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Avoiding the solar cowboys

Posted by Cathy Debenham on 28 April 2010 at 10:01 am

Only one of 14 solar thermal salespeople proved worthy of recommendation in Which?'s recent investigation into solar panel companies. This is devastating news both for the industry and, more importantly, for people wanting to switch to solar hot water systems.

Ten of the companies misled researchers and some also used what can only be described as dodgy sales tactics. Only Southern Solar was "worthy of mention for its helpful and sensible approach".

This is one of the issues that YouGen was set up to help people avoid. Both my father and uncle have been on the receiving end of just this sort of pushy solar salesman, who overquotes, offers discounts if you sign up today, claims too much for the product, and (in one case) lied about the availability of grants. They stay for hours, insist on your partner being there when you visit, and are almost impossible to evict from your house (unless, of course you sign on the dotted line).

While this does happen, there are also lots of good companies out there who spend time looking at each home, how the owners live in it, what their heat or hot water usage is, and what the best solution would be for them.

There are several ways that YouGen helps people avoid being a victim of cowboy sales (and it's not just in the solar thermal sector - have a look at the comments section of this blog on heat pumps and you'll see it's happening there too).

We also call on installers to up their game, and to help people to get the most appropriate technology for their home, even if that involves turning down a sale. Which? reports that the Office of Fair Trading received 1,000 complaints about the sector last year. Given that there are less than 100,000 installations in UK homes, and that the Low Carbon Buildings Programme has only paid out 6684 grants for domestic installations since April 2006, this is a scarily big number. One can only speculate that a lot of people have already been put off the whole idea.

I'm a great fan of solar thermal. We turned off our boiler last week, and are showering in solely solar heated water. If last year is any guide, we'll only have to give in a boost a couple of times between now and the end of September. But, if solar thermal is going to become a mainstream way of heating water and homes, then people really need to be able to trust the companies that install it. And at the moment that's a bit of a challenge.


If you have a question about anything in the above blog, please ask it in the comments section below.

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8 comments - read them below or add one

Jayhawk International Ltd

Jayhawk International LtdComment left on: 29 May 2010 at 12:46 pm

The solar sales Cowboy/Direct sell business started in 1998 in Bournemouth with Spectrum Energy who I supplied with Sunda tube collectors at the time.  Not knowing at the time that the quality of the installation was secondary to closing the sale at the highest cost to the home owner. The then owner of Spectrum Energy before they went bust 3 years on, selected the Sunda brand as it was supplied through Daimler Benz Aerospace, made in China. Using that well known name in all the direct mail drop achieved sales over £2 million in less than 2 years. 


Smart Energy was then created by a sales manager who worked for Spectrum Energy, who came from the double glazing industry and now that business has been wound up as warranties become a cost after 5 years as systems start to fail or call backs eat into the profits made.


Ideal Solar and many others will continue to work outside the standards being laid down while the unsuspecting home owner continues to be conned out of a vast amount of money = to the cost of a car. As with a car, the value falls year on year until its sent to a scrap merchant.


Education is now KEY to informing the majority of home owners which the plumbing industry at large could help to do that through a well written letter to every client they have on their books.


With 18 years in solar collector and system designs, I have stayed out of this rat race "to close sales at any cost" and have this past year been preparing for a new future in the renewables industry, focusing 100% of solar thermal after many concerns I have from heat pump failures.  My Jayhawk manufacturing business will be the sole UK supplier of complete solar thermal system kits to the trained trade installer who has to prove to us first they he or she will follow are installation guide lines and prices. Our launch of our solar trade club open only to competent persons will provide loyal installers with many benefits besides very competitive prices to win business from the merchants which the big brand manufactures sell through.


Our new range of approved solar thermal system kits will start from £890.00 + VAT as a retrofit price to an existing vented copper cylinder of 150 litres. This quality system kit is not allowed under the BRE or RHI scheme because its not a system reconised as being a high enough standard by the gas boiler heating industry or the direct sell companies who want to rip out a perfectly good cylinder of maybe a week old for a larger twin coil type, which they have to have due to use of Glycol.


For the home owner its cost effective and service free, no Glycol and for the local plumber who may decide he/she has no chance in acquiring MCS qualifications can earn for one days work £800.00, giving a supply and installed price for the home owner less £2,000.


With hundreds of such systems sold through Powertech Solar over the past 5 years with a merchant in Wales having ordered 10 such systems after receiving feed back from their first installation, its an area we will continue to promote even though the home owner cannot claim a cent from the RHI scheme.


