Why Solar Monitoring Software Really Matters

Owning a solar system without good monitoring software is kind of like driving a car with no gauges.

You can do it, but you really don’t know what’s going on and have no way of knowing if everything is working the way it should be. We don’t recommend it!

It’s also vital to remember that the primary driver for solar is to save money and good monitoring software can be like a turbo for your solar system savings.

Before we dive into the types of solar monitoring software and their pros and cons, it’s important to understand what you need to measure.

To ensure your solar system is generating the right amount of energy you’ll need to measure the solar output. To know how much energy you are buying, selling, or self-consuming you’ll need to measure your consumption. To know how much individual things are using (e.g. hot water, pool pumps and so on) you’ll need to measure sub circuits.

What are the options?

Solar monitoring software can be broadly described in three categories – basic, inverter and advanced. We also want you to consider which of the two types of software users you are – are your deeply engaged in your energy journey and need lots of information or, are you hands off and just want to be told when something goes wrong?

Basic solar monitoring usually consists of a very simple and cheap measurement device and sometimes a small digital display. Typically, they aren’t particularly accurate, reliable or helpful and their software is universally rudimentary. 

We don’t recommend them because our experience is they are unreliable and not helpful.

Inverter monitoring is the next step up. Almost all solar inverters can be connected to Wi-Fi and have an internal device to measure solar production levels. The majority also offer optional consumption meters and have software solutions to visualise what’s going on. 

This type of solution is a great step up and in some (not all) cases the inverter hardware and software are well developed and clever. Most of the software tends to be pretty technical and is focused on showing you what’s going on in real time.

SolarEdge, Fronius and Enphase have developed really nice dashboards and also have the ability to measure batteries and do some basic economic analysis.

Advanced monitoring is a whole other world. In Australia we are lucky because we have Solar Analytics, a Sydney based company whose sole purpose in life is making advanced solar monitoring software. It stands to reason therefore that it’s a long way ahead of virtually all other monitoring software and perhaps most crucially is savings focused.

Solar Analytics

Solar Analytics can collect data from a variety of devices depending on what you want to measure and is the only company with solutions for measuring individual circuits. The magic happens in their user-friendly dashboard and many patented algorithms which is what makes it so valuable.

One of their features for example is called Plan Optimiser.  Did you know that the average solar owner could save $400 more, just by being with the right retailer and on the right tariff plan? Stop paying the loyalty tax! 

Plan Optimiser automatically calculates how much you could save by switching with the click of a button and you can keep checking over time as things change. With energy rates going through the roof, there’s never been a better time for automated, unbiased switching advice.

Sitting around Plan Optimiser is a suite of functions and tools that allow you to see your savings (and payback), adjust your rate plans and predict coming bills. Rather than being a technical nerd fest it’s focused on what you want – savings! And more of them.

One of the other features we love is called True Performance. Basic and Inverter monitoring software will only show you what you generated. Solar Analytics will also show you what you should have generated, allowing you to catch small problems before your savings are lost.

By using real weather data, True Performance can detect underperformance – perhaps from a faulty string isolator or rodent damage to cabling or even dirt build up on your solar panels. It intelligently lets you know when to investigate, and when to relax.

Lastly, as we mentioned there are two types of users – deeply engaged and hands off

This is another area where Solar Analytics shines. For the hands-off user, they include automated alerts for you and the installer only when major things go wrong or something needs investigation.

For the deeply engaged, you’ll find 5 Second Live data, a Battery Calculator, Shade Detection algorithms, export limiting adjustment, My Energy Bill, historical data downloads and can analyse almost everything that you can think of to get more from your solar.

For many, inverter monitoring software is adequate. If you want to increase your savings potential and get an advanced level of automation then we recommend Solar Analytics.

Choosing the Right Solar Power Products

Search the internet for “buying great solar” and you will be swamped with claims and hyperbole about which products are best.

The heart of a solar system is made up of two key components – solar modules to generate energy and a solar inverter which manages safety and power conversion. So how do you really choose the right products? Which ones are the best?

Here’s the good news – if you choose a reputable and professional solar installer you don’t need to worry about choosing the right products because your installer will do that for you. 

Simply put, a great solar installer will invest a huge amount of their time and energy researching products, technology, and background details because their reputation depends on it.

Let us explain what’s involved, starting with solar panels

Solar panels all share the same basic design – silicon cells encased in plastics and glass with an aluminium mounting frame and an electrical junction box. Around 85% of the worlds solar panels are made in China today after they set out (very successfully) to become the worlds pre-eminent supplier of this technology.

