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Renewable energy installers need help to up their game

Man installing solar panels

Recent Which? research backs up our own findings at Energy Saving Trust – renewable energy companies aren’t giving the best advice to consumers. But it’s not as straightforward as it seems…

The Which? report on renewable energy companies showed that eight out of 12 installers underestimated the time it would take to pay itself back and seven didn’t explain that part of the roof was in the shade.

While these results may be worrying, they’re not entirely unexpected.

Regulators under pressure

In the 13 months since feed-in tariffs became available, uptake of electricity-producing technologies has already surpassed the previous government grant scheme – the Low Carbon Building Programme – which ran for four years. This rapid growth has placed the market under pressure and brought an influx of existing tradesmen into the green sector.

As the supply chain scrambles to keep up, it’s fallen to two industry-backed and government-approved schemes to help regulate the market. The Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) sets industry standards for installers of small-scale renewables and the REAL Assurance Scheme covers all non-technical aspects of an installation, from pre-sale contact to post-installation services.

Our concern is that the rapid expansion of the small-scale renewable market has stretched the capabilities of both these schemes to safeguard the consumer against poor installation and customer service.

Better training is essential

It is also interesting to see that the Which? report echoes our own recent heat pump field trial report, which found that one critical aspect still to be addressed is training.

Throughout the UK, renewable energy training courses are on offer, designed to upskill existing plumbers and electricians in microgeneration technology installations. In the absence of a consistent standard, the quality of this training varies markedly, despite the work of organisations like SummitSkills, who are mapping current UK training courses to a National Occupational Standard.

It’s all too easy to blame the people installing the systems, but we found that installers themselves are concerned about the quality of training they receive. Training has tended to be manufacturer-led, rather than setting out an overview of the different setups for each microgeneration technology. Inevitably this leads to homeowners receiving inaccurate advice about the suitability or performance of a system.

We’re also worried about how installers are engaging with customers. The Which? report reveals instances where installers are using high-pressure sales techniques, something we hear through calls to our advice centres. This is strictly prohibited for any MCS-accredited installer, and yet it’s still happening.

How can the situation improve?

So what is the industry doing to put these wrongs right? We’re working with REAL Assurance scheme to safeguard customers at every stage. We will be publishing information on what information the installer should be providing, and how they’re expected to conduct their business activity.

We’re also working with industry stakeholders to develop agreed improvements to installation standards, based on empirical evidence. This industry-wide, government-backed, research-led standard has been recommended to the MCSBoard for immediate adoption.

For homeowners, we’ve developed a number of online tools and guidance materials to give homeowners who are considering an installation the information they need to make the best decision. The Energy Saving Trust cashback calculator, for example, calculates the expected performance of a system based on the householder’s data.

The Which? report points to clear lessons. As the small-scale renewable energy market grows at a phenomenal rate, it’s critical that industry works together to drive customer confidence and assurance. Installers and customers both need access to clear and impartial information, allowing them to make a balanced and informed choice of the right renewable energy for the right home.

Have you experienced any of the pushy sales tactics or misinformation highlighted here? Or have you had a good experience of solar PV companies? Are there lessons to be learnt from other growing industries?

Comments
Bob Clark says:
6 July 2011

Ref. Mike’s comments about the difficulty in getting in touch with his supplier and getting the FIT’s up and running, I was told by my installer to get in touch with my supplier SAP and not to wait until the system was installed, also to get on to a tarriff which was much more advantageous to having the Solar system. This I did and everything was arranged BEFORE the panels were fitted and it only took about 48hrs to get it “Up and Running”.

With regard to Stuart Green’s comments I feel all should note the vast improvement that is now on offer with regard to the pruductivity of Solar Panels. I note that he installed his in 2009 having 18 fitted to produce 2.88kw and I had 16 to produce 3.84kw. This figure can already be improved upon!! Check out and see what is available.

Barry Johnston says:
11 July 2011

I think that what consumers surely need is plenty of good clear information from the solar and renewables industry. But unfortunately, it seems that there is, to me, a glaring information deficit in two areas: on environmental performance and safety. Does it glare to you?

