Consumer's guide to buying a Photovoltaic Solar Solutions.

How to avoid the tricks, traps and scams.

So you're interested in switching on to home solar solution? Congratulations, you'll save cash and reduce greenhouse gas emissions!


If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

Shopping for a solar power solutions can be an exciting time for many people, but as with any substantial investment, you'll need to be careful who you deal with.

Like in any industry, the solar power sector has its share of unscrupulous parties who have little interest in the technology, environmental benefits and your needs. They are only chasing your money - and they'll be ruthless in doing so. Basically, the old saying "if a deal sounds too good to be true, it most likely is" applies very much to purchasing a photovoltaic solar energy solution.

Avoid becoming a photovoltaic solar system horror story

We've been in the solar power industry for some years and during that time we've heard countless horror stories from customers regarding some vendors; everything from leaking roofs after installations have been performed, to householders going into debt for decades.

As a public service, we've decided to publish some of the tricks, traps, cons and scams so you can avoid them.

Are we chasing your business? Of course! But as a renewable energy leader in S.A. that is truly passionate about solar energy solutions, PMP also firmly believes that our industry needs to adhere to the highest ethical standards - it ensures protection for the consumer and a more level playing field for those of us involved in the solar sector.

Beware of fast talking sales people

Like shopping for a new car, beware of over- exuberance on a sales person's part. In some instances, this may be just genuine passion bubbling over, but in others, the sales person won't understand what they are selling; instead focusing on hype to get you to sign on the dotted line. If a question hasn't been answered properly or has been deflected, pursue a satisfactory response.

Beware of video presentations

If a sales person wants to show you a video - say no! We can practically guarantee that it will be 1% minute of information vs. 99% hype - effectively a brainwashing session. Understanding grid connect systems is quite simple and can be explained by a competent salesperson with the assistance of a single diagram.

Ignoring simple energy efficiency solutions to reduce cost

photovoltaic solar system solutions are about energy efficiency – the more energy efficient your household is, the cheaper the cost and the lower the payback period will be for the system.

You can generally save between 20-30% of your current electricity bill in your household by implementing certain basic principles. Your solar system supplier should know these. Doesn’t it make sense that they should know and advise you on the facts and start off by doing an energy and analysis on your system first?

A company genuinely committed to solar energy is in business to make money, however they will always offer suggestions as to how you can decrease the costs of a system.

For example, if a representative visits your house for a site inspection to gauge your needs, they might notice issues such as the use of incandescent lights instead of compact fluorescents. A good, ethical company will point out that spending a hundred Rand on switching to compact fluorescent globes can save you thousands of Rand on extra solar panels which would be needed to power the incandescent lights. On the other hand, an unethical company will see this as a good opportunity for the sale of a larger photovoltaic solar system  and duly keep quiet!

High pressure tactics

Every company uses terms like "deal ending soon", "hurry before stocks run out" - it's just the accepted language of marketing. However, some companies upon visiting your home will say things like the offer they are touting is ending the same day!

Ethical sales people will not place you under this type of pressure given the size of the investment, particularly if this is an initial enquiry and they've established that you're not overly familiar with solar power concepts. Demand time to think things over and research. Better still, if you come under this sort of pressure, see it as an indication of what the company is like and avoid them altogether.

Collusion with related industries

Some solar companies have close ties with other industries, such as roof repair and roof restoration businesses, or it may be incorporated under their own business. There's nothing wrong with that as such, but what can happen is that a householder calls in a roof repairer who then offers a fantastic deal on a photovoltaic solar system solution using high pressure tactics. Alternatively, the roof repair company may just sow the seed, and then pass on the householder details to a solar company for targeting.

Investing in a photovoltaic solar system solution is a decision that should be made after serious thought, having been presented all the facts and after having had time for thorough research and comparing packages with different companies - you shouldn't expect to call in a tradesman for roof repairs and have them sell a solar power package to you on the same day!

Compare ‘apples to apples’

Package deals are a great way to save cash, but not all packages are created equal. For example, a company might use top quality solar panels, but skimp on the power inverter, wire and frame quality in the hope that the panel brand name will dazzle you and you'll ignore the other components.

When comparing packages, do so on a component by component basis - and ask questions about why X brand is better than Y brand - where there are differences.

Grey market/counterfeit products

It's not all that common, but in some cases in order to save money a company will obtain components on the grey market. This is where the component is genuine, but hasn't come through the proper supply channels. In these situations, if something goes wrong with the component, the manufacturer may not honor the warranty.

In extreme cases, counterfeit or cheaper "no-name" products will be used. This can not only prove more costly as the equipment won't be eligible for rebates, but the equipment may not perform as well as established brands and present fire/electrocution hazards through shoddy workmanship. Look for proper certifications. The 'CE Mark' from Europe alone is worthless in S.A. for solar panels as it's a self-certification.

Low quality components

The IEC international standards mentioned above have recently been enhanced to ensure even less leeway in performance and quality. However, S.A. is behind other countries in the area of certification. The result is that poorer quality panels, not meeting European standards were being dumped in large quantities in S.A. and offered at very low prices as a part of comprehensive solar systems. Some of these panels may still be on offer. – be careful, as they will not last the distance you expect of them. You can also expect panel performance to drop off dramatically in marginal conditions.

