Ina Opperman

By Ina Opperman

Business Journalist

Installing solar panels or generator? Beware of these expensive mistakes

As more people try to find a solution for load shedding, fly-by-night solar installers are ready to fill their pockets.

South Africans looking into installing a back-up power system as the country’s load shedding crisis becomes worse need to be careful as they could lose their money if they choose someone not qualified for the job.

The Consumer Goods and Services Ombud (CGSO) warns that the office observed an uptick in the number of complaints about buying and installing solar energy systems and generators. The CGSO received 202 complaints in the 12 months between 1 February 2022 and 9 February 2023.

The most common complaints were about:

  • Contractors not issuing compliance certificates, including not disclosing the criteria that need to be met for a compliance certificate to be issued, or that it will cost extra.
  • Contractors accepting payment and not delivering the goods or installing the systems within the agreed timeframes.
  • Poor workmanship and installations that do not meet safety standards.
  • Contractors who refuse to honour warranties.
  • Consumer or contractors buying incorrect equipment and suppliers refusing to accept returns.
  • No aftercare service.
  • Misleading advertising about the type, size and wattage of inverters, solar panels and batteries.
  • Inflated prices for panels, inverters, batteries and installation services.

The CGSO ombudsman, Magauta Mphahlele, says of the 134 complaints dealt with so far, consumers received redress in 36% of the cases, including R277 273 paid back in refunds. Other redress measures included the replacement of faulty inverters, solar panels, generators and batteries, as well as rectifying substandard workmanship.

“We noted that 46% of cases had to be terminated due to a lack of cooperation from suppliers. This is of great concern to us as it means that complainants did not receive any redress. This outcome proves that there are high levels of non-compliance around the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) in this sector and we call on suppliers and installers of solar systems and generators to ensure that their service standards meet the requirements of the CPA and other manufacturing and safety standards required in terms of other laws of this country.”

ALSO READ: More clarity needed on tax incentive for solar panels

Consumers do not know enough

Mphahlele says the nature of the complaints received also indicated that consumers have little awareness and little understanding of the highly technical product and installation specifications of solar energy systems and generators.

“Consumers are, generally speaking, not clued up on the requirements of systems or their limitations. As a result, consumers suffer enormous financial losses by buying incorrect equipment and/or using unqualified installers.”

She also warns consumers against going the DIY route as in many instances, this would nullify any manufacturer warranties.

The CGSO offers these tips to consumers who want to insulate themselves from poor service and expensive mistakes:

  • Before buying or installing a solar energy system, contact a qualified and trusted installer to assess your needs and the structure of your home to advise on the type of system you require. This is important as the CPA does not protect you if you buy incorrect equipment.
  • Remember, you are only covered if you provided the correct specifications or communicated the purpose for which you want to use the product for and the product is not fit for the purpose you communicated.
  • Get several quotes and verify the credentials of the installer.
  • Ensure that the system is installed by a qualified, accredited installer and that the contract you sign includes the provision of a certificate of compliance. Insurance companies and manufacturers will not pay out if the system was not installed by an accredited installer.
  • Ensure that the inverter and batteries are installed with surge protection, as most warranties do not cover surge damage.
  • Do not pay the full amount upfront and familiarise yourself with the terms and conditions relating to cancellations and refunds of deposits before you sign anything.
  • Familiarise yourself with the warranty conditions and do not try to fix any problems yourself or tamper with the equipment as this will cancel the warranty.

ALSO READ: The inconvenience of load shedding: Here’s how to finance solar energy systems

Planning for what you want

Planning for a solar energy system will require that you analyse your electricity use, implement energy efficiency measures, decide if you want to operate your system entirely off-grid or use a hybrid solution and then finally select the technologies to help you meet your objectives, says Teresa Kok, marketing director at One Energy.

She also emphasises how important it is to choose a contractor who has the network, financial stability, product quality and warranties in place to maximise your investment in solar. “Reputation, credibility and the expertise of your renewable energy partner are fundamental to you realising the maximum benefit from your investment.”  

Why implement energy efficiency measures before installing a solar system? She says it will reduce your electricity use and allow you to buy a smaller and less expensive system. You can, for example, convert your geyser, your biggest electricity user, to solar or heat pumps, install LED low energy lighting and use gas for cooking.

ALSO READ: Watch: Sick of load shedding? Follow these steps to go solar

Calculating your electricity needs

This is the first step towards getting ready for a solar system. Kok says a thorough examination of your electricity needs will help you to determine the size and cost of the system you will need and show the fluctuations in your energy usage during the day and night and over the months to manage peak demands.

If you get a company to conduct a load analysis, it will record the wattage and average daily use of all of the electrical devices plugged into your central power source, such as refrigerators, lights, televisions, PCs, power tools, machinery and computer equipment.

Some loads, such as your refrigerator or electric fencing use electricity all the time, while others, like power tools or large format printers, use electricity intermittently, also called selectable loads.

“Based on this, we work out what your essential and non-essential loads are and design the right size system and back-up for your needs. The essential load refers to all the appliances or circuits that must stay on and back-up in a power outage,” Kok says.

She says some providers will ask only for an electricity bill and attempt to provide a solution based on this, but this approach is fundamentally flawed and inaccurate since your bill cannot reveal day and night usage, selective loads or peak demands which need to be factored into your solution.

“A thorough load analysis is a must. The contractor must come to your house and set up loggers on your electricity distribution board for at least a week to 10 days to give you a comprehensive view of where your electricity usage is going and the steps to help you reduce it.”

This will also provide a very accurate indication of what your savings will be depending on what size system and the solutions we specify for you, so there is no shooting in the dark, Kok says.

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