Finance / energy / carbon as triple currencies. While it is clearly valuable to get financial breakeven information, (Today FIT subsidised PV’s take only 10-12 years to pay for themselves, while the currently unsubsidised solar thermal panels can take at least four times as long) what about environmental payback? It is no big deal to conduct a “life cycle analysis” LCA of various typical microgeneration installations. This would then allow one to calculate how long, in normal use, your various candidate green technologies take to break even environmentally, at least in terms of the energy and carbon burdens that making (and ultimately recycling them, etc) imposes on the planet.

In solar water heating the industry is highly censorious about the fact that mains-electrically pumped solar water heating systems typically negate their annual carbon savings by over 20% because of the power their pumps consume, according to DTI and EST funded research. Solar suppliers are not required to tell you about this carbon clawback under MCS, whose rules they have written themselves. I know: I was there. Yes, I am from the solar industry.

And if heat pump suppliers were required to state their carbon impacts, compared to modern gas condensing boilers, then most would rank as similar, some better and some worse, if the recent EST heat pump performance report is to be relied on. Should these be subsidised at all in areas where people live on the mains gas grid?

The legionella safety cover-up. That’s a bit about environmental performance. Now, how about safety? As for legionella safety in particular, are consumers of solar water heating systems and heat pumps being consulted about increased risks in some green energy systems? No. (Legionella is a waterbourne bacterium which, if inhaled in suitable numbers, can kill 10-30% of those who are infected. Men, people who smoke, asthmatics on steroids and people who are immunosuppressed such as with HIV or organ transplants are most vulnerable. The bacteria can thrive in tepid water.)

Are consumers being told that their domestic solarthermal / heatpump installations usually do not comply with the HSE’s workplace guidance on Legionella, called L8, which aims to heat tepid water to 60C once a day? No.

Are they being offered systems which do comply with HSE guidance, as an option? No. They are NOT usually told that both “heat to base” cylinders and “thermal store” systems are safer.

Are most consumers being warned that typical “twin coil” solar cylinders and “twin coil” heat pump cylinders increase Legionella risks? This increase seems to be about tenfold? No. Most systems are just installed without saying anything about this. Only a few installers discuss a “Legionella safety hierarchy” at all. Are they being told that all “twin coil” cylinders have recently been de-listed by the UK’s safety quango, the Water Regulations Advisory Service? No. It’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” for many solar installers. They just keep on fitting the things.

Are consumers with twin coil cylinders being told by industry regulators, MCS and the REAL Consumer Code, whether they are actually entitled to get a free legionella safety upgrade from their installer? No. UK’s industry-led bodies have been prevaricating on this question for years.

Perhaps a “free legionella upgrade test case” with Trading Standards is needed?

The silence is deafening. Of course the industry has been active covering up and even threatening whistleblowers, I can show you an email threatening to “take action” if I made “any mention” of either legionella or carbon performance because it would “reduce sales”. It came from David Matthews, the past Chief Executive of the Solar Trade Association. David Matthews is now Chief Executive of a heap pump trade body. (And yes, some highly placed, industry gentlemen did “take action”.)

I have explained why I think there is a glaring information deficit in (a) environmental performance and (b) legionella safety. Does it glare to you, UK’s microgeneration consumers? You are who really matter, not some small, opaque, coercive industry.

For telling you about these concealments, I now expect to be blackballed by the industry and summarily thrown off the MCS solar thermal committee so PLEASE pass this news on to others, in order to make my disclosure of these cover-ups worthwhile.

Maybe take a look at youtube, where I have posted one video on consumer information and a few on legionella in solar heating.

[Hello Barry, we have removed the final paragraph from your comment. Thanks, mods.]

dolly mac says:
12 July 2011

I have just sent a rep from SolarKing away with a flea in his ear as I had done my homework and seen the Which video on pressure and misleading selling of solar panels. My suspicions arose first when I was asked to quote a ref number by John who first contacted me. I was told I could get 20% off if I agreed to give SolarKing regular meter readings.This rep wanted to give us a 20min presentation on a computer, and thendo a “quick survey”. I believe this contravenes the Code drawn up to protect consumers, as illustrated in the ‘Which’ video, outlining sales techniques employed by rogue sellers. Buyer, beware!

