Interest in solar photovoltaic (PV) technology has soared among domestic consumers and small businesses looking to take advantage of generous government incentives such as the Renewables Obligation, and cut their electricity bills at the same time. And self builders are at the forefront of using the latest energy efficient technology.
It's an extremely attractive proposition. There are now around 3,000 certified solar PV installers across the UK, according to the REAL Assurance members' directory. Most of them are serious companies dedicated to renewable generation. But an unfortunate side effect is the number of rogue salesmen and cowboys looking to make a killing in this expanding market.
The REAL Consumer Code was set up by the Renewable Energy Association six years ago to protect both domestic consumers and the professional industry against rogue traders. Typically, directors of these new rogue solar PV companies started off in double-glazing, moved into solar thermal panels and are now establishing themselves in the solar PV sector.
These are the tell-tale signs. A sales rep who visits the site and stays for a long period of time is suspect (more than two hours requires a written explanation to their company, but be wary of any sales rep who stays just short of that without good reason). The cowboy will offer a high initial price and appear to negotiate heavy discounts, or offer a discount only if a contract is signed there and then. They might avoid the issue of price information until the end of the visit, once they feel they've got the customer's trust. They might also claim a product has limited availability and use this to pressure a sale. The REAL Consumer Code spells out best practice guidelines for pre-contract activities, contractual terms and conditions and after-sales service and guarantees. If you're considering an investment in solar pv or other renewable technologies, make sure you're familiar with the REAL Code's key features.
- REAL members must demonstrate that they are compliant with the Code. All MCS certified companies must sign up to the Code. REAL ensures that the Code is adhered to through a thorough auditing process, compliance checks and, when required, mystery shopping. If a company displays the REAL logo, it indicates that they are responsible and compliant with the Code. Complaints are taken seriously and REAL actively pursues any member who breaks the Code and will expel those who bring the scheme into disrepute. Currently, REAL are dealing with over 100 serious complaints a year. There is a conciliation and mediation service that is free to members, as well as a low-cost, independent arbitration scheme.
- The consumer has the legal right to a seven-day cooling off period for any contract signed in the home, and for REAL members, a seven working day cooling off period is mandatory for all domestic contracts.
- REAL members are allowed to ask for a deposit of no more than 25% (which, together with any further advance payment must never amount to more than 60% of the total contract). REAL members are obliged to protect and insure consumers' money paid in advance.
- Written estimates and quotations must be clear, informative and any financial or efficiency claims must be reasonable. REAL issues guidelines and model terms and quotations to members and checks estimates, quotations and contract terms very carefully.
A few further tips:
- Get at least three quotations and compare them carefully before deciding which company to contract with. The cheapest is not necessarily the best, but you should be looking to pay no more than £4,000 per kWp installed.
- Installers must be certified under the MCS scheme for the technology being installed for consumers to qualify for any Government incentives. And we recommend only approaching companies that are listed as REAL members – as they are obliged to abide by the REAL Consumer Code.
- Be informed before approaching companies – the Energy Saving Trust website is an excellent source of objective information and advice and has an online calculator designed to help you work out what renewable technology might save you in fuel and bills. The REAL website's consumer section has information about grants and incentives, the law on selling in the home and information on "Free Solar" offers and what they really mean.
- Let REAL know if a company is falling short of these standards. The scheme is working hard to kick rogue and unprofessional traders out, and in doing so, protect the reputation of the industry and the majority of renewables installers who trade with integrity.