What do I need to know about installing a solar array on my roof in terms of its impact on the neighbours and their impact on my solar array?
Definition: Array…Is a fancy high-tech word for a collective of solar panels. Yes, the shiny panels on your roof that generate electricity. Be sure to use it in a sentence to impress.
You’ve just built your stunning new mansion in a glistening new subdivision. Four bedrooms, a parent’s retreat, a triple garage and a pool that wouldn’t look out of place in a 5-star luxury hotel. You’re happy and proud!
Four days into residency, your first letter is an official-looking thing with a window. It’s telling you a pig processing plant is about to be constructed on the vacant block next door to you. On the other side, also vacant, a rotten egg gas factory.
Adding insult to injury, you are made aware that both structures overshadow your magnificent solar array. The ridiculously cheap electricity you were about to enjoy is nigh on lost, as the overshadowing will reduce the array’s efficiency by 70%.
Yep, they’ve stolen your sun!
As your heart sinks, your bewilderment turns to anger, and you consider kicking the dog. Fortunately, you haven’t got one yet.
So, can they do this? Can they destroy your hard-won paradise with one putrid pig plant? Fortunately, in modern Australia, no. You have built in a residential zone and development laws protect you from this atrocity.
They can’t build such industrial and commercial buildings next door to you, but a three-storey McMansion is well within development guidelines. So, you’re safe from the smell, but you could still be living in the dark.
The new residences on either side of your property may still block your sun and therefore impact the efficiency of your solar array.
Loosely speaking, land is flagged (or zoned), by local (sometimes federal and state) governments as residential, commercial or industrial. You can’t build your home next to a steelworks (in theory), nor can they build next to you.
We won’t get into the nitty-gritty of why, or explain all the exceptions—hopefully, the reasons are self-evident (see above scenario). Who could bare to live next to a rotten egg gas factory, right?
I’m safe from the pigs and the gas. But what about my sun?
Regardless of zones and best intentions, development laws and rights can get as murky as the Darling River in flood. There are traps. Money can be lost, lots of it, and hearts can be broken.
On the upside, you can protect yourself and protect your investment from would-be sun spoilers, a.k.a. neighbours.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at a relatively recent arrival in residential development considerations: laws and rights in the installation of domestic solar panels.
We’ll look at your rights and your neighbour’s rights. We’ll look at things you must consider prior to installation. We’ll touch on a case scenario to illustrate a point or two and, we’ll also offer a few valuable tips.
Be aware, we’ll use the words ‘might’, ‘maybe’, ‘possibly’ and other such annoying non-committal terms from time to time. Why? OK…here’s the cheeky but very necessary disclaimer. Brace for it.
We can’t possibly know all there is to know. Lawyers make fortunes arguing out arbitrary development laws that have as many variations as there are local government areas (LGAs). In short, sometimes not even the law knows the law.
Sometimes, circumstances are so peculiar, or new, that a law or precedent may not even exist. Hence an army of wealthy people dressed in Prada and Armani looking super important are assigned to argue it out. At great expense mind you.
As we can’t be exhaustingly thorough about the law and domestic solar installation, we suggest you use this article as a guide.
Use this article to learn some of the basics. Once read and absorbed, we’re expecting you’ll now know how to ask good questions. And yes, ask them before you install your fancy new solar array.
Get Your Hands Off My Sun
So, do I own the sunlight that falls so freely and gloriously onto my property? I need it for my solar extravaganza. Well, yes and no…. See, we told you, non-committal.
Most LGAs have firm laws about the amount of sunlight domestic properties are entitled to, and this entitlement can be dependant on zoning.
In many residential zones, neighbouring properties to yours are restricted from building structures that completely obscure the sun from hitting your property for at least some portion of the day.
Many factors are taken into consideration in reaching a regulation about this, and it varies from location to location, zone to zone.
Councils and other governing bodies have ‘guidelines’ relative to sunlight obstruction that impacts neighbouring solar arrays, but they’re just guidelines.
You could have a situation where a neighbouring property wants to build a structure that overshadows your array. Your property will still receive plenty of sunlight post construction, just not on your array. Council can approve the construction anyway.
Your array will be taken into account during deliberations, but it will not be the sole determining factor.
In other words, there are no firm laws that state emphatically that your neighbour cannot add a second level to their home because it obstructs the sun’s rays from hitting your solar panels, either partially or fully.
When a new construction or extension is proposed, the design needs to be approved by the local council to ensure it conforms with regulations.
Often, a shadow diagram is required showing where the shadows of the new dwelling/construction will fall on neighbouring properties. Here’s an example.
You will note that the date for the diagram is the 21st of June. This is the winter solstice in Australia, the shortest day of the year when we all receive the least amount of sunlight.
IMPORTANT NOTE: You (your property) have a light entitlement that ensures your property receives a certain percentage of sunlight* as calculated on this day, 21st June.
*This percentage may vary depending on your LGA. Call your council to find out details.
It should also be noted that this entitlement only partially (if at all) ‘considers’ your solar array and its efficiency. Many factors are taken into consideration to reach development approval. Councils are highly unlikely to approve or deny a development solely because of your array.
In other words, your neighbours may have their second-storey addition approved by the local government, even though the overshadowing on your property renders your solar array 35% less efficient.
You can appeal of course. But this can get messy and expensive, and the outcome is a gamble.
Here is a case study worth reading that illustrates the point. Click here and read it now, it’s important. Thanks to Damien and Tegan from the ABC for this very useful article.
