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Improper installation of commercial solar photovoltaic (PV) systems can drive up maintenance costs in later years and severely diminish any potential cost saving benefits for South African businesses.

This is according to Manie de Waal, CEO of Energy Partners Solar, who warns that although PV systems have become an attractive option for businesses, experienced installation services are critical to maximising the cost efficiency of PV systems.

“In a country like South Africa, installing a PV system is one of the best ways to reduce a company’s energy costs. The international price of PV systems has contracted so much in recent years that the payback period on the average commercial solar installation is currently as short as four to six years.”

He points out however, that both scheduled and unscheduled maintenance during the years that the system is in operation will have a significant impact on how much value a business can extract from solar power generation.

“Every business has unique requirements, but in general a PV system is expected to reduce an operation’s electricity costs by between 15% and 30%. In order to achieve this, the annual maintenance of the system can only be between 0.9% to 1.5% of its initial capital value. The system’s inverters will also need to be entirely replaced during the 25-year life cycle of the system. However, if this replacement is required before the tenth year of operation, the business may start to incur additional major costs before the planned decommissioning of the PV installation.”

According to De Waal, businesses therefore need to ensure that they make use of experienced service providers during the initial installation. Read more: Is your business ready for solar PV?

“Most of the maintenance problems that affect a PV system start at installation phase. At the most basic level, an inexperienced service provider can damage solar panels or inverters during installation, or cut corners by making use of low quality fasteners and mounting brackets that cannot withstand regular wear and tear, and damage equipment.”

He adds that this is why it is critical to ensure that the service provider installing a PV system has a successful track record with the technology.

“It is important to get a sense of how experienced the company is with commercial PV systems, and specifically with your chosen system. The right service provider will be able to identify the small details that become major issues later. Spacing electrical lines far enough away from areas that generate too much heat, and ensuring that cables are not bent at angles that would cause undue wear on the lines are often overlooked by inexperienced installers,” he says.

“The most experienced service providers also take the challenges of the maintenance crews into account. Making sure that the system is installed in a way that allows easy access to solar panels, ensuring that control boxes are easy to reach and that wiring is uncluttered, all help maintenance teams to operate more efficiently down the line.”

With this in mind, De Waal states that companies that invest in solar PV systems should start by finding a company that both supplies and installs the PV system in-house.

“The companies that sell and install PV systems are best positioned to identify future maintenance requirements and to ensure the best possible operation of the systems throughout their entire life cycle.”

As an alternative, De Waal says that Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) with solar energy companies have proven to be a much simpler solution for many businesses, and are increasingly gaining traction in South Africa. “This is becoming one of the preferred options for businesses, and the responsibility of overseeing installation, maintenance and daily operation is handed to a service provider that knows how to keep the system cost effective.”

“Solar energy is becoming more advanced and exponentially cheaper every year, and companies are therefore considering their options for deploying renewables. However, when purchasing the technology, and installing the systems, cutting costs and taking short-cuts with poor service providers could cost a company dearly in the long run,” De Waal concludes.