Specifier Review

8 questions every housebuilder should ask their solar contractor

Article by Paul Hutchens, leading green energy advocate and CEO of solar installation specialists Eco2Solar.

Brexit may have delayed the release of new building regulations, but our construction future is only heading in one direction; renewable electricity and smart technologies. Solar on new builds isn’t yet standard in England and Wales as it is in Scotland, so it’s understandable that renewable energies haven’t traditionally been too high on housebuilders’ lists.

However, this could rapidly change now that the long-awaited Part L Consultation for the next set of building regulations for 2020 has been released. The government are in consultation with industry as we speak to plan a stepping stone to the Future Homes Standard in 2025, which is likely to result in a lot more solar panels on new homes in England and Wales.

Most of the major housebuilders and many of the more progressive smaller-scale developers know that ultimately, they’re answerable to their customers, and that the customers of tomorrow want sustainable homes with lower energy bills.

Like any other construction product, standards need to be defined by the government to keep everyone accountable throughout the solar supply chain. Until then, Paul Hutchens, leading green energy advocate and CEO of solar installation specialists Eco2Solar, explores the key questions housebuilders and developers should be asking their chosen solar installation contractor.

#1. Are they safe?

The last thing any housebuilder needs is an accident on site, but working at heights naturally brings a degree of risk and occasionally, accidents do happen. Safety should always be at the very top of the list; before cost considerations, before deadlines and before customer satisfaction.

Beyond the standard safety requirements housebuilders and developers have in place – such as wearing hard hats and high-vis jackets, signing in and out of the site, and following an induction – there are two key safety considerations to bear in mind when choosing a solar installation partner.

Not only should they hold every health and safety certification and accreditation required – including CHAS, SMAS Worksafe, CQMS and Safe Contractor accreditations – but it’s important that they can demonstrate a commitment to providing regular training to their operatives.

#2. Are they skilled?

Housebuilders and developers may sometimes be tempted to allocate the complex task of solar installation to an existing contractor, like a roofer or electrician. While this might seem like a potential cost-cutting measure at first, it usually ends up being more expensive in the long term.

There are so many critical elements to a successful solar installation – especially when it comes to snags, issues, high-voltage electrical connections, safety certifications and complex installations like flat-roof projects that require specialist fastening and low-ballast systems – that relying a roofer or electrician who’s done the occasional solar project can bring unnecessary risks and delays.

Make sure your chosen solar supplier not only has extensive installation experience, but is fully competent in complex installations and connections too. They’ll need to be able to wire the panels from an AC and DC perspective, and be experienced in liaising with the relevant District Network Operator to ensure relevant permissions are given; all in time for your buyers to move in.

#3. Are they reliable?

Reliability is an interesting topic when it comes to construction; the process can often be quite bitty and disjointed because there are so many subcontractors on site doing so many different things. Many of these projects are reliant on each other, and if one thing isn’t completed on time, there’s often a domino effect where unnecessary delays and backlogs happen.

That’s why it’s essential that housebuilders can fully trust all their contractors to be on site exactly when they’re supposed to be, and to complete the job within the timeline they proposed. Key to that is choosing a contractor who has a culture of reliability fully embedded into their operation.

Sometimes that works both ways, too. Other trades’ work not being completed, bad weather or technical issues can easily cause delays for your solar installation contractor, even when they’ve showed up on time to complete the work as promised. Always check that they have clear systems in place to ensure a smooth communication chain throughout the project.

#4. Are they accountable?

Every contractor should be fully accountable for their performance on site and the quality of their work. Your solar installation specialist should not only be accountable for completing the relevant designs, drawings, DNO applications and the installation itself, but also for ensuring everything is agreed, signed off and approved by the housebuilder.

It’s also important to know that your chosen installer has accountability management systems in place; they should be able to take full responsibility for any mistakes and rectify them immediately.

#5. Can they respond quickly?

Site managers have the unenviable job of juggling multiple contractors, projects and timescales at the same time, while simultaneously trying to manage challenges presented by weather and technical problems.

Because of the disparate nature of construction, things don’t always go according to plan and housebuilders often need urgent support and quick turnarounds. When a site manager has to call in lots of different trades – from block paving and plumbing to windows and solar panels – the last thing they need is a contractor who gets back to them two days later with vague availability.

It’s critical that you know your contractors have capacity for urgent projects, and that they can respond to your requests – and get the job done – to your schedule. Solar specialists in particular need to be able to slot into the construction programme in the right place, so if you need them to do a ‘first fix’ on site the following week, they’ve got to be capable of delivering.

#6. Is their work up to spec?

Monitoring the quality of work is essential, particularly since housebuilding sites are mostly populated by subcontractors rather than the developers themselves.

A reliable solar installation specialist should have effective quality control systems in place, from monitoring and recording progress throughout every phase of the installation, to taking pictures at key stages of the project and tracking their attendance on site.

This is beneficial for site managers because it saves them having to chase and check quality at every stage themselves, but it’s also a key part of service delivery for your solar partner because they can maintain a high standard of output and allocate additional training to their operatives if required.

#7. Is their installation package up to spec?

There’s always a slight disconnect between the commercial, technical and site elements of housebuilding. The commercial team seek value for money and ways to construct as cost-effectively as possible; the technical team want to make sure the products they use are technically excellent and installed properly; the site team are responsible for completing the build itself.

With different elements having different objectives, your chosen solar partner should be able to deliver all of those elements. It’s their responsibility to bring you a technically excellent package that’s commercially viable and delivered on site without delays. They should also instigate regular review meetings with you to keep every element up to date and ensure the process runs smoothly.

#8. Are they future-focussed?

Each housebuilder must meet a particular set of renewable energy targets and objectives set by their Local Authority. While planning systems vary by region (Scottish regulations encourage every new house to be fitted with solar), there are trends on the horizon that your solar partner should be ready to advise you on.

or example, homeowners won’t be able to install gas-fired heating from 2025, so electricity is likely to be the only viable option. From 2030, the UK will need to meet government targets to halve the amount of energy each new house uses. From 2040, we’ll no longer be able to sell petrol and diesel cars in the UK, and – most significantly – from 2050, our goal as a country is to reach Net Zero.

Your solar partner should have a thorough understanding of the global issues and targets that are influencing the use of renewable energy products, and be able to anticipate future trend and demand. They must then interpret those trends at ground-level, and find the most efficient and cost-effective ways to apply them for the housebuilder; today and into the future.


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