As the cost and other ‘green’ benefits of solar power have become increasingly apparent to local consumers, so the South African market has become flooded with solar photovoltaic (PV) panels as vendors attempt to take advantage of this increasing awareness.
Unfortunately, potential buyers are finding that product quality and performance values differ significantly from one vendor to another. Instances of lower-grade solar PV modules being sold as premium quality products are rife, exposing the complexity of the local market and underlining the difficulties often encountered when searching for genuine top-end solutions.
Trying to ensure the legitimacy and authenticity of an investment in an alternative power resource has become a challenge, mirrored by the vagaries of the terms and conditions of the warranties and guarantees provided by the solar PV vendors who tend to hide important disclaimers and provisos in ‘small print’ subtleties.
Buyers need to be armed with the knowledge of how solar PV vendors back their products before signing up for an often-costly solar PV installation. Ideally they should shop around first to find the best solution.
Although all solar panels sold in South Africa carry common law warranties against latent defects, it’s important to carefully consider the types and durations of the factory and in-service warranties offered by solar system vendors and installers.
Be aware that there are several different types of solar PV system warranties available, covering the PV panels and other parts of a complete installation.
As solar panels contain no moving parts, they are usually extremely reliable and, barring hail storms, will give a long life. However, if something does go wrong, they are usually backed by a materials or product warranty that can be valid for between one and 10 years.
This warranty usually covers components such as the panels’ glass, laminate backing and possibly the silicon cells/wafers contained within.
Importantly, check whether the warranty is underwritten by the panel manufacturer or the system installer. If it is the manufacturer, will the panels have to be sent overseas to be repaired (at whose cost?) or will they simply be replaced (swopped out) by the installer?
It’s also vital to understand the terms and conditions of any regular maintenance contract which, if not followed correctly, could void the factory or installer’s warranty.
What about the solar PV panels’ ability to meet advertised performance benchmarks for the duration of their life – which could exceed 20 years?
Performance output warranties are not as common as materials warranties and their inclusion or omission should be noted before a purchase is made.
As all solar PV panels degrade over time, performance warranties should cover repairs to the silicon cells/wafers and/or panel replacement in the event that their electricity production fall below a predetermined percentage of the panels’ rated capacity during its lifetime (usually 25 years). This performance drop should be due to a defect in the cells themselves (not due to a fault of the rest of the system).
One of the best industry warranties on the market is linked to a performance curve which allows for a maximum of 3% degradation of the solar PV panel modules in the first year and a 0.7% per annum degradation for the remaining 24 years. Thus, by the end of a 25-year period, power output is warranted to be no less than 80% of the modules’ labelled power output at purchase.
But what happens if the vendor (or the installer) goes out or business at any point in time during the 25-year warranty period? Who will resolve the issues? In this event, it’s vital that the warranty be underwritten by one of more third party guarantors, ideally reputable, independent finance institutions or insurance underwriters.
This is key if the installation is associated with a potential developer or investors in an industrial-scale solar installation. They are looking for bankable technology in order to reduce risk and support the long term economics of their projects, many of which are geared to provide an annuity return.
A long-term, non-cancellable warranty – meaning it remains in force even if the principals are no longer in the solar power business – is central to the bankability of solar farms and similar solar installations.
Other warranties which should be addressed include those for the inverter – the device that changes direct current to alternating current – which typically last for five to 10 years – and the batteries, if a stand-alone or hybrid system is involved. Batteries can be the most maintenance-intensive parts of a stand-alone power system, so warranty fine-print should be studied carefully.
Finally, a balance-of-system (non-panel components) warranty should be available from the installer or added to an existing building insurance contract to cover the wiring and other miscellaneous components.