offers. Make sure the company selling the product is genuine and the products are of high quality before falling in this trap. Also, be cautious about “discounts on the old batch before the new shipping arrives”.
  • Total cost of the system(#5): All I want to say here is, you get what you pay for. Remembering this principle as a buyer can prevent you from making the wrong choice while buying a solar power system (or any kind of system). Again, don’t pick a quote based only on the price.

In all practicality, a combination of few of these factors in a quote is likely to raise a bigger red flag than just one. And the more there are, the worst it is.

A reputable solar company with great products may offer you a freebie because they are running a promotional offer. However, if the same company is also offering you the cheapest quote and promise to save you fortune on your power bill, then that’s a red flag.

You shouldn’t buy solar power system from such company.

Third stage: After you pick your solar company – what’s next?

Now you have chosen the solar company to buy and install your solar power system from. That means you’ve also made your choice for the type of products you want. Remaining of the homework will be putting microscopic eye on that solar company, their warranties and the what-if clauses. All of which must be done and understood before you sign any papers.

There are few things you should ask the solar company to clear the air out a bit more.

A good list of questions can be as follows (but not limited to):

  • Warranty related:
    • If that solar company went out of business, what happens to the warranty that comes with the panel and inverter manufacturer?
    • Do the manufacturers (panel and inverter) have office in Australia?
    • What’s included in the solar company’s workmanship warranty?
    • Who are the responsible parties for each warranty?
    • This one is important; ask very specifically that if there is an issue with the product (panel or inverter) shortly after installation, what is the process to troubleshoot the issue? Who is responsible for repairs, exchanges and associated soft costs.

Now, most of this information will be in the contract paper that you will sign. Make sure you read the fine prints and find your answers. If not, don’t hesitate to ask.

Few more things,

  • If you fear your roof may have shading issues, ask for shading analysis (if it wasn’t done prior to receiving the quote).
  • Who is responsible to make an application to your power retailer so your system can be connected to the grid?
  • If financing, ask if they have multiple financing options. If you are a small business owner looking for lower interest rates, secured loan can be an option.

Wrapping it up!!

All this information can be overwhelming. Take some time and prepare enough so you feel confident about shopping. Talk to your friends or neighbor who have already installed solar. Learning from their experience can be invaluable as well. 

Additionally, you can also find more information on this topic on Clean Energy Council website. Below are the links for residential and business solar installation.

Guide-to-installing-solar-PV-for-households

Guide-to-Installing-Solar-PV-for-Business-and-Industry

I wish you all the best for your project. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

 

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