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How to get your ideal solar PV system

Posted by Gabriel Wondrausch on 21 March 2014 at 10:50 am

The decision to install solar PV panels can be motivated by a number of factors. Whether you’ve had enough of the Big Six et al constantly upping their prices and want a bit of stability or decided that the interest rates on offer from your banks aren't as good as those from solar, everybody has their own reasons. In most cases it’s a mix of quite a few motives.

The mix generally varies from person to person and the importance of a particular driver can vary greatly. Some people will have self sufficiency a higher priority than financial return, for example.

Given this, it still surprises me that people are being sold off the shelf PV systems without the installer really considering their individual values and drivers. This approach can leave you with a system that may tick a couple of the boxes, but isn’t quite the whole package.

Hopefully the following information will help you get your perfect system.

Do the research

I know this seems quite obvious, but it’s really important and will make the whole process easier to negotiate. First get the basic knowledge you need to talk to installers, and sort the wheat from the chaff. Start with the solar PV sections on here on YouGen or on the Energy Saving Trust website. Neither are trying to sell you their particular piece of kit.

Secondly do some research on the companies you are thinking of inviting round to quote. YouGen has a brilliant installer search function, and if you are a member, try the Which? Local website. Both offer honest reviews of companies; both good and, often more importantly, bad. If you know someone who has had an installation already, ask them. If one of your neighbours that you don’t know too well has had an install, don’t be afraid to ask them either; you’ll find people are often very happy to talk about their experiences.

Getting a solar survey

Once you have chosen your shortlist, the companies you ask to quote should visit the site to conduct a full and thorough survey. I often hear of companies quoting over the phone, using Google Earth or similar to price jobs. This is fine for rough estimates but should not be used for a final price. There are so many unknowns to a system that can only be determined during a site visit, all of which will have a bearing on the cost, performance and thus return and payback of your system.  A mechanic couldn’t give you an accurate price to fix your car by simply looking at a photo of it, neither can a PV designer price a system accurately without a site survey.

It's worth doing some prep work before the surveyor visits. Think about exactly why you want a solar PV system and what you are looking for it. Once you know this, be clear with the person visiting you.

Sticking with the car theme, you wouldn’t go into a dealership and ask for the best fuel efficiency when really you’re after the highest top speed. If you did, you’d end up with a car that would get you from A to B, but not in the way you want. This is the same for PV.

A good installation company will have access to a range of panels and inverters so they can tailor a system to suit your specific needs. Companies that are not tied to a particular supplier can provide different panels and/or inverters for different scenarios.

High efficiency panels can be used where roof space is limited and the total profit of the system is important. A short payback period can best be achieved by panels with a lower initial cost. Although all panels must achieve pretty stringent environmental standards there are those that go above and beyond by using recycled silicon, which may suit people whose main aim is to be green.

Unfortunately there are some companies which only offer a single type of panel. Clearly this is not going give the perfect solution for you, your next door neighbours and the Smiths opposite if you all have different reasons for installing solar PV.

Comparing quotes for solar PV

When all the systems and prices are in it’s time to decipher the information. This can be confusing as you may have a wide range of different equipment and figures to work through. My advice here is to use the surveyors as a resource. Ask them to critique their competitors' offerings. A knowledgeable surveyor should be able to highlight important differences between them. 

Recently I was asked why a system I had suggested was estimated to produce almost half of the profit shown by one of our competitors, even though they were using the same kit. The competitor was using what we think are pretty optimistic assumptions about inflation and utility cost rises within their calculations. Another thing to watch out for is installers selling kit from manufacturers that have gone bankrupt (a fact which they failed to mention during their sales pitch).

Make sure you know who will actually be installing your system. A number of MCS registered installers sub-contract the installation work. Using your own install teams, gives you control over the quality of the installation and improves the bank of knowledge in the company.

Ask for the qualifications or background of the installers. Those that have been doing this for a while will have better experience and can help a job run smoothly.

More expensive often means more comprehensive; if a company’s price is higher it can be because there is a lot of hidden value in their offering. Structural surveys, detailed bespoke system design, project management teams and comprehensive aftersales services often go unnoticed and are unfortunately most obvious in their absence.

If one company’s price is higher than the others, tell them! Speaking to them may unearth some hidden advantages of their system or gaps in the proposals of others that you may have not considered. Don’t be afraid to discuss what you like and dislike about each proposal with your contact within the company. If you can be flexible in your needs then there may be some flexibility in price; using end of line stock or installing at short notice can sometimes result in a reduction in price. At the same time, be wary of special offers and reductions designed to make you snap up a deal without putting in some real research. Remember; cheap is a benefit you get only once.

Author: Joe Perry is the domestic solar PV specialist at SunGift Energy.

Photo: SunGift Energy

More information on YouGen

The YouGen guide to solar electricity

Search for an installer near you

From the blog

What's in a brand when choosing solar panels?

Buyer beware: don't believe everything a cold caller telss you about solar pv!

Data collection demonstrated the value of solar PV

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


kristahilesComment left on: 7 April 2014 at 6:31 am

I am glad to know this. I am greatly encouraged to install my own solar power system at home knowing that a many people already supports this idea. Please keep on posting such informative updates. Thank you.

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muymalestadoComment left on: 24 March 2014 at 7:07 pm

Nice resume of the process and requirements for you, the customer, to fulfill.  Many of us may be heartened by a few of the quotes, or pitches, we get but we probably will have to accept making some compromises.  I feel the primary condition is to be ready financially; certainly borrowing is not acceptable to achieve your desired PV installation.  One big known unknown in our experience is the longievety / reliability of the system components which become your personal responsibility from day one, though warranties may kick in.  We opted for reputed quality, and who knows if that will translate into reliability.

One website for results is THIS.

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