The consumer organisation Which? has carried out an undercover investigation of the solar heating installation industry after a flood of complaints were made by disgruntled customers last year.
The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) received 1,000 complaints in 2009 about traders who installed solar hot water heating in homes throughout the UK, which is equivalent to 1 in every 100 homes nationwide.
The main bone of contention held by consumers was that of pricing; specifically, customers have complained that solar panel firms routinely oversell their products in order to encourage people to part with their cash – even when it is clear that such installations may not prove cost effective.
The undercover probes by Which? produced some startling results: 10 out of 14 installers were found to have overstated the potential financial savings from the solar panel installations. On average, solar panel heating systems cost around £5,500; the devices have become hugely popular during recent years as global awareness of environmental issues has come into sharp focus.
Using energy from the sun’s rays, solar panel systems can generate electricity or power hot water central heating systems in such a way that produces zero or very little carbon emissions. Furthermore, many households have been attracted to the idea of solar panel systems because of the UK Government’s feed-in tariff, which pays money to households that generate clean energy for the National Grid.
According to Which?, the installation firms ‘Everest’ and ‘Ideal Solar Energy’ adopted sales tactics that “hugely overstated” the potential benefits of using solar thermal heating systems. Independent experts estimate that savings of around 10 per cent on annual gas bills can be made by households that install solar thermal systems, whereas Everest claimed the savings to be in the region of 43 per cent and Ideal Solar Energy promised up to 50 per cent.
To further exaggerate the financial benefits of a solar heating system, Everest claimed that £35,000 could be saved over a 20-year period, which is considerably wide of the mark. Chief Executive of Which?, 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”.