Solar Quality – what does this mean?Solar Quality - the great debate

These has been a lot of talk in the media in Australia lately, regarding solar quality and Nigel Morris, of SolarBusinessServices has written an excellent article answering some of the common solar quality questions.

We thought it’s a very good read and provides an objective overview of solar quality and the importance this plays in the perception of the solar industry.

The great solar quality debate

Article Attribution: Nigel Morris, Director of SolarBusinessServices, 25th March 2015

The debate about solar quality continues to rage in Australia, so I thought it was time I summarised some data, facts and opinions on the issue.

The issue has been a hot topic in the press, is very active on the forums and when I speak to punters and journalists (on a daily basis) the question inevitably arises – “I know there is some junk and some poor service out there, so how do find a truly quality solar solution?”

Try answering this in a simple sentence and in a 100% objective and independent manner – it’s not easy.

Our industry (like all others) has rules, regulations, standards and consumer laws which are designed to influence the outcomes towards an ideal result – but ultimately they are rarely able to control what happens in the market. Crucially, nor can the bodies or associations which enforce the rules because the market is nimble and fast moving, whilst standards and rules are retrospective and slow moving. I hear a whole lot of blame being bandied around here – “they should regulate this” or “they set the rules so they are responsible” but the reality and truth is, most bodies and associations are merely the messengers caught in a never ending game of hide and seek.

Nonetheless, we have some principles to guide the market and some bodies to test, feedback and enforce these rules but at the same time, in healthy economies consumers and suppliers are free to make choices. So, overarching all of this is a simple, 2000 year old principle established in the backstreets of Rome – Caveat Emptor – (Let the buyer beware). Under the principle of caveat emptor, a buyer can not recover damages from the seller for defects on the property that rendered the property unfit for ordinary purposes. The only exception is if the seller actively concealed latent defects or otherwise made material misrepresentations amounting to fraud.

Responsibility flows both ways and it doesn’t always work out as people expect.

For what it’s worth, here is how I look at the quality issue when I’m asked.

There are three core elements to solar quality in my opinion: 1)products, 2)service and 3)skills. In combination and done well they all contribute towards effective design, supply, installation and support so that you get what you are promised, things work and in the event of a problem in the distant future you get help.

Products

In the solar context product quality is typically simplified right down and defined as a Tier ranking. Tier 1 is best Tier 3 is worst. This is an incredible and often deceptive oversimplification, because Tier rankings are subjective, they change over time and perhaps most poignantly – they aren’t openly available. So, beyond those who can afford detailed Tier ranking analysis regulators, buyers and sellers use their best logical judgement. They look for strong companies, decent financial performance, a track record of experience and products that appear to be and do what they are claimed to. There are International standards and tests and in some cases suppliers do their own tests above and beyond the International requirements or apply additional warranty offers.

In our case, the “approved list” of solar panels and inverters administered by the Clean Energy Council is a pretty rational approach. It avoids replicating decades of work and millions of dollars by accepting compliance certificates to International standards and where necessary seeking evidence of local testing to additional local rules and regulations. By and large however these are safety focused rather than performance or reliability focused, although this is slowly changing internationally.

One little known fact is that in Australia the CEC actually applies an additional layer of cross checking above and beyond many International certifications. You see, some International PV certifiers require annual factory audits (an attempt to regularly re-verify claims) and some don’t. Some years ago, the CEC opted to ONLY accept certification from International bodies who DO do annual factory inspections – many countries around the world accept lower standards than this. Another little know fact is that the guy responsible for the CEC’s PV compliance program is a former solar installer who has been in the solar industry for a staggering 35 years. His passion and dedication for this issue is impossible to put into words and there are more than a dozen other examples of what the CEC has done above the minimum. They aren’t alone either with all our industry associations launching and pushing for programs that lift the bar.

So, if a supplier can demonstrate that they have passed all relevant tests by supplying certificates from recognised bodies then they are put on the approved products list after being cross checked. This assumes that the International certifying bodies have done their home-work and that their requirements are stringent enough to assure a minimum quality benchmark – a fairly reasonable assumption. However, it doesn’t stop an unscrupulous supplier “buying” certification, or swapping materials after sample testing, using components that may not last as long or generally gaming the system. Some people are happy to act fraudulently.

The press has been awash with claims that Australia is full of low quality, failing solar panels. It is true that particularly in the last few years Tier 2 and 3 product has been very popular in Australia – due to its price. The real question is who is responsible for the fact that so much “non top end” product has come to Australia? That’s actually pretty easy to answer – it is the suppliers who chose to import it and the consumers who chose to buy it, because they had the option of choice. The regulators, associations, administrators and standards bodies do not have choices, they only have rules and feedback loops.

Of course, everyone makes claims about quality and verifying or challenging them is staggeringly time consuming. Yesterday I was asked to assess a solar product I had never heard of for a client. After two hours of digging what I ascertained was that it was coming from a small factory that was an offshore subsidiary of a larger Tier 3 manufacturer. Same product, different brand, new look, different country of origin, same cheap price. The amount of publicly available information about company was very limited and it took hours to tease out the story. Ultimately, I simply posed the questions: 1)If the parent is respectable and has a strong brand what’s the motivation to change, except to deceptively disguise the true origin? and 2) is lower economy of scale likely to increase or decrease the quality? You can probably guess my response. Nonetheless, more than one Australian solar buyer has decided to import and sell the product.

