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10 tips for avoiding the solar thermal cowboys

Posted by Gabriel Wondrausch on 10 December 2010 at 1:04 pm

If you're thinking of some solar thermal panels for Christmas, here's our video of 10 top tips to help you find a good installer (with a transcript for those who prefer to read):

1. Make sure that the installer looks at the condition of your roof on the inside and outside.


2. They should also look at your cylinder to confirm that it can be changed, and the new cylinder is satisfactory and that it will fit. And at all areas between the cylinder and the roof.

3. They should also be asking questions about your hot water usage and patterns.

4. Never sign up on the day. Most of the problems in the industry come from high pressure sales techniques. It's very hard to get any service from them once you've paid you're money.

We never give a price on the day. We do the survey and go away and work out what the system would be and what it will cost.

Much of the bad press is about companies who insist on payment there and then on the day, and give you price drops to entice you in. In my experience, even when the price drops get to their lowest level, they are still astronomically high, so signing up on the day is not recommended.

5. Always get two to three quotes.

6. Ensure that they've taken everything you say into consideration as every installation is different.

7. There are quite a few sales companies that are purely sales companies, they don't have their own installers. They will sell you a system, then farm it out for the cheapest price. So speak to previous customers and get recommendations.

8. You can get a quote online, but it won't be based on fact. You need to look at a site before you can give a real price. You also need to check who the people who will be doing the installation are before they come tramping through your house.

9. Look out for people putting in big collectors and small cylinders. It looks good because you always have a tank of hot water, but it makes the system inefficient, so do your homework.

10. The average installation takes at least two days - a day of roofwork, and a day for all the pipework and changing the cylinder.



About the author: Gabriel Wondrausch is founder and director of SunGift Solar, which installs solar thermal and other renewable energy systems in the South West of England.

If you have a question about anything in the above blog, please ask it in the comments section below.

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2 comments - read them below or add one

Barry Johnston

Barry JohnstonComment left on: 21 December 2010 at 1:53 pm

These are twelve thought provoking tips from Gabriel and Colin. Now that the renewable heat incentive (RHI) is imminent, it is particularly important that people who now decide, perhaps as a new year resolution: "I want to buy a solar panel for water heating in 2011" have all the fact at their fingertips when they make a buying decision. So here are five further tips for people who are thinking of buying solar water heating:

13/ Some actually prefer the convenience and interactivity of rapid, low-obligation telephone solar quotations which are typically conducted using aerial photos of their roof with the help of a detailed but simple questionnaire. We have been doing these "eco-surveys", very accurately, but admittedly for relatively is simple zero carbon retrofit installations, for the past twelve years. Our trained graduate surveyors rarely make a mistake, thanks to carefully crafted questions and solar inquirers who are, in fact, able to answer their questions well.  But if there ever is a mistake, then we pick up the bill for any extra costs anyway. Remote surveys based on what the customer knows: what floor is your hot water store on? can you email me a photo? etc, is a super green way to eliminate vehicle emmissions from the sales and survey process, where this is possible.

14/ Some people want to know whether their solar thermal installation will put up their electricity bill. Even if a mains pumped solar water heating systems only costs £10 extra a year to run, it will typically to negate its carbon savings by about 20% according to both DTI and Energy Saving Trust funded research.

15/ Others plan ahead, asking about regular solar water heating system maintenance requirements such as for antifreeze (not always required, this usually needs replacing every few years at a cost which can over £100), water softeners (which can cost around £10-£20 per person per year to run with most non-antifreeze based, water filled systems, and high pressure hot water cylinder inspections (some of which should be checked annually by a G3 qualified plumber every year, at a cost of around £100). Extra costs  erode the savings you make from solar water heating energy savings and your RHI income.

16/ Some solar water heating systems require users to replace their hot water cylinder with a costly new one. Several do not. Some installations comply closely with HSE requirements on Legionella, others less so. Some installations, called retrofit installations, re-use the existing hot water cylinder. This generally means a rapid one-day installation with no hot water loss overnight. Most retrofit solar heating installations are designed to "back-up-heat" to the hot water cylinder base daily. Most new "solar cylinder" installations do not heat to the base. Installations which do not heat to the base may deliver about 10% more solar energy, but at the price of a tenfold increase in Legionella risk, according to our calculations. Is this avoidable increase in safety risk is acceptable for state funded installations under RHI in UK? This question is now under review via the Microgeneration Certification Scheme.

17/ The legionella-safest of all solar water heating installations are called thermal store installations. These can provide high pressure hot water as pre-feeds to combi-boilers, for example. Having installed several thousand solar water heating systems, these are increasing in popularity to the extent that about half our installations at present are thermal stores.

I hope these extra solar heating buyers guide type tips, based on our experience as innovators in the zero carbon solar retrofit area are helpful to readers!

 Regards, Barry Johnston.

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ColinNewlynComment left on: 15 December 2010 at 5:01 pm

An excellent summary. I would add a couple of further points.

Firstly, that people should look for installers that are members of the REAL Assurance scheme, which explicitly bans the pressure sales tactics you refer to. The code also covers other areas of consumer protection.

Secondly, that they should look for testimonials, and ask to speak to existing customers.

Colin Newlyn
Ecohouse Solar

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