Raising solar standards

A window of opportunity has led to a number of companies being formed to take advantage of the sales opportunities in the solar sector. Aided by a high profile Government renewable energy campaign, these companies are riding the wave of interest in solar systems providing off-the-shelf solutions.

To give an indication of the number of companies working in the market, I googled on solar energy products and generated a list of 6,620,000 entries. Many of these companies enticingly offer ‘huge savings’ and ‘expert advice.’

However, solar thermal is a technical product that should not be a casual Internet purchase or an off-the-shelf offer – there is a science behind solar.

Quality issues are a primary concern. There are established manufacturers working in the solar sector providing high standard solutions with adequate technical support. Equally, there are a large number of start-up businesses that are frequently mix and matching elements of the solar system to offer a quick fix solution to obtain a sale.

It is issues of poor system selection, inadequate installation and over zealous sales claims that I am keen to highlight as a number of companies formed merely to capitalise on the current interest in solar solutions are damaging the image of the wider market. A BBC Rogue Traders programme for example suggested that two operations had made exaggerated claims and given inadequate advice. This negative press coverage has a knock on effect for the quality suppliers in the industry putting concerns into the minds of potential customers.

One problem of countering the damaging media image and presenting the professional face of the solar industry is a lack of trade regulations and consumer guidelines. Any watchdog standards in the industry are informal and, although there is a solar trade association, we lack a unified approach to provide adequate consumer advice.

So what steps should be taken to redress the negative image of the solar thermal sector and protect both the professional supplier and the consumer?

With regard to those supplying solar thermal systems, I would strongly advise that products are accredited under the DTI and Building Research Establishment’s Clear Skies scheme and installers should ensure that they are recognised under the same programme. Although Clear Skies has closed to new grant applications, the body continues to vet both products and installers.

While Clear Skies is a useful measure of the quality of a solar product, it is critical that suppliers of solar systems enforce their own stringent manufacturing procedures. The highest quality materials should be sourced and any component parts within the solar thermal system must dovetail together to form a total, and unified solution. Without total system synergy, the ultimate efficiency and reliability of the solution cannot be guaranteed. Here I must fire a warning shot to B&Q who have introduced solar panels to their off-the-shelf range – while no doubt a profitable move for B&Q, this is encouraging a mix and match approach to solar systems which should be discouraged.

Investment in specialist software designed specifically for the purpose of calculating solar system requirements is another essential action to be taken by the solar supplier. Every building and installation is different and should be thoroughly assessed using computer based calculations. Corners should not be cut: high-end design tools are required to provide the highest level of comparative analysis tools with customisation features for collectors, stores and boilers.

Finally, and critically, comprehensive installer training must be offered. No matter how competent anyone believes their installers are, the highest skilled plumber will still need to complete an intensive training programme. And it is not enough to simply attend a course, appropriate skill levels must be demonstrated and validated with certification.

To redress the balance, it is important to emphasise that not all solar suppliers are rogue traders. There are professional suppliers and installers, many with lengthy track records in the sector, and some of these are championing the cause of quality solar systems. Nick Backhouse from Eco-Exmoor for example, based close to Roth UK’s West Country headquarters, completed the first UK Clear Skies grant approved installation and has appeared on regional television to provide consumer advice.

If quality standards are adopted, maintained and given a voice, solar system suppliers will set a benchmark that all solar operators will have to follow. And, by raising awareness of professional measures, the consumer will be guided towards the key questions to be presented to a potential solar supplier. Everyone working in the solar sector should embrace these standards and raise the game for the benefit of all involved.