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Solar 101: Your Ultimate Solar Buying Guide

Author: Amy Hambleton
February 12, 2018
If you’ve found yourself on this page I assume there is a reason: your last quarterly bill shocked you, and you are dreading opening your next one.

Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Retailers have raised their rates by 20% in the last 6 months alone. That means that the average Australian homeowner (read: you) spends an additional $600 per annum on power from the grid.

Now, if you’re looking into going solar, you’re already on the right track—it can save you money in the long run, and save the planet too.

But to make sure you get the most out of solar power, you’ll need to get your head around the basics.

Like: How does solar actually work? Do you need to get off the grid or not? Is it worth it? How much will it cost? Will I still have power if it rains?

We have the answers to all of these questions and more, so dig into our ‘Ultimate Guide to Solar Power’ and kick your quarterly bill for good.


Why Staying on the Grid Will Cost You

We all know that domestic power bills have been increasing over time. Sharply. To cite just one example, the average Australian electricity bill rose by around 63% over the past decade.

That’s ok, you might say. Prices are always rising—isn’t that just inflation?

Well, not exactly.

This simple graph can help you understand how exactly the price grows in relation to inflation:


Graph: Consumer price index and retail electricity prices


The graph shows the price of the average electricity bill from 2003-2013.

The blue line is the national CPI.

CPI stands for the Consumer Price Index and measures quarterly changes in the price of our everyday products and services such as milk, bread, housing, insurance etc.

If you look at the graph, you’ll notice a slow and steady growth on these items.

Now take a look at the red line, which reflects electricity prices. You can see they’re skyrocketing when compared to other products.

And that’s not the all; prices are expected to rise at an increasing rate in coming years. In other words, the gap between the red and blue line will get even bigger.


Why Are Your Bills So High?

It can be difficult to predict exactly how much power your home might use on average because some appliances use far more energy than others.

Besides that, what’s considered an ‘energy-hungry’ appliance has changed over the years.

While growing up, you might have been told: ‘Turn off the lights, unless you want to pay the bills.’

These days, your average LED light bulb uses just 6.5 watts per hour or roughly 0.143 cents per hour. That means LEDs are up to 80% more efficient than traditional incandescents.

So if your new bulbs aren’t to blame, why are your bills still so high?


1. Are you on standby?

Did you know that 10% of your bill can come from your standby electricity? That’s right, the little red light on your TV could be costing you. Next time you leave the home, turn off your appliances at the wall. To help you out, here’s a list of your home’s biggest stand-by energy consumers.


2. How many people are living with you?

Any long-term visitor to your house can leave an impact on your power bill. Politely give your guests a clear understanding of the house rules when it comes to your bill. Balancing your guests’ comfort and your expenses might be not easy, but it is sometimes necessary.


3. How often are you using the air conditioner?

Getting a good night’s sleep during the summer months can be a nightmare without your AC. But try to avoid using it all the time, otherwise, your next bill will be the keeping you up instead. Here’s a list of tips for improving the cost efficiency of your aircon.

Frozen girl under a powerful air conditioner


4. Do you have a swimming pool?

Consider using a solar pool cover for the times you’re not showing off your butterfly stroke or competing for the biggest bomb. It will prevent water from evaporating, not to mention save money on heating costs. Upgrading your filters, pumps and cleaners can also save you money over time. Here’s a list of things you can do to reduce pool maintenance and heating costs.


Why Go Solar?

While the upfront cost of solar may be daunting, the truth is that solar power is the cheapest form of energy in the world. In fact, in most states electricity produced by your solar system will cost half that of grid power.

It’s a smart investment and a valuable asset to your home. If you choose the right system for your needs and have it installed by an experienced installation team, it will help to reduce your bills for the next 25 years.

Imagine never having to worry about a bloated power bill ever again. It’s possible with solar energy.

That’s why more and more households in Australia are switching to solar power. In fact, more than 1.5 million Australian homes have a solar system on their rooftop, which means they no longer depend on their electricity provider.

