Solar Water Heater Firms in UK Accused of Misinformation

Ten out of fourteen companies selling solar thermal water heaters in the United Kingdom “exaggerated potential savings to consumers,” during an undercover sting conducted by Which? magazine, a sort of Brit Consumer Reports, only edgier.

Solar thermal hot water systems use sunlight to heat water for home or pool use. The technology is simple and has been in widespread use for a long time. In the US, solar thermal heating (and cooling) sales dwarf that of solar photovoltaic panels, or any other solar electric technology.

Which? magazine’s sting was conducted earlier this year after a rise in complaints about solar thermal installations. The magazine rented a house in Southern England and then invited solar thermal salesmen over to give their sales pitch, which in some cases the magazine secretly filmed.

In almost every instance, the salesmen gave greatly exaggerated cost savings estimates.

While an independent contractor hired by the magazine determined that a solar hot water system could only save 10 percent on the house’s electricity bill, a salesman from the country’s leading thermal provider, Everest, said they could save 43 percent, accruing £35,000 ($54,000) worth of savings over 20 years. Another company, Ideal, said the heater would cut the household energy bill in half.

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.'”

Which? said just one company, Southern Solar, received a positive review “for its helpful and sensible approach.”

The British Office of Fair Trading, a consumer protection bureau, received over 1000 complaints about solar systems last year for only 100,000 systems installed nationwide, Which? reported. It is unclear whether that figure includes solar PV.

Shoddy workmanship, deceptive sale practices or even outright fraud in the residential solar industry could pose a problem in this country as well, especially if the solar PV market takes off and the market is flooded with firms with little experience or questionable motives.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.