Solar panel sellers slammed in Which? probe10 out of 14 solar water heating firms misled us

25 April 2010

Solar panels on a house

Solar panels should be mounted on a south-facing section of your roof 

Ten out of 14 companies selling solar water heating systems exaggerated potential savings to consumers during an undercover sting carried out by Which?.

During the investigation, household name Everest potentially broke the law and has admitted that its representative made claims that they knew to be false during the sales pitch.

For more solar water heating system buying advice and to watch an undercover video clip of a solar energy salesman in action, see our online guide to buying solar panels.

Misleading claims

Everest quoted a 43% cut in the total gas bill and claimed a saving of £35,000 over 20 years. Another national company, Bournemouth-based Ideal Solar Energy claimed its solar water heating system would halve the gas bill, saving the customer around £600 a year. 

Ideal Solar Energy also misquoted energy regulator Ofgem to talk up savings, claiming that 70% of a home’s gas costs go on hot water and 30% on heating – Ofgem says that it’s actually the other way round. Our online guide to buying solar panels includes a video of the Ideal Solar Energy salesman in action

These claims are wildly optimistic. A highly experienced solar water heating expert calculated that the reduction on the overall gas bill would be closer to 10% - a saving of about £55 a year at current gas prices.

Senior Trading Standards officer Neil McLoughlin said it’s an offence for companies to make misleading or false statements that cause you to buy a product. He added: ‘The precise nature of Everest’s figure makes the claim even more misleading as it appeared to have been carefully calculated and would cause consumers to place undue reliance on its accuracy.’

Solar water heating sales tactics

Both companies also used apparently unfair sales tactics. Everest slashed an already high quote of over £11,500 (about three times the lowest quote) to a still-high £8,500 if we signed up there and then.

Ideal Solar Energy dropped its price from £8,690 to £6,520. The next day it followed up with a phone call offering a new price of £5,860 if a £400 deposit (coming down to £250) was paid before the end of the day.

Mr McLoughlin said: ‘These practices deprives people of the time needed to make an informed choice.’ 

Solar water heating companies

While these two companies gave the most cause for concern, Which? received poor service and exaggerated claims of performance from nearly all 14 firms. One suggested we’d make our money back in ‘six to eight years’ on a system costing £5,200. Even with income from the proposed Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), pay-back times are likely to be double this.

Not one company identified all the important technical challenges before issuing a quotation, according to Which?’s solar expert.

Just one company – Southern Solar (0845 456 9474) – was worthy of mention for its helpful and sensible approach.

Solar selling complaints

In the last three years, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), has demanded that three particularly notorious companies – Smart Energy (UK) Ltd, Solar Technik Ltd (not to be confused with an unconnected company of the same name formed on 23 March 2010), which have both gone bust, and Ultimate Energy which has been dissolved – should stop misleading their customers.

The OFT received around 1,000 complaints about the sector last year, which Which? thinks is far too high for an industry with under 100,000 installations in UK homes. Holiday insurers, damp-proofers and landlords attracted a similar number of complaints last year, but are used by a far greater number of people in the UK.

If you suspect you've been mis-sold solor panels, find out more about your rights and how to complain in our guide.

Cowboy solar sellers

Which? chief executive, Peter Vicary-Smith, said: 'Most of the firms in our investigation behaved like true cowboys - they promised huge savings that bore no relation to reality, and some really piled pressure on the homeowner to sign up immediately or risk losing a one off "special offer".

'The solar industry is too important to our long-term energy needs for things to drag on like this. It needs to clean up its act, and if it won’t, the OFT and the government will have to step in.'

Solar panel buying advice

For more on solar water heating systems and other renewable technologies, see the Which? guides to buying solar panels and home heating systems.

Lower your gas and electricity bills

You can compare energy prices and switch to a new gas and electricity supplier on Which? Switch. People who switched with us between 1 October and 31 December 2013 are predicted to save an average of £234 a year on their bills.

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