The Rise of Shonky Solar

The expansion of the Solar Photovoltaic industry has boomed over the last few years due to a few factors like generous feed-in tariffs, government subsidies, and rising electricity prices.

I can understand the desire to make a bit of cash by installing a PV system, (although it does take quite a few years after your initial investment to turn a profit), and I can understand that media sensationalism regarding electricity prices has promoted a sense of fear amongst home owners (even though under-investment by energy providers is the real reason prices are going up).

Put all these factors together and what do you get?  Well, from my experience and observations over the past 6 months two main consequences have played out.  Firstly, some sub-optimal solar installations, and secondly, the rise of unethical sales and marketing tactics by fly-by-night  or Johnny-come-lately solar installers.

By sub-optimal I mean installations that don’t face North towards maximum solar exposure, or do face north but are obviously heavily shaded for at least 6 months of the year, or installed with sub standard components with a minimal factory guarantee.  From experience, Ethical and professional installers visit their potential clients sites, perform an inspection, and give the customer the best advice possible and a no obligation quote with detailed quality goods if requested.  However it seems that this is not always the case.  As it has been reported directly to me that unethical installers are cropping up all over the country, conning the punter by promising the world and then slapping as many solar panels on top of the customers roof any which way they can, so to cut their costs and maximise profits.

Now this is not just speculation.  In my varied travels, I take keen interest into looking at installations, and talking to the owners to see if they are as satisfied as I was with my solar PV investment.  I have talked to a good many folk and while the majority were very satisfied, it has been brought to my attention that shoddy installers do exist.  I have seen the following types of installation; panels on the West or East roof, panels split between East and West and even a row of panels on a south facing roof!  South facing is fine if you live in the Northern hemisphere but very crappy if you reside Down-Under!

Look, I shouldn’t entirely point the finger at the installer.  The customer is sometimes at fault, either through vanity or insanity.  Try telling a determined customer who doesn’t want to spoil their homes so called ‘street appeal’ that a non-northerly facing installation is not in their best interest, they will either a) find another installer, or b) ignore your advice and tell you to put on any part of the roof they desire.  A little education would not go amiss either, but keeping up with the ‘solar Joneses’ may just outweigh common sense.  A shoddy installer could gain a lot from this lack of education by playing on this ignorance to flog off more product.  You pay for what you get (no pun intended) and ignorance is not an excuse for lack of research or common sense.

This brings me to my second point.  Last week, Kim and I were host to a very concerned local couple who were pointed in my direction by the local council.  Apparently, I have been labelled as the ‘solar guru’ in their words, so I helped this desperate couple unravel the plethora of lies and deception told to them by an unprofessional solar salesman.

This couple contacted, what they thought to be, a reputable solar installer just for information about solar PV and possible installations.  No sooner had they said this, they were booked into a meeting at home with someone from the company within the same week.  They told me that the guy who turned up was one of those very pushy salesman types.  You know the type.  The one who would sell a lemon of a car to their own grandmother just to get the commission!

From what I understood from their encounter, this guy lied through his teeth to get them onside and a potential sale under his belt.  He stated the following untruths;

a.  A west facing roof will generate just as much electricity as a north facing one (you would be luck to generate half of the normal output)
b.  They would receive cheques in the mail from the government within 2 months of installation for excess energy they produce. (the retailer pays, and only if you put excess into the grid.  They were recommended a 2kW system, but their energy usage would have outweighed any credit on their electricity bill)
c.  The system would generate just as much electricity when it was cloudy, as apparently it all has to do with ultraviolet rays, not sunlight (bullshit detector should be active by now)
d.  The proposed system was sized so that they would receive maximum payback (dubious claim)
e.  That the system was top of the range and the installer was the only stockist of these quality components in Australia.  (had never heard of the brand of panels or inverter)
f.  The couple were mandated to sell the company the Renewable Energy Certificates (REC’s) for a very discounted price. (never had this been mandated by law, sound like profiteering)

This salesman managed to cajole this couple into signing a contract for a 2kW system with a 3kW inverter, which promised a 10 day cooling off period (sounds familiar if you have ever bought a used car).  To push home the sale he used tactics like ‘I have to call my manager to confirm the discount’, and ‘I can’t keep the deal at this price long’, and ‘You won’t get a better deal than this’.   Just as they were trying to show him the door, he asked for a glass of water, which like nice hosts they provided him, and he was back at it again.  After 3 long hours of badgering and hard sell tactics, they unfortunately signed the dotted line in an effort to get rid of him.  No obligation free quote, no installation inspection, and definitely no morals!  They were also told not to show anyone the contract or it would be null and void.  Alarm bells rang out loud and clear at this stage of the conversation.

So after hearing this story, I told them what I believed to be the facts, showed them my solar PV installation including the graphs of energy usage I had produced, and gave them the names of a few reputable installers who would give them a no obligation quote that they could compare to this contract they signed and provide these to the shoddy salesman.  This is where I left them, because you can only lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink from the well.  I hope they were not too discouraged by this clowns antics, (not me, the salesman) and I also suggested that they contact Consumer Affairs on this matter if they get opposition to exercising their supposed right to the cooling off period.

I suppose my point is, that no matter what intentions these good people started off with regarding solar PV, they would have definitely be left with a bitter taste in their mouths after being subjected to this kind of behaviour.  It makes me sick to the core that these companies exist now, profiting heavily from the average Joe’s desire to do the right thing by their children’s future or their fear of rising electricity prices.  I hope they all get caught out and hung up to dry.  I dare not mention the company name for fear of litigation.  If anyone wants to know in my local area, send me an email.

