Consumer watchdog Which? has warned that householders who make the decision to install solar panels to reduce their bills could be getting ripped off. According to a recent undercover investigation which looked at 12 installation companies, some solar salesmen are routinely misleading customers in order to make a healthy profit.

The research found that a selection of companies working in the UK are using high-pressure sales tactics and failing to inform consumers of key points, such as the placement of panels and the cost of equipment maintenance.

On average a solar system should set you back ~£12,000, and could net a profit of ~£28,000 over the 25 years the feed-in tariff is paid. However, the maximum money can only be made if the system is fitted on the perfect roof, with the exact southern orientation and is not shaded in any way. Which? claims that not all companies are making this point clear, but says that some of the blame can be placed on Government’s poor guidelines.

None of companies under investigation took into account the location of the house when calculating the possible savings, as the Department for Environment guidelines treat the conditions in the north the same as the south.

Which? Executive Director Richard Lloyd said, “It seems extraordinary that the Government’s rules require companies to ignore whether you live in Cornwall or Scotland when working out how long it’ll take to pay for the solar panels. It’s obvious that the more sun you get, the faster the payback. The Government has to put this right.”

The investigation also found that the companies did not take shading into consideration. Seven of the 12 companies tested failed to recommend the correct number of panels to take into account the shady area of the roof.

A total of 10 out of the 12 also failed to mention a key piece of information despite being pressed by the undercover investigator. For example when asked if there were any maintenance costs, all but two of the companies failed to mention that the inverter will need replacing after approximately 10 years at a cost of £1,000 or more.

Trading standards officer, Neil McLoughlin said, “On the face of it, the failure to make the consumer aware of these issues would constitute a criminal offence. This is referred to in law as a misleading omission.”

“It really isn’t difficult – companies just need to make sure they send people who are qualified to ask the right questions, do the right checks and give customers better advice,” explained Lloyd.

Clearly, this investigation shows that there are indeed some less reputable solar salesmen working in the UK, yet it is important to point out that there is also a large portion of trusted installers.

Virginia Graham, Chief Executive of the REAL Assurance Scheme said, “Many consumers stand to gain from the Government’s clean energy cash back incentives. It is a great pity that a minority of companies engage in poor practices thereby giving the whole sector a bad name.”

‘”t is particularly disappointing to see one of the companies offering a discount to consumers for signing on the day and another offering a discount in return for providing monitoring information. These practices are expressly outlawed in the Consumer Code and we will be referring these two companies to the Non-compliance Panel.” Graham continued: “It is also disappointing that companies appear to be exaggerating the already-generous incentives on offer. There is no excuse for misleading consumers in this way.”

A British Gas spokesperson said, “Solar power has the potential to revolutionise the way British homes use energy.  People up and down the country stand to gain from feed-in tariff payments as well as free renewable electricity.  So it is crucial that customers are confident in the advice they are being given so they can make informed decisions.  We welcome this survey from Which? and look forward to working with them and others within the industry to ensure that customer needs are at the heart of the solar business.”

Gideon Richards, Chairman of the MCS Steering Group, which represents solar panel companies said, “Maintaining consumer trust in microgeneration is crucial to the UK meeting its ambitious carbon reduction targets. MCS will continue to play a major part in delivering this trust. We take the allegations in this report very seriously, and they will be thoroughly investigated.”

To ensure you choose one of the many reputable companies working in the UK take a look at our Top 10 Tips and then have a browse through Solar Power Portal's Directory.