5 types of solar installer scams (with real examples)
It only takes a few bad companies to tarnish the reputation of a whole industry. Here are some things consumers should watch out for buying solar for their home.
There are thousands of rooftop solar installers across the United States, and most of them are honest companies that do good work.
Unfortunately, like any industry, there’s always a few bad apples. There are great plumbers out there, but you could also end up with a company that tries to fix a leak with silly putty.
This is why when you hire any type of contractor, whether it’s to install solar panels on your roof or fix a leaky toilet, it’s always a good idea to do a little research so that you can become a better informed consumer.
When it comes to home solar installations, there are few recurring types of fraud you should look out for.
How do I learn about different solar industry ripoffs?
One of the services The Solar Nerd provides is to refer people to high quality local solar companies. We’re a small company that hasn’t been around for long, so we don’t yet have a large enough set of our own data on solar installer performance for this article.
Instead, we’ll rely on the Better Business Bureau. The BBB helpfully keeps track of both consumer complaints and formal actions taken by governments. It’s this data that we’ll base this article on.
Side note: while the BBB is generally an excellent resource, one notable part of BBB reviews we ignore is their letter grade rating. It’s far too easy for a company to obtain a good or excellent grade. For example Vivint Solar, which currently has 971 BBB complaints and is being sued by the state of New Mexico for their business practices, still manages to get a pretty good B+ rating.
BBB does caution that its ratings are based on the responsiveness of a company to its complaints and should not be taken as a rating of the company’s quality. However, most people aren’t aware of this distinction, and companies are quick to feature their A+ ratings. Because these letter grades are so often misinterpreted, it’s best to dig deeper into company profiles when using BBB as a resource.
A license is required to install solar in most states
In most states, a license is required to install solar panels. Given that electrical and roofing work is involved, this makes sense. You wouldn’t want somebody unqualified running wiring that will carry thousands of watts of power and hundreds of DC volts.
Unfortunately, some unscrupulous companies represent themselves as qualified solar installers but don’t actually have the required credentials.
For example, Solar Service Center, a now out-of-business company that operated in Corona, CA, didn’t have a license to install solar in California. In addition, there are multiple BBB complaints from past customers who were unsuccessful trying to get in touch with someone at the company to provide service on their systems.
Another example is Minnesota-based We Know Solar. Not only were they installing solar without the proper license from the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, but they were fined by the state agency because the “business repeatedly demonstrated incompetence, untrustworthiness or financial irresponsibility”.
To further underscore their poor business practices, there are numerous serious complaints about We Know Solar listed with the BBB. In particular, there are mutiple allegations that customers paid We Know Solar but the company never completed the work.
Yet another example is ESP Energy Service Partners, an out-of-business company that operated in Arizona and California. In a complaint from the California State License Board that lists 19 causes for discipline, ESP hid the fact that they were unlicensed, overcharged customers for the work performed, and violated trade standards.
Unfortunately, there are many other examples out there. The important takeaway is to do a little background research on a company before hiring them. You can check the website of the Interstate Renewable Energy Council to find out what the licensing requirements for your state are.
Most states allow you to check contractor licenses online. Alternatively, you can use The Solar Nerd to get quotes. As part of the background research we do on solar installers, we make sure they have a current license.
Beware of solar installers who say that you will have no electric bill
Even if your solar panels generate 100% of your electricity, you will still get an electric bill from your utility, and you’ll probably still have to pay a minimum monthly charge. Most utilities charge a monthly basic connection fee no matter how little net electricity you’re billed for.
Less ethical companies gloss over these details. This seems to be especially true of companies that use commission-driven, door-to-door salespeople. While not every company that uses door-to-door in their sales act this way, unfortunately it seems that less scrupulous people will exaggerate or outright lie in order to make a sale.
Vivint Solar was actually fined by the state of New Jersey for doing exactly this.
Another egregious example was PALMco. Not only did PALMco use door-to-door sales, but their staff would represent themselves not as salespeople for a solar installer, but as representatives of the customer’s energy company. Here’s an example from one BBB complaint:
Last night, a man rang my bell and knocked on my door and called out that he needed to speak with me, and when I opened it, he represented himself as being from the electric company and said he needed to check my bill to see that I was getting a credit I was entitled to and to check my rate.
PALMco, also known as Indra Energy and Columbia Utilities, has numerous similar complaints on BBB.
Again, while door-to-door sales isn’t automatically bad, I will note that high quality companies don’t tend to use it, and instead rely on other marketing such as word-of-mouth referrals. This is particularly true for many of the companies in The Solar Nerd network: some of the companies I work with do little advertising, but remain very busy because of referral business.
Watch out for solar installers that disappear after the installation
There are many reported cases of customers having difficulty getting service from a company after the initial installation is completed. In some cases, the customer has a system failure and needs warranty service. Other times, the customer might have a question about their solar production and utility bill.
