I arrived home after a busy workday, and sat down for dinner. My phone rang. It wasn’t a number I recognized, but it was in my home area code. When I answered, a telemarketer we’ll call “Sam” introduced himself.
Red Flag #1: Promises of “free” solar energy
Sam launched into his script: “Do you know that right now, you can receive up to $10,000 in incentives and grants in Arizona to make your home more energy efficient, for zero down?” The game was on. The object? To act ill-informed enough that he wouldn’t hang up on me, and would share more about his questionable business practices.
Lead generation and telemarketing companies often promise “free” solar electric systems that will “save hundreds each month.” Solar can be a great investment, but it isn’t free. Solar leases may save you a few bucks a month, but they usually contain surprises in the small print, and make poor assumptions about future energy rates. Solar loans are better, but still have a cost of capital embedded somewhere. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Red Flag #2: Promise of many “incentives and grants”
After telling Sam that my highest electric bill was $120 last year, he proceeded to admit that these “grants” were payments from local utilities. “Incentives” were state and federal tax credits. He offered to set up an appointment for an energy consultant come to my home, and have a 30-minute discussion about my options for a more “energy efficient home.”
In the past, Arizona utilities paid “up-front incentives.” These were a cash payment to a customer after solar was installed. As the solar market has matured, these programs have gone away. There haven’t been active incentives for several years in most utility territories, so the claim of available utility incentives is just plain wrong.
A federal tax credit of 30% does exist. In Arizona, we also have a 25% state tax credit with a maximum of $1,000. Both tax credits require that a homeowner have sufficient tax liability to be able to take advantage of them.
Red Flag #3: Awkward company names
As any curious customer would do, I asked him the name of his organization, and for his website address. He gave me his company name, which we’ll call “Energy Information Savings Area.”
If your company name is some random combination of “free,” “energy,” “expert,” “information,” “solar,” and “Arizona,” I’m going to guess that you haven’t been in business for long, and you might not be as much of an expert as you claim. Some lead generation companies even change names frequently to try to outrun unpaid employees or other liabilities.
Red Flag #4: Representatives are unable to tell you where they are located or tell you who will be coming to your home to talk about solar
I asked Sam where he was based. He said “Tempe.” When I noted that the area code he’d called from wasn’t correct for Tempe, he then said his company was located in “Tempe and Yuma.” Odd, since the area code he called from doesn’t cover Yuma either. At this point, I think he was tired of my questions, and transferred me to his boss to “verify my qualification for this offer.”
Lead generation companies may operate from elsewhere in the U.S., or even overseas. Does the person calling know about your town or city? Do they mispronounce local names? If they don’t even know the basics of your local area, how are they going to be able to serve your specific solar needs?
You also might not want to invite just anyone who shows up on your doorstep into your home. Any company should be able to tell you the name of the person who will be visiting your home, and what installation company they represent.
Red Flag #4: Websites with generic information and with no real people shown
While waiting for the transfer to Sam’s boss, I opened my computer. The “Energy Savings Information Area” website was real, but they weren’t located in Arizona. They claimed to have been in solar since the 1980s, but there was a conspicuous absence of any names of company founders, officers, or even employees.
The second representative introduced herself. But when I started asking a question, the line went quiet. After a couple of minutes of silence, the call was ended from the other end. With a little Internet sleuthing, I found a LinkedIn profile for her name. She apparently works as a manager for a third-party lead generation company. They have a trail of customer complaints, unpaid workers, and similar bad press across the internet.
Solar installation is inherently local. Whether you choose a truly local company, like Net Zero Solar, or a multi-state installer, someone is going to need to come out to talk to you about your solar options, and technicians will install solar components on your home. You should be able to find at least some of those people on your solar installer’s website. At a minimum, the leadership team and sales staff should be represented. Ideally, everyone at the company should be shown on the website.
Similarly, if the information on the website is generic and doesn’t reflect information on your local market, steer clear. Another sign that a company may be “churning and burning” is the use of stock photos on their website or photos stolen from other sources (you can check using TinEye, or Google reverse image search).
Red Flag #5: Lead generators are calling you at all
Companies that are established, local, quality solar installers usually get their customers through a mix of referrals and local advertising. If a company needs to knock on your door, incessantly call, or fill your mailbox with fliers, it’s a good bet that they are focused on finding poorly informed consumers who will buy their products without careful consideration, not providing solid solar energy solutions for their clients