Buyer beware

Any big investment requires research. Solar energy is no different.

Carl Piesch of Life with Solar says shady salespeople have been fired from the company.

Carl Piesch of Life with Solar says shady salespeople have been fired from the company.

Photo By Kat Kerlin

Like any big investment, research before buying. No matter who you deal with, find out how renewable energy credits, federal tax incentives and renewable energy rebates work from the people who offer them, not salespeople. Research contractors and equipment. Get second and third opinions.
One good source:
“I always suggest multiple bids from contractors,” says John Hargrove of NV Energy. “There’s lots of resources on the internet. There’s solar calculators to find out how much energy a solar installation on your home might produce. Just do your homework.”

The man smiled at me and handed me a brochure. “Life with Solar,” it read. We were at Home Depot, where the growing solar energy business has a vendor booth.

I’d been told by a variety of local solar installers that Life with Solar representatives mislead consumers with exaggerated claims of solar incentives and how much money they can expect to get back from becoming their own personal power station. The installers were concerned that bad experiences would poison the fledgling industry through word of mouth. But they declined to go on the record, so I decided to find out for myself.

As a consumer, I asked the LWS rep at Home Depot how the process might work. He mentioned a 30 percent federal tax credit, which does exist. He discouraged me from looking into NV Energy’s SolarGeneration’s rebate program, saying it was a slow application process with limited availability, which is a common complaint. But when I asked whether I could buy a system and get the rebate later, he told me I could, which is not true.

“By law, you have to apply first,” verified John Hargrove of NV Energy.

I then sat in, also as an interested consumer, on a Life with Solar consultation with Tory and Justin Van Pelt at their home in Stead. I listened for inaccuracies and exaggerations. I heard none.

I looked for written complaints about them. The Better Business Bureau told me they were an accredited business, whose parent company is Reno Sunrooms, with an A- grade and eight complaints lodged against them in 36 months, five of them resolved to consumer satisfaction. Neither the Public Utilities Commission nor Bureau of Consumer Protection had received complaints. The Nevada State Contractors Board found no disciplinary actions against them or Advanced Green Builders, which does their installations, or Briggs Electric, which grid ties their systems.

So where were all of these anecdotes about disgruntled and ripped off customers coming from?

“We have had a couple of salespeople do some unethical sales things,” said Carl Piesch, Life with Solar marketing and sales director. One is being investigated by the FBI. Other stories include a salesman giving clients different paperwork from what he gave LWS and promising DVD players to clients to seal deals. These people have since been fired.

“There may be a little bit of ripple effect as we go about solving this collateral damage,” says LWS owner Doug Bernard.

As for the rep at Home Depot, he spoke out of turn, says Piesch. He wasn’t a salesman but an exhibitor, whose sole job is to make contact with customers, not to explain rebates or tax incentives.

Piesch claims LWS has sold to 130 customers in the past nine months. “When you do the volume we do, sometimes a rotten apple creeps in, and we cut it out, take care of it, and address it as soon as possible. Our business depends on it. Word of mouth is big.”

On that the solar industry seems to agree.

“Solar electric could get a bad name for itself just like solar thermal did in the ’80s,” says Shawn O’Meara, owner of Aspen Electric. “There were a lot of crooks out there, and the industry got a bad name. … I don’t want the same thing to happen to solar electric. It’s a strong industry, a viable industry, but bad business practices will impact it.”