Troubleshooters: Investigating sales tactics by solar panel companies

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- The sales pitch for residential solar panels can be pretty tempting: save on electricity at little or no cost to you.

But a Troubleshooters investigation found you need to enter into an agreement with your eyes wide open to see beyond the sunny sales pitch that includes promises of substantial savings and free panels.

With the solar business booming, a growing number of homeowners are looking to save money on electricity and help the environment.

That included 82-year old Elaine Connor.

Her daughter, Terry Fetrow, told the Troubleshooters her mother signed up for solar believing it would cost her nothing out of pocket.

"I think they hear the word free and that is it," said Terry.

The Troubleshooters went undercover and recorded a sales pitch by a local partner of Sunnova, the same company that sold solar to Fetrow's mother.

The salesperson used the word FREE 34 times in the 45-minute pitch.

"You still pay for your electricity but it's free, it is a free way to cut your bill in half," the salesperson told the Troubleshooters.

The salesperson also said consumers who buy panels may further save thanks to credits from the State of New Jersey and a federal tax credit.

"So basically if you get the free one, all of those credits go to lowering your price on the cost of the system," he added.

But, some solar companies require you to give them the amount of your federal tax credit or your monthly payments will go up.

Here is how solar programs work:

You can buy panels, lease them or sign a Power Purchase Agreement, like Fetrow's mother did.

In every case, you don't have to put money down but you do have to make a monthly payment to the solar company.

The pitch is a big chunk of those new payments will be offset by savings on your electric bill.

"No matter what, consumers will have to pay for the solar panels in one way or another," said Daniel Stevens Executive Director of the Campaign for Accountability.

In the Sunnova PPA, consumers pay Sunnova monthly for the energy their panels generate.

However, the energy rate could go up every year by 2.9%.

Fetrow's mother signed a P-P-A for 25 years then died one month after the panels were activated.

When Fetrow sold the house, she paid Sunnova close to $28,000 to end her mother's agreement.

"There were no buyers out there who were willing to take the contract on," she said.

Fetrow believes her mother never fully understood the deal.

"Be aware and ask questions if they know they're going to be sitting down with a solar company," Fetrow said.

The Troubleshooters also found the New Jersey Attorney General has received 97 complaints about Sunnova and its local sales partners, who go by a few different names.

Sunnova told us, it is working to resolve the claims.

It also said all customers must demonstrate their understanding in a validation call after they sign up or the contract is canceled.

The Troubleshooters also received complaints about another big solar company, Vivint.

The Murphy-Adams told us, "They promise you the moon, they promise you all these guarantees."

The family said after their panels were activated last September, "Our electric bill is higher than it's been before and we haven't seen any savings with the solar panels."

Vivint told the Troubleshooters it has worked with the Adams to resolve their complaint and equipment issues.

But the New Jersey Attorney General said it has 53 other complaints against Vivint in our area. The company said it's just a tiny fraction of their customer base.

We also learned the company is being sued by the New Mexico Attorney General, who alleges "unfair and unconscionable business practices, fraud and misleading consumers."

Vivint called the claims made by the New Mexico AG "baseless."

The company has filed to dismiss the case and counter-sued the Attorney General.

"Sunnova is fully committed to its customers and to responsible and transparent business practices wherever we work," said Sunnova in a statement. "We have well-established processes in place to ensure that all our customers receive accurate and transparent information regarding our products and services. For example, all our customers receive a validation call after signing their contract with us to make sure that they understand the terms of the agreement. We have been in touch with customers facing issues in New Jersey and are continuing to work closely with them, and any state and local agency, in an effort to reach successful resolutions of their issues."

"Vivint Solar is one of the nation's leading residential solar providers and we are proud to do business in 22 states throughout the U.S., serving over 150,000 customers nationwide. Because our company is built on solid one-on-one relationships with our customers from the beginning, we work directly with our customers to quickly resolve any issues that may arise in relationship to a solar system installation or needed maintenance as quickly as possible," said Vivint in a statement. "While some customer issues may be unique, even one unhappy customer is too many. We believe the specific customer stories you've inquired about represent a tiny fraction of our customer base and do not reflect the quality service we provide to the majority of our customers. We strive to resolve each matter to the customer's satisfaction."

Troubleshooters Tips:

Before you agree to buy solar:

-Understand how state solar credits work and whether you will be able to keep the federal tax credit.

-Read the contract thoroughly. Your initial monthly payment can increase by hundreds of dollars in most cases if you don't pass along that federal credit.

-Do not sign anything on the spot during a sales person's first visit especially on an iPad or tablet, even if you're told it's just for a credit check.

-Ask for a printout or email of what you are signing so there is no dispute about what was signed.

-Find out if the company you are dealing with is a local partner for a bigger company.

-Check all the company names on your contract.
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