An item that is often not closely scrutinised in a solar power system package is the inverter. An power inverter is the device that converts DC electricity from the panels into AC electricity suitable for use in your home. Sometimes a package might have top brand solar panels, but may skimp on the power inverter quality in order to maintain an attractive price point. A low quality power inverter will be inefficient, may have a shorter lifespan as well as being an expensive item to replace. So, be sure a good quality power inverter is included in your solar power system.

A good place for consumers to start when offered a package is to ask for the brand name for each component and then to research the brand history on the Internet.

Warranty issues

Many solar panel and related component manufacturers have been established in China in the last couple of years. With the exception of very few such manufacturers, the products have not been thoroughly tested for South African conditions. While the warranty the new companies may offer can be the same duration as the more recognised brands; the warranty will be of little value if the company ‘disappears’. Deal with a reputable company with a sound track record in Solar.  Most good quality panels (‘A’Grade) carry a 20+ years warranty, so, 5 year warranties definitely tell you something.

Inflated performance claims

Performance guidelines for solar power systems may be exaggerated. For example, a system of a specific size may provide 50% of the average household's needs in Musina, but it certainly won't in Cape Town. A good company will perform a series of complex calculations and let you know exactly how much electricity you can expect to generate from your own roof before even thinking about presenting you with any sort of contract. It's also important to note that a 1kW system will not produce that precise level of power. Performance is impacted by issues such as heat, cloud, humidity, season, etc. right through to the normal operational losses of the power inverter when the DC power from the solar panels is converted to AC power suitable for use in your home. However, some inverters are better than others in terms of conversion efficiency, just the same as some panels are better than others in relation to heat and condition tolerance.

Some inverters have a high consumption draw even when in ‘idle’ status - which wastes your hard-earned solar energy.

Companies often sell premade kits, for instance a 5kW system. This means 5kW of solar panels. This is like buying a car with all the great specs on paper, but not being able to start it! Remember you buy a car for transport, luxury and performance – this is the same for solar systems. Ask your supplier to guarantee you a kW.H rating – thus you want a guarantee that your designed system will deliver a certain kW.h i.e. 20kW.h average per day over a year. This is your performance curve and your only way to honestly measure.

We have consulted and seen many systems where a system has been installed – Mathematically it should deliver X power kW.h, but due to poor installation, it does not even deliver 60% of what it must! Panels not orientated correctly, batteries underrated, cables underrated, etc.

Remember, you buy kW., not kW!

If you invest in  big system, also invest in the Monitor equipment to Monitor your total system

Shade tolerance claim

No solar panel is truly shade tolerant. It only takes shade covering a small area of a panel to reduce its performance dramatically. It simply does not pay to install solar panels on an area of roof where they will be in the shade during peak sun hours. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise - as you'll just be wasting your money.

House re-financing

Financing your solar system can be an option and using your Bond or shorter term finance can be cash flow beneficial after a couple of years if Eskom’s increases of 16% for the next 3 years are approved….. Not everyone can afford to shell out the capital required for a fair-sized domestic system, so financing is a definite option and will pay for itself - even taking the interest into account. Cash flow consideration are also important, and, if you can bring your repayments down below what Eskom would be charging you, then this would make sense, as your house is appreciating as well, once you add a solar system.

Sizing up batteries:

Many companies over-rate the amount of power that you can extract from your deep cycle battery. The fact that a battery is rated at 102 Amp Hours does not mean that you can extract that much power from it (refer relevant article on Depths of Discharge).  Unscrupulous sales people will lull you into purchasing fewer batteries for any given system and thereby reducing the system price - in the hope of procuring the business.  

This will result in a rapid deterioration of your battey’s life expectancy and increase the cost of operating your solar system. Never utilise more than 60% of your batteries’ rated capacity - if you wish to obtain optimal life from your batteries. The ideal depth of discharge for solar batteries is actually around 25% - but very few systems actually adhere to this benchmark.

Batteries are your single biggest cost investment and are also the product with the most limited lifespan. Under-design can give you a lifespan of only 3 months! You should design a solar energy solution that gives you 5 years at least (even better if possible).

Installation timelines

Solar fever is sweeping the nation, so many providers are backlogged - so you can expect a wait of up to a few weeks for your system to be installed - but this is something you should be made aware of by the provider. If this detail is not mentioned anywhere, ensure you get it in writing; otherwise you may be waiting for 6 months or more. Details should also include what the supplier will do if the installation isn't completed by the appointed time.

Gimmicks, gadgets and bonuses

Everyone loves a bonus, but when too much emphasis is placed on a bonus rather than the core product, the solar power system itself; its cause for concern. Bear in mind that most gadgets and bonuses included with solar power packages have cost the vendor far less than their retail value. Unless the bonus is directly related to the solar power system, you'll be better off forsaking the bonus and negotiating a cheaper price on the overall system.

After sales and monitor and services

We have many clients on a remote monitor system. Without a doubt, we can tell you that no 2 systems or house usage are the same. In order to maintain and optimise your system all the time, you should always consider to add a monitor system as part of your installation.


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