The Big Print Giveth, and the Small Print Taketh Away
The market for solar (PV) panels is growing dramatically, with thousands of customers installing PV systems for the first time. Many have made their purchase without knowing either the retailer, or the manufacturer of the panels. Unfortunately, not all retailers are equal, and neither are the panels.
Not All Retailers are Equal
It would be wonderful if every customer did their due diligence on the retailer they were buying their system from. Sadly, many don’t, and make large purchases (often with large deposits) from people they don’t know.
In this Internet Age, it’s easy for someone to throw up a good-looking website for as little as the domain registration cost (around $15), and $5 a month for hosting.
Add some blurb, some pretty pictures and an incredible offer, and they’ve got a website. Throw in a 1300 phone number, maybe a post office box, even a serviced office if they want to go mad, and they’re now in business selling people PV systems worth many thousands of dollars.
Their background in the field may be nil, the products they sell may be nobody’s-brands, their warranties may be dubious, but they are making hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars worth of sales, to people who have taken them on trust.
If that scares you a bit, it should. They’re out there, and making sales every day. Over the next few years we’ll hear about many of them through Consumer Affairs (belated) warnings, and ‘exposes’ on TV current affairs programs (sometimes on the same channel that advertised them in the first place). As we learn about what went wrong, we’ll ask ourselves “How did they fall for that?” “Didn’t it sound too good to be true?”.
- Look for a retailer who’s been in business for some time.
- Look for one who has physical premises.
- Look for one who sells quality products.
- Look for one who offers a choice of brands.
- Remember the old sayings “Quality and service are remembered long after price is forgotten”, and “Price is what you pay, Value is what you get.”
Not All Solar Panels Are Equal
It would be wonderful if all customers did their due diligence on the brand and performance of the panels they were buying. Sadly, many don’t, and spend large sums of money on panels they know nothing about, or aren’t even told the brand name of.
Panels vary quite a bit in their efficiencies. Thin-film panels will be under 10%, and a top monocrystalline panel over 18% efficiency. This isn’t relevant from a price point of view, but the lower the efficiency, the more room the panels will take up. Or, to put it the other way, if you’ve got a limited space, using monocrystalline panels will allow you to install a system twice as large as you could using thin-film panels.
Panels vary in their Power Tolerance specification. Panels are rated at a given output (under standard test conditions), say 175 watts. The Specifications then list the tolerance allowed from that rated output. Some panels are +/- 10%. That means they could be anywhere from 157W to 192W. Quite a spread, and guess which end of the scale bottom-end panels are likely to be at? A 175 watt panel with a +/- 5% tolerance could be anywhere from 166W to 183W. One top-quality panel (Sungrid) has a rating of – 0%, + 5%. From the bottom end of the output scale on a poor panel, to the top end of the output scale on a good panel could be a difference of over 16%, when both panels have the same nominal rating.
Panels vary in their quality. A Mercedes-Benz car has an engine, seats, and a wheel at each corner. A Kia has an engine, seats and a wheel at each corner, but that doesn’t make it a Mercedes. Quality is built into the product with the quality of design, materials, and manufacturing processes used. Most panels look much the same, but how well they perform over their lifetime, and how long that lifetime will be, will vary greatly.
Not All Warranties are Equal. It would be wonderful if every customer did their due diligence on the Warranties on the panels they were buying. Sadly, many don’t. What they are not told (and sometimes what they ARE told) can be scary.
There are two kinds of warranty given with solar panels. The first is the standard warranty against faulty parts and workmanship. The period can vary from one year to 10 years. The second is a Guaranteed Performance warranty, which guarantees the actual performance of the panels for up to 25 years.
WHAT is the warranty? You need to read the conditions carefully. What is covered? What will the manufacturer do to resolve the problem? Is the warranty buried away under many pages of legalistic Terms and Conditions? Are the terms. conditions and warranties mostly one-way, to protect the retailer, and hamstring the customer?
WHO is giving the warranty? Product warranties are only as good as the company giving them. The company has to BE THERE in 25 years, if they’re going to honour a 25-tear warranty. If you have no idea who the manufacturer is, how do you know they will actually be there to honour the warranty on the many thousands of dollars of panels you own? Remember, your initial buying price was low due to government rebates. Any replacement panels you need to buy will cost you full price.
WHERE is the warranty given? Reputable retailers sell quality panels purchased from the Australian Agents for that brand. So, you say, “I’m looking at a quality panel such as BP, Sharp, SunPower, SunGrid, Sanyo, Kyocera, SunTech. What could go wrong?” The answer is that the panels could have been imported directly from overseas, not through the local Agent. In that case, the warranty would be back in the country of origin, or manufacture. It’s worth double-checking. The greatest problem is going to come with failures of the ‘nobody’s-brand’ panels- the name you’ve never heard of, doesn’t amount to much if you do a Google search, and whose website doesn’t show an Australian Agent. One retailer even helpfully published the street address in Shanghai that customers would have to deal with for any warranty claims, and noted that the customer was responsible for Customs and transportation charges!
- Buy panels with a brand-name you know, or that check out when you research them.
- Buy panels that have been purchased from the Australian Agent for the manufacturer.
- Buy panels from a manufacturer you can reasonably expect will still be in business in 25 years.
- Check out the length and conditions of the warranties.
Installing solar panels is a good moral, environmental and financial act, that will help make the world a better place for our children, and their children. But watch out for shonky businesses, second-rate products, and risky deals. Keep in mind the old saying, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Another old saying, “You get what you pay for” sometimes isn’t true. Sometimes you pay money, they cease trading, and you don’t get what you paid for, or your money back. To sum up, be careful out there!