Australia: Rooftop solar panels, costing thousands of dollars, deemed fire hazard

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Ricky Barone has been told his solar system is a fire hazard and should be replaced. (ABC Tropical North: Hannah Walsh) © Provided by ABC Business Ricky Barone has been told his solar system is a fire hazard and should be replaced. (ABC Tropical North: Hannah Walsh)

Ricky Barone installed a solar system on his roof in 2014 to make the most of the North Queensland sun and save money on his electricity bills.

Since its installation, however, it has cost him thousands of dollars and years of sleepless nights.

It wasn't until a so-called solar doctor inspected his rooftop panels this year that the Mackay man realised the potential hazard he was living under.

"He [the solar inspector] basically said it's badly installed and there's a big chance it could catch fire," Mr Barone said.

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"I was so ticked off and I haven't been sleeping well thinking about it."

Mr Barone said it was a two-year wait to get a solar system installed by a local company, so he instead turned to a company based in Melbourne.

He said the problems started after about six months and then he had difficulty getting parts replaced, such as when the inverters failed after 18 months.

On one occasion a neighbour called Mr Barone to alert him to a fire.

"They blew up the meter box," he said.

"It should have clicked from day one … we've had nothing but trouble with it.

"The system has never worked … we got it to try and save money to do some other renovations, but we haven't been able to."

Mr Barone said he wanted the company to uninstall it but the ABC understands the firm has not sold solar in a number of years.

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"They just keep saying someone will get in contact, and they never do," Mr Barone said.

"They've got a complaint site and there's a lot of people in the same boat."

The company has been contacted by the ABC for comment.

What is a solar doctor?

Jemal Solo started his own solar-inspection business in Mackay because he said no-one was advocating for home owners with solar installations.

"We hold installers and manufacturers accountable for their products and workmanship," Mr Solo said.

"We took this on because we saw nobody was addressing this … and when it comes to pensioners that's when you get really upset because people buy this to save money."

Mr Solo, who has installed solar panels and conducts inspections for the Clean Energy Regulator, said installers had a five-year defects liability period to fix their work.

"It's your fault really if you find six years later that it hasn't been installed properly," he said.

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"The problem is there's no feedback loop … nobody is checking the installers' work.

"The solar retailers don't really care as long as they're getting paid."

Brian Richardson from the Queensland Electrical Safety Office said there had been instances in which interstate companies had come to Queensland without the appropriate licences.

Who can consumers turn to?

Australia does not have a national authority responsible for electrical safety.

Mr Barone said he had referred his case to the Queensland Office of Fair Trading as well as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

He's not alone.

The Office of Fair Trading deals with approximately 350 complaints a year involving solar products.

The Energy and Water Ombudsman Queensland (EWOQ) deals with complaints about solar billing and metering.

Jane Pires from the EWOQ said in the 2021–22 financial year, it received 142 complaints about solar billing errors, an increase of 92 per cent from the previous year.

It passed 153 cases related to installation and 17 related to solar warranties to the Office of Fair Trading.

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Delia Ricard, deputy chair of the ACCC, said her organisation was also receiving a large volume of complaints concerning consumers' experience with retail solar panels and installation.

"If it is a small local regulator, we are likely to refer it to Queensland Fair Trading," she said.

"Where it's a larger national or more systematic problem, we may take enforcement or regulatory action.

"The Clean Energy Council and new tech codes are designed to lift the standards in terms of manufacture and installation of solar systems.

"While they are voluntary codes, in most states where there are rebates, you can only get the rebate if the system was purchased from somebody who comes under the code."

There are currently no state or territory requirements for electricians to hold extra qualifications for solar.

A scheme introduced 22 years ago by the federal government aimed to address this but it will be phased out by 2030.

The Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme run by the Clean Energy Regulator provides households and businesses with financial incentives to install solar systems approved by the Clean Energy Council.

The scheme's general manager, Matthew Power, said he had been consulting with states and territories to embed some of the scheme's aspects into normal state and territorial electrical rules.

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"The Commonwealth scheme is setting an obligation above and beyond the state and territory requirements that are already in place," Mr Power said.

"The system needs to be installed by a Clean Energy Council-accredited installer who has done additional qualifications and training above their normal electrical licensing."

'Shoddy workmanship' complaints

Ms Ricard said some of the main issues coming across the ACCC's desk involved misrepresentations about price and quality, as well as unsolicited high-pressure sales.

"There's a raft of issues people complain to us about, including shoddy workmanship," she said.

Ms Ricard said a number of regulators were looking into cases where the retailer had gone out of business.

Jemal Solo agreed he had seen too many retailers "come and go".

"Usually what happens is the manufacturer disappears and the home owner doesn't know who the installer is," he said.

"Thirty per cent of the cases we deal with, the manufacturers have already withdrawn from Australia, so here you are years later with a piece of paper with a warranty on it that's worth nothing."

That is of little comfort to Ricky Barone.

"I just want my solar system taken off."

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