How to Choose a Solar Installer?

Deciding on a solar installer can be the most challenging part of your solar buying process. You may find yourself in unfamiliar territory with the nuances of buying a solar power system for your home. Are you purchasing quality equipment? Will the system perform and meet your electricity requirements? Will the system be installed correctly? These are very important factors when choosing your solar installer to enable you to make that switch with confidence.

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Important Factors to Consider when Choosing a Solar Installer:

1. Verify Business Performance

It is always wise, with any home project, to make sure that the company you choose to work with has the necessary experience

1.1 Track Record and Experience

When conducting solar reviews, double check that your solar installer has an established solar track record. They should be able to discuss and show you previous projects and installations and if so, did they offer end-to-end installations, or only carry out a few steps? With the emergence of any new industry, it can be tricky to know which companies you can trust. A key factor when evaluating a solar installer is whether or not they exclusively install solar systems as many companies delve into the industry as a side hustle without really becoming experts themselves.

1.2 Reviews and Complaints

Company reviews from previous customers are helpful when evaluating the particular solar installer however they can be misleading. If you are independently doing research on solar installers, be selective about the review sites you utilise as some of these sites allow companies to appear as featured companies in their listings in exchange for a fee. Its best to approach sites or platforms which contain both reviews and complaints where the companies can respond. The way in which a company has responded to a particular complaint and actions that were taken to rectify the issue is illustrative of a company’s dedication to customer satisfaction.

2. Ask for Quality Assurance

Any solar installer worth their salt would be an accredited service provider under a third party quality assurance programme, such as the PV Green Card (a SAPVIA endorsed programme to ensure the quality and safety of PV installations) or the P4 Platform quality assurance program (an independent system that scores contractors on performance, knowledge and best practice to promote good practice in the PV sector).  

3. Which Staff Qualifications Do They Boast?

Installation of photo-voltaic systems is technical and requires that the people doing the installation have the education and the experience to ensure that a safe and good-quality job is done. Does your solar installer employ or subcontract certified staff? Ask for proof of registration from the electrician (also called a wireman’s licence), and check that it is up-to-date. 

3.1 Minimum qualifications required

The staff hired to do the manual labour, such as the scaffolding and framework need not have any official qualifications in truth, though experience is always a bonus and something that can be queried. Installations that supply less than 1000 volts can be designed and installed by any electrical contractor recognised by the Department of Labour – proof thereof is known as the wire-man’s licence. Any work above 1.5m (which applicable in almost every residential solar installation) requires a certificate in working at heights. According to the Occupational Health & Safety Act the solar installer must provide a competent person to do the work and the construction regulation further stipulates that every work site must have a fall protection plan that will cover training for working at heights, equipment for working at heights and rescue procedures for working at heights.

3.2 Recommended qualifications for installers of PV systems

Whilst the qualifications mentioned above are adequate, SAPVIA has developed a nationally recognised qualification that allows holders thereof the title of a “Solar Photovoltaic Service Technician, NQF level 5”. This qualification has been registered with the South African Qualification Authority from 2016 and includes four separate qualifications, namely:

  • Solar PV Mounter
  • Solar PV Installer
  • Solar PV Technician and,
  • Solar PV Service Technician

3.3 Other qualifications

When dealing with well-established solar installation businesses, they may boast holders of other qualifications namely, Electrical Engineers, technicians and technologists. Feel free to ask potential installers to provide you with proof of any qualification that they may boast. 

4. Are They Registered with the South African Photovoltaic Association (SAPVIA)?

Find out if your solar installer is a member of SAPVIA and the Electrical Contractors Board. These memberships aren’t compulsory, but they show a good insight into how committed your installer is to maintaining quality and best practice The South African Photovoltaic Industry Association (SAPVIA) is a non-profit organisation that represents the photo-voltaic industry on both the provincial and national level.

4.1 What a SAPVIA registration means

This organisation ensures that all of its members stay informed on the legislative changes with regard to solar energy, as they happen in the country. Registered businesses are kept up to date with all the municipal solar requirements a particular area may have. SAPVIA members are provided with workshops and access to the Global Solar Council, thereby ensuring that they are operating with the highest level of the latest information and technology.