Within the past few years, solar technology has developed significantly. Today it’s much cheaper to install and maintain solar panels. Upgraded storage technologies supply power at nighttime and smart energy analytics apps help you track your usage and save money.


How Solar Works

Here is how solar energy works step by step:

How Solar Works

  1. Solar panels are installed on the roof, preferably facing North. These panels are often called PV panels or photovoltaic panels, which simply means they use light to generate electricity.

  3. When the sun is up, your panels start absorbing the sunlight.

  5. Thanks to the sun, tiny electrons inside the solar panel start to move. This movement creates an electrical flow, which is picked up by small wires and becomes a current (DC or direct current).

  7. The DC flows through the wires towards an inverter. There it is turned into alternating current (AC), which is suitable for home appliances.

  9. Alternating current flows through the meter system. This is how your energy retailer will measure the amount of electricity you draw from, as well as contribute to, the grid.

  11. After that, the current is directed immediately to your home appliances.

  13. Often solar panels can produce more electricity than you can consume. It’s up to you how you deal with your excess power. You’ve got two main options:
  • Store it in a home battery for night time use.
  • Feed it back to the national electricity network and receive a FiT (Feed-in Tariff).



W or watt is a unit of power that a specific appliance has a capacity of. One kilowatt (or kW) equals one thousand watts. This measure gives you an understanding of how powerful the gadget is before you buy it. Think of a 100W light bulb (very bright) and 1800W vacuum cleaner (pretty average).

kWh or kilowatt-hour is a unit of energy that was generated or used. For example, you need to let a 100W light bulb shine for ten hours to consume 1kW of energy. Alternatively, you may use an electric shower for just six minutes, or use a laptop for the whole day.


What Does a Solar System Include?

The most important component of any solar system is the array of panels up on your roof. During the daytime, your panels absorb the sunlight and convert it into clean electricity.

Most people assume that it’s as simple as that, but don’t go forgetting the important role your inverter plays.

You see, to be used in the home, sunlight needs to be converted into the right type of electricity.

An inverter takes direct current (aka DC) from the solar panels and turns it into alternating current (aka AC).

This allows your solar energy to be used by the appliances in your home. The inverter usually sits on the exterior wall of your house or inside the garage.

Solar systems can be grid or off-grid.

On-grid systems are connected to the electricity network. Off-grid means that your home produces and consumes electricity separate from the national network.

If your solar energy system is connected to the grid, you can export your excess electricity to the grid and get rewarded for the contribution.

On the other hand, if your home is using more power than your panels can produce, you will draw power from the grid.

That is why a smart meter is a necessary and important component. It measures how much electricity is exported and imported, so your energy retailer can provide an accurate quarterly bill.

You can also generate power during the day and save it for later or use it at night time. For this, you’ll need a battery.

Recently, home batteries have become increasingly popular. With the advent of the Powerwall, energy storage has opened homeowners up to a world of possibilities when it comes to saving power.

Let’s take a closer look at all solar system elements.


1. Panels

Solar panels are made of solar cells known as photovoltaic (PV) cells.

Almost all PV cells nowadays are made of two layers of silicon.
The lower layer is negatively charged, and the upper layer is positively charged.

When the sun hits the solar cell, the electrons in two layers of silicon start to move and interact with each other right on the border—that is, where the two layers touch.

The energy from this movement flows to small circuits positioned within the cells.

Most of the solar panels that are used for the residential purposes are either monocrystalline or multicrystalline.

A monocrystalline panel usually consists of darker cells with cut corners. They can lose their efficiency significantly if overheated. Which means they are less suitable for Australian weather conditions.

A polycrystalline panel is light-blue in colour. Polycrystalline panels tend to have a lower heat coefficient and therefore perform better in Australian weather conditions.

Polycrystalline Monocrystalline Solar Panels

However, several factors may influence the efficiency of the solar panel, including:

  • Positioning and angling.
  • Shadowing.
  • Dirt and dust.

