Buyer Beware: Complaints from Rooftops

Over the past couple of decades, a number of rooftop solar companies have gone into business – often making arrangements to lease solar panels to consumers while collecting subsidies for these systems for themselves. SolarCity – the brainchild of billionaire Elon Musk – has made an especially big name for itself in the world of rooftop solar. Much of the company’s business is based on leasing solar panels to homeowners, typically for 20-year terms. Although this has made solar panels more affordable for consumers, it has also exposed more and more homeowners to a host of problems resulting from shady business practices by many solar leasing companies.

In some cases, consumers have had to deal with shoddy installations, failed inspections and deceptive sales practices. In addition, some consumers have even seen increases in their electric bills after installing solar panels on their roof. A look at some of the bigger solar markets shows the variety of issues that consumers have experienced at the hands of rooftop solar companies – proving why consumers that are considering rooftop solar panels from SolarCity and others should reconsider.

In Arizona, Yelp reviews of SolarCity show quite a breadth of consumer issues. One consumer noted that she had to wait nearly eight months for her solar panels to be installed – and then the system failed the city’s inspection. After SolarCity cut a hole in her roof during a pre-inspection, they never returned to fix it. Another consumer mentioned that she suffered roof damage during installation, never had her system fully hooked up, and only saved a few dollars per month on her electricity bill after installing solar panels.

The situation has gotten so bad in Arizona that Attorney General Tom Horne recently issued a consumer alert warning the public about potential consumer fraud problems related to solar systems. The alert noted that there is no guarantee that installing solar systems will reduce consumers’ total electricity costs, especially when leasing and financing payments are taken into account. The alert also mentioned that some companies “engage in unethical behavior to obtain more customers and perform more installs.”

Issues abound in California as well. Yelp reviews of SolarCity in Sacramento show a number of problems. One customer reported that installers drilled random holes all over his roof trying to locate rafters to anchor the solar panels on. Rain began leaking in and it took a slew of repair attempts before the issue was finally fixed. Other customers experienced long delays for installation and repairs, difficulty reaching customer service representatives, and unclear responses.

The Better Business Bureau of Greater San Francisco (which encompasses SolarCity’s headquarters in San Mateo), has aggregated consumer complaints from across the country. Most of these relate to the product itself as well as sales and service. Complaints include delayed installations, problems with systems not passing inspections, and increased electric bills. One SolarCity customer even complained that the company insisted on charging extra service fees for removing pigeons that had roosted under his solar panels. Another consumer complained of a “nightmare” scenario in which he had to double his down payment and then SolarCity installers punctured the system’s solar water panel – leaving the family without water for eight weeks. Then SolarCity workers left screws and bolts throughout his property, leading to flat tires and endangering his young children.

Another San Francisco-area company – Sunrun Inc. – also has an extensive list of complaints on the Better Business Bureau’s website. Customers have cited falsified contracts, damage to homes during installation, and underproduction because panels were not properly plugged in. One consumer complained that after a year of using solar panels, his energy bill was the same as in previous years. When SunRun dispatched a technician, it was discovered that about half the panels had not been plugged in during the initial installation. After four months, the customer was still waiting for a refund.

Another customer complained that he was originally promised that he could put no money down for a solar system. Subsequently, SunRun told the customer that he would have to get a smaller system than originally planned and would have to put down a $500 deposit. Three months later, the company told him that because trees on a nearby property blocked sunlight from his roof for three months out of the year, he would have to get an even smaller system. The customer no longer wanted to do business with SunRun at that time, especially since such a small system would not lead to meaningful savings on his electricity bill.

Solar customers in Louisiana have also experienced problems. Sader Power Enterprises – one of the biggest solar companies in the state – has numerous complaints posted on its Better Business Bureau profile. One consumer reported that he gave Sader Power a $250 deposit for a solar system and the system still had not been installed nine months later. Another consumer reported waiting over a year for his solar panel installation, despite having given the company a deposit at the outset. Yet another consumer reported that after one year of using solar panels, his utility bill had not measurably decreased. Additionally, WDSU News (New Orleans) reported in February 2014 that some consumers had filed a class action lawsuit against Sader Power, alleging that the company had deceived consumers by intentionally overstating energy cost savings, failing to install the solar equipment in a timely manner, and violating state laws which require licenses for solar panel installers.  The Louisiana Attorney General’s Office is investigating the allegations.

While we cannot vouch for the accuracy of every complaint, these anecdotal examples, actions by Attorneys General and ongoing lawsuits do suggest that consumers should cast a wary eye on promises made by some rooftop solar companies. It’s important to know that the terms you agree to initially may change, and to recognize that a host of other unexpected issues can arise, including complications on future roof repairs and problems selling homes that usually come with financial encumbrances.

The bottom line is that it’s not all sunshine when it comes to rooftop solar panels for consumers. Consumers deserve to be made fully aware of these problems before installing rooftop solar panels.

Steve Pociask is president of the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization. For more information, visit ww.theamericanconsumer.org.

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