If you’re a homeowner in one of the top states for home solar such as California, New Mexico, or Arizona, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve had a salesperson from Vivint Solar come knocking on your door.
Operating in 21 states and with gross revenues in 2018 of $760 million, Vivint Solar is one of the largest solar installers in the nation. Like its larger competitor SunRun, Vivint Solar sells home solar systems under a type of contract known as a power purchase agreement (PPA).
Under a PPA, the homeowner doesn’t own the solar panels, but instead basically rents them from the solar company. The homeowner is under contract to buy their electricity from the solar company instead of the utility.
Theoretically, the price a homeowner pays for electricity under a PPA is less than what they would normally pay to their utility, but that is not always the case. In fact, this point is one of the major complaints in a lawsuit from the State of New Mexico.
In fact, if you do even cursory consumer research into Vivint Solar, you’ll quickly find a number of issues to potentially be concerned about. In this article, we’ll take a close look at the consumer reviews, Better Business Bureau complaints, and a pending lawsuit against Vivint Solar.
Vivint is a home automation company that was started in 1999. Back then, its main product was home security systems. Alarms are still a primary part of its business, although it has since expanded into other home automation products, such as doorbell cameras.
In 2011, Vivint spun off Vivint Solar as a standalone company. While operating separately, the solar division does retain some things in common with the original company, especially the use of door-to-door sales.
It’s this practice of door-to-door sales that is at the root of many complaints about the company.
Because it’s one of the largest solar installers, you’ll find numerous reviews online for Vivint Solar. There are a couple things to watch out for when researching reviews for Vivint Solar.
First, Vivint Solar has multiple locations, which means that on many review sites you’ll see separate reviews for each state it operates in. While it’s useful to read reviews about how Vivint operates in your local area, many of the complaints about the company are common to its operations across the nation - for example, complaints about its PPA contract.
This means that you should either look up Vivint Solar reviews for its headquarters location in Lehi, Utah, or read reviews from other states.
The other thing is that Vivint Inc - the home automation company - is distinct from Vivint Solar. Make sure that you’re reading reviews for the right company. You might see listings for Vivint Smart Home and Vivint Home Security. None of these are the solar company.
Anybody can post a review online, but some sites have different standards in place to help ensure that those reviews are legitimate.
The Solar Nerd uses reviews from Yelp and the Better Business Bureau as one part of our overall process in screening solar installers for inclusion in our partner network. If you’re doing your own research, we recommend that you start with them too.
One site that we avoid is ConsumerAffairs. The name is similar to the long established non-profit Consumer Reports, but the two companies have no relationship whatsoever.
The reason we ignore ConsumerAffairs reviews is because the company has been credibly accused of being a “pay-to-play” review site: by paying a fee, businesses supposedly could get more favorable treatment. Or, conversely, by not paying a fee to ConsumerAffairs, a business might receive negative treatment by suppressing positive reviews unless the business paid to become an “accredited member”.
Consumer Cellular (CCI) (a cellphone provider) sued ConsumerAffairs in an Oregon court for exactly these practices. Here is a key paragraph from the Findings and Recommendation by the judge for the case (emphasis mine):
[the] defendants, in addition to not permitting CCI to respond to or challenge negative reviews or to benefit from more favorable presentation of legitimately submitted third-party reviews, also affirmatively suppressed positive reviews without informing users of its webpage that it had done so, and indicated that it would continue doing so unless CCI became an accredited member. It is thus CCI's position that defendants attempted to extort tens of thousands of dollars in accredited membership fees from CCI under threat of improper hmm to its reputation and to its business. ... As such, CCI has adequately alleged the predicate act of extortion, and defendants' final argument provides no grounds for dismissal of CCI's RICO claim.
In other words, the judge in the case described ConsumerAffairs’ behavior as extortion and that CCI has a reasonable argument to pursue a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) claim.
It’s pretty bad when a judge calls your business model extortion.
Vivint Solar has a nearly 4 star rating on ConsumerAffairs, which is a higher rating than on any other review site we found. It’s noteworthy that Vivint Solar places the “Consumer Affairs Accredited” logo in the footer of its website. There’s no definitive proof that its accreditation has resulted in higher ratings, but given the questions around the site’s credibility, it would be wise to disregard these ratings.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is a credible organization, and a good place to start if you want reviews about Vivint Solar.
When you search on BBB.org, multiple Vivint Solar locations will appear. Start with the location nearest to you (if there is one), but also be sure to check the headquarters location: BBB reviews of Vivint Solar.
BBB has two categories of feedback that a consumer can submit: complaints and reviews. A complaint is a more substantial type of feedback where the consumer is asking for a formal resolution. A review, in comparison, is a review like you would find any other review site.
On BBB.org, there have been a total of 731 customer complaints that have been filed. They fall into the following categories:
Of these complaints, only 197 were resolved to the customer’s satisfaction, leaving 534 answered but unresolved complaints.
Here’s a sample of complaints:
Out of a total of 731 complaints listed on BBB.org, 64 were related to advertising or sales. Vivint Solar uses door-to-door sales, and one disturbing thing mentioned in multiple complaints is the salesperson doing a “hard” credit check of the homeowner on the spot. This is the type of credit check that shows up on your credit record. Too many checks in a short period of time can be a negative mark on your credit record.