But what if it’s going to rain? Do solar panels work on a cloudy day? The answer is yes.

Solar panels can still make use of diffused light (i.e. light that has passed through clouds or mist).

These are the best solar panels on the market:


2. Inverters

Most people’s interest stops at the quality of their solar panels, but a high-quality solar system requires more than a high output array.

The thing is, the power that comes from your solar panel is known as a DC or direct current.

To make solar work for your home, you need an inverter that transforms direct current into a 240V alternating current (AC), which is usable in the home.

Maybe Acca Dacca should have really been DC/AC (although it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it).

Here are a few products that lead the inverter market nowadays:


3. Meter

If you choose to direct your excess energy back to the grid, you’ll need a meter.

Net metering, NEM, or Net Energy Metering is a process of buying and selling solar power between you and your electricity provider.

Using this system, if your solar panels produce more energy than you need, you can choose to feed the excess into the grid and receive a credit on your account.

And if you consume more power than your solar is capable of producing, you can use the electricity from the grid.

Making sure you get the right meter can be a little complicated, but a good installer should help to simplify the process.

Make sure your installer applies to Energex (the energy authority in Queensland) who will accept or deny the application, before notifying your retailer, who will be the one to actually install the meter.

If you don’t want to send your excess power to the grid, then a battery solution might be for you.


4. Home Batteries

To save your solar energy for later use, you will need to store it in a home battery. As little as five years ago, home batteries seemed like an unrealistic option for most homeowners. But today, thanks to reduced costs, better technology, and greater demand, batteries are more affordable than ever.

Basically, the battery makes the solar panel work for you 24/7, even at night, when the sun is no longer out. It will also provide energy during blackouts and brownouts.

Instead of receiving a FiT (Feed-in Tariff) of 6-11c, you can save 22-28c for every kWh you store in your battery unit.

By doing so, homeowners can increase their consumption of renewable energy by up to 85%!

The best batteries for a solar system are:


How to Choose an Installer for Your Solar

Once you’ve decided to go solar, it’s time to choose the right installer. Solar is an investment, so it is important to get your money’s worth.

But not all of them are worth your attention. According to the ASIC liquidated companies register, over 520 businesses which include the word ‘solar’ in their company name have gone into liquidation—that is, they’ve gone under—since 2011.

Keep your eyes open. Here is a list of things to check before you sign up:


Are you dealing with a sales company or solar company?

After the government announced that there would be solar rebates, the industry was flooded with cowboys and lone riders looking to make a quick buck.

So it’s worth asking yourself: are you dealing with a company that is focused solely on taking your money and leaving the rest to outsourced installers?

Make sure that your chosen installer is a solar company before all else. That means working with people who understand solar, but more importantly, who understand the Australian homeowner.

How to choose a solar installer


Are the products cheap or safe?

Getting a deal on average products with limited longevity might save you money now, but will cost you in the long run. Remember: buy cheap, buy twice.


Are there any hidden costs in your contract?

Some companies might cut corners to offer you a cheap, easy-to-sell system. Know exactly what you’re paying for.


Who is going to install your system?

Using subcontracted labour instead of having their own crew is dangerous, as the result can be unpredictable and the quality impossible to guarantee.

All installers should be properly trained, have years of experience and be accredited by the Clean Energy Council.


How long is your warranty?

Poorly designed solar systems may fail, while dangerously installed components may lead to the fires or structural damage to your house.

A company that is confident in its own abilities will provide you a 5-10 year workmanship warranty, as well as guaranteed quality and service. Most importantly, they will be around to honour their warranty.


Is Your Roof Suitable for Solar?

If you’re lucky, your roof will have a 22-23 degree sloped northeast or west facing roof. If you’re even luckier, you’ll have colorbond, to avoid cracked tiles.

Fortunately, if your home wasn’t built from the ground up to house the perfect solar system. Your installer can use tilted racking to provide a better angle.

