When wading into the murky waters of rooftop solar for the first time you may have come across people advising you to check that the solar company doesn’t use sub-contractors to install their systems.
Dig a bit deeper and you’ll find companies proudly advertising that they only use in-house installers. Beware the sub-contractor or suffer the wrath of Helios the sun god who will strike down your system inoperable before it’s use-by-date!
Is there any truth to these blanket allegations, or is it a baseless advertising ploy? The poor subbie seems to be copping a lot of flack. Is it warranted? Read on and you’ll find that, as usual, the answers aren’t always black and white.
In The Subbie’s Defence
Before we jump in, let me pose you a question; If you were given a job to do in your chosen field, would the quality of your work be different if you were paid wages compared to if you invoiced the client? I’d be surprised disappointed if you answered ‘yes’1.
Having worked as an electrician and a solar installer myself – on wages, as a sub-contractor, and also as a contractor, I can tell you that it was the same person doing the job every time. I had the same skill set and the same work ethic.
Sure, some days were more challenging but good or bad, it was still me, whether or not I was a wage earner or a subbie.
So, which is best, an in-house or sub-contract solar installer? My answer every time – it depends on the person, or in the case of a company – the people.
Eddy’s Take On Sub-Contractors
Eddy May from NRG Solar nails it in this short interview with SolarQuotes founder Finn Peacock earlier this year.
“Eddie, you’re in the solar business. Are in-house solar installers better than sub-contractor solar installers?”
“It’s certainly easier to get your processes and culture followed with in-house installers, but it’s not impossible with sub-contractors. If you have a good culture, good processes, and good sub-contractors that are good people, it really doesn’t matter how you pay them.”
“So don’t necessarily knock back a solar company because they use sub-contract installers?”
“If you’re looking at somebody’s reviews, and their reviews are great, and the customers are getting great experiences, and they look like a solid company. They’ve come out and done the design properly, then really, how they pay the person installing the system is pretty irrelevant.”
“Is it fair to say that a lot of really good solar installers don’t want to be someone else’s employee?”
“Yeah, it is fair to say that. We’ve got in-house installers at NRG, and we’ve got sub-contractors as well. I would love to employ some of our sub-contractors, but they’re like “Bugger you, I’d rather go fishing than work for you on Fridays.” They get that choice as a sub-contractor, but it doesn’t make them any less of a good installer.”
“If you say you’re not going to use sub-contractors then there’s this whole pool of brilliant guys that are never going to work for you.”
“I can tell you now, we’ve got this shortage of people now in this industry. (Virtually) every solar company is trying to employ a sub-contractor. We can’t afford to wait four years for an apprentice to finish their apprenticeship to then learn how to lead a team.
So what do you do? You go out there and say that guy’s a great sub-contractor, I’d love to give him a job. “No thanks, I’m happy doing what I’m doing and I’m actually getting paid pretty well for once in my life!”
Having said that, I can see why businesses that have only in-house installers promote that heavily. I can see why the average person might accept that, but what they don’t understand is that there’s a big difference between a sub-contractor to one of the huge companies like AGL (than a smaller company).
(With the bigger company) the person selling the system will never ever meet the sub-contractor, have a relationship with them, or ever talk to them. With someone at NRG Solar, the contractor and consultants know each other. They attend our meetings and are friends. It’s a lot different of a dynamic.”
The People Factor
Eddy’s words sure substantiate my theory that it’s the people who count and not the method they’re paid or the contractual arrangement between them and the solar company employing them to do the job.
In his case, the sub-contractors are a small group that are known to him, and well-versed in his company’s procedures. Each party relies on the other to make sure their business partnership goes forward with the least amount of hiccups.
Accreditation And Licensing
All in-house and sub-contract installers must be CEC accredited to install solar, and be licensed appropriately for the type of electrical work they do in their respective state. There’s no difference in that regard.
In addition to that, all electrical jobs must be signed off by an electrical contractor. And herein lies a potential problem further down the track.
The solar company that sells the rooftop solar system carries the manufacturer’s warranty for the product and performance of the system components, but who is liable for the installation and workmanship if something goes wrong?
If it’s an electrical problem, the buck stops fair and square at the feet of the electrical contractor who signed off that job. So who is that? Does the solar company have a contractor’s licence? In NSW, QLD, SA, ACT and NT the company must have its own contractor licence, but in VIC, WA and TAS the company can rely on a subcontractor’s licence.
I’m talking about something much more serious than a warranty issue here. If an electrical inspector deems a system unsafe or not up to standard due to a shoddy install, they will chase the entity or person nominated on the contractor’s licence. You’d want to hope that’s the person or company who sold you the system.
These are questions that rarely come up before a rooftop solar system is sold to a customer. Am I being overly paranoid here? I don’t think so. I would say it’s not unreasonable to ask the question, and see evidence of that before you sign on the dotted line.
In the case of Eddy May’s video above, his company holds the contractor’s licence and is liable for any issues relating to his company’s rooftop solar installs regardless of whether it was an in-house or sub-contract installer. For other companies, I have no idea until I research them.
Due Diligence in Solar
My personal opinion – I wouldn’t feel comfortable buying a rooftop solar system from a company that didn’t have an in-house electrical contractor’s licence.
That licence gives the company credibility and gives me confidence that I’m dealing with a one-stop shop with technical and industry expertise and can deal with any issues down the line. Whether they use in-house or sub-contract installers is of secondary importance and largely irrelevant.
On SolarQuotes, all companies in our installer network display their relevant Contactor Licence(s) on their review page:
Due diligence is sometimes a long, painful process that involves many steps and a leap of faith. Sorry folks, but here’s one more thing to keep you awake at night.
- And I wouldn’t hire you in the first place if I knew that. ↩