The reputation of the solar industry relies on the work of qualified electricians, says Gawler installer Steven Zilm.

You’ve been working in renewables since 2009. Many installers have come and gone in that time. What’s your secret?

I’m a boutique, for want of a better word, doing small to medium sized jobs, selling and installing our own systems. We just try to install quality systems. We’re not interested in the bottom of the market. I’m a career electrician. I believe electricians need to be proactive. We’re the qualified people in this industry; we’re the ones who need to drive the solar industry – and not necessarily leave it to the volume retailers. It’s about having a flight to quality.

Steven Zilm has seen all sorts of systems in his role as an inspector for the Clean Energy Regulator.

You’re also an inspector for the Clean Energy Regulator. Can you tell us about that?

I get to see the full spectrum of what’s out there – and I see a lot of rubbish. It’s driven by sales companies that are having electricians work for piece work, guys who don’t have control of their own businesses. And they’re working for very, very poor rates and delivering a very poor product to their customers.

Are you getting many inquiries about batteries?

Every second person asks about them. It’s an early adopters market. That’s the reality. I find it difficult to put my hand on my heart and tell a client it makes economic sense. To some people it does. Unfortunately the press has frightened all of us down here [in South Australia] and people think we have an unreliable grid. It’s not the truth. It’s political spin.

The other bit of misinformation is if I say “battery” the automatic association [for the consumer] is that the system has back-up – and we know that’s not the case. The reality is you don’t want to back up a whole house; you only want to back up a light circuit, a fridge and maybe the internet.

What would you say to younger electricians who might be training in solar?

It’s experience-based. You’re not going to learn it all sitting in a classroom. I would say, associate yourself with a quality installer first before you go out and sign up with one of the volume-based retailers. And have a think about your hourly rate. If you’re running a business, there’s a dollar-per-man-hour formula. I see young guys who are getting this formula so wrong. A lot of them would be better off getting a job for wages than what the volume companies are paying them.

How do you set customers straight about what they should expect from a solar system?

You need to spend time with them. You’ve got to go to sites and have the energy conversation and energy efficiency conversation with customers. I believe it’s about engaging customers. This is a referral business. I’ve never advertised – and it works for us. We sell with good margins.

Do you have any tips about hitting healthy margins?

The idea is to try to target double-digit margins and stay away from this single-digit margin rubbish. You have to sit down and [explain your value to customers]. Put their bill on the table and … show clients rates of return, forecast energy bills and show them practically what they’re looking at.

Installers seem pretty open about sharing business tips among themselves, do you agree?

Yes, that’s true. I have a lot of dialogue with other installers. It’s driven by the industry. I make a point of trying to get to every function that I can and have the conversation with other installers. This industry should be empowered by electricians. This is perhaps where our industry has got it wrong and why there has been some consumer backlash. I believe that if you’re going to sell a solar system you need to be qualified, not just a salesman who’s had a half-hour training course. We’re trying to sell people a 20-year equation here. These things aren’t set and forget. That’s why I believe in products that include monitoring. I can drive past, look at an inverter on the wall, know what brand it is by the colour and give you odds as to whether it’s working or not.