The audit program overseeing Victoria’s Solar Homes program has highlighted five main defects installers can easily get right.

It’s great when a government gets behind a good idea. It’s happening in Victoria in a big way with the state’s support for solar PV, where the $1.3 billion Solar Homes program of subsidies has supported about 70,000 residential installations since the program started in August 2018, with up to 6,000 new systems plonked onto rooftops a month.

But big subsidies sometimes have the perverse effect of attracting high pressure sales teams only interested in flogging super cheap systems and passing the hard work on to subcontractors. Everyone in the solar industry is wary of this problem, where margins are so thin that installers who take this kind of work are rushed off their feet – and system quality suffers as a result.

Solar Victoria, the department that oversees the Solar Homes program, didn’t want any of that happening on its watch and has implemented an inspection program that is lifting the game.

“It’s an industry where there is this notion that people are on the watch and are vigilant about poor practices and what that might mean for the industry’s reputation,” says Solar Victoria CEO Stan Krpan. “I’m very keen to see that network and proximity of installers and retailers improve standards and set their own standards. I’m delighted that we’ve seen some evidence of that since we started.”

Top five PV problems

Under the program about 5% of installations are audited by third parties, with a focus on electrical safety and safety and quality of installations for occupants. It’s not about “trying to catch people out”, says Krpan, but to keep people safe and improve standards over time. “We’re deliberately trying to target areas of risk.” About 2,000 audits have been completed to date, with inspections conducted during installation and after completion. 

Five main issues make up about 70% of findings:

  1. Mismatched DC connectors, make up 36% of findings
  2. Inadequate earthing of panels, 10%
  3. Potential for water ingress in a DC isolator, 10%
  4. Exposed or loose wiring, 7%
  5. Inverters not fixed correctly, 6%

“These are well-known issues,” Krpan says. “There is really no excuse for needing to rectify.”

Krpan refers to retailers rather than installers to make it clear the inspection regime is “going up the supply chain” to target a bigger source of influence in the outcome for customers. 

The idea is to challenge solar sales firms that quote low on jobs then subcontract out the installation work, with scant regard for an installer’s margins. The result is rushed work that may not always be of the finest quality.

“That’s not a viable business model in our view because we’re more than 80% of the market and we have a really rigorous regime now around audits,” he says. 

More than 600 solar retailers in Victoria have signed on to the Clean Energy Council’s Approved Solar Retailer program and there are about 1,000 accredited installers.

“We took the view, which was considered a pretty hard line, that we want people to sign up to the CEC’s Code of Conduct and to commit to being held to account when there are issues around consumer protection or safety or other things. We’ve had good support from the industry around driving that accountability up the supply chain.”

The program tracks those responsible for dodgy work and keeps tabs of complaints left online. “If we get additional complaints and if we have multiple findings then we escalate and target more audits – and we’re also not afraid to take action to suspend retailers,” he says. Six retailers and a number of installers have been suspended since the program started.

“Our intention in the program was to always put safety first,” Krpan says. “We wanted to leave the industry in a better place when the program ends.” Audits from the second half of 2019 showed improvements in safety and quality of installation, “which is pleasing.”

Solar Victoria has worked with the Clean Energy Council, Smart Energy Council, NECA, safety organisations and training organisations on the design of the audit checklist, which will be published later this year. It is also rolling out its Work Safely in Solar program with $1 million in funding, which includes training about working at heights and first aid.