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Solar PV companies – we’ll keep pushing you to improve

Man fitting solar panels

Our investigation into the quality of advice and quotes provided by solar PV companies showed just how much the industry needs to improve. So, how did companies respond – and has anything happened since then?

The Energy Saving Trust’s Philip Sellwood started a conversation responding to our investigation – and got lots of people talking.

The issues the investigation brought to light showed us that there was a role for Which? in getting things improved.

Holding solar PV companies to account

So, as soon as the investigation was published, we got to work talking to the companies investigated and the governance bodies in the solar sector about how they can improve their services – and ensure future customers don’t fall foul of solar cowboys.

We wrote to all the companies we investigated to explain our findings and suggest areas where we thought things needed to change. It’s always interesting to see how industry reacts to an investigation. There are some companies, like Freesource Energy, which take the issue really seriously and do everything they can to ensure problems don’t happen in the future. But then there are others who never respond to our findings.

In addition to the action taken by Freesource Energy, Evo Energy has updated its staff training and customer advice. The two companies our investigation found in breach of the REAL consumer code, have been referred to the REAL non-compliance panel.

Skyline Solar has invested in new technical training, changed energy performance software to include the cost of replacing the inverter and more. GreenSun has said that they will be working within the guidelines set out in the Which? checklist.

Our solar PV checklist

A key issue in the investigation was the lack of quality advice and information being provided by the companies we investigated. So we came up with a solar PV checklist in collaboration with governance bodies, industry and other specialist organisations. The aim is to provide consumers with upfront advice about what to expect from a solar PV company visit and to encourage companies to use it when they’re selling and to ultimately give consumers a better service.

The checklist will show consumers what they should expect pre-visit, during the visit of a solar PV company and things to check and ask after the visit.

Freesource, Evo Energy, Skyline Solar, Solar PV Power and Green Sun have all agreed to use the checklist. But still no word from Anglian, Sainsburys, Homebase, Solar 4 Us, Green Home Company, Ecofirst.

Influential industry reps like REAL, the BPVA, MCS and some certification bodies have agreed to put the checklist on their website and recommend that their members use it.

The checklist is due to go live later in the month and we hope that consumers and industry alike will find it useful. But that’s not the end of our work on solar PV. We’ll continue to work with industry to improve the consumer experience and we’ll also be pushing the government on filling the gaps we identified in their microgeneration strategy.

Have you had problems with solar PV sales – and do you think our checklist is a good start to improving the situation? What would you like to see companies doing more (or less) of to give consumers better information and service?

Comments

Have received 6 quotes so far and am still learning.

SolarFusion Limited I discovered are not REAL or MCS registered and have provided me with the worst sales experience so far. Very reminiscent of all the worst in home double glazing style sales techniques. I found EvoEnergy very professional. The home visit was more focused on the technical side with sales and contract details being undertaken from the office – but no pressure. The best experience so far delivered by SolarEssence. Sales and all technical aspects delivered by a knowledgeble sales technician. All facts and no pressure.

Jury still out re decision on the best system. More homework still needed but with confidence that I can continue to bounce questions off the reps that called to see me.

Experience much better than I feared so far.

JacyEcy says:
1 October 2011

We also had a visit from SolarFusion. They quoted almost £30,000 first then offered to reduce it in a series of steps over several days eventually getting to about £13,000. We had to sign on the spot to get the first discount down from the original £30,000. We asked about MCS because without it, we believed we could not get the FIT or export tariff but they assured us that although the company was not MCS, all of their installers were.

We asked for another quote from a small local company, no pressure at all from them and a straight quote of £10,500. They are MCS and REAL.

Angelmum says:
24 September 2011

I too got nearly bounced into buying a system from an unregistered provider who came to me with really heavy sales pressure. They were catching you in Homebase and asking if you were interested in generating your own energy etc but the salesman who came to house had a shamefully sketchy glossy brochure with no figures in it. He did do some calculations to show me my projected energy costs but these were on his own pad and not given to me at the end of the talk. I wised up, cancelled the contract after he left and took the recommendation of a friend for a local company who had diversified from guttering into solar. They were fantastically open and refused to take a deposit etc, did the work exactly when they said and I have no complaints. So far have saved over 3 tonnes of CO2.

I have been trying to find an installer of amorphous thin-film PV systems which are the best type for poor light conditions and for installing on my flat roof.
None of the installers I have looked at seem to offer these although there is lots of “news” items on the internet on the use of these in commercial buildings.

