The rooftop solar boom means that maintenance will generate extra business for solar installers, but there are some important things to look out for, writes Nathan Smith.

With the year-on-year increase in solar installations, demand for solar installers continues to grow. While this means there are more solar installations being completed, it also means there are more ageing installations in Australia than ever before, many of which will require maintenance or repair during their lifetime.

The rapid uptake of renewable energy has often been compared to the uptake of the internal combustion engine. However, at least in the mind of consumers, there is a separation between the attention they pay to the upkeep of their daily drive and their rooftop solar system. Many consumers will diligently service their vehicle whenever the sticker on their windshield requires them to, but they often won’t schedule maintenance for their rooftop solar system until it stops working or they notice it’s no longer making the impact they expected on their energy bill (which could be months after the system stopped performing.)

In the automotive world, there is a clear distinction between the manufacturer and the mechanic who performs maintenance and repairs. However, in the rooftop solar industry, installers are required to perform a broad spectrum of work throughout the lifetime of a system, including design and installation; ongoing maintenance, repair, modification and upgrades; decommissioning at end of life; and sometimes even cleaning (not too many people would expect their car to come back from the mechanic with a fresh coat of wax!).

Depending on the size and purpose of the solar system, downtime can have severe financial impacts on consumers or, in the case of stand-alone power systems, require the use of back-up generators or leave a consumer without power. Additionally, depending on the nature and severity of the fault, an unmaintained system can pose a safety hazard or cause damage to property. As a result, it is important as an industry that we are equipped to assist consumers in the maintenance of their systems as the amount of rooftop solar installations grows in both number and age.

Things to consider on maintenance jobs

The Clean Energy Council’s Technical and Accreditation team has just released a Toolbox Talk and monitoring checklist based on maintenance concerns detailed in AS/NZS 4777.1 and AS/NZS 5033, which is a great place to start when considering the inspection criteria for a given system. Additional criteria may need to be considered depending on the system being inspected, including arrays with alternative designs or features, if there is any energy storage on site, the age of the array or if there has been any performance previously identified at the time of inspection.

While there is no substitute for an appropriately accredited installer attending site to inspect the system, monitoring systems can be a great early warning sign that something might be not quite right with a system and that a maintenance inspection is warranted. Some inverters come with in-built monitoring systems, while other third-party monitoring solutions can be retrofitted to existing systems where monitoring is not available or is not suitable for the site.

Unfortunately, there will occasionally be situations where the system or components are beyond repair and need to be replaced. In this situation, it is important that installers are familiar with the requirements of alterations and repairs as per AS/NZS 3000 clause 1.9.3 and ensure that the requirements of relevant standards and manufacturer’s instructions are met where appropriate.

For example, the National Electricity Rules now include a requirement for inverters to comply with AS/NZS 4777.2:2020 from December 18 this year. This includes inverters that are being installed for upgrade or warranty purposes, so make sure you don’t get caught out as the standards still apply while working on an existing installation.

Preventing incorrect disposal

Another concern when it comes to the maintenance of solar systems is the disposal of old equipment. Where possible, installers should ensure that equipment that is removed from site is disposed of correctly. Solar panel recycling and upcycling is becoming more available within Australia, with operators such as Victorian company Lotus Energy claiming to recycle 100% of end-of-life solar modules. Installers are the first line of defense when it comes to ensuring panels are disposed of responsibly and don’t end up in landfill.

With more than 2 million Australian households (which equates to 21% of them) now having rooftop solar, a large number of systems will require maintenance or repairs throughout their lifetime. Clean Energy Council accredited installers have the relevant skills and training to provide the services that consumers require. Ensuring that your customers are taken care of could turn a one-off installation into regular business.

Nathan Smith is a technical support officer at the Clean Energy Council.