Whilst this sounds simple enough, there are plenty of horror stories about poor quality plastic encapsulation delaminating and destroying solar panels after just a few short years. High iron glass is cheaper than low iron glass but will reduce light transmission and some of the biggest solar recalls have been caused by cheap junction boxes that fall off or worse still, cause fires because they weren’t assembled well. Shoddy or cheap assembly lines will produce highly variable quality.

Materials really matter

Silicon solar cells are at the heart of the solar panel and again, there are high and low-quality cells (budget brands sometimes use reject cells from other manufacturers!) and this is also where technology constantly evolves. A great solar installer will choose a manufacturer who has demonstrated ongoing investments in R&D and uses the latest techniques to make high quality solar cells. They don’t necessarily have to be the most efficient money can buy but do need to be a good compromise between price and performance.

Lastly, choosing a good solar panel is also very much about who is behind the brand. Great solar installers will check and monitor a supplier’s financial viability, global reach, and size. In Australia particularly, it’s also well proven that a local office means better support and training. Lastly, it’s also essential to understand who is actually importing the solar panels because in law the buck stops with that company when it comes to faults and after sales support.

With all that in mind, all you need to know is we have done our homework and chosen Trina Solar as our preferred solar panel supplier. We stick with them because they pass all our tests and if things go wrong, they support us and our customers. 

In Australia, Trina have supplied solar panels to some highly impressive projects like Adelaide Airport and the University of Queensland – further evidence of their reputation and success.

The story is similar with inverters

Like solar panels the quality of components, R&D investment, size, reach, and financial viability of inverter manufacturers is critical to understand.

Inverters are unique because good ones can provide a lot of subtle but advanced features that can maximise your energy generation and savings. It’s also true that different inverter technologies and brands suit different applications better, so it’s common for great solar installers to choose different inverters depending on the site and application.

For example, on sites with no shading and simple roof layouts a well-made string inverter from either SMA or Fronius are our go to solutions, balancing price, reliability, and performance. We’ll decide which one suits a site best depending on system size, whether a monitoring app is desired and other factors. 

However, in shaded sites or where string inverter design is not possible, a great solar installer will likely err towards a system that optimises each solar module which is called MLPE (module level power electronics). SolarEdge are our favourite where roof layouts are relatively straight forward and feature a mixture of centralised electronics and module level electronics. They also offer an increasing number of options for EV charging and their own batteries and have some fantastic and innovative technological features, including a great monitoring app.  

We also use Enphase inverters which go one step further and moves all the inverter technology into a micro package that is installed right at the solar panel. Micro inverters provide a highly flexible option for complex systems and avoid the need to run DC power cabling around the roof, instead using AC power.

With all this in mind, you can rest assured knowing that we have chosen a small but diverse range of inverter suppliers and technology and will choose the right type for your application.

What else do you need to know?

Now the solar panels and inverters have been chosen for your site, the next step is selecting the balance of equipment to mount it all securely and connect it together electrically.

Once again, we have made this easy for you by doing our research and training to compare different solutions. We use Clenergy mounting systems because frankly, they are extremely well proven, robust, and affordable with amazing design support to ensure they are compliant and suit your roof type, right here in Australia.

We also work with some of the best suppliers for our monitoring apps, fuses, safety switches, cabling, and connectors but it doesn’t stop there. We also make sure our installers are trained in all this equipment, so they know how to install and commission it properly and most importantly, legally and safely for everyone. 

So, there you have it. Stop wondering and worrying – choose a great solar installer who has done the hard work for you when it comes to choosing the right products.

Will Solar help me reduce my Electricity Bills?

Solar panels installed by Solarbank on a roof reducing energy bills

Let’s face it, being able to use electricity to power our lives is something we have all come to expect as cheap and reliable. 

Recent events however have highlighted that, while most Australians generally have highly reliable supply, electricity is no longer cheap. A sequence of policies, regulations and market dynamics have pushed the cost of electricity (and gas) to astonishing levels and more homeowners than ever are asking “Will solar really help me reduce my electricity bills?”.

The short answer is yes, in virtually every case for a typical home.

Here’s why

Most homes pay between $0.30/kWh and up to $0.60/kWh for electricity today. A solar system by contrast, will generate energy for a cost of between $0.10ckWh and $0.20ckWh. So, in simple terms you can generate your own electricity far cheaper than you can buy it – which is exactly the reason that almost three million Australian homeowners have installed solar and why 350,000 or so more do it every year.