Gill says:
5 October 2011

I had a visit from a company called Solarworx who said that they can supply amorphous PV. They are based in Huddersfield.

Or, you could realise that solar panels on your roof don’t help reduce emissions and that all you’re doing is taking money out of the state’s pocket to line your own.

Solar panels only produce power when the sun shines, as our oeak energy consumption is between 5 and 8pm solar doesn’t help us and can’t help us until we either find a way to get power stations to produce less power at off peak times (otherwise much of the energy they produce at midday and during the night is wasted) or store power.

If you really want to reduce CO2 emissions or reduce consumption get some solar hot water panels or a heat pump and cut the gas you use.

Unfortunately this solar and wind energy solution peddled by the EU is a farce.

Not quite sure where Adam is coming from on the technical side. If solar power is generated during the day, even when demand is low, do not worry, the power will be used. Somewhere, a fossil fuel-powered station (probably gas-powered) will drop its output by the same amount. The energy will not simply be wasted as Adam implies.
It’s a legitimate point that solar tends to be produced when demand is relatively low, but that’s no problem as long as the country has enough quick-start gas stations and pump-storage capacity to deal with the peaks and troughs of supply and demand. Solar PV CERTAINLY is worth doing.

Nigel says:
3 October 2011

Adam
You are largely correct, it all depends where you start from, do you take into account the carbon producing the equipment, transporting it, marketing it, installing it, replacing it after say 5/8 years
if you do then save your money! Buy a good vest or move to a country that has sunshine, if only the U.K. was surrounded by tidal waters that are destined to go in and out at a predictable time for the next 100,000 years its free and none polluting. Few other countries in the World have the geography and technology to exploit it, I think this free energy would power the next industrial phase and is one if not the only USP the UK has.

Nigel

Adam/ Nigel. Sorry chaps, but if you do not require energy from the grid to power your home plus, you also supply energy to the grid which they do not need to generate then you save on emissions. Plus the system you have installed will only need to be installed once. Why you would need to replace something guaranteed for 25 years at 5/8 years I do not understand at all, unless you are talking about inverters which only generally get a 5 year manufacturer’s guarantee, (the company I work for will give an extended warranty on that item at no charge) and you can (I believe) if you wish, with the major manufacturers get a 20-25 year extension to their guarantee. So 5/8 years is not actually correct. Hope this is useful.

AndyR says:
10 October 2011

Your not taking money from the state by installing PV and getting the FIT – the money for the FIT comes from everyone else who buys electricity from the same electricity supplier that you are registered with – thus you put up your neighbours and your own pence per unit. the more people who have PV installed the more electricity will cost. Eventually it will cost more per unit than the FIT and although at that point you will get some cheap electricity (when the sun shines) you will have a device on your roof that makes your house less attractive to buyers – and don’t forget you have to get the inverter replaced about every 10 years!!!

Gordon Martin says:
30 September 2011

We have bought solar panels from BritishEco – mainly because their salesperson obviously knew what he was talking about – I have the advantage of a modicum of scientific knowledge which helped with discussions – at no point did we feel put under pressure to buy. As we live in southern Scotland they also did not offer unrealistic ‘likely’ generation results. We did not have quite the same experience with other companies…

Our experience, post-sale, with this company has, to date, been as good as I would have hoped – they still answer every question I have very quickly and are as helpful as they were pre-sale.

It may be a little “sad” but there are few greater delights than seeing electricity being generated “for free”!

I would like to pint an error in Adams post above. Payment is not made by the govt, rather it is made by whichever utility company supplies your night time electricity.

Infact, if more people had solar panels and had enough roof space for an up to 4kwh system we would not need to build anymore nuclear power stations. Fossil fuel will run out in the next 25 yrs and solar power is definately the right way forward.

I am sorry if you had a negative experience with a salesman. You should report the incident to REAL who may well remove the offending companies licence to trade in solar PV.

Rowina says:
30 September 2011

E-on are offering a panel for £99 to existing customers – is this something I should take up?

Yvonne says:
30 September 2011

I understand this is a “rent a roof” offer and I have been told that if you wish to sell your house in the future that you are unlikely to get a mortgage as the roof is rented out to the energy company.

IEC Connect Ltd installed 21 PV panels on my roof late last year. I had invited 2 other companies to quote, but I seemed to know more about Solar PV than they did. The IEC team came to the house discussed the installation and no real sales pressure was ever employed.

