Some final words
It is with regret that I have made the decision that Solar Designs will cease installing new systems. It was interesting, it was fun, but every good thing has to come to an end.
When Solar Designs started in early 2008 it was out of the need for good value grid connected systems. Back then the industry was very small and prices were high. Indeed, in 2007 I wanted to get a system for my own house and was shocked by some of the quotes I received. That made me take matters into my own hands: I completed the accreditation requirements and started Solar Designs.
Now at the end of 2010, some 200 installations later, the PV industry has changed tremendously. There are literally hundreds of companies with thousands of accredited installers. Lack of competition is no longer a problem. In that respect the mission is accomplished. Solar Designs is no longer needed to bring prices down. Time to take the burden off my own back and to stop lugging panels around, I'm not getting younger.
Unfortunately a trend has emerged that makes it tougher than ever for customers to find a good value system. Large parts of the industry now install panels and inverters from manufacturers that have a very limited track record of just a few years. Most of those components come from China and the manufacturers have only just started making them. While they may last there is no assurance that they will, many are expected to fail prematurely. For a 20 year investment that is not good enough in my view.
At the same time big name installers with huge advertising budgets swamp letterboxes and make unsolicited calls. While the names are big so are their margins. The components they use are usually only average, but prices are top of the range, capitalising on the big name. Often high pressure sales tactics coerce home owners into signing up on the spot, taking away any chance to shop around.
Those two developments are very worrying. They both have the potential to damage this very important industry in the long run. Components that fail after a few years, with manufacturers no longer around to honour their warranty, will mean a waste of thousands of dollars not only of customers but also of taxpayers money. Paying thousands more for a system from a big name company that does not perform any better than that of your neighbours can be just as discouraging.
While I am actively competing in the market there is nothing I can do about it. Why would anyone believe me more than the other guy? A marketing exaggeration by a slick sales rep is easy to make and hard to disprove. The truth is usually complicated, sometimes it involves lengthy calculations. Which customer has the time to get familiar with all the technical terms and to look into that level of detail?
Being no longer involved in installations might add to my credibility. I am not completely unbiased, experiences during the last few years have of course left impressions with me. I have not worked with all the available materials, so there might be some good products that I know nothing of. That said: I have spent lots of time researching materials and it would be a waste to just let that knowledge disappear. So here is my parting present, some advice, to the best of my ability:
The main components in a PV system are panels and inverter, they deserve very close scrutiny. Wiring and mounting frame are important too, but so is installation quality, those last all come down to the individual installer.
In general: the rated output in W is the number to compare. Systems from different manufacturers will produce very similar amounts of power if they have the same rated number of W. Variations in temperature performance might make a small difference of around 2-3%, hardly enough to worry given all the other losses in a system (rating tolerance, panel mismatch, wire losses, inverter efficiency). Output estimates given to you by sales reps can be more or less optimistic, sometimes outright misleading. Compare apples with apples: compare rated W with rated W.Manufacturers:
Yes, warranties are important. But they are only as good as the company that gives them to you. If an unknown manufacturer disappears and the importer can't be found, your manufacturer's warranty is not worth the paper it is printed on.
Most panels have two different warranties, an output warranty, usually 25 years, that promises a certain minimum output from the solar cells. And a product warranty, in most cases 5 years, sometimes 10, sometimes just 1 or 2 years. The product warranty covers the whole panel. The output warranty is of very little use if the panel is no longer in working order i.e. after the back has de-laminated or water has entered the junction box.
SMA are the clear market leader with about 40% market share. Their Sunny Boys are made in Germany and built to last. I have not had a single warranty case from the over 100 units I installed. Compare that to 6 repairs out of 36 installations with another well know European inverter brand.
The best inverter and the best panels are of little use if they are not matched to form a well performing system. A common mistake is to ignore variations in voltage at different temperatures. Each inverter has a limited input voltage range:
The DC side (power coming from the panels to the inverter) will often run at a higher voltage than AC. If a wiring fault causes arcing in a DC system that is seriously dangerous. That's why the current standard recommends the use of single core double insulated wires. Ask your installer if he follows the recommendation or tries to save a few dollars by using TPS.
Several brands offer good off the shelf solutions. It is important that enough supports are used. For tile roofs some framing systems require drilling holes in tiles, I don't think that is a good idea. Silicone will seal it for now, but for 20+ years, really?
If the above is not enough information and you have a hard time deciding between different quotes you can send me an email and ask for my opinion.
Please note: this is a free service, I can not guarantee that I will reply or how quickly I will reply. If one of the companies that quoted for you forces you to make a quick decision, rule them out. In almost all cases the only reason to make a quick decision is to lock your business in for them, taking away your right to shop around.
By sending information to me you agree that I may keep the information to build up a comparison database that will allow me to see 'what is out there in the market'. At a later stage I might or might not publish summaries of this information. If I publish I will of course ensure that all personally identifiable information is removed.
What I need to know to evaluate a quote is:
All right, that's it. Thanks to all customers for their trust, all suppliers for their support, all electricians for the good jobs they did and all government agencies for keeping up the challenge to run a viable business in an environment with constantly changing goal posts.
p.s.: customers who already signed up will of course get their systems installed as scheduled over the next few months, no worries I am not running away with your deposits