Whilst Feed In Tariffs (what you are paid to sell your excess generation) used to be hugely generous, most have declined substantially and the key to maximising your savings today is “self-consuming” as much of your solar generation as possible.  

If you work from home regularly, have a family around the house a lot or can use timers for loads like pool pumps, hot water heaters and dishwashers, adding solar is a no brainer and you are a perfect candidate for big solar savings and a fast payback. It is certainly true that some homes are more suitable and benefit more than others but even if that’s not you, solar will still save you a motza, it just might take a little longer to pay back.

It is also true that you can buy cheap solar and more expensive solar, or even add batteries.

You get what you pay for

Like almost any electrical appliance, you generally get what you pay for. A great solar designer will give you accurate and honest predictions about savings, choose quality equipment, and invest time in helping you. Tempting as it may be, a budget system typically sold over the phone with little if any design work and bottom of the barrel components is simply a false economy and likely to fail quickly.

Here at Solarbank, we design all our solar solutions using sophisticated software made right here in Australia which will show you exactly what you can expect in terms of savings, return on investment and payback. We then combine that with components we trust, suppliers we know and features like solar monitoring that allow you to keep track of your investment.

As part of our design service, we can show you how various system sizes compare, how batteries will benefit you and will guide you to an honest and fair solution that’s right for you.

Pool Heating and Solar Power – The New, Better Way

Heating your swimming pool makes great sense because it extends the good times that come with owning a pool.

Choosing the right heating system is critical to avoid huge energy bills, so we thought we’d explain the pros and cons of different systems to help you choose one that’s right for your lifestyle.

Now before we start, it’s worth mentioning that sizing a swimming pool heater correctly is important and there are a lot of variables that can affect your choices. The size of your pool, where you live in Australia and how many months of the year you want it at just the right temperature are key factors that will determine the size of the heating system that is required.

On top of this, swimming pool heating systems have different up front installation costs, running costs and in some cases also require a lot of roof space. It’s also important to understand that some systems will guarantee heating to a set temperature, whereas others (mostly the direct solar thermal types) can only heat when the sun is doing its thing for you.

What are the options

The three main ways swimming pools are heated are with roof mounted solar thermal systems, gas heaters and heat pumps, so let’s step you through it.

The traditional black plastic roof mat is a familiar site on Australian roofs. Although there are a few different types, they all use the same principle which is to let black material (usually plastic or rubber) absorb the sun’s heat and circulate water inside it.

It’s a very simple system which typically only requires a pump and small controller to work. However, you will need to pretty much cover your entire north facing roof space to generate enough heat because they aren’t particularly efficient and suffer very low efficiency on cloudy days. This also means they compete for space with solar power systems, which are ideally on the north facing roof too.

If you want the lowest up-front cost, have tons of roof space, don’t want solar power, and can accept that the sun, not you, controls your pool temperature then it’s a good choice.

The second choice is gas heating. Gas heaters are a simple variation on gas hot water heaters for inside your home, typically larger and capable of generating a lot more heat. 

The benefits of gas pool heating are they can generate a lot of energy quickly so are good for quickly boosting temperature. The downside is you need to install gas lines and regulators to your pump location, they can use a lot of gas and gas is horribly expensive.

If you only want to heat a pool occasionally, quickly and have gas at your property it’s a reasonable choice but beware of high upfront and running costs.

The third choice is a heat pump system. Heat pumps are essentially like a fridge running backwards – they use the same technology but instead of dumping the heat out the back of your fridge (as a waste by product) they capture that waste heat. 

Heat pumps have become increasingly popular and energy efficient as domestic water heaters and are now starting to gain popularity for pool heating due to their flexibility and programmability combined with using electricity which is cheaper than gas. Using sophisticated controllers, you can easily dial the temperature and run time up or down, to suit your needs.

However, the cleverest way to use a heat pump is to combine it with a solar power system. Solar power is well proven as the cheapest way to generate energy with almost 3 Million home owners already on board, and by sizing your solar power system to meet your household and pool heating requirements you get some great advantages.

Great solar advantages

Firstly, the cheap energy generated by your solar system is automatically shared – on hot days, use it for your air conditioner, on colder days heat the pool and the rest of the time use it to run your home. If you have excess, you can sell it.

Secondly, it makes great use of your roof space. The general logic with solar is “fill your roof as far as your budget will allow” because no one ever complained about having a solar system that was too big!  Today, solar is mostly used for home energy but increasingly it’s also stored in batteries or used to charge electric vehicles, so a heat pump pool heating system is a natural fit for the modern electric home.