Consumer friendly publisher Which? has undertaken an undercover investigation regarding solar thermal system installers sales tactics regarding these hot water systems designed to heat water using the heat energy from the sun. An article called “Mysteries of the solar system” appears in the May, 2010 issue of Which? magazine, which highlights that 14 companies it asked to quote for a solar water heating system all failed tests to correctly identify all technical issues associated with installing this technology. Worse was the fact that five companies contacted didn’t visit the rented house used by the undercover researchers but actually provided a quote over the phone instead.

In a scathing account, Which? said that 10 out of 14 installers exaggerated the potential savings. Of note was a claimed saving in hot water heating costs of up to 50% by and installer called Ideal Solar Energy and 43% savings by a sales person from Everest. Both firms were also slated for using the ruse of over inflated prices that would be heavily discounted should the potential customer sign-up there and then.

An independent expert working for Which? had calculated such a system for the rented house used in the undercover research would cut gas bills by only 10% for heating hot water. That would result in a pay-back time of 100 years based on current gas prices, Which? noted. An average quote of £5,500 to install a solar thermal system was used as the baseline for the reports calculations.

According to the consumer magazine and trading standards officers, it is actually an offence for a company to make misleading or false statements that cause consumers to buy products. It is also unlawful to deprive people of the time needed to make an informed choice.

Which? also said that in 2009, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) received 1,000 complaints about the UK solar industry, though didn’t detail whether this was both solar thermal and solar energy. However, considering that currently the solar thermal and solar energy market in the UK is small that figure was deemed extremely high.

A report is being sent by Which? to the solar trade bodies and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

Spreading confusion

Regrettably, reports from the mainstream press that picked up the story as well as Which? themselves are using terms such as ‘solar panels’ in general terms, which misleads readers and consumers. The two types of solar products are completely different and many solar thermal heating installers have little or no current involvement in solar energy, yet the two are being lumped together.

Indeed, during a Radio Five Live interview earlier this week with a Which? editor, ‘solar panel’ was used throughout the broadcast with no differentiation made between the two separate technologies.

Within the solar industry the two different technologies are clearly defined. Solar thermal simply aids the heating of water from the sun’s rays, while solar energy actually converts sunlight into electricity. Neither technology can do the other systems role and require a different skill set for installers.

Disappointingly, Which? also has a dedicated solar section on their website, which doesn’t do much to visually show the differences between the technologies. Furthermore its description of thin film modules only describes one type of thin film technology, ‘amorphous.’

This type of solar energy panel has energy conversion efficiencies of between 5 and 7% in general and is not therefore cost effective for use on residential rooftops. Other thin film technologies such as CIGS and CdTe based modules have higher efficiencies in the 10 to 12% range and in larger roof installations can be used for residential applications, though these are not described on the Which? website.

Also misleading is the section describing solar panels, where a savings table oversimplifies how energy savings from solar over the lifetime of the system and the new feed-in tariff creates the savings.

As with most cost savings tables so far published no account is made of the solar panels energy conversion degradation of a 25 year period. As the panels age, they lose performance so what was being generated at the beginning is non-linear. A top quality branded mono-crystalline module currently has performance guarantees of 95 % for 5 years, 90 % for 10 years, 87 % for 15, 83 % for 20 years and 80 % for 25 years.

Also, there is no mention of the string or central inverter efficiencies, nor the fact that inverters wear out and typically need complete replacement between 10 and 15 years, adding to the system cost and therefore require factoring in to the savings return.