When I agreed to them doing the installation the team pitched up on time and completed a very good installation within a couple of days. They were all well trained, qualified and really tidy; cleaning up after themselves. The head office even assisted getting my electricity provider to pay the FIT Tariffs as they were dragging their heels. There was one very minor problem with the installation and that was fixed within a couple of days. I have not been paid to write this and I am not on a bonus scheme for recommending them to others as was offered by other companies.

This is a good company worth a call if you are considering installing Solar PV. Call them and judge for yourself.

Gordon Martin says:
30 September 2011

Hi Rowina

As I don’t know the full facts of this or your own financial position – which is of course none of my business – all I can say is that I view Eon as a commercial company whose business, (like all businesses), is simply to make money for the owners/shareholders.

It therefore seems unlikely to me that they are offering something that will benefit you in the same way as – far less more than – them.

Best wishes,

Gordon

Gordon Martin says:
30 September 2011

Excellent email from Don Bruce which reminded me of a few things I should perhaps have said in my email:

Our 18 panels (2 rows of 9 – with an estimated max. 3.68kw output) were fitted in one day to our roughly SSE-facing bungalow with no problems and the fitters were a real pleasure to work with.

I have NO commercial connections with the company I mentioned and I would be happy to send anyone who is interested a copy of a photo of the solar panels on our roof and a link for them to see the current weather and historic output of our solar panels. I’m still working on a “real-time” solar output graph but haven’t quite managed that yet. If anyone can help with that I’d be delighted to hear from them..

Most of you, I would imagine, live further south than central Scotland so might expect better results….

newt says:
28 October 2011

hello, gordon-would be vey interested in any info you can provide-also live in central scotland-regards

P Davies says:
30 September 2011

I had solar panels fitted on 15 August. Can anyone explain why from day one the total on the inverter has been 2 1/2% higher than on the meter?

I had one of the worst sales meeting experiences ever with a person from PV Solar based in Cardiff. It left me with massive reservations about this company. We had first been approached by Eon but they were too hands off (with a lousy sales process) and as it turned out, very expensive indeed.

We are taking the view that this will be a Savings Bond that guarantees a very good return (it just happens that it will be be bolted to our roof instead of sitting in a bank) and that we will get extra financial benefits especially as fuel prices inflate. So Adam is right – cynical financial criteria rule; actually the investment really is a no brainer..

So I then searched for MCS and REAL approved companies and shortlisted three companies. One national, one regional and a local. All 3 were very impressive, professional and provided objective advice – and choices including almost identical configurations. Two quoted within £500 of each other, the third was way over the top at £5,000 more. With all three, for a 4KW installation, we had the choice of roof panels over a large area or a smaller installation at a higher price.
We were very impressed by BCL Energy of Cheltenham, but have selected the local company, Stratford Energy Solutions; installation due within 3 weeks..

D.Johnson says:
30 September 2011

We had one visit from a solar pv supplier but the salesman just read from a flip over fact sheet and spent ages working out figures in silence. He showed no enthusiasm for his job whatsoever. I think that it was one of the companies that you checked but I can’t remember the exact name so I won’t mention it. He suggested a relatively small installation for £16,000 on one roof only (We have an E/W facing double roof). We said ‘No’ but it got us interested so we researched solar pv installation and liked the idea.
Since then we have found a local firm with a first class website – Spirit Solar. Their representative called and was very knowledgeable. In fact I had the ‘Which’ magazine checklist in front of me and he fulfilled every point on it. He suggested a split roof system of 4KW for £14,700. This we have accepted and the system is being installed next week. Every communication that we have had from this company has been first class and I have no reason to expect anything less from the installation. If it is not I will definitely let you know.

I work in the industry and therefore have an axe to grind! P Davies said, “Can anyone explain why from day one the total on the inverter has been 2 1/2% higher than on the meter?” Answer, contact your installer and have them check the inverter to meter link. If there is a huge distance between them you may be loosing some current through ‘bleeding’, but 2.5% seems high.

Real Assurance who are supposed to govern the industry are basically not as on the ball as they should be. I have run into cases of high pressure sales techniques more than once and considering that companies are supposed to be mystery shopped and audited I often wonder how some companies are allowed to trade!

Rent a roof. Don’t do it. Which? did an article a few months back about this. Read it.

Panel size, people seem to be more worried about how many, rather than power output! If you are using 250watt modules you know 16 is 4Kw. Module output is the important thing. Also remember that all suppliers are supposed to use SAP 2009 to calculate everything from how much energy you create to how much money you could earn. Oh and finally, Learn to think outside the box on your power usage, With cleaver use op your power you can make the government figures look small, but it is up to you.