Shameful, isn’t it?


  1. says

    hi gavin.
    so excited to see your smiling face following my blog! what an honour. hope one day to have the time to make my blog as useful as yours. keep up the excellent work, and kind regards.
    kate from bobo creek (well, actually still in sydney but longing for the day…)

  2. says

    I’ll give you shameful. I live in Santa Fe, NM a city that claims to be the city different and so open. A few years ago I attended a city council meeting where the neighbors of a very progressive neighborhood were upset because two new buildings were purposing solar panel. The neighbors felt the solar panels would upset there views. I stood up and shamed them and told them if they wanted views move out of the city! Unfortunately they were successful….

  3. Anonymous says

    Hi Gav,
    I think I had the same company out to give me a Quote and the same tactics where used, now i can spot a con from a mile away because I’m in sales myself and see a lot of it my industry(real estate) so yes the old “I will just ring the Boss to give you the best price but only good for today” trick. I think I can mention there name and it’s Starts with Modern Solar, there sales person was not only high pressure but twice the price of any other quote I got. If I didn’t have any other quotes I could have paid $15,000 too much. Be aware everyone get more than 2 quotes on anything to be sure.
    Happy Solaring People.

    • Lorna says

      Times 2 on the modern solar. We were stupid enough to fall for them. I still feel sick about it when I think about their tactics. And they aren’t just local, this was in Perth so they’re australia wide.

  4. says

    The west-facing panels on our system generate about 87% as much as the north-facing panels, per installed watt. The difference is almost 0 on days with any significant cloud.

    The standard derating is 10-15% for west-facing, with the right attitude. 50% is just wrong.

  5. says

    Hi Gavin,
    I agree completely with your post. I have actually seen panels installed flat!!!!
    It is so sad that the rebate isn’t conditional on the best installation of the system.
    I wonder what will happen to a lot of these systems when the trickiest piece of hardware (the inverter) fails.
    Will the country have thousands of installations that sit on roof tops doing nothing?
    A much better use of these funds would have been to install BIG systems on community buildings like halls and schools. That way more of the money could have been spent on panels and not multiple installations and inverters.
    I enjoy your blog and visit often.

  6. says

    I’ve heard similar reports, and some of the ads I see around the place look a bit dodgy.

    There’s one rural equipment supplier that advertises the price of just purchasing the hardware, saying you’ll get $XXX back in government rebates. But they’re not telling you that you can only get the rebates if the hardware is installed by a qualified installer, and that cost is not included in the advertised price! So their price looks extremely cheap compared to others. It’s misleading, bordering on deceptive.

  7. says

    Two words: buyer beware!

    But seriously, solar is a huge investment and it pays to do your homework.

    It can also be a great investment, but it *still* pays to do your homework.

    However, it is also quite likely that stronger regulation on shonky dealers and contractors is needed, as it is a newish industry, and probably a booming one over in Aussie (not so much here in NZ, due to huge amounts of infrastructure wind and hydro).

    Of course, what I’d really like to see in Aussie is massive solar setups for the grid :-) I’m still waiting (as is everyone else).

  8. says

    Two words: buyer beware!

    But seriously, solar is a huge investment and it pays to do your homework.

    It can also be a great investment, but it *still* pays to do your homework.

    However, it is also quite likely that stronger regulation on shonky dealers and contractors is needed, as it is a newish industry, and probably a booming one over in Aussie (not so much here in NZ, due to huge amounts of infrastructure wind and hydro).

    Of course, what I’d really like to see in Aussie is massive solar setups for the grid :-) I’m still waiting (as is everyone else).

  9. says

    I know how that couple feels, although we have spoken to reputable companies. It is very confusing getting all this information at first and trying to get your head around it. I think this is what these dodgy companies take advantage of.
    we may well have missed out on the nsw govt rebate by taking so long to weigh things up, but I think we will be glad we did in the end.
    For people looking at solar, a good thing to do with solar companies is find out just how long they have been in business. We have a local company in our area that was doing solar well before all these govenment grants etc. came in and it is likely that this is where we will head, because they cared about forming an alternative energy company well before grants existed, so they aren’t just in it for the money.
    I feel so sorry for these people and I hope they can get out of their contract.

  10. says

    Hi Gavin, the roof direction thing may also be from Councils (rather than people worried about street appeal)- in my Council, we are permitted to install flat panels on any side. If we need those angled risers to get a better exposure, we are only permitted to install them on sides where they cannot be seen from the street, unless we lodge a DA & get approval.

    Shonky salesmen could play on this of course, encourage people to put them at a non-optimal angle as preferable to having to get DA approval.

    We have the majority of our panels facing north, but added a couple west facing, angled to get exposure when the north facing ones are finished for the day.

  11. Jon W says

    Hey Gav

    Definitely looks like a dodgy salesman that one – probably on commission only. At least it’s PV they’re getting stiffed on and not air-con, a big car or a fancy house.

    Don’t be too sceptical about the east or west facing roof issues though. I just checked for a 25deg pitch roof in Melbourne with an industry standard tool (Ecotect) and it shows East receives ~14% less total solar radiation in the test year than N; W facing roofs receive ~11% less; S gets about 26% less. I can send you the output image if you like.

  12. says

    I have thought about this myself as we will eventually get solar but not in this house. We will be moving in when our bubba leaves school in 2 years time so will invest in solar then.

    I think the problem is that the people who install the solar systems do not necessarily believe in or care about climate change and protecting the environment. They just happen to possess the skills to install the hardware. My electrician is a friend of my cousins and I trust him implicitly but I don’t think he could give a toss about the environment, it’s just a job to him.

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