Make sure your home’s roof meets Australian standards:


Water Leaks

On average, about 50% of installs require tile grinding. It is critical when installing on a tile roof to safeguard against potential water leaks into the roof.

Tip: Make sure your installer will do everything that’s needed to prevent tiles from cracking or leaking in the future.


Cable Fixings

Australian standards require that no cables be hanging under the solar panels and be in contact with the roof.

Tip: Make sure your installer uses a combination of stainless steel cable clips to fix all cabling to the panels and rails, and understands the necessity of a neat and tidy install.


Roof Penetrations

Australian standards require the use of a Dektite (or similar) to seal cable entry points.

Tip: Make sure your installer uses full-sized genuine flashings to ensure a guaranteed watertight cable entry.


Rooftop Isolator Protection

To meet Australian standards, solar systems must include isolators on the roof, at the inverter, and on the switchboard. If your installer fails to install high-quality isolators, they may deteriorate in the sun and cause a system failure.

Tip: Make sure your installer fits your system with all the appropriate components, to prevent system failure.


Final Touch-ups

An unlevelled solar array on the roof looks terrible. The installer should take the measurements between the roof and the rail at either end then make adjustments to counter any bows in the roof. Most roofs have a bow!

Tip: Make sure your solar looks awesome!


How Many Panels Do You Need?

Solar panel installation

The size of your solar system will depend entirely on how much energy you use on a daily basis.

The best way to get an idea of just how much power you produce is to look at your power bill. You will find when your house is most power-hungry, and how much energy you’re using during those times.

To roughly calculate what size system you will need, and, ultimately, how many panels to have installed, simply divide your quarterly bill by 100 to find the kW size of your future system.

For example:

Your Solar System = $650/100
Your Solar System = 6.5kWh

To determine the number of panels you’ll need, divide the total size of the system by the panel’s output or wattage.

Most Tier 1 panels fall within the range of 270-310 watt panels.

If you were to use a 285W panel, your system would need 23 panels in total to produce 6.5kW for every sun hour.

Analysing your power bill is the best way to understand how big your system will need to be to cover the cost of your bill. It will also give you an understanding of how much you might end up spending.


How Much Does a Solar System Cost?

When talking price, every homeowner wants the same thing: a dollar figure.

Unfortunately, an exact price is difficult to determine, as every property is unique.

It’s always best to talk to your local solar company or installer first, and request an inspection before getting a price.

However, the CEC (Clean Energy Council) has given homeowners a recommended spending guide, so that no one cuts corners or overcharges:

2kW system may range from $3500 to $6000
3kW system – $4500 to $7500
4kW system – $5500 to $9500
5kW system – $7000 to $10500
10kW system – $13500 to $26000

On the other hand, if you’d like to find out how much you might save check out our Solar Savings Calculator:


What are STCs and How Do Rebates Work?

STCs stand for Small Scale Technology Certificates. STCs are awarded by the government for reducing CO2 emissions.

For the Australian homeowner, it’s an opportunity to get an upfront discount on the system and installation.

Simply put, larger corporations purchase your STCs to help contribute to a smaller national carbon footprint.

To keep up to date on the latest STC price, click here.


So, are you ready kick your quarterly bill for good? It’s time to own electricity from your own solar system instead of renting it from greedy providers!

First, check your electric bill to find out how much electricity you need. Then choose the right kind of solar system for you, one that includes solar panels, inverter, meter and, if you want it, a battery.

Find a reliable and reputable solar installer. Remember, the safety of your house and your family comes first. Choosing a knowledgeable and experienced installing team is key.

Talk to your energy provider about feed-in tariffs. Do your research and sign up for the best offer on the market.

Start saving!

Next Step

If you want to see how much solar or battery storage could save you over the next 5 years, then take our solar saving calculator quiz below!

Or talk to an Instyle Solar expert about the best solutions for home energy storage or PV-panels.

Otherwise, head back to the solar blog to find even more great educational content.

Photo credit: Depositphotos
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