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Going solar? Buyer beware!

By Robin Hayes, editor at Cape Business News

The more than 14 years of loadshedding imposed by Eskom coupled with advances in photoelectric technology has spawned a new industry, which makes going ‘off the grid’, or being able to mitigate outages, a reality.

As with any new technology that has been widely commercialized it attracts its fair share of opportunists as well as those with the background, skills and experience in similar industries – in this case, mainly electrical contractors.

With no end in sight to Eskom’s and the country’s energy malaise, those citizens able to afford it and for those businesses where power is a necessity, PV Solar power seems like the solution, but it is not the panacea and has plenty of pitfalls for the unwary.

These are the sentiments of Svilen Voychev, CEO of Valsa, a turnkey supplier, with a focus on systems integration and the manufacture of all things solar. 

Voychev explained to editor Robin Hayes that the factors that attracts so many into the solar field, also attracted him when he began as a solar installer back in 2009, prompted by Eskom’s first bout of loadshedding and the rapid development of an exciting technology.

As an early participant Voychev admits to learning on the job but the 13 years he and his company have been in the solar business has provided invaluable experience to others in what he describes as an immature industry.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

“Just because a person is a certified electrician doesn’t make him a qualified solar technician” says Voychev, “the electrical component is just one aspect of installing solar which is a multi-disciplinary activity requiring additional skills in design, procurement, structural engineering, lightning protection, earthing and project management. There is great temptation for the opportunists to regard solar as an extension of house building where the contractor can source products from different suppliers, usually depending upon price. Unlike house building, every solar installation is different, from the customer’s expectations to the orientation of the building, its method of construction and the specialised roof mounting solutions – all these factors have to be taken into consideration for a successful installation” he explained.

An emotional decision

“The vast majority of the solar market – probably 80% – is in the residential sector where the purchase of solar is viewed as an emotional decision. Few home owners have the knowledge of what goes into a solar installation and even have difficulty in assessing the load imposed by the appliances they use on a daily basis!

“Cost is a major factor in this market and there are plenty of installers willing to cut costs and install inferior equipment in order to make a quick buck – either deliberately or through ignorance.”

Commitment

Voychev’s 13 years in solar shows a commitment to the technology – so much so that he realised early on that unless there was some formal training and exposure to would be installers, then the whole industry would rapidly get a bad name and worse still the country could be flooded with cheap, inferior imports.

To this end, Valsa now offers training courses where his experience in engineering, design and PV solar products procurement is shared. 

Training

Product knowledge training is offered in both Johannesburg and Cape Town operations to ensure customers are familiar with the Valsa Mounting Solutions and the range of PV solar products. Valsa is looking at offering practical training in the future in partnership with a strategic partner. 

Installation & maintenance manuals 

Standard installation and maintenance manuals as well as engineering drawings and specifications for customised solutions are available to assist installers with ground mount, canopy, and rooftop installations as well as any custom-made solution related to the PV solar plant.

Commercial installations

“The installation of solar in commercial buildings represents about 20% of the total market and fairs better in terms of professionalism than the residential sector” he explained.

“Usually the client relies on the expertise of architects and professional engineers, who process some or all of the expertise necessary, but even amongst professional consultants, photovoltaic knowledge is scant and qualified installers of large scale installations are few and far between. 

“We are in position to help fill this knowledge gap and for that reason have developed partnerships with the ECA (Electrical Contractors Association), SAPVIA, (The South African Photovoltaic Industry Association), PV Green Card and other professional bodies.

“My advice for would be purchasers of solar is to do your homework first, check the credentials of a preferred installer – how long have they been in business, can they supply contactable references etc. Are they forthcoming with advice and prepared for an essential site visit. Avoid ‘boxed, on line’ solutions and the seemingly cheapest solution! We also can assist in the decision with access to our database of reliable installers with whom we have a track record, so its buyer beware!” he concluded.

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