Our next system package in meeting the MCS/BRE standard, but with the solar side open vented even if specified with a twin coil cylinder, to prevent overheating and eliminating 50% of the new component parts continually being added into solar thermal systems will be offered to installers for from £1,480.00, again for a 150--165 litre size cylinder which can qualify for the RHI if the installer has gained MCS


Having been an early designer of thermal stores with Gledhill back in 1980, for me Thermal stores with an oversized vented solar system as I have lived with in my home for the past 8 years to support day time space heating is the direction we are going in the future.


The hyped up unvented twin coil cylinder, solar panels with and pump station and a gall of Glycol seen promoted by the gas boiler and heating industry driven by mainly German manufactures continues to add  to costs for the home owner. The home owner who buys into the RHI scheme, must also be aware of the yearly service charge to meet the RHI scheme approvals, another opening for a Cowboy as I am finding from my past customers who call me and ask if their solar systems needs a service after 8 years as a leaflet has popped through their door offering such a service at a cost of £320.00 + materials + vat at 17.5%


At the top of our range is my re-designed solar central heating system incorporating the worlds first waterless super heat pipe radiators which for a 3 bed home holds less than 15 litres including the pipe work. The mains gas condensing boiler purchased outside the UK also direct from the manufacture will be offered FREE of charge within the system kit and sold direct to the house building industry at under £9.890 + vat. This solar central heating system package will bypass the supermarket plumbers merchants. Its time all new homes were installed with a tried and tested engine like a car ready for assembly into the shell. Its time to break away from this crazy idea that the plumber has the expertise to bundle together parts from thousands being offered by a merchant, at a cost suited to him that makes up a central heating system as we have today.


Those who package the home low carbon engine for new homes and existing ones that provide real energy savings, service free, and back up support if needed will win the day.



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Barry Nutley

Barry Nutley from Viridis Energie ConsultantsComment left on: 29 May 2010 at 12:26 am

Do Barilla have MCS these days???

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fuelexplorerComment left on: 20 May 2010 at 12:08 am

I was impressed with Barilla Solar, and bought from them.  Their technical knowledge is superb and they are very willing to share it with you to advise.  They let me reach my own decision after talking with other suppliers.  Their prices are keen too.  They are on the web and also show real time test systems undergoing trial!

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Barry Nutley

Barry Nutley from Viridis Energie ConsultantsComment left on: 17 May 2010 at 2:02 pm

This was the reason My business partner and I decided to set up an independent renewable energy consultancy. We originally were sellers of renewable energy technologies, and started our careers with a company who had (at the time!), an ethical sales policy. However, they planned to change the payment structure, which basically meant we needed to charge a higher fee, in order to make the same money!!

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John E Martin

John E Martin from QMSAComment left on: 11 May 2010 at 7:52 pm

I think its time REAL stepped up to the mark and made an example of one of the bigger players, in order to send a clear message to the industry, otherwise we should all complain about their lack of action to the OFT who approve their scheme!! seems its the same old story MONEY TALKS...or perhaps 'Money talks its way out of trouble' would be more fitting.

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Barry Johnston

Barry JohnstonComment left on: 5 May 2010 at 3:00 pm

As a solar heating supplier it is really interesting to read about Solar4U since their director Stuart Lovatt was convicted of credit card fraud against me and continues to operate in the solar industry under the heatmyhome banner.

But his fraud is tiny in association to the wholesale deception which is perpetrated on consumers by more senior members of the solar trade as this solar cowboys video shows.

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anne miller

anne millerComment left on: 4 May 2010 at 5:58 pm

Theres a very smelly company trading from the Cambridge area called Brittanic power.  They ring up, and without actually lying, pretend to be associated with your local council and offering a free survey.  In reality its just a con to get you to invite them into your home so they can pressure sell you solar power (or anything else)   Their website looks credible, but I suggest steering well clear of anyone that uses this sort of dishonest sales technique.

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technicaComment left on: 30 April 2010 at 9:10 am

Hi Cathy


What an excellent article, we were one of the victims of a cowboy installer.  The company has now stopped trading under their first name “Solar4U” however; they were part of company called Micro-Generation Systems which is still trading.  Basically the system was not fit for purpose, started scalding family members, the collector on the roof slipped etc. 


Eventually our credit card company paid for the replacement of the system.  That’s after we called in the Financial Ombudsman to help out because the credit card company at first were unhelpful.  The company that decommissioned the other system and put in a fantastic solar hot water system was Yorkshire Solar.  They are an excellent company and I would give them the highest praise for workmanship and professionalism.            

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