Going solar: a guide for households

  • So you’re ready to go solar? Great news! After all, at 87% public support it is the nation’s favourite energy generation technology.

    Over 900,000 UK homes have already gone solar, and with no moving parts, there’s no wear and tear and very little that can go wrong. Nonetheless, it’s worth doing your research first.

    We’ve broken down the initial steps required for finding a good deal with a good installation company in your local area. Knowing what to ask your installer will give you confidence in your dealings with solar energy companies and help you identify a good quality firm.

Our recommended steps for going solar:

Check which way your roof faces

If the only roof space you have faces north, solar will not be suitable for you. Don’t waste your time.

Check if you will need planning permission
In England and Wales solar has permitted development rights under Schedule 2 of the 1995 Order and amendments: {read here} further updated with an amendment on Conservation Areas: {read here}.

This means that nobody needs planning permission to install solar unless they live in a listed building. However, in Conservation Areas or World Heritage sites (such as Norfolk & Suffolk Broads or AONBs) the equipment must be installed on the roof, not on a wall that would be visible from a highway. To be on the safe side, maximum care must also be taken in Conservation Areas to minimise visual impact. e.g. the front roof could only be used if the back roof is north-facing. The only time permitted development rights don’t apply is when they have been specifically removed in a conservation area via an Article 4 Direction, The vast majority of councils have not done this, but if you do live in a Conservation Area you should check whether your council has.

Nonetheless, in our experience even if you think you may need planning permission, or if you live in a listed house, there are usually solutions (for example, by using black panels) – but you will need to work with your planning officer and installer.

 

Before an installer comes to your home ask these questions:

  • Are you MCS certified?
    You must use products and installers that are certified under the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS), otherwise you will not be eligible for Government incentives. This ensures that equipment meets good standards of performance and that installers are technically safe and competent.
  • Are you a member of the Renewable Energy Consumer Code (RECC) or HIES?
    Any MCS certified business will also be a member of a consumer body such as the Renewable Energy Consumer Code or HIES (Heating Insulation & Energy Systems) but do check. Companies that are members of either of these bodies have agreed to abide by high standards of consumer care. Also, if you are mistreated by a company, you can report them straight to RECC or HIES and they will help you to achieve redress.
  • Who will be visiting me and at what point will a surveyor assess my home?
    Companies will usually send a salesperson. This is OK as long as a proper assessment is carried out in due course by an experienced surveyor. The quality, orientation and tilt of your roof must all be assessed, together with shading risk. For solar power, the fuse box, metering and cabling must also be assessed. For solar thermal the existing hot water system should be assessed, plus routes for pipe runs between panels and hot water storage. This assessment must result in a performance assessment that is specific to your home.
  • Will I receive a handover pack?
    Installers are required to provide a handover pack after installation is complete. This pack should include: an MCS certificate; maintenance requirements; a contractor certificate; system data; test results; commencement of operation date & warranty information.

As a guide, reputable companies:

  • Will not offer a price over the phone
  • Will not use pressure selling techniques
  • Will not ask you to sign a contract until you’ve seen a performance assessment specific to your house
  • Will not ask you to pay more than 25% of the final contract price as a deposit (however, under RECC / HIES rules, an installer can ask for a further 35% advance payment within 21 days of the installation date).And remember, you can cancel any contract within 7 days.

 

We recommend having ready a copy of your energy bill over the past year so your installer can understand your energy consumption. Following this, you may wish to ask some of the following questions.

      • Is my roof suitable for a solar installation?
        Your installer should assess the orientation of your roof. For solar power it should be south-east to south-west facing and free from shading. East or west-facing systems should generate between 80-85% of perfect south, so they may be worthwhile, depending on the roof slope. For solar thermal orientations as far as east or west are acceptable. The roof angle should be between 30 to 40 degrees for best performance, although as low as 10 degrees may be acceptable.
      • What size of system will I need?
        For solar power, the size of system you will need will depend on the amount of electricity you want to generate, the orientation of your roof and where you live geographically. Output from solar PV systems ranges from 714kWh per annum in the Shetlands to 1132kWh in the South East per kW(p). As a guide, a kW(p) of solar PV corresponds to around 7m2 of roof space. For solar thermal, the size of the system will depend on the heat load that is being served. Most systems target domestic hot water, but systems to contribute to space heating are also available. Expect to install around 1m2 of solar thermal per full time occupant when sizing for hot water.
      • Is it worth investing in battery storage?
        As smart technologies grow more and more advanced, the benefits of getting home battery storage become more apparent. However, the logistics of investing in storage vary greatly with capacity of solar installation and lifestyle factors. For more information see battery storage FAQs.

     

    • What type of solar PV system is most suitable for me?

    There are several types of PV system, therefore it is worth asking different installers what they would recommend. If you have a small roof space you’ll most likely want to get high efficiency (silicon cell) panels. Thin-film modules can be black and work very well in conservation areas. If your roof needs replacement or if you want a particularly attractive installation, consider solar tiles or in-roof solar panels. Chinese solar modules can be top quality but check they are ‘first tier’ modules.

    • What type of solar thermal system is most suitable for me?

    Solar thermal panels can be either flat plate or evacuated tubes. Evacuated tubes have a higher energy yield per unit of working area, but flat plate panels will generally provide a higher working area per unit of roof.

    • What will the cost of my system be?

    We recommend you always compare the prices of at least three quotes. Ask for a quotation and make sure it itemises the full costs of all the equipment needed, including scaffolding. Check VAT is at 5%. Always be suspicious if an installer offers you a discount price if you agree to sign the contract the same day.

As always, trust your instincts and go with a good value quote with an installer you feel you can trust. You may want to check the experience others have had of your installer with YouGen, or ask to speak to former customers. Before you sign any contract you should have received a performance assessment specific to your property. You should not be paying more than 25% of the final contract price as a deposit.

Your installation will usually take one or two days. Scaffolding will be erected usually a day or two before your installation. If you are having solar panels fitted above your existing roof covering, roof anchors will be screwed into the rafters and an aluminium frame attached. The panels will then be clamped to the frame. The PV panels will then be wired into your home and attached to an inverter, usually housed in your loft space, which turns the power from DC into AC for use in your home. Finally, your power will be switched off for no more than an hour while a consumer unit and generation meter are fitted near your fuse box.

Solar thermal panels will be connected to a hot water cylinder by pipes, a controller and pump station fitted, and the solar circuit filled with fluid.

The great majority of homeowners with solar are very pleased with the system they have installed. A 2018 Which? Survey of 2,163 homeowners with solar panels found that nine out of ten people with solar power would recommend it to their friends and family. However, if you feel there is a problem, tell your installer as soon as possible. If they do not resolve this or dispute the problem you need to contact the MCS, RECC, or HIES.