Buying Solar Panels (without getting ripped off)
How to buy cheap solar panels without getting ripped off.
For many years solar panels were very expensive to manufacture and were equally expensive to purchase. The price of panels was very stable at around the $10 per watt mark for a number of years. Manufacture of panels was limited to just a few well-known companies like BP, Sharp, Kyocera and Unisolar. During this time of high prices there were very few issues with quality control. Most panels were provided with long warrantees and because of the big names of the manufacturers, we could be reasonably confident that they would be around in 10 years’ time to honour that warrantee. And there was never any question that a 100w panel would produce 100w when exposed to the Australian sun.
Then, about 3 years ago, Chinese manufacturing companies brought their panels to the market. These Chinese manufactured panels were offered to the Australian market at a fraction of the price that we had been used to paying. They carried the same written warrantee and looked pretty much the same as the name brand panels. I have tested a few of these panels, and in each case they performed to specification. Over the next few years prices continued to fall to the point that as I write this (Nov 2012) it is possible to purchase panels for less than $1 per watt.
All of this seems like a dream come true to a caravanner or motorhomer wanting to equip their rig with sufficient solar to comfortably live on. There are however some major pitfalls to be aware of when buying panels, I have some first-hand experience of how easy it is to get ripped off by unscrupulous sellers of solar panels.
We decided to add some extra solar panels to the roof of our bus to make up for our ballooning power usage. We already had 842 watts and because we had 4 huge (in physical size) 64 watt UniSolar panels, we would need to swap two of these for 200 watt panels – giving us an extra 272 watts – or 1114 watts in total. After doing some research on eBay I purchased two 200 watt panels from LHP (Luxury Home Products) for $555.00 including delivery. When these arrived I immediately commented that they looked too small to be 200 watt panels. I unboxed them and looked for the spec label. This was a sticker printed on an inkjet printer that simply said 200w. I immediately placed both panels in full midday sun and measured the output at 160 watts. So, it seems that LHP are purchasing 160 watt panels and selling them as 200 watt panels. For the average buyer this would be a big issue, most people have no ability to test panels and would therefore simply accept the overrated panels at face value.
A quick Google search produced a number of results for exactly the same scam – a number of these mentioned Luxury Home Products.
My story had a happy ending, because I paid for the panels using PayPal, there was at least a good chance that I would get my money back – I ended up negotiating with the LHP and getting the two panels for $100, which is not a bad deal for two 160 watt panels (32 cents per watt).
So how can the average purchaser avoid issues like this without paying the high prices demanded by the big name manufacturers?
- The most obvious thing is to consider the price. The old saying “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is” is very applicable. If the panels are considerably cheaper than others of the same specifications – be sceptical.
- Get the FULL specifications in writing before you buy. This will include values for Open Circuit Voltage, Short Circuit Current and Current at Peak Power. If the seller cannot supply these values for the panel, look elsewhere.
- Get the physical size of the panel and compare it to a known (name brand) panel of the same output wattage. Glass panels are somewhere between 15% – 17% efficient. This means that to get X watts from a panel it MUST be y square meters in area. There is (currently) no magic that can make high output panels smaller (if there was don’t you think the big boys, BP, Sharp etc) would already be using it?).
- Test the panels as soon as you get them. Do this by measuring the current when the panel is short circuited in full midday sun. This short circuit current should be close to the specified value. And when multiplied by the panel voltage, close to the specified wattage (within about 10%).
Let’s face it, none of us expect a 25 year warrantee to be worth the paper it is photocopied onto when purchasing solar panels manufactured by an unknown company in China and sold on eBay by an unknown seller. So it would be wise to consider the warrantee valueless.
The alternatives include buying panels at retail outlets (like Jaycar and any of the massive number of new solar energy companies that have sprouted almost overnight) OR sticking with the aforementioned name brands. Both of these options will likely leave your wallet considerably lighter.
In my mind paying one quarter the price for a set of panels (admittedly with no effective warrantee) allows me to either buy 4 times as many for the same money OR replace them 4 times and still be in the same position. For this reason I feel it is worth the risk as long as you apply some common sense and follow the recommendations above.
Have you purchased panels and been ripped off – or perhaps got a good deal? Do you have any tips you would like to add? Why not add a comment in the box below so we can all learn from your experience.
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