Solar scams are becoming more common across the country


What you need to know to keep from winding up on the losing end

During the last several years, energy rates have increased by as much as 70% in some places. It’s been a slow build – like cents at a time – and one that most consumers don’t pay much of a concern to, but scammers have.

Scammers are now using that rise in utility prices and the increasing popularity of solar energy as a sustainable and cost-saving option to launch a solar scam spree.

Multiple warnings and alerts have been issued by utility companies, state contractors boards, and consumer protection agencies such as Colorado Springs Utilities, the Nevada State Contractors Board, and local authorities in Salem, Mass., and Pueblo, Colo. 

These scams usually feature untrue claims about cost savings, the benefits of installing solar panels, partnerships with cities, significant cost reductions on energy bills, and false promises of rebates and government incentives and are more often than not, pitched to seniors and vulnerable community members

Take it from someone who got hit

In a guest opinion piece to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Stuart Ungar said that he recently spotted a guy in a yellow vest knocking on a neighbor’s door. “He was talking loud enough so that I could hear: He was trying to sell my neighbor a rooftop solar system. I was tempted to butt in, but kept on walking,” Ungar wrote.

Ungar felt he had good reason to butt in because he was once on the wrong end of a solar pitch gone wrong.

“Homeowners, armed sometimes with little to no knowledge about the solar industry, are easy prey. I should know as about a dozen years ago I had solar panels installed on my roof by a company that offered me the best price,” he said.

“But when I had an issue with some panels not working, the installer wasn’t available to diagnose or remedy the problem. I had to have another solar installer climb up on the roof and fix the issue—it ended up being a rascally raccoon that bit through some of the wiring—a relatively easy fix. It is no surprise to me that my initial installer is now out of business.”

“Unfortunately, door-to-door solar scams are prevalent in many states — not just Kentucky,” ConsumerAffairs solar staff writer Kathryn Parkman said “Sometimes scammers promise big savings without giving a realistic assessment of the homeowner’s property. Others have been accused of promising significant tax breaks, sign-up bonuses or other incentives that don’t really apply. You have to watch out for high-pressure sales tactics in general.”

Watch your back

Parkman recommends that to protect against these scams, consumers are advised to obtain multiple bids, conduct thorough research, and verify the legitimacy of contractors and their claims. She offers these basic rules on how to check out a contractor before you hire them:

Verify their license: Check with your state or local licensing board to confirm the contractor possesses a valid license for the type of work you need.

Confirm Insurance Coverage: Ensure the contractor has general liability insurance and workers' compensation insurance and request certificates of insurance as proof and verify directly with the insurance company that the policies are active.

Check Online Reviews: Look at review platforms like Google Reviews, Yelp, ConsumerAffairs, and Angie's List.

Verify claims: “It’s so important to thoroughly research and verify claims made by sales teams before making a decision,” Parkman said. “Use NREL’s PVWatts Calculator to estimate how much electricity a solar panel can produce over a year on your house — just type in your address. Project Sunroof is a free solar savings estimator powered by Google Earth imagery."

Ask for References: Get a list of recent clients (ideally similar projects to yours) and, then, contact these references personally and ask them about their experience with the contractor's quality of work, communication, timeliness, and adherence to budget.

Get more estimates: Choosing a solar contractor isn’t like shopping for a water bottle on Amazon. You probably have a good idea of what a water bottle should cost, but do you know how much solar panels should cost? If you’re interested in a solar addition, do yourself a favor and get written estimates from at least three contractors to compare pricing and scope of work.

Then, scrutinize the estimates to ensure the estimates are itemized, including: Labor costs, materials costs, the timeline, and the payment schedule.

Get it in writing: The last step may be the most important – insisting on a detailed contract specifying the scope of work in full detail. Get payment terms, start and finish dates, change order procedures if something unexpected comes up, and what warranty they’re promising.

"Walk away if you feel something is off," Parkman advised. “If the contractor is a true professional, they should be happy to address any questions and concerns you might have. Taking the time to vet contractors properly will significantly increase your chances of a positive project experience and help protect you from subpar workmanship or potential scams.”

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