Shonky Solar businesses are at epidemic levels in Brisbane and on the Gold Coast.
With the help of glossy websites, sales sharks and phoenix companies (rising from the ashes of their last failed solar company) are becoming experts at masquerading as solar authorities. Here I’ll help you with five simple online background checks you can do to ensure you end up with more than “roof bling”.
Background check #1
The ABN lookup
With this search, you can find how long the company has been in business. It’s so easy to start a Solar business in Brisbane, build a glossy website and pose as a solar authority. A glossy website is one thing, a business that will last is another. It’s difficult to get realistic statistics of how often startup businesses fail, but Brisbane Solar businesses would lift the average.
ABN searches can be difficult and glitchy. If you type in MC Solar, for example, you won’t come up with MC Solar & Electrical, but with different companies not related. So ask the ABN of the company and search for that. However, this can also be glitchy. Take us just for an example.
We display our ABN and ACN on our website. If you look up our ACN, it will display this:
However, click the company details link and you will see we were registered as a company in 2010.
If you look a little further, you can see we registered the business name MC Electrical when I was installing Solar as a sole trader in 2009.
I could list many examples of solar sales companies that are posing as authorities but have just recently started out, or even worse, have recently phoenixed (closed down their last failed company to start another) but I’ll refrain.
Background check # 2
The Electrical Contractors Licence search
Solar is an Electrical Contractors’ game. I’ve been in the electrical industry since 1993 when I was a 17-year-old apprentice working in Brisbane for SEQEB (now Energex). In 2008, I became an Electrical Contractor. Solar is far too complicated for a sales company. That may sound protective, but let me justify my position.
Firstly, a salesman trained by a salesman will sell ice to an Eskimo.
In contrast, a consultant trained by an Electrical Contractor and Solar Designer has more chance of designing solar from a technical point of view. Usually, the consultant will take more care because the licence on the work – belongs to the bloke that pays his wage. We’re not here just to sell roof bling, but to genuinely design and install the best system at a realistic price.
Second, It really matters who the blokes are on your roof putting panels up. In Queensland, if you buy from a sales company rather than an Electrical Contractor, the sales company cannot legally employ Electricians. They may claim to use their “own electricians” but that generally means they rely on transient junior Electrical Contractors (usually sole traders) to install your system for a fiercely competitive price. The sales company then either bows to the authority of the junior installer or, tells him how to take shortcuts on his job. After the junior contractor gains experience and becomes more confident, he moves on to earn a decent living. The cycle continues.
Doing solar well takes experience. Solar should be an Electrical Contractors’ business.
However, having an Electrical Contractor’s licence does not automatically exclude a company from the junior Sub-Contractor cycle. Larger sales companies often still hold an Electrical Contractors licence, but their business model chooses to use junior Electrical Contractors to cut costs.
I help you to verify that we directly employ our field staff by introducing the MC Electrical Team on my website. As Brisbane-based Electrical Contractors who train and employ Electricians and apprentices, we work to a much higher standard. I choose the best sparkies and apprentices that I can find. I know a good apprentice and a good sparkie because I’ve been there. Between my Electrical supervisor Ryan and myself, we keep up with rapidly changing regulations and best practices and pass that knowledge on to our tradesmen. We both still jump up on a roof regularly and make improvements to the way our electricians and apprentices work. Because Ryan and I were installing solar well before they were, they respect our guidance.
Background Check #3
The Google Street View
So the company you are dealing with has been in business for 5 years. How are they going with that? I’m guessing by now they would be established enough to have business premises. Well, why not do a Google Street view of their claimed premises? If the company is operating from a residential address, it might be cause for concern for how established the business actually is.
Background Check #4
Try it with us: “MC Electrical review”.
Once you have worked out that you are dealing with a legitimate business that has been around for a while, go to Google and type in the business name followed by “review”. Online reviews can be a great way to see what customers have to say about the service of any given business, but you need to be cautious online reviews can be bought or faked.
One recent example of fake and bought reviews is from True Value Solar who were busted by the ACCC for offering incentives for positive online reviews. True Value had previously been fined by the ACCC for misleading advertising. ACCC has also taken action against Eurosolar for publishing fake online testimonials.
However, if you put on your detective hat and take your time, you should get a good feel for how the company treats their customers. Large sites like Google and Facebook are a good start. However, companies will often not open themselves up to these review platforms because they fear they cannot control the bad reviews. Finn Peacock’s site, SolarQuotes, is a great resource for testimonials. Fin is really passionate about solar and knows the industry well. It’s hard to be a fake in the solar industry and fool Finn’s team.
If you were suspicious of glowing online reviews and wanted to cross-check them, call up the Solar Company with five or so names in the Brisbane area that you want to check. We’ve had potential customers request this from time to time, and while it may take a day or two to get in contact with our past customers, they are always more than happy to vouch for us.
(Update: As of March 2019, being a CEC retailer just doesn’t carry the weight that it used to. You still wouldn’t want to get solar from a company that wasn’t a CEC retailer. It’s just that the bar set for becoming a CEC-approved retailer is much lower than it used to be. It’s more important than ever to do the first 4 background checks before choosing a solar company.)
Background Check #5
The Clean Energy Council Approved Retailer
While I would strongly advise you to do the above checks, if it’s all too hard, there is a shortcut. The Clean Energy Council has various accreditations, but none like the Clean Energy Council Approved Retailer status. If you really have your game together in solar, you would want the governing body to validate that. The Clean Energy Council is scrupulous about doing background checks. They make sure the company is legitimate and is not a phoenix company. They will ensure the director or managers have not previously been bankrupt. They use a fine-tooth comb on terms and conditions so you can be confident they are clear and fair. They enforce that the method of sales is informative and ethical.
Unfortunately, one thing the CEC does not require is for the company to be Electrical Contractors. I think I’ve made a reasonable case in “Background check #2” as to why this is important.
To be clear, a CEC Approved retailer is not the same as a CEC member or a CEC installer. I explain this in my post “What is the Clean Energy Council Code of Conduct”. So far, less than 30 companies in Australia have passed the CEC Approved retailer test and only a handful in Brisbane.
Bonus check: Solar Rail
This may seem like a weird one to throw in, but I believe solar rail is a litmus test for a quality solar install. We choose to pay more for Brisbane-based Radiant Solar rail. The only rail that comes close to the quality of Radiant is SunLock. After this, you really are looking at low-end Chinese rail, with no consideration for a quality of installation in mind. Let’s not beat around the bush: both Radiant and Sunlock rail are about $400 more for a 5kw system on a tile roof. But a quality installer will use a quality rail. With their attention to detail on nonmarketable items such as rail, you can make a reasonable assumption that they will install with quality in mind. Your investment in a quality rail may be the best $400 real estate investment you have ever made.
When you are looking for a Brisbane Solar company, you first want a business that has been around more than just a couple of years. A minimum of 5 years is a good guide. Second, you probably want to deal with an Electrical Contractor who understands what they are selling and can legally employ and control their own staff. Third, check out their business premises on Google Street View. Next, I would check out what customers are saying on by Googling the company name and “review”. As a fifth point, I would always recommend you went with a Clean Energy Council Approved Retailer – but preferably one that is also a contractor. Finally, I would suggest you investigate the brand of rail the company is offering, as a litmus test of a quality of installation.
I hope I have assisted you in finding a real solar company and helping to separate the wheat from the chaff. I’d be keen to hear your experiences below – be they positive or negative.