Mar, 2014

Spot the difference: The difference between a commercial solar specialist and a generalist.

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90% of the solar market in Australia has been residential, and there are a large number of companies established to support that industry.

As a result, these companies also wish to ‘step up’ and install larger systems in the 20-100 kW area.

But being good at installing residential solar demands a different skill set compared to commercial installations.

Unfortunately, none of this may become apparent until during or after the project. The systems quoted may appear similar from the  outside. But look under the hood and there’s some important differences.

Some companies are just out of their depth in installing larger projects, but because the industry is relatively young (over 90% of the 1.1 million solar systems have been installed in the last 5 years) then customers are not adept at sorting out the capabilities of installers. Often they rely on their reputation within the residential market (they did a great job of your brother in law’s house!) and are just not aware of what is required on a larger project. In simple terms, people’s BS detectors are not well tuned when in comes to solar power companies.

It is not ill-intention that causes the problems. It is a lack of standards and procedures that cause the issues. Sometimes though, the impact doesn’t show up until much later, and therefore the damage is borne by the client.

If it were two cars, people have the experience to tell the difference. They can see past the similariaties and notice that one has GPS, a more tuned engine, better suspension, wider wheels and better tyres. With solar power systems, people don’t know what to look for and often just compare based on the most superficial similarities (system size, panel choice).

These are some of the differences that matter.


A company should have your building inspected by a structural engineer to ascertain the structure will be suitable. You can probably get away without it in the same way you don’t always need your seatbelt.

System design

With residential solar, often the first time an installer sees your roof is the day that they arrive in their truck with the panels to install. System design is then a step that involves a walk around the building and a quick “this part of the roof seems to be the best”.  Despite there being two separate processes 1. Design and 2. Installation needed, they are often rolled into one. ePho has a full time PV Engineer with over a decade’s experience who models and designs every system in great detail.

Financial modelling

Even before you seriously consider solar, an accurate model of what it will do for you is important. Our performance modelling covers detailed weather data, aspect, orientation, shade, your usage  pattern, feed in tariffs, your type of bill and  tariff rates, peak demand charges and even the output profile of one brand of panel compared to another, as well as ongoing maintenance costs. It is designed to be an accurate yet conservative model of what solar will do for you. We have seen proposals from other solar companies where they could not even interpret the price that the customer paid for power (yes, we find this distressing!).

Council permissions

Any system over 10kW requires a Complying Development Certificate from our local council. Most solar companies are not even aware of requirement. Recently with a job in Orange, NSW we applied for this as a standard part of our procedure, and we were advised that it was the first application that they had received. So, everyone else is assuming that it doesn’t matter. Perhaps we are overly cautious in this respect, but it is clearly part of the State Environmental Planning Policy and the client has to bear the risk when the Council decides to carry out an audit.

Materials handling

Given that most commercial buildings are larger than residences, the way that panels and installers get on the roof is often not as simple as a home-based solar system. It often needs a scissor lift or other solution and this costs money. If this isn’t planned for before the job, it will certainly come up when the work starts and either you’ll be asked to pay extra or the installer will absorb it (and perhaps cut corners elsewhere to make it up?).


Because the main reason to install commercial solar power is to save money on electricity, then the performance of the system needs to be measured. All our systems have monitoring and this includes the additional weather monitoring systems so that an intelligent analysis of  the output can be made. This is not a cheap part of a system and can often be several thousand dollars.

Equipment choice 

Despite our history in solar, we don’t have a preset formula for equipment. We do have a short list of equipment that we prefer (and a much longer list of equipment we won’t use) , but each system is designed for the best outcome. In some cases that will suggest one  brand, and in other cases another. The important thing to take away from this is that we don’t push our agenda. We choose  the right equipment for the job.

What are the consequences of not using a company that does all the right things?

Basically, there’s four issues:

  1. The system might not do what was promised,
  2. The system may not perform as well as it should,
  3. The system may cost more to you than the quoted amount (basically from scope creep during the project),
  4. The system might not comply with the regulations.

Because the system has such a long life, the difference between a system that performs and one that doesn’t can be tens of thousands of dollars, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars over a life span of decades.

You only get to choose once.

Choose a specialist and choose someone with the experience. While ePho is a relatively new company, the team has almost 50 years of combined experience in small and large projects in Australia and around the world.  The MD, Dr Oliver Hartley has a PhD in Photovoltaics and experience with hundreds of projects in his previous managerial roles.

Superficially, two quotes may seem the same – the same vague specifications in terms of system size and equipment. However, scratch  the surface and see  which one will serve you best in the long term.