So, how do you choose a great product? Great suppliers understand the way the industry works, the technological requirements and what to look for when they are choosing products. They won’t always get it right but deep levels of understanding and experience are crucial. On the other hand, can someone in a shed in the boondocks with limited support and experience make a truly informed decision? Maybe, but maybe not so likely – so they either rely on the big suppliers to do it for them or take a big punt.

Service

The second element of quality is service. Timeliness, professionalism, transparency and back up are key elements in my humble opinion. Fundamentally, consumers want to feel like they are being told the truth and looked after well, and will continue to be looked after when the sale is done.

Yesterday as an example, I read a warranty document on a solar panel I had never heard of before from a large solar retailer that was appalling – it left the consumer hugely exposed and was in direct contradiction with Australian Consumer Law. I wonder how many consumers actually read it before they bought their highly marketed, low priced system. They will be in for a big surprise if the doo-doo hits the fan.

This same supplier has a penchant for stretching the truth around their offers right to the edge of deception. They tend to market their offers in a way that makes them appear cheaper or bigger than they are which isn’t illegal, but certainly borders right on the fringe of deception. But consumers have the right to beleive this without doing their research, if they so choose.

The good news is, consumers are slowly but surely realising that they generally get what they pay for and we can see this in declining markets shares of some companies. Retailers who don’t offer fantastic customer experiences get bad reviews and public complaints and this comes around, albeit too slowly for many. On the other hand, I’m watching suppliers who are investing in deeply engaging and genuine customer support rapidly gaining market share.

I like to use the Dyson example here. With a dog and some allergies in our house a great vacuum is critical so we have used Dyson’s for 12 years. A few years in a part broke. Their lightning fast response was “heres a new one” couriered out in 24 hours at no cost. A few years later something again broke and their lightning fast response was “look its getting old, how about a 75% discount on a new model that’s more robust?” Shit happens, and everyone know’s that – the key is, what’s done to solve it when it does. The Dyson does its job and we have had some problems but based on the support, we will never buy or recommend a different product.

So, how do you get great service? You have dig deep into the terms and conditions and test the veracity of claims. Never believe the hype but look for clues in honest, genuine offers.

Skills

Skill is defined as “a learned ability”. It requires experience and also needs to be backed up by professional training and in solar, good tools.

In our industry, this definition has to apply to a whole host of applications, not just installation. Sales people, designers, product buyers, administrators, customer service people and management all need to have the skills to pull a complex set of elements together and supply a great solution. It can be done with a great deal of investment in small businesses – typically the deeply engaged and enthusiastic installer. It can be done in large businesses too, through quality assurance systems, processes and feedback loops.

Things tend to awry in two ways, in my humble opinion.

In small businesses, just keeping up with everything is the biggest challenge and in the worst case, people simply don’t bother. The crap installers don’t tend to go to product training, industry conferences or seminars. They simply assume they know what they need to and remain blissfully ignorant of the facts.

In large businesses, especially those that are sales and marketing focused, the constant hunt for sales commissions can have a devastating impact on quality, especially if inexperienced poorly trained staff are used. Complex and regularly maintained processes need to be in place to get this right.

So how do you identify great skills? This is a hard one, especially for consumers. I tend to use a simple three pronged strategy – 1) if I personally know a great company that’s close by I recommend them, 2) I ask them to look for evidence that the company has done more than the basics in terms of training and certification; are they an Approved Retailer or have they signed up to Solar Plus? Or done anything else that demonstrates commitment above the minimum? 3) You just can’t beat real, practical experience. Not just fake testimonials but genuine examples and real referrals. What tools are they using to designa nd asess your system and how detailed is their response?

The upshot

Last week I attended the NSW Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) annual conference. It was one of the biggest they have ever held with more than 130 delegates attending and was awesome. When the room was asked “what topics would you like to discuss today?” quality was right at the top of the list. However, this opportunity to learn, to look for ways to improve quality and to build a better industry was only taken up by around 10% of all the accredited installers in NSW.

The quality problem in service and skills is typically outside the room.

When it come to product and service quality, we have some challenges, but we also have some incredible work going on, some very high standards and a bunch of associations and installers working hard to keep them up to date. When you look at where we are at, it’s a long way from an endemic disaster although there is always room for improvement.

The nong’s who choose to import rubbish and the consumers who choose to buy it will come and go and it will do some damage along the way, no doubt.

Continuous improvement is about data, feedback loops and hard slog so if you have idea’s step up to the plate and get involved. We need to stop chucking non factual blame around and get constructive if we really want things to change.

Article Attribution:

Nigel Morris, Director of SolarBusinessServices, 25th March 2015

Nigel is the Director of SolarBusinessServices . After almost 20 years working for other companies SbS Director Nigel Morris, established the company in 2009 with a view to providing other organisations with the benefits of his wide experience in the renewable energy industry.