A recent story on the ABC’s 7.30 program gave an incomplete take on the Australian solar industry, writes Clean Energy Council technical support leader James Patterson.

In case anyone missed the report about rooftop solar on the ABC’s 7.30 program in May, I can tell you it painted a picture that solar systems in Australia are generally unsafe. However, I didn’t think the story gave an entirely balanced perspective on our solar industry.

Firstly, I want to talk about maintenance because the 7.30 story featured a metropolitan fire investigator reporting on a fire from late 2018. The fire started at a PVPower rooftop isolator. You may remember that these isolators were recalled more than five years ago, which means it’s unlikely this system had a maintenance check in a long time.

James Patterson is the Clean Energy Council’s technical support leader.

Many think there are no moving parts in solar systems and so there is nothing to maintain.  However, we all know that Australian conditions can be harsh and that plastic on a roof is unlikely to last the lifetime of a solar system. Re-establishing system monitoring, checking DC isolators and installing DC isolator shrouds where they are missing are all no brainers on a diligent solar installer’s maintenance checklist. Check out Appendix C of AS/NZS 5033 for more maintenance ideas.

Maintaining solar systems also makes good business sense. Many solar installers invest significant amounts to compete with solar sales companies for new work, even though they have a backlog of potential customers on their books. Also, contracting businesses often struggle to manage the boom and bust of the solar sales roller-coaster when it comes to keeping staff busy.

It’s easy to forget that there are 2 million solar systems installed and many existing customers would happily pay to get their systems checked if reminded. A steady stream of maintenance work is the diversification that many small solar contractors could benefit from, especially for fill-in jobs between solar installs. Also, the bonuses in building better relationships with customers include repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals. Genuine contracting businesses have a natural competitive advantage over sales companies when it comes to maintenance and they should take advantage of it.

Rooftop isolator: stay or go?

The rooftop isolator also featured in the 7.30 story as part of the safety risk to Australian solar owners. There aren’t many solar installers who agree with Standards Australia when it comes to rooftop isolators, but the committee that wrote the standards concluded that they are necessary. Most solar installers have probably come across isolators that are dangerously close to resulting in a fire. I know I’ve changed them out before and shaken my head while doing it.

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has a petition on its website requesting that the EL-042 committee (who writes AS/NZS 5033) remove the rooftop isolator. I would encourage you to take some action by signing SEIA’s petition as that way organisations who represent installers on EL-042 know what you are thinking.

However, the committee that writes the standards does not just represent electricians. For AS/NZS 5033:2014, solar installers were represented by SEIA, the Australian Solar Council (now the Smart Energy Council) and the CEC, while other organisations represented engineers, regulators and emergency services.

These organisations have an obligation to make sure that the standards also keep their industry safe. Therefore, it makes sense that emergency services have a way of isolating PV array cables in a roof during or after a fire. But the question electricians quite rightly ask is, does this safety measure outweigh the risks?

The CEC has put a proposal to Standards Australia to review the requirement of a rooftop isolator under AS/NZS 5033. But even if every accredited installer (there are more than 6,400 of you) agrees that the rooftop isolator be removed, it is still possible that it will remain.

Robust system ensures safety

The 7.30 story also interviewed Michelle McCain from PV Testing House, who tests to see if a 300W panel is actually 300W. I was personally disappointed to hear that some installers are unknowingly selling panels from supposed reputable companies that produce less power than expected.

I was also disappointed that the public wasn’t given any insight into the test labs responsible for auditing product safety. We all know that electrical inspectors are mostly responsible for catching solar companies that cut corners, whereas catching non-compliant solar products entering Australia would not be as simple if it weren’t for the CEC’s approved product lists.

The CEC’s approved product lists play an important product safety role for the industry. For a product to make it onto our lists, they need to have independent test labs check that they comply with the various product standards. As we know, it is mandatory for panels and inverters to be on the CEC’s lists if they want to be eligible for government rebates like STCs. This is the scheme’s way of protecting against unsafe products getting into the Australian market.

This also protects installers because our installation standards tell us to only install products that are compliant with the relevant product standards. If you install something from the CEC’s list, you are covered in so far as an independent test lab has verified that the products comply.

Our battery list follows the same safety testing process, but there is no equivalent mechanism to get all manufacturers to participate. So, as installers, we have the choice of choosing a battery on the CEC list or taking the word of the manufacturer that they comply. As with most things in solar, doing a neat and tidy job isn’t enough. You have to make smart decisions if you want to cover yourself in the long run.

No industry is perfect, but most of the 2 million Australian households with solar power on the roof have had a positive experience with the technology. Our industry has a rigorous series of safety and quality initiatives that have been introduced through close collaboration between the industry and the federal government over the past decade. For an industry that has now installed millions of systems, the rate of incidents is extremely low – and the bar is being lifted on product and installation standards every year.