I’ve talked about solar scams before (see this article about the solar + insulation scam), but I want to cover the subject again now because, unfortunately, it’s still a problem. In Virginia, as the solar market heats up, and big national installers enter the state, the problem of solar scams may be getting worse.
Of course, a few bad apples don’t spoil the whole barrel. One installer may be better or worse for your particular situation. But most solar installers in Virginia are committed to satisfying their customers and putting in a home solar power system that will offer reliable performance and money savings for decades to come.
And with price drops in the last few years, solar has become a better deal than ever, especially in Virginia.
But I still see a few companies that are not doing the right thing by their customers. Perhaps they’re newcomers from out of state? Or maybe they’re fly-by-night operators who decided to get into solar this year as the latest hot thing. Maybe next year they’ll forget about solar and start selling steel-belted radials or time shares?
And these low-quality operators seem to have a few tricks in common that they like to foist on homeowners. Here are the top six I’ve heard about, so that you can protect yourself when you are ready to start looking for a solar installer:
1. Impersonating a Government or Utility Rep
Some telemarketers have started calling homeowners claiming to be from organizations whose names sound like a government agency. For example, here’s a case from another state that’s documented. In Utah, callers claiming to be from the “Utah Public Utilities Commission” pressured homeowners to sign up for cheap solar panels before a contrived deadline. The big problem was that this agency doesn’t even exist. The other problem was that the state’s real energy agency, the Utah Public Service Commission, said it didn’t make the calls and that it never makes calls to sell solar installations.
Consumers who had any doubt were advised to call the government agency to verify that the calls were real. In this case, they weren’t. While I haven’t seen any stories yet of this scam coming to Virginia, I’ve heard from homeowners that they have gotten these kind of calls. If you are one of them, call the office of the Virginia Attorney General to file a complaint. Their consumer protection hotline is 1-800-552-9963.
It’s the same with utilities. While both Dominion and ApCo do offer “green power” plans to customers in their territory, they don’t make telemarketing calls to install solar panels on your home. If you get a call from a telemarketer claiming to represent either utility or an electric coop, call your utility to complain.
2. Putting on the Hard Sell
A solar installer who calls you up or comes by your home with a proposal and then pressures you to decide right then and even put down a deposit at that moment to qualify for a special low price is trying to pull a fast one.
Reputable solar installers will give you a couple weeks at least to review their proposal, ask questions and make up your mind before you commit to going solar with them. For example, here at Main Street Solar all our proposals are valid for at least 30 days.
Getting solar at home is a big investment. You’ll want to make sure that you’ve chosen a reliable installer who will offer you the best value in equipment (neither too cheap nor too expensive) for your situation. And you want to know that the installer will be around to stand behind their work for the next few years or more in case anything goes wrong.
A good solar installer will respect your decision-making process and even try to answer the questions you’re likely to have in advance, as we do in our FAQ.
3. Promising Huge Tax Credits and Even Cash Grants
Shady solar telemarketers and door-knockers may promise you government incentives that don’t exist. In Virginia, the main incentive is the 30% solar federal tax credit, slated to remain at its current level through 2019. Currently, the state doesn’t offer any tax incentives. And neither state nor federal government is offering cash grants for homeowners to go solar in Virginia.
The Grants.gov website offers a few phrases that telemarketers use that are red flags for a scam:
- “Great news! You are eligible to receive a government grant.” (The government does not contact individuals to award grants for which there has been no application)
- “For a small fee, you can obtain a government grant.” (The federal government never charges a fee to apply for funding)
- “The Federal Bureau of Grant Awards has awarded you a $8,000 grant.” (There’s no such agency)
- “Our office is located in Washington, D.C.” (Anybody can get a cell phone number with a D.C. area code these days)
- “This type of federal grant does not require an application.” (There’s no such thing)
If you hear any of these phrases from someone claiming to sell solar, then make sure you get the name of their company, hang up, and then report them to the Federal Trade Commission: 1-877-382-4357.
A reputable solar installer will explain the 30% solar federal tax credit and any other incentives that you may qualify for.
4. Failure to Deliver
Every year around the country, homeowners report hundreds of cases of solar installers taking deposits but never coming back to install the solar panels. More common, but still harmful, is when a solar installer does indeed put up solar panels, but the solar system breaks down and the company fails to respond to customer requests to fix it.
For example, in the Boston area, one of the big national installation companies promised homeowners they’d save 30% to 35% off their electric bills with no money down if they got solar with that company. One sales rep even promised a homeowner that they’d save 90% off their bill by going solar. All these deals were done with a financing method that’s not available to homeowners in Virginia (a power purchase agreement) but that’s similar to a lease, which is available here. And that’s where the problem comes in.
With this kind of financing, a homeowner signs a deal to pay the solar company for 20 years for power or to lease the panels. The payments are supposed to be lower than what the home is saving on their electric bills. But if the solar system breaks down, and the installer is slow to fix it — in some cases, taking a year or more to respond — the homeowner still has to pay the monthly fee but doesn’t get the savings. That’s a very raw deal, and a good reason not to get solar panels through a lease or from a company you can’t trust.
Much better is to own the panels yourself, which you can do these days though a home-equity line of credit or a loan through a solar installer at a competitive rate. A reputable local installer can help you find the financing that’s best for you.
5. Unrealistically Low Prices
Crazy low prices for solar? That’s one sign that an offer might be too good to be true. While reputable solar installers will vary somewhat in price, a proposal that’s too much lower than bids from other installers is a red flag. A price more than 25% lower than competitors may mean that an installer plans to:
- Use cheap, poor quality equipment
- Give you less solar than they promised
- Fail to install your solar system at all!
Any reputable solar installer in Virginia will be able to install a system at your home that will pay for itself in ten years or less. You should save money on power from the first month. And once your system is fully paid off, all the energy it generates will essentially be free for the 25+ year life of your solar power system.
6. The Solar + Insulation Scam
And of course, there’s the old solar + insulation scam, which I’ve written about before. I want to mention it again here because I’ve started to see appear more commonly in Virginia.
In this scam, an installer will sell you solar and insulate your house at the same time, all in one proposal which they can finance for no money down. That might sound good…until you realize that you’re paying much more for solar together with weatherization than you’d pay to get either one separately. And the bad news is that neither the solar nor the insulation may work as promised.
It’s the worst of both worlds — cheap work and a high price. If you fall for this scam, you could be stuck with poorly performing solar panels and wimpy insulation that will actually cost you more than the good stuff.
Insulating your home may be a good idea, if you need it. A reputable solar installer will be able to recommend a high quality insulation contractor that you can do good work at a fair price. And if your home doesn’t need insulation, a good contractor won’t try to sell it to you.
Protect Yourself from Scammers, Get Informed
The best consumer protection from solar scammers is to get informed. Our free ebook, 10 Questions and Answers on Home Solar in Virginia, will empower you with the knowledge you need to tell the difference between a solar scam on the one hand and a serious proposal for solar that will be a good value on the other. Download your free copy now.
— Andrew Brenner, Main Street Solar