Unfortunately, there are companies that provide bad after-sales customer service, or even “ghost” customers entirely. One example is Summer Solar, a company in Brookline, MO that is still in operation. BBB has the following warning attached to their profile:
Better Business Bureau is advising consumers to use caution when considering doing business with Summer Solar LLC. BBB has received a pattern of consumer complaints alleging defective products, improper installation, failure to make repairs, misleading sales presentations, failure to issue refunds, failure to contact consumers and poor customer service. On September 4, 2020, BBB sent a letter to the company with its concerns. The company did not respond.
There are currently 11 complaints listed, and they echo the warning issued by BBB. One customer summarized their experience this way:
Poor communication, did not finish job, did not finish prep, out-of-pocket expenses incurred, never sent paperwork, never sent contract, miscommunication, incompetence, did not do what they agreed to do
Another company with similar issues is PetersenDean, which was one of the largest solar installers in the country. Their solar installation business is currently on hold because they have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This demonstrates that going with a large, established brand is no guarantee that the company will provide good customer service or even stay in business.
The BBB profile for PetersenDean comes with this warning:
Based on BBB files this company has a pattern of complaints. Consumers state there are delays in project start dates, project completion dates and repairs. Consumers also state there are delays in receiving refunds and that there are long wait times for responses to calls and emails, and in some cases request to speak to supervisors go unanswered.
There are 117 complaints that you can read, so there is clearly a pattern of customer dissatisfaction with this company.
Another company, Blue Sky Solar Energy, has many complaints from customers who were unable to get in touch with the company for warranty service and other issues. As one customer put it:
This business does not answer calls goes straight to voice mail. I need to get ahold of someone that will remove solar panels to fix roof. I bought my bvn house last bgg uear. There is a 5 yr warranty from 2017 I need repairs on my roof due to the solar panels. I can not repair roof unless solar panels are removed
Solar panels that don’t produce the expected amount of electricity
When you first reach out to an installer to get an estimate on a solar system for your home, they will do an analysis of your rooftop with either satellite images or an onsite inspection, and then calculate a system size based on your historical electricity usage and the average climate for your area.
This is basically how The Solar Nerd calculator works. You input your electricity usage, describe the basic characteristics of your roof, and the calculator uses historical climate data to estimate the system size you would need to generate 100% of your electricity.
It’s important to keep in mind that this is only an estimate because it’s based on historical weather data, and your home electricity usage could change too. However, a good solar installer will produce an estimate that is accurate most of the time.
Not so with some companies. Sometimes, a solar company will try to sell you a system that is larger than you need, because they want to invoice you for a larger system.
Other times, the company will simply screw up the initial analysis and get your system size wrong. This seems to be a complaint that you see reported with some of the larger national installers, such as Vivint, Sunrun, and this unhappy Trinity Solar customer:
He assured us being conservative that the system would produce 110% of what we used the prior year and we would eliminate our electric bill. After thee months of operation I contacted Josh to inform him the system was not producing enough to keep up with our usage.He stated to give it a full year.We did and it did not produce what he promised.After dozens of phone calls Patrick M***** informed me that Trinity would install additional panels at no cost to us to rectify the problem.That was February 9,2018 After dozens of phone calls they put in contact with Ken E***** in New Jersey.Ken started back peddling saying we purchased a system we could afford and that I was told that trees would inhibit production.
Telemarketing calls from solar installers that just won’t stop
In the same way that door-to-door sales tends to be used by lower quality companies, the use of telemarketing is another red flag to watch out for.
One standout example: Sunrun paid $5.5 million to settle a class action lawsuit for robocalling in violation of the Do Not Call Registry.
Sunrun is the largest solar installer in the country. High quality companies don’t resort to sketchy sales tactics to grow rapidly, instead prioritizing high quality and good customer service. By the way, Vivint Solar has been acquired by Sunrun, a move that has the potential to make one very large mediocre company out of two. Who knows if they’ve truly put their robocalling and door-to-door hard selling behind them?
The Solar Nerd does not include either of these companies in our network.
Telemarketing calls can not only be annoying, but con artists will straight up try to rip you off over the phone. One scam in Utah involved a caller pretending to be from an authoritative-sounding “Utah Public Utilities Commission” but was actually trying to sell the person on a solar panel deal.
Bottom line: most solar installers are good, but watch out for a few bad apples
No matter what type of contractor you’re hiring - whether it’s an electrician, general contractor, landscaper, or solar installer - you will find that many companies are excellent, but a few will be underqualified or even negligent.
Don’t let that scare you away from going solar! There are thousands of rooftop solar installers in the United States, and most of them will do a fine job. Just watch out for the handful of lousy companies and scammers that are out there. You can read our guide to solar for tips on how to screen out the good solar contractors from the bad, and you can also use us to get quotes from solar installers that have been prescreened and vetted to a high standard.