P Davies says:
30 September 2011

Thanks Dave for giving me a reason for the discrepancy. I had already contacted the installer but I had not received a reply. I have now contacted them again by e-mail and hope to have a response to the infromation you gave me. Thanks again.

Jon Grant says:
30 September 2011

Hello. Could you add the checklist to the article? I can’t find it on this page.

Thanks, Jon

Hi Jon,

the checklist is now live and can be downloaded from http://www.which.co.uk/solarcheck

Jo

David Marks says:
30 September 2011

Interesting article and I’m glad someone is pushing for more openess and clarification before the flood gates open, which they surely must as energy costs rise and rise.
One thing I think should be made clear is that if PVs are not installed by an Accredited company, the Feed in Tariffs are not available! However, because a company is Accredited does not mean they are ‘good’ as your article seems to point out.
Would it be possibel for Which? to give some idea of costs and areas required, as people will find that PVs are discussed in kW Peak, which will mean little to most people. Generaaly 1kW Peak takes up around 10m2, but I suspect that can vary depending on quality.
I would recommend that people go for PVs rather than just Solar Thermal Panels, especiall as there are very good Feed in Tariffs at the moment, which I understand will change next year.
Another point, in most instances, scaffold will need to be erected, check that you are not being ripped off on that, get a quote from a couple of local scaffold companies.
I see people are talking about 4kW Peak being installed, that is over the maximum that the government pay FiTs on from what I have been told.

Actually top class companies should include everything in the quotation for you, the company I work for does.
As for the floodgates being open, too late, they’ve been widening since April 2010. When FiT started there was about 100-150 companies now there are thousands! If you want to purchase Solar PV peace of mind is important, you are after all making a 25 year investment and you need to know that the company you deal with will be around in 5 let alone 25 years.
Check companies by going to the MCS web site, looking up the company you want and clicking on the name, that will throw up the date that the company was registered for PV. As for companies who sell PV but are not registered but get registered installers to do the work, remember this, Who will you call if something goes wrong?? Coz you know what will happen!

Roger Fletcher says:
30 September 2011

I bought a thermal panel from Solar Twin in 2006, and it has worked well. This year they contacted me again with tips about looking after my panel. They also told me they now sell PV, which I had been considering (but had not found a company I was satisfied with). I have now had them install PV and it seems OK. I have a certain amount of faith in them, as the thermal panel worked so well and they were business-like about it.

Gary Snow says:
30 September 2011

Just had Solar Panels fitted by Solar Panel Installers, they’re not on the Which? list of studied companies but I’d just thought I’d let everyone know that they were top notch from start to finish, no pressure, offering advice and guidance, all of which was backed up by what I had read in Which? magazines and the installers themselves were very good. Recommend them to anyone.

Jeff says:
1 October 2011

I am 18 years retired now, during this time I was studying with open University, Physics, Space and Cosmology and to make up the required Credit points for Hons degree, I took up Nanotechnology module. It was extremely interesting, and so I learnt PV junctions and so on. Later I saw an advert a US company ENECO had developed PV technology which was 15 times more efficient in converting using PV cells. I bought some shares before IPO. The company and their promoters in UK were genuine. But they folded up due to funding problem. The company had several scientists from top US universities in their design team.
Anyway I believe this technology will revive and I am just waiting for new developments, before I sign up to solar power.

By the time you sign up Jeff, there will be no feed in tariff left to get paid from! It finishes in about 4 years! Oh and as for the review of FiTs that I keep hearing is being undertaken in April 2012, suggest you all look at the Energy Savings Trust Website (Much clearer than the DoECC), the review is being done now, results due end of this year, recommendations if force April 2012, UNLESS they find something really nasty in which case they will have to bring changes forward! Judging by the departmental reviews that the government have undertaken so far you’ll guess which result my money is on! (But there again I work in the industry so I would say that wouldn’t I?).

Sharon says:
3 October 2011

What is a good solar panel to buy? I’ve been looking but there is not unbiast information of which is a good value for money panel.

I’ve never counted the manufacturers but would guess at about 200. You either go for a ‘name’ like Sharp, Sanyo, Bosch, Shuco etc or you go for a less well known company perhaps Kinve or Caymax. Try to choose an ‘in house’ manufacturer not one that buys in and assembles. Then you can’t go too far wrong. Ah well off to work now, have fun.