Many articles mention that thin film amorphous panels are less efficient in terms of kilowatts per sq meter, but can be cheaper in terms of £ per kw with the added benefit of being more efficient in shaded locations and on dull days.

However it is almost impossible to find any product info on them or an installer who uses them as they are mainly used on commercial installations.

It would be useful if Which? could provide more information on the availability of this technology for the domestic market.

Has anyone considered whether the performance warranties that are given to the panels are actually worth anything. I have been perusing the warranties of Sharp, Sanyo and Suntech. The common theme is that you have to prove the panels are defective. The manufacturer will then usually only guarantee the panel itself not pay for the cost of proving the claim, removal of the panels and re-installation. The Sharp guarantee also referred to making a 4% depreciation charge for each year you have had the panel – this implies after 25 yrs no value left in the panel although they certify 80% performance at year 25. On top of that you have to communicate with their head office ie Germany or China/America. Both Sanyo and Sharp warranties are subject to German law not UK law so if you get into dispute you have no hope – it can be difficult knowing your rights in the UK let alone Germany.

Has anyone considered the decommissioning costs. If a panel has 25 year life and you sell your property year 20 a purchaser would want to know what these will be. At the end of 25 year the FIT will be no more and I doubt the energy cost saved will outweigh replacement inverter or possible total removal of the system – there will presumably be degradation of the mounting system as well as the panels.

Taking into account the above i am going off the idea of having solar panels installed on my roof.

richard Jones says:
4 October 2011

We had a sales guy from Solalec in Burnley around. It took us two hours to get rid of him in which time his price for a 4kwp system dropped from £22000 down to £14000 if we signed immediatly.He also claimed there would be no output rediction on a west facing roof,sometning I knew was not true. The experience put us off completely,the whole thing was like the KIrkby vauum cleaner salesmen we were plagued with a few years ago

Raysalarf says:
6 October 2011

Ok lets try this. I go out to buy say 10 panels to get my electric bills reduced to nothing but nowhere can I find anyone company willing to supply a conformance test certificate of each individual panel. All one can find is an overal performance. Now this means one or even the whole 10 panels could be below spec but you would not know that and you would still get them assembled into place and be none the wiser.
As it is a performing item then I would assume a individual test performance cert would tell us what is going on within that panel and one could check at a later date if it was going down the tube.
Maybe its something that should be introduced.

Pete england says:
6 October 2011

Why are you concerned about one of the components is a solar system when you will have a warranty for the entire system from your Mcs installer.
Pv solar uk has a 10 system warranty using sharp panels which have a 5 year product warranty.

Like a car, a pv solar system relies on all of it’s components to get the best out of the entire product. It makes sense for us all to generate energy in a sustainable way.

My pv solar uk system is doing just that and I have the generation statistics to prove it worth the expenditure.

Pete

Raysalarf says:
7 October 2011

Thats fine, but your missing the whole point. Ask yourself this, could my system be performing better than what is if i knew the performance of individual panels. If the panels supplied are on the low side in suppling electricity then you will not know that. Yes collectively they produce an overall figure but you dont know what it should be. In your own words your system has only a 5 year product warranty I wonder why that is considering they should last 25 years.
So I could buy ten panels from the same producer and get a better overall performance than you, is that right and fair because we dont know what each panel is doing. Would you buy a new car if 3 of the 4 pistons were below par?

Pete england says:
7 October 2011

When was the last time you checked the performance of your pistons.
If you have an issue with the car you take it back to the dealer.
When you buy a solar system you contact your mcs installer.
If is best qualified to inform you what is happening.

2 solar systems of the same specified are unlikely to produce the same results because they rely on light. You would need to do the test on adjust identical houses to get a good compassion.

A 5 year panel warranty is reasonable. Panels aren’t the most expensive component on the system and can be replaced. Technology will improve over the 25 years fit payment so I may update my panels over time. I do renew my car every so often so why not update the panels.

