Solar Buyers Beware! Three stories from the front lines. Don’t let this be you!

Nov 11, 2011NABCEP, PV installations

I think we as Americans in general have all heard the saying, “Buyer beware!”  For a solar customer this is no exception.  In my years in the industry I have for the most part met fellow industry workers whom I can only describe as very kind, passionate, responsible colleagues.  From what I’ve seen, the majority understand that as representatives of an emerging industry we are responsible for how solar is percieved.  One happy solar customer tells a few friends, but one unhappy customer tells everyone!

Unfortunately I’ve recently been seeing more and more horror stories from the front lines.  Customers who’ve had a bad experience or were taken advantage of by a contractor.  With the economy in recession the solar industry has attracted many people seeking to change careers.  Some of those people have jumped in with no experience, just looking to make a buck.  As a result the number of unqualified installers is growing.  Here are 3 stories I’ve personally heard from customers.

Beware of grandiose claims and understand what you are purchasing!

A Bad Install

1.) Last month we had a customer call us saying he had a contractor install a solar water heating system with a heating coil connected to his HVAC system. He paid $18,000. The claim was that this system would heat his domestic hot water and in the winter supplement the heating load for his HVAC system. It consisted of an 80-gallon storage tank with 2 solar collectors mounted on a steep, west-facing roof. He claims the water was not getting hot and the coil to his HVAC system did nothing to reduce his bills. He was very upset and plans to sue the installer. In my opinon this should never had been sold to the customer and it seems both the customer and installer did not have a clear understanding of what it would do. A steeply-angled, west-facing hot water system will only produce about 80% max of what a southern-facing hot water system will produce. It will also produce very poorly in the colder months because there are fewer hours of sunlight, and the angle of incidence is poor so the sun that does hit the panels will mainly glance off in the winter–not to mention the fact that the ambient air temperature is very low during the months he presumably wants the most heat production. The most this customer can hope for is enough to heat his water for showers and washing dishes during the summer months when the sun is more directly striking the panels and the ambient temperature is higher. Also the cost of the system was pretty high. A normal hot water install would go for around $7,000-$9,000 depending on the site. So he pretty much paid $10,000 for a heating loop that was never going to work properly!

Bad Product

2.) Another customer came into my office saying he purchased an off-grid solar battery backup system from Northern Tool’s website. He admits that he purchased it not knowing exactly how much power he would get out of it and wanted me to explain, if I could, what home loads he would be able to run and for how long before the batteries needed to be recharged. He said it was sold to him with the impression that it could power the major circuits of his house. He paid $2000. After doing some math it was aparent that his expectations were way out of line with what the system’s capabilities were. The batteries had 1.5kw hours of capacity. That is enough to power a microwave for 1.5 hours or fifteen 100-watt light bulbs for 1.5 hours. It would not power larger loads like his refrigerator at all. There were 2 solar panels he thought would help power the system, however they were 100-watt panels. At that rate it would take 11 hours of direct sunlight to fully recharge the system. So if the power ever went out he would be able to power a few lights for a few hours, then he would have to charge the system for 2 or 3 days to fully recharge his batteries. Again, it seems this system was not what it was made out to be and the customer did not have a clear understanding of what he was purchasing.

Purchasing Kits Online

3.) I like to say “We live in the Walmart age,” meaning that as shoppers we’ve become conditioned to search and search for the cheapest price with the understanding we can always get it for less somewhere else. I recently stopped a customer from making a costly mistake. I spoke to a customer on the phone who was interested in a 5 kwDC system. I quoted him a price which included installation. He then went online to try to do some detective work and see if he could figure out exactly what the cost of materials would be if he bought them himself. He e-mailed me back a link he found online of a kit that cost than half of what I quoted him, with kind of a snotty e-mail saying asking if the rest was labor. I checked out the link he sent me, and guess what? It wasn’t what it was made out to be. First of all, the panels were a very low wattage and had a low efficiency of 120W, whereas normal wattage is 230-240 these days. So they were probably an older model of panel on clearance. There was an inverter, a fusebox, a surge arrestor, and 50 feet of wire. Sound like anything is missing? There was no mounting system at all! If he would have purchased this kit, how would he put it on his roof? By nailing it down? Also the fact that the panels were such low wattage meant that to get the full 5 kw DC he would need 42 panels, and that would not fit on this roof. The lower the efficiency of the panel, the fewer watts you can fit on a given space. Also missing from the kit was proper system grounding and other miscellaneous items.

Luckily for that guy I stopped him from making a mistake that would have cost him several thousands of dollars, but many people purchase kits online not knowing exactly what they are getting or what is missing.

Lessons Learned

These are just a few recent examples of customers who made mistakes with their solar purchases.  I truely wish none of them had ever happened.  Remember to always, always use a reputable contractor, and the best thing you can do is insist to see and check your solar installer’s NABCEP certification.  NABCEP ‘s goal is to raise the standards of solar installation and demand that all installers follow a code of ethics.  It’s not easy to get that certification either, as I well know!  Also check the references of your contractor, ask to see some of their work, and do your price shopping with the understanding in mind that you will get what you pay for.  Finally, make sure you understand what you are purchasing!  Know the products you plan to use and what their expected performance will be, as well as the type of maintenance that will be needed.  I hope these stories help you, my readers, avoid the same or similar mistakes.

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