The second most common complaint about Vivint Solar on BBB.org is about billing-related issues - 120 complaints in total. Many of these are customers complaining that the savings Vivint promised ended up lower than expected, or even that their bills were higher than before installing solar. Here’s an example:
With 516 out of 731 complaints being service or product-related problems, this is the largest category of complaints on the BBB website about Vivint Solar.
Many of them involve homeowners who are trying to get their solar panels temporarily removed because of a need for roof repairs. In some cases, the homeowner claims that Vivint Solar caused roof damage during the solar panel installation. Here’s one such case, which at the time of writing was not yet resolved:
While none of these complaints prove that Vivint Solar has caused roof damage to customers’ homes, unfortunately it’s entirely plausible that shoddy work by a solar company could cause such damage, or even worse.
Take the case of Walmart v. SolarCity (Tesla), for example. Walmart accused SolarCity of causing rooftop fires at several of its stores because of poor installation practices that lead to solar panels actually catching fire.
To be clear, actual fire was not mentioned in any of the BBB complaints about Vivint Solar, although at least one complaint accused them of poor wiring that could have lead to a fire:
This litany of complaints doesn’t look good. But you should never rely on just one source when making an evaluation like this. However, a lawsuit by the State of New Mexico against Vivint Solar provides some important corroboration.
On March 8, 2018 Attorney General Hector Balderas for the State of New Mexico filed a lawsuit against Vivint Solar “for Defrauding New Mexicans & Jeopardizing Their Home Ownership”.
The lawsuit lists 17 different counts against Vivint, accusing them of sales tactics that exaggerate or lie about the products and services they sell, and generally having business practices that constitute fraud and rackeetering.
You should read the complaint in full if you want the details about all 17 counts, but there are a few that are noteworthy:
One of the chief complaints in the NM lawsuit is high prices charged to Vivint’s customers, a fact that may not be well disclosed by their door-to-door sales:
As with other utility companies throughout the country, PMN’s rates are tiered and have different seasonal rates. PNM’s tier one rates, which cover the first 450 kWh hours of electricity consumed every month, are more than 26% lower than Vivint’s rates. As a result, the average consumer pays substantially less for electricity purchased from PNM than for electricity purchased from Vivint. Moreover, in contrast to the built-in 2.9% escalator in the PPA, PNM’s rates have been relatively stable for approximately a decade. This is significant because, pursuant to the PPA, consumers will see more than a 72% increase over the twenty year term of their contract, with rates steadily rising to more than $0.18 per kWh.
This echoes many of the complaints you can find on BBB.org.
When you enter into a solar lease or PPA, the solar company owns the equipment. Because of this, Vivint places a UCC-1 filing on the property. This UCC-1 filing is a lien on the solar equipment, not the home.
However, because the UCC-1 filing turns up when performing a search for liens on the property, it has had the effect of causing confusion and delays on the sale of a property. While not strictly a lien, the New Mexico lawsuit argues that the UCC filing has the same effect as a lien on the home itself:
Contrary to its representations to consumers, the fixture filings filed by Vivint are effectively liens, as they identify the consumer as a “debtor” and Vivint as a “secured party.” The 15 operative effect of these filings is to cloud title, creating substantial delays and difficulties in the sale or refinancing of real property. Consumers have been harmed by Vivint’s filings. The Defendant has filed hundreds of such filings against the real properties of consumers in multiple counties throughout New Mexico.
This accusation by the Attorney General is corroborated by multiple complaints on BBB.org. For example:
The lawsuit states that Vivint Solar’s door-to-door sales staff use electronic tablets to present the PPA contract to customers. The tablets are also used to get an e-signature on the contract from the customer. One of the key points in the lawsuit is that the customer never has an opportunity to read a paper version of the PPA, making it difficult to see important details such as the annual 2.9% price escalator.
One consumer noted that when agreeing to the Vivint contract, he was “never shown the full document.” Instead, the Vivint Sales Manager showed the consumer the first two pages of the contract on a tablet, then flipped to the last page to get the consumer’s signature agreeing to the contract. The consumer had no idea that the contract he signed consisted of more than those three pages and he was never provided with a physical copy of the contract or physical copies of the cancellation notice.
A final but important consideration when evaluating solar installers is to have an idea of the health of the company. Solar panels can be on your home for decades, and you want to have some assurance that the company that installs them will be around for many years to come.
Because of this, it’s been targeted by a short seller that is betting against the company. Their report, in addition to raising concerns about the company’s financial performance, also makes accusations of outright fraud, such as faking contracts to bolster their financial picture.
While this report (which Vivint vigorously denies) should be taken with a grain of salt because the short seller stands to gain financially if the company collapses, they do cite outside research, including the non-profit consumer organization Campaign for Accountability, which has an extensive investigation into the practices of certain solar companies, particularly Vivint and SolarCity.
The average Yelp review of Vivint Solar at their headquarters is 1.5 stars. Keep in mind that Vivint has multiple locations around the country, so be sure to check the Vivint Solar reviews nearest your location (if any exist).
While this is a pretty poor review average, there are a few customers who are happy with Vivint:
While there is a lot of negative feedback about Vivint Solar, there are definitely some customers who have been happy with their service. Be sure to do your own research, and always read and understand the contract in full before committing to a solar lease or PPA.
For more information about solar leases and PPAs, read our complete guide to solar financing.