Customers say they’re being burned by some solar companies
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - When Allison Bundy heard the pitch from a salesman for a new solar panel system at her home she was sold. It sounded great, a chance to become energy independent and save money.
“After listening to the sales spiel you think, I’m gonna own my power one day, you know, when I’m starting to live in my golden years, I’m not going to have a power bill, you know, that’s gonna be really great,” she said.
Bundy said the salesman for Powerhome Solar assured her she could reduce monthly energy bills by almost 100%, and provide a self-sustaining power source for power outages.
After her consultation, she agreed to sign a contract and had 16 solar panels installed in an array in her backyard.
More than $50,000 financed over a 25 year period, to her it was an investment for the future and thought she would be saving money in both the short-term and the long-run.
It didn’t take long for her to realize that the things she was told were too good to be true.
“Day two into it I was already calling saying, hey, you know, I’m looking at the app and it’s not, by any means coming close to powering my home, I think somebody needs to come out and check it,” she said.
The concept of banking power is explained as a way to create so much power on sunny days that you essentially sell it back to the power company. Then, on a cloudy day or in the winter when the system does not produce as much, you can rely on that excess energy to offset the costs.
“I’m not banking any power. I haven’t banked any power since it’s been put in it powers itself, pretty much it powers itself and it’ll refill the battery,” she said. “It’s nowhere close to what I need to power my home. It’s nowhere close. It’s maybe cut my power bill, maybe 15% when it’s working.”
The contract, like most contracts, is cumbersome and contains technical jargon, but there’s one clause in particular that Bundy calls the ‘Nightmare Clause.’
It’s right there on the first and second page of the contract, and essentially says that customers should not take the salesperson’s expectations for savings as a guarantee, rather, an estimate.
“The amounts provided for energy production, usage and savings are illustrative and hypothetical only and (to the fullest extent permitted under applicable law) are not, and shall not be in any way interpreted to be, guarantees, representations or warranties of any kind, shape or fashion,” the clause reads in part.
Bundy says she did read the contract, but when she was told about the clause, she never expected the ‘estimates’ to be so far off.
“He said, this just basically states that there’s no guarantee that it’s going to produce, you know, on your cloudy days, you’re not going to produce as much as you will on the sunny days. In the winter, you’re not going to produce as much as you are in the summer. But remember, in the summer, like these really hot months of June and July and August, you’re going to be banking, that power,” she said.
That made sense to her, her understanding was that the sunny days would make up for the cloudy days and this clause was just there to make sure she did not expect the panels to perform at full capacity 100% of the time.
“He was like, see, what will happen is you’re gonna bank so much power, you can be bringing in so much power to the point where it’s going to bank it progress energy, and so on really hot days, or really cold days or days, when it’s kind of overcast and cloudy, you would borrow back what you had already put into the grid.
But, it’s not just the lack of energy production, Bundy says the panels themselves are not working, and getting someone to come fix them has not been easy.
“It’s been an error mode for I don’t know exactly how many days, I know we’re over 90 days, because in the contract, once you let them know that you have an issue, they have 20 days to come out and inspected hasn’t been done, then from that 20 days, you have 60 days to fix the problem, [that] hasn’t been done,” she said.
She’s past the point of wanting to rely on solar energy for her home, the experience has taken it’s toll on her and now she just wants the company to take the panels back, and let her out of the contract.
“My bottom line is ‘just come get it,’” she said.
That has not happened.
When reached for comment, a Powerhome Solar spokesperson responded with a statement saying, “Powerhome Solar is committed to customer satisfaction and is always looking for ways to better serve our customers and their needs. We strongly encourage Powerhome customers to contact us at email@example.com with any questions or for help getting the most out of their solar system.”
A nationwide problem
Bundy is not alone, this is a common problem appearing across the country and the region.
Companies are going around knocking on people’s doors or gaining new customers through social media advertising appealing to one of the most motivating factors when it comes to solar --- saving money.
Robert Parker is the Senior Project Manager for Cape Fear Solar Systems, he says there are plenty of reasons people are making the switch to solar power, but one thing stands above the rest.
“The number one reason does still continue to be a financial reason, I think that’s most folks’ primary motivation,” he said.
Parker says that’s a problem.
“I mean, there’s many scenarios where it is a great financial investment, but solar isn’t a financial product.”
So, yes, solar energy can save homeowners money and in some cases people actually do receive credit back for the power they produce, but that’s not always the case.
WECT spoke with people from Michigan to Texas who shared similar stories about the problems they are facing with Powerhome Solar.
Jordan Kleinsmith lives in Michigan, and although he’s hundreds of miles from North Carolina, his story is almost identical to Bundy’s -- and it all started with a sales pitch.
“He’s like, ‘oh, yeah, no problem, man, what we’re basically going to do for you, is we’re going to fit you out with a system that’s basically going to get rid of 70 to 90% of your power bill every month,’” Kleinsmith said referring to a salesman.
He, too, found out that was too good to be true and says when his system is working -- which it isn’t always -- he is able to save around 10-30% on his power bill. Kleinsmith is still paying around $300 a month for power, plus the roughly $200 payment for his solar panels.
Despite his higher bills, a spokesperson for Powerhome Solar said Kleinsmith’s home is producing power as expected.
Feeling like he couldn’t be alone in his experience, and having some extra time after leaving his job, he decided to start looking into the company, and even started a website www.PowerHomeLawsuit.com.
It wasn’t long before the page took off, he now has more than 500 people signed up, with the hopes of filing a class action lawsuit against the owner of the company.
“I believe he is going to need to be compelled into court through legal action to really expose all this. And so what my goal has been in starting the site, and in getting all these people together is basically get enough people together,” Kleinsmith said.
There’s even a Facebook page dedicated to folks who say they are victims of Power Home Solar and a quick online search reveals hundreds of complaints against the company have been filed with the Better Business Bureau.
In Ohio, the Attorney Generals’ Office shows 57 complaints filed against the company in just two years for issues ranging from high-pressure sales to misrepresentation.
On Facebook, a group called Powerhome Victims Support Group has nearly 700 members where folks are sharing their experiences with the company and the struggles many of them are facing.
Right here in North Carolina, Attorney General Josh Stein has seen an uptick in complaints as well, although, he was not able to name any specific companies.
“When you pick a solar company to do that installation, make sure you pick the right one, because we’ve had a number of complaints, over 130 complaints over the last two years, about particular solar panel installation companies. So just like any business out there, not all companies are equally good. And you want to make sure you get the right one,” Stein Said.
No way out
Contracts are, by design, made to protect the interests of both parties and lay out what can be expected.
However, sometimes these contracts can include clauses that have bigger impacts than people might think and can actually waive your rights to sue someone.
One such clause is listed in Powerhome’s contracts and it poses a challenge to anyone looking to take legal action against the company.
“By signing this agreement, contractor and buyer agree to resolve any and all disputes through binding bilateral arbitration, and each party waives any right to participate in class actions … " the contract reads.
That’s something that Stein says raises a red flag for him.
“One thing that always concerns me in any contract is when you were forced to arbitrate a dispute rather than having your right to go to court and get get justice and so that is one kind of clause that would always concern me as a consumer doing a big project like solar panels,” he said.
Ultimately, the entire ordeal has been a frustrating process for customers who mostly told WECT they don’t want their systems fixed, they want out of their contracts and for this experience to be over.
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