7 September 2021

How To Buy Solar (as painlessly as possible)

Without a doubt, solar is the cleanest, cheapest form of electricity and we are entering a long overdue Renewables Revolution. I don’t want confusion to slow us down, so I'm sharing my top straightforward, non-technical, insider tips for How To Buy Solar (as painlessly as possible)!

For the last five years of working in the solar industry, the two big questions that I’ve heard people thinking about buying solar ask over and over again are:

Will this solar system really reduce (or get rid of) my electricity bill?

and

Am I paying the right price for this quote? 

The majority of people that I have come across find it really challenging to buy solar. There are new terms and concepts to understand and a lot of very technical information about components of the solar system, your electricity ecosystem, and ever-changing electricity regulations. But it doesn't have to be so hard. Here are some insider tips for buying solar to make the process as easy as possible for you:

1.Go local. Small businesses generally live and die by their reputations, so it’s in their best interest to do the best possible job for each client. That means asking you questions about your energy usage, understanding your needs, answering all your questions, explaining energy concepts and how solar works, visiting your site in person to personally assess for suitability, setting expectations, understanding your budget and whether you want the simple system, the premium system, or the middle-of-the-range system. 

Find a couple of small accredited solar retailers (that are CEC certified) in your area and check out their reviews on Google and Facebook. If you are having trouble finding someone, use a reputable quoting website. I like Solar Quotes a lot as Finn Peacock is passionate about the solar industry and is doing his best to educate and truly help people to buy solar. Look for a solar retailer that is genuinely interested in understanding your needs, educating you, and can provide references.

2. Ignore the TV ads and door knockers. Avoid any business that calls or knocks on your door and uses high-pressure sales techniques. Particularly avoid the companies that scream rock bottom prices from television screens and bank on the popularity of their non-solar spokesperson.

3. Find a solar retailer you trust. A good quality solar retailer will visit your site and ask you the right questions to guide you to the best system solution for your needs.  By all means, research as much as you like, but you really shouldn’t need to do all the research on all the components or worry about angles, orientation, sizes or brand; hopefully you have chosen a solar retailer whose job it is to ensure that your solar system is successful.

4. Do a little homework. Be prepared to answer some of the questions that a good solar retailer will (hopefully) ask you to understand more about your needs:

  • How long will you live in the home? 
  • How many people live in the home now, and will live there in 5 years, 10 years, and more?
  • What are your goals for your electricity bill? 
  • Do you want the maximum solar output that your roof can provide, the best financial investment return, or just enough to cover your bills?
  • What kind of shading do you get on your roof during the day, and from season to season?
  • Is there any reason that you might want a well-known or ‘status’ brand? 
  • Is the colour and look of the solar panels important to you?
  • Do you want to support local manufacturing and technology businesses (even if they are a little more expensive)? 
  • What is your total budget, and how will you fund the upfront cost?

5. Be realistic about cost. You really do get what you pay for (to a point). The cost of a well-designed, reasonably-performing solar system with a good warranty, and the installation (this is all-important; good quality design and installation is key) is not worth scrimping on. If you opt for an entry-level system, aim to still pay for the best installation you can afford. Expect to pay at least $1 per Watt, and more if you might have a more complex installation/site/access/remote location or if you need to upgrade any of your electrical components. So an average 6.6kW system should cost you about $6,600 at a minimum.

6. Understand your 'payback'. It's a really good idea to make sure that your solar retailer gives you an estimate on energy production and the savings you will expect to make. Using this information, you can calculate your 'payback' time for your system. Look at the solar feed-in-tariffs (the amount that you are paid for the solar energy that you produce but don't use that is sent back to the grid), and electricity rates in your local area, and check that these match the assumptions that your solar retailers has used to reach this estimate. Add to this the reasonable assumption that solar feed-in-tariffs will likely continue to go down over time.

7. Ensure you get the data you need. It’s important to get the best possible solar monitoring available, which needs to include consumption monitoring (this measures your electricity usage in your house). Don’t be misled that this component is optional. You will need to see how much solar you are producing and when, and how much energy you are using, and when, in order to use your solar efficiently, and reduce your use (accidental or otherwise) of fossil fuels.

You will also need to know if your system has a problem at any stage - ask your solar retailer how they will determine if there is an issue, and how this will be communicated with you. 

Solar monitoring (with consumption meter) usually requires a small separate hardware device installed in your meter board that will measure the electricity usage in your house, and depending on the device, could drill down to individual circuits in your house, so you can see exactly what some of your more energy-hungry consumer goods actually use (e.g. pool pump, air conditioner, water heating).

This service will pay for itself if (when) there is any issue. By the way, the solar app that comes with the inverter you choose is not necessarily the best option (even the most expensive brand name inverters). Disclaimer: I worked for Solar Analytics for 5.5 years and highly recommend their solar monitoring software.

NB: Inverters are the achilles heel in your system and there is an increasing chance of an inverter malfunction after only 3 years. (This is also a good reason not to get a cheap, unreliable inverter - they are as important as your panels)

8. Go big. A good solar retailer will suggest the optimum system size for your needs. However that being said, there is a great argument for ‘over-sizing’ the number of panels on your roof to maximise your production. Additional panels are only an incremental cost, and by having as many panels as possible, you will have more production in Winter and bad weather days (and depending on whether your site has a limit on the amount of solar you can export back to the grid, you can earn a nominal amount for your excess solar to offset your usage after dark). You may think that you could add more panels later, but evolving standards and technology can make this impractical, and rather than adding panels, you might have to replace the whole system. Additionally, a significant component of your cost is the installation, and you might as well install as much as you can while your installers are on site (this goes for components like a consumption meter too) rather than calling the team out again down the track. And, although electric vehicles seem like a long way off, they will likely be ubiquitous before the end of life of your solar system. There are alternative opinions, but it makes a lot of sense to me.

9. Investigate funding options. Think about how you will fund this investment (or you could think of it as a pre-payment of your electricity costs). Look carefully at the fine print of any financing options - many will include interest that will set back the amount of time it takes you to ‘pay off’ your system.

10. Push through indecision. Don’t be paralysed by too much choice, inability to distinguish between quotes, or fear. Your most important job is to find the best solar retailer possible to help guide you through this process. You can also access advice from your local Council’s sustainability officer, or you could pay for advice from a renewable energy consultant. Once you have found a solar retailer that you trust, they will partner with you to help find the best solution for you, because remember - they want you to be successful and that helps their business when you recommend them to others.

PS: You may also be wondering about whether to buy a battery ('storage') for your solar. My former solar colleague Jono pointed out to me that at this point in time, batteries don't make financial sense in most cases. However, this varies depending on your state subsidies available (more in ACT, Victoria, South Australia), and on the gap between what you receive from the electricity retailer for your excess solar and what you pay to buy electricity from the grid (larger in Western Australia and the Northern Territory). His most important advice is to make sure that your solar retailer presents the payback for the solar and the battery separately, so you can see the impact each makes.

...

Yes, it’s time consuming and overwhelming, but finding a trusted partner really is the key to making the process of buying solar as pain-free as possible. If you are interested in reducing your electricity costs and your use of fossil fuels, I encourage you to get started on the solar journey as soon as you can. And please feel free to ask me any questions along the way.

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