Extraordinary price competition between Australian solar companies is forcing installers to work faster and could potentially lead to fatalities, an industry figure has warned.
Solar company RoofJuice’s chief executive, Nigel Morris, said discount solar companies were “squeezing solar installers so hard” that they had little choice but to either use unskilled or inexperienced labour or cut corners to do the job at the quoted price.
“The rest of the world is dumbfounded at how we do it so cheaply,” Mr Morris said. “When you look at the money paid by some of the discount solar houses, in particular, there’s barely enough money to do a proper work health and safety risk assessment on the site let alone to do the actual installation.
“There is just no money available to do it the way the standards say you should be doing them, and to spend a whole lot of time making sure that people are suitably prepared to handle risks.”
Mr Morris spoke out in light of an incident at Mildura Airport in Victoria last week where a 100kW grid-connected photovoltaic system was being installed on the terminal roof. A solar installer is believed to have fallen six metres, crashing through the ceiling into the terminal. The installer and two travellers were injured from falling debris and transported to hospital.
Such events in solar installation were rare but avoidable, Mr Morris said, though more rules and regulations were not the answer.
“There is more than enough legislation and regulation in our industry,” he said. “As an operator in this industry I’ve watched it get tougher and tougher, and when you look at the money that can be made off a solar panel job these days versus the amount of paperwork and administration that is required to do it in a fully compliant way – it’s extraordinary.
“We all pressure our installers to be as quick as they can and get out as quick as they can; everyone does their absolute best but you reach a point where there’s just no room to cut any more corners. The key thing is how do you change behaviours?”
Mr Morris said installers needed more time within each job to look around the site, work out risks and mitigate those risks.
“The industry might need to stop and have a good hard look at itself… everyone is under so much pressure and pushing so hard … we may need to have a rethink about how we are actually doing this. Can it be done for the prices that everybody is saying it can be done for?”
He is also concerned about equipment quality in budget systems, and legislation and regulation surrounding DC isolators, which provide a way of manually isolating solar panels during installation or maintenance. A number of DC isolators were recalled in 2014 after being linked to house fires.
“Rooftop isolators are the biggest safety problem by a factor of about 100,” Mr Morris said. “When you look at incidences of system faults, system failures and roof fires, 95 per cent of them are a result of a safety device, would you believe? Yet we are required to continue to put them in on every single installation, actually increasing the risk!”
Australian Solar Council chief executive John Grimes said solar panel installation was like every other trade and people who operated in the space needed to abide by occupational health and safety rules, particularly the working at heights rule.
“So people need to be tethered and there are requirements for scaffolding if the roof is more than two storeys in some states – every state has a different approach,” he said.
“We are not seeing anything that is specific to solar that’s not applicable to anybody else. Solar panels are very safe. There are literally millions of them produced and used around the world each year. It’s always important when people are selecting solar panels or inverters to do a little bit of research and choose leading brands that have a good-quality reputation.”
No evidence of price competition affecting quality, says ASC
Mr Grimes said the Solar Council was not aware of any cases where price competition had affected the quality of installations.
“Certainly in 2012, when there was a big rush, there might have been an element of that,” he said. “Today a lot of the companies looking to make a fast buck are gone from this industry and people are better educated.”
The problems that occur in solar are more often related to performance.
“Are you going to get the maximum return for your investment in 15, 20, 25 years? That is really a question that people should be asking,” Mr Grimes said.
“I think it’s true that some of the solar manufacturers have been a bit cut throat and I think there’s a risk of component substitution by manufacturers,” he said. “That’s something that consumers here won’t detect until year five or six, and all of a sudden their system is putting out 70 per cent or 60 per cent of what they thought it would at that time and then we’ll start to see a problem.”
The Australian Solar Council provides the Positive Quality program, which involves assessors inspecting solar panels at the point of manufacture. They look at material quality, manufacturing processes and quality assurance and run modules through a battery of tests to ensure they are safe and perform at the highest levels. Four Australian brands carry the Positive Quality logo.
“We go there as an expert advocate on behalf of the buyers,” Mr Grimes said. “What we try to do is encourage consumers to look for it (the logo) because the price difference between modules that are really well made and those that are poorly made, it can often be quite small.
“If they (manufacturers) can claw back the margin by using substitute components, which aren’t going to last the distance, the consumer will never know that. We just make sure that they are doing the right thing.”
Mr Morris said new Clean Energy Council regulations were designed to address this issue but it would take time.
- See our story New regulations to target shonky solar dealers
Those experiencing problems with their solar panels should contact the fair trading body of their state or territory.
“You have rights under solar as you have rights under everything else – it’s no different,” Mr Grimes said. “So if somebody has misrepresented the technology, or it’s not fit for the purpose, or it’s not performing as advertised, then customers do have legal recourse under consumer law.”
A Worksafe Victoria spokesman said they were aware of the Mildura incident and were still investigating.