4.2 Is the solar installer included in the list of certified installers in the PV GreenCard Database? 

The concept of the PV GreenCard was introduced by SAPVIA as a means to promote installations that are safe and of the highest-quality. The PV GreenCard Programme focuses on education, the development of skills, and training to enhance installer capacity. It further aims to improve standards development and compliance in line with international best practices. The PV GreenCard is an as built report for the Solar PV system owner and also serves as a checklist for the solar installer which qualified solar installers can provide to their clients on completion of an installation. The PV GreenCard is used by the installer to declare compliance with all the relevant standards and safety guidelines for a PV Installation – it contains details regarding the installation such as, what type of PV module and inverter was used together with a checklist of all the necessary installation steps that were finalised. This checklist is then provided to the customer as a report, ensuring that all relevant information regarding the PV system is documented and transparent. This document can in turn be used as proof of compliance for finance, insurance and other regulatory purposes.

5. Check PV Installation Standards

South Africa currently has no national standard for PV installations as yet, however considering that these installations represent a significant investment some standards should be met as an indication of quality, and the installers of said systems can be asked to provide proof of having met them. Not meeting the current guidelines, or not prescribing to any standards can result in system malfunctions that could result in total installation failure, electrical fires and even major building damage that may not be covered by your insurance provider.

Installers that are registered with SAPVIA and are holders of a PV GreenCard certification automatically meet all the guidelines that relate to the South African Standards in relation to the Electricity Regulation Act of 2006, the Electricity Regulation Amendment Act of 2007 and the Environment Conservation Act 73 of 1989. SAPVIA has released a document detailing all the current standards and guidelines and has made it free-access to any one that wishes to educate themselves on the matter. (https://www.sapvia.co.za/)

Even if the installer is not a member of SAPVIA they should aspire to at the very least use panels that have a Certificate of Compliance with the IEC standard (61215) for crystalline silicon terrestrial modules. This serves as a good indication of panel quality as products that are IEC standard are the international version of SABS approved.  (https://www.sabs.co.za/)

6. Request an Original Certificate of Compliance (CoC)

According to government regulations with regards to electrical installations, all such installations must be accompanied by a certificate of compliance. The CoC is there to protect you as the homeowner. In the unfortunate event that your system should fail, be damaged or lead to personal injury, insurance companies are unlikely to cover any damages without a valid CoC. Any Department of Labour-registered electrician who performs the installation must supply you with a CoC after he has carried out the installation and completed the required tests and checks.

7. What are Your Warranties/Guarantees?

Make sure you obtain all warrantees and guarantees on offer, both for the installation as a whole and for the components of the system (solar panels, inverter, battery and the structure of the system). Double check if there are any differences between the manufacturers and the installers warrantees and guarantees. As there are various components to a photovoltaic system, each of which often times covered by a different warranty from the manufacturer it is crucial that the installer fully explain each one.

Typical warranties to discuss with the installer of your PV system: 

  • Workmanship: Workmanship and components of the system wherein the warranty should cover cost of labour and replacement parts in the event of system malfunction or failure.
  • Solar Panel Warranty: Solar panels generally have their own warranty which is oftentimes specified in two parts, being:
    1. The actual product warranty (to cover materials and workmanship); and
    2. Panel performance warranty – to cover expected output of the panels over a given time period taking into account the annual degradation of the panels.
  • Inverter & Batteries: The inverter is a critical part of the system and will have its own warranty which ranges between 10 to 25 years depending on the brand you are installing. Batteries generally have a 10 year guarantee, however seeing as though this is a very pricey component of a solar system, be sure to carefully consider the type of battery you install and the warrantee that comes with it. Lithium ion batteries, apart from their numerous other benefits last the longest and can in fact last ten times longer than lead-acid batteries. They are however more expensive than other batteries.
  • Mounting System: The framework/racking should have its own warranty and considering that this part of the system will have to sustain intense weather conditions, a period of at least 20 years is a reasonable period for coverage.

8. What Should the Installation Process Entail?

Generally the installation process should consist of the following so be sure ask the following questions:

  1. Site assessment and site pan: Have they done a site assessment and provided a site plan with depicting the layout of the system?
  2. System cost breakdown: Can an itemised breakdown of all costs, which includes each part and labour, be provided?
  3. Payment schedule: Is the payment schedule clearly stipulated in the contract? It should indicate exactly when payment is due and what the payment schedule is, if any.
  4. Production estimate: The installer should be able to produce an electricity production estimate for the system for a year with average weather. Be sure to compare this with your average usage.
  5. System monitoring: Do they provide system monitoring? If so, how does it work and are you able to access it online?
  6. System maintenance package: Do they offer maintenance packages? If so, have they explained the importance of maintenance of your system.
  7. System components: Were all the components and the purpose of each explained to you in detail?

It might seem like a long list of things to keep in mind when choosing a solar installation team, however they are not to be ignored if you want to ensure that you have every possible base covered.

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