Raysalarf says:
7 October 2011

Hi Pete, lets digs holes

When was the last time you checked the performance of your pistons. I used to do a pressure check every three weeks as it was a classic
If you have an issue with the car you take it back to the dealer. and go around in circles
When you buy a solar system you contact your mcs installer.
If is best qualified to inform you what is happening.*************** Really wouldnt trust them unless I personannly knew the guy
. Remember they are there to make money…our money*******************

2 solar systems of the same specified are unlikely to produce the same results because they rely on light. You would need to do the test on adjust identical houses to get a good compassion.
*********************************************Once installed on a house yes one would get a different reading against another one. But im talking about what the panel achieves after production and gets tested. It must be tested to get past what the company says it should do so why cant we have a certificate to say what that panel has achieved on test. a reasonable request to my mind.

A 5 year panel warranty is reasonable. Panels aren’t the most expensive component on the system and can be replaced. *************************************Your right the Inverter is and it might be better buying another in 5 years as a spare.
Technology will improve over the 25 years fit payment so I may update my panels over time.
I do renew my car every so often so why not update the panels***************************
I dont buy new cars as one needs technology equipemnt to set them up and modern garages dont know the difference between points in a distributor and a feeler gauge.
Have a good weekend

mrsolar says:
21 November 2011

Saw an ad today when googling – ‘Still 12% returns with 21p tariff’. I went to it and input details for a quote. It gave me 8% (4.39% AER) and a payback of 11y 8m.
They assume electricity prices will rise at 9% pa compound for 25 years and an RPI (for the FIT increase) of 3.584%. The payback period does not allow for a comparison of the amount the original capital could have been if it had been invested elsewhere instead.
If they were a financial firm, they would not be allowed to quote like this, I think that the 8% is particularly misleading. Furthermore, the figures for RPI and electricity price increase should be standardised.
Surely the DECC should set figures for such matters and require all firms to adhere to them – I’m thinking RPI, electricity price increase and investment rate. They should standardise the calculation – maybe in line with the EST site’s assumptions (although I think they should include reinvestment of the gains for a fair comparison).
I believe Which? should campaign for this as well, otherwise consumers could be very badly mislead!

What hasn’t been considered by consumers after DECC has decreased the Feed in Tariff to 21p, is that for the Solar industry to survive prices will have to reduce. We have already seen Solar panel prices come down in the past year as the large number of new companies compete for business, however I’m sure prices will need to come down even more next year. This will mean UK companies manufacturing panels will reduce costs and UK jobs will go, just to compete with overseas imports. I understand the Sharp factory is Wales will loose 50% of its workforce. Some in the industry say up to 20,000 UK jobs will be lost in the coming months, however the return of 8% to 12% will be maintained making PV Solar UK system an attractive environmentally friendly investment, which is still double that of any high street ISA. Our PV Solar investment is working for us. so can only suggest that you get a quote from PV SolarUK http://freeelectricity4u.co.uk/ who seem to be one company that is on the ball and can back up its estimates with actual results.

Hello Mr Solar

Which? has been looking into how solar panels compare with more traditional investment plans. You can read more in our ‘Is solar PV a good investment’ online guide: http://www.which.co.uk/energy/creating-an-energy-saving-home/guides/how-to-buy-solar-panels/is-solar-pv-a-good-investment/.
We take the example of a cash Isa and also look at the option of reinvesting the money made yearly by the FIT into a cash Isa.
Sylvia

Sylvia

Perhap’s Which could revise the document which reflect the latest prices to give consumers a better view on their investment oppertunities.

PV Solar Panel Installation prices have dropped since teh 3rd March.. a 3 KWP system can now be purchased from £5495 incl VAT. Many companies will install for below £8500 and will out perform the SAP calculation. After 25 years and deducting the cost of the system, and a 3% increase in electric prices yout total investment could be around £16,000 at the current 21p feed in rate.

I dont believe you have taken into account a rise in energy prices in your calculation , as the return is made up of the FIT, Energy generation and savings on what you use in the day. We estimate we are saving 33% on our electric bill by using the appliances during the day. ie dish washer, dryer and washing machine. This alone amounts to over £300 per year.

Perhaps you could provide a more detailed breakdown of how you calculated the figures on your paper.