Read it? OK, let’s carry on. You will note that:
“The tribunal member considered the development's impact on solar panels in making her decision—but her primary concern in denying the development was the fact that it would be "visually intrusive in the backyard realm" for neighbouring properties.” (ABC)
In other words. The impact on the solar array was only ‘considered’. Other factors were deemed far more important, which led to the resulting changes to the development.
As you may have read in the article, it’s not just buildings or other such structures that can impact your solar array. What about trees? Trees have a wonderful habit of blocking the sun.
Your neighbours may have an existing tree which annually, whilst full of foliage, blocks the sun from your solar array, reducing its efficiency by 50%. Can you ask them to cut it down?
Of course, you can—how well do you get on with your neighbours? You can certainly ask. But you certainly cannot make them. Further to this, even if they agreed, they may not even be allowed to cut it down.
There are LGA regulations controlling the removal and trimming of established trees. Trees, even the ones on your private property, have rights. You can’t just lop them down willy-nilly. Here’s a link to the Newcastle City Council Tree policy for example. Remember, your council may have different rules.
You may live on an isolated property where no one can develop next to you at all. Happy days, let’s go solar, neighbour- and hassle-free.
However, there is a tree overshadowing the majority of the roof space. No problem, let’s cut it down. Hmmmm. The problem is, the tree is over 100 years old and protected by government heritage orders. No chance you can cut it down. No way!
Out on the land, however, space is plenty, as is the sun. There is likely to be enough room to install your solar array on the ground. Yay! Free air conditioning after all.
Now that you have considered everybody else impacting your solar array, what about the impact your solar array has on others? Yes, this cuts both ways.
So, you want an array bigger than Ben Hur. You have money burning a hole in your pocket and you want an array big enough to power Vegas, perched atop your modest 3-bedroom house.
Firstly, there is no real restriction as to how much power you can generate. But there is only so much space on your roof.
Roof space is one thing, but you also need to be aware of what the roof structure can support. That’s another article for later. We’re talking about your rights here.
Do you need council approval to install solar? In most circumstances, no. But the are instances where council approval will be required. If you live in a building that is strata managed, you will require permission from strata management.
Also, if your solar system is more than 10kW, you will have to check with your local government if development approval is required. Here’s a link for NSW residents. It’s a great overview, but you should check with your local council.
The great thing is, under most circumstances, ‘normal’ solar panels installed on your roof will not require permission from anybody, including those pesky neighbours.
A couple of situations where council (or other) approvals will likely be required is if your solar panels will face the street, or if your home or streetscape is heritage listed. Again, always check first.
Whatever the case, your solar panel professionals will likely advise you when they give you a quote. It’s ultimately up to you, however, to be aware, so always do your own research!
Let’s wrap up and conclude with some useful tips.
Around 1.6 million Aussies have solar installed on their homes. This figure is trending upward as the price of coal-powered electricity from the grid jumps every time you sneeze.
The majority of domestic solar users install and use hassle-free, enjoying significantly reduced electricity bills, with some even earning money from their solar array.
If you want to get in on the solar action, you should. There are fabulous financial savings to be had and it’s a very good option for the planet.
Purchasing and installing solar is just like any major purchase or investment. Where there are significant benefits, there can also be unwanted traps.
Do your research and get informed. (Here’s another useful article on the subject). Talk to solar providers, friends, and neighbours who have been through the process and, of course, your local government.
Under normal circumstances (that is, the circumstances under which most of us live) the process of installing solar will be hassle-free and using solar should remain so throughout the life of your panels.
Those who are well researched, and well prepared will avoid being the exception to this rule. You won’t have to worry about ‘laws and rights’… you can kick back and simply enjoy your super cheap electricity.
Tips for Happy Solar Surfing and Keeping Out of Traps
1. Be realistic when choosing to install solar. If you live in a medium-density to high-density suburb with a mix of houses and multi-level flats or apartments, you might be setting yourself up for disappointment by installing solar.
Even if you currently receive enough sun on your roof, it may not last. The house next door might be knocked down to make way for a perfectly legal 6-storey apartment building.
In such cases, having installed a fancy new array, you may have little to no recourse should your array be rendered useless by overshadowing from the block of flats.
By virtue of zoning, public domain information, you should have been aware that this might happen.
2. Heavily wooded or forested suburbs also present a problem. Remember, trees have rights, and your neighbours might love their trees. Trimming or lopping to serve an array may simply be impossible.
3. Work closely with your solar professional. Ensure that when you are positioning your panels, you do your best to cater for what may come in the future, such as neighbours that extend or redevelop.
4. If an issue arises regarding overshadowing of your array from a neighbouring development, governing bodies look far less favourably on situations where panels were positioned poorly or unwisely.
Laws and rights can protect you and they can work against you. Remember, in the case of solar panels, there are few firm laws and rights.
When the waters are a little murky, such as in the case of ‘owning’ the sunlight for your array, dial before you dig (metaphorically speaking).
Those who enter a venture well researched, armed to the teeth with good information are infinitely less likely to make mistakes.
May you all bask in glorious sunlight, as may your solar panels.
If you want to see how much solar or battery storage could save you over the next 5 years, then take our solar saving calculator quiz below!
Or talk to an Instyle Solar expert about the best solutions for home energy storage or PV-panels.
Otherwise, head back to the solar blog to find even more great educational content.
Photo credit: Depositphotos