Building Better

Everything You Need To Know About Installing Solar

If you’ve considered installing solar power in your home, but feel overwhelmed with the products on offer and jargon, you’re not alone.

From determining what system is most suitable, to understanding rebates, many consumers find the solar industry difficult to navigate. The good news – it’s really easy to get started, and more affordable than you might think, with many solar systems paying for themselves within five years.

We’ve gone right back to basics, to try and make solar power as simple to understand as possible, with expert advice from Andy McCarthy, CEO of Gippsland Solar and RACV Solar, and Melbourne architect Chris Gilbert, of Archier. Let’s get into it!

Amelia Barnes
Supported by Bank Australia

Nulla Vale by MRTN Architects shows how solar panels can actually enhance and modernise a regional home. Photo – Peter Bennetts.

Amelia Barnes
21st of July 2020

Getting started

When people talk about ‘getting solar’, they’re referring to installing a solar system (otherwise known as a photovoltaic or PV system) which absorbs energy generated by the sun. Solar panels supply power to a home during the day, alongside traditional ‘grid’ power that provides extra electricity when required on low sunlight days, at night, and at times of high power usage.

A typical solar system consists of solar panels and an inverter. There are two main types of inverters: a string inverter (which is installed on a wall with all solar panels connected), and microinverters (which are attached to the back of each solar panel). Inverters are the heart of a solar system, as they convert the electricity generated by panels into 240V AC power suitable for household use. 

An optional additional component of a solar system is a battery. A battery captures any unused solar power generated during the day for later use at night and on low-sunlight days. In instances where a solar-powered home does not have a battery, any excess power generated by the panels will be fed back into the grid (i.e. the network that carries electricity from power stations across the country). Australian households are generally compensated for this power in the form of a ‘feed-in tariff’, which is basically a small credit from their electricity retailer, in return for each kilowatt-hour (kWh) fed back into the grid.

Finding the right system

To determine what size solar system is most appropriate for your home, you first need to measure your electricity usage. You also need to consider how much space is available for panels, and how much energy you expect to use in the future. ‘For example, perhaps you have a growing family, are renovating, hope to get a battery system or electric vehicle one day, or are in the process of switching your appliances from gas to electric,’ says Andy McCarthy, CEO of Gippsland Solar and RACV Solar.

‘For most households a solar system of approximately 6.6 kW is a suitable size, but many customers wanting larger benefits and to go all-electric with battery storage may be better installing larger system options between 7-10 kW and beyond,’ he says. 

If you can’t afford or don’t have the space to install a 6.6 kW system, a smaller 3-5 kW system can still be beneficial. ‘The savings are often still very attractive,’ says Andy. ‘A smaller system will often reach ‘payback’ more quickly while a larger system is likely to bring greater long term benefits.’

The size of your inverter will depend on the solar array, but a 5 kW inverter is usually recommended for a 6.6 kW system. 

A reputable solar consultant will be able to guide you through this entire process, taking into account your desired financial and environmental outcomes.

How much does it cost?

The short answer? Probably less than you think. 

‘For a decent quality 6.6 kW system and installation, a household should aim to spend at least $8000-$9000 which is likely to pay itself off in five years or less,’ says Andy.

This is the price after discounts generated by the federal government’s Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme (often referred to as the STC program) – a financial incentive for households and businesses to install eligible renewable energy systems. (You might have heard this referred to as the ‘solar rebate’, although that’s not its official title.) This scheme currently offers consumers a discount of around $585 per kW installed, but keep in mind most advertised prices of solar equipment will already take this into account. Some states have additional schemes reducing system prices even further, such as Victoria which offers an additional $1400 rebate for eligible consumers. 

Research is everything when it comes to solar, so look into reputable companies and products to ensure you’re investing in quality. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is!

The benefits

The environmental benefits of using solar power over fossil fuel-generated electricity are simple. Not only is this a renewable resource, solar energy doesn’t generate any greenhouse gas emissions when created.

On top of this, it often makes good financial sense to switch to solar. As solar consumers use less grid-sourced electricity and are compensated via feed-in tariffs for exporting excess energy back to the grid, most solar systems currently pay for themselves in five years or less.

‘It’s crazy not to take advantage of that money and invest it in the next generation,’ says Chris Gilbert, director of Archier, an architecture firm in Melbourne with a strong commitment to sustainability.

Installation and design

Having your solar system installed by a Clean Energy Council (CEC) accredited professional is essential if you wish to claim the government rebate. Once engaged, your solar installer will take care of the purchasing and organising of your solar system components. Lead times are generally one to three months, with installation often able to be completed in one day.

A professional installer will also be able to advise you on the best placement of your panels for maximum possible output. Generally speaking north-facing panels will produce the most electricity overall in Australia, but having some panels facing east or west will allow your system to produce power earlier in the morning or later into the afternoon, respectively.  

You may be wondering, how do I ensure my home’s solar panels are not visible? Generally speaking, they will be as integrated into roof or carport as possible, but as Chris from Archier points out, the benefits of installing solar far outweigh the potential drawbacks of some conspicuous panels. In the case of Chris’ own self-designed house for example, the architect is happy for his property’s solar array to peek just above the roof, making the panels slightly visible from the street. ‘It’s something to be proud of!’ he says. ‘We should be pivoting the conversation, as this is more important than our eye gracefully dancing over a rooftop.’

Nulla Vale by MRTN Architects (pictured above) is another great example of solar panels being showcased in residential design. In this project, prominent roof solar panels actually add to the unique aesthetic of the home, modernising a regional dwelling that is inspired by early settler homes and rural sheds, and bringing it into the 21st century!

In partnership with Bank Australia, we’re bringing you ‘Building Better’, a series aimed to demystify sustainable renovation ideas and building upgrades.

Bank Australia’s Clean Energy Home Loan offers a discounted home loan rate if you buy or build a home that exceeds a 7-star NatHERS rating, or have made ambitious green upgrades in the last 12 months. Find out more here!

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