Regards
Pete

We saw a solar company in 1987 in Sunningdale working on solar tubes the water was very hot then, so when we came to buy our solar panels we checked in Which Magazine to see if they were still going. We saw that Schott panels were about the best, even if they were expensive, but is our ROOF we are talking about.
You were right the reading for the first year was 1349 and 1167 for the 2nd year.and 1027 on only 6 panels, far higher than was expected. is this weather pattern deteriorating or perhaps we should think of cleaning them.
But we think the idea of using a Cash ISA brilliant reducing the payback time.
Yes we also use electricity during the day to maximize on the investment, and try to use only one piece of equipment at a time.

Pete says:
10 April 2013

Ellen

On the figures you have given above I would be alittle concerned about your deteriorating system. Loosing 11% in a year is a lot. I would expect your system/panels to loose about 8-10 units a year (according Schott clain of 90% of their original performance over 25 years), so the system may be breaking down in other ways.. ie. connections or the inverter. I dont live that far from Sunningdale (within 35 miles) and our system has produced more in 2nd year than it did in first year, so unless you had more cloud than we did, then it may be worth getting it checked out by your solar installer. You should be covered by a 5 or 10 warrenty on product.

Getting the window cleaner to wash the panels is a reasonable idea, especially if you are under any shade. You dont want moss on the panels.

Have any trees grown within 20 metres of the property other the last two years?. Or new build? Check on google maps.. for roof photos..

Pete

Pete

Raysalarf says:
23 November 2011

Question: One buys a system, it might be one or 10 off panels,but they all have to be tested and passed by the manufacturer, so why cannot a test certificate be supplied for each indicvidual panel as to what it achieved on test.

Energy Saving Products.

Can anyone recommend or provide more information on the intelligent boiler controls systems called ‘Energy Minder’ or ‘Kli-mat’ which say Save money on your heating bill.

The Energy Minder:
• Is easy to use
• Provides central heating savings of *20%
• No new plumbing required
• Works with your existing boiler controls
• Reacts to changes in temperature
• Reduces fuel consumption by making your existing boiler more efficient
• Reduces your greenhouse gas emissions
• Reduces your carbon footprint
• Works with oil/gas fired combi, condensing & back boilers
• Let us install it for you or DIY installation available
• Energy Saving Trust ‘Recommended’

Eco Energy Controls Ltd Kli-Mat« 2007 Full ProgrammerK2007™ is the fully automatic, self -adjusting, maintenance free, Intelligent Electronic Central Heating Control for “wet” systems. The Kli-Mat® K2007™ Intelligent Control will enhance the performance of all types of “wet” central heating systems currently in operation that use gas, LPG, domestic fuel oil or electricity regardless of their age and significantly reduce the amount of fuel currently used by any of them in order to generate a comparable amount of warmth and stored domestic hot water.

Do these products really work and do you have any evidence theye save you cash?

Klimat is a fantastic energy saving control! we had ours fitted into a small gas centrally heated bungalow (electric cooking) so the energy used is only for central heating. We were always too cold, when Klimat Intelligent Central Heating Control was fitted in 2008 , we saved immediately 25% on our monthly bill which reduced to £17. per month. April 2013 it has just been put up to £28. per month. We always have the bungalow really toasty warm now. I kept the figures for units used. and before because we kept the bills. details noted from March every year 2005 -262 units, 2006 -202 units (we were away for all of January) 2007- 238 units Klimat fitted June 2008) 2008 -192 units 2009 -163 units.
You don’t have to fiddle with the controls at all, even at -15 degrees outside.
If we go out shopping or go away just press the unoccupied button. if we stay in just press another to reverse the set times. If you feel poorly and want extra heat press another and 20 minutes of extra heat is pumped out. Absolutely brilliant engineering. It can control oil, gas and electric wet central heating.

Pete
Yes Eco Energy Controls Ltd Kli-mat K2007 does do what is says on the tin.
Its brilliant have lots of evidence to prove its worth, and live in a very cosy home thank to having one fitted.

Pete says:
8 April 2013

Thanks Ellen

I would like to know more about the units saved..

Reference.
. I kept the figures for units used. and before because we kept the bills. details noted from March every year 2005 -262 units, 2006 -202 units (we were away for all of January) 2007- 238 units Klimat fitted June 2008) 2008 -192 units 2009 -163 units. Are these dial Units or KWH.

We use approximately 1800 dial units each year, but 86% of gas used in in winter months so are you saving £17 in summer months as weel. My Total bill is about £900 so saving £225 (25%) is a large sum which means a two year pay back (including install) at £395 .

What boiler and bolier type do have?

Pete

Pete these are dial units, but I still have the gas bills.
We don’t use any gas in the summer at all.
We have an Ariston Combi Boiler fitted about 12 years ago.

We had 6 Solar Panels fitted and pay back for that is 12 years only thanks to the FIT’s and the initial grant , so Klimat has a much better return. and gives us a much more comfortable heat to live in.
We feel we are making quite an impact on fuel reduction.

We still take daily readings so have the figures but not in any format if that is of any interest.

Jame farley says:
19 July 2012

They are honestly a massive marketing scam!

I had a door sales person give me the best advice and support on what massive improvements it could make, how it will benefit me and how its a win win investment. But after the sale was complete i only received part of the project, sales person never picks up they’re phone and Scottish head office who are useless in dealing with any inquiries and customer problems.

DO NOT fall for any door to door sales schemes. You will find your self into massive debt.

you don’t say what product or Company you are talking about

Pete says:
8 April 2013

Ellen

Thanks for this information, we are in two minds on whether to replace our 10 year boiler or add a Kilmat or Energy Minder to the system. The Kilmat is a little more expensive but its the 1st data I’ve seen on the product. So your annual savings are about £136 (active for 8 months of year saving £17 per month) which make a 3 year payback.

Your solar panels are a good investment, payback may be 12 years presuming you have included the cost of a new inventer after 10 years.. Which means 13 years of interest free FIT and free electric when prices are likely to rise by 7% to 9% in coming years. Great move!

I’m considering installing a optimmersion which diverts free solar electric to the immersion heater when the surplus solar power in available. If anyone has one installed I would be interested in hearing from them. I expecting payback will be 3 years, for cost of £414..

If you are interested, I will offer you a free trial of a energyEgg, you just need to contact me under Lovat web site. Its a home sensor that turns the appliance off if there is no movement in the room. Saves all that otherwise wasted electric.. (The offer applies to anyone who gives me information on energy saving products available today)

Pete

Pete thanks for doing the maths, and for pointing out the possible replacement convertor we didnt take that in I guess. an optimmersion sounds good only we don’t have a tank now.

I love gadgets and the energyEgg sounds perfect for a family home.

We think it would be worth your while looking at installing a Klimat it will bring your older boiler to a maximum energy savings level, and easy to use, with lots of useful aspects. We are told to replace boilers because they don’t last more than 15 years apparently.(why change if it is still working) when your boiler does eventually have to be replaced then Klimat will be there to control your next boiler, which only needs to be a basic one. Why buy and expensive boiler and throw away the controls after 15 years or less.

Apart from being really intelligent, using data which is continually reviewing your usage, and keeping you really warm in an even temperature, so that you don’t notice any changes. whether the outside temperature is 7 degrees or -7 degrees and will switch on if the temperature inside drops below a chosen level, ours is 12 degrees, it could be 14 degrees or any other.
But looking at a clock in the early hours with a temperature reading on(yes we must be fanatics) and it hasnt dropped below 16 yet when in minus degrees outside
My particular favourite is seeing what the temperature is outside and inside, in the morning so know what clothes to put on. Our boiler was never programmed it was too complicated, so we continue that approach with our Klimat fine tuning it to our own particular lifestyle maximizing the energy use in our home.

David says:
9 January 2014

just received an advertisement from a Nottingham company saying they will install for free wall/loft installation from a government grant is this true

Aren’t solar panels a total waste of money?. My EPC says if I spend £14,000 on solar panels I could save £268 per year. Where is the sense in that? I doubt whether they would last more than 10-15 years anyway!

gary whapples says:
25 April 2016

Hi Alan. Your epc is way out ! Spend £5k and benefit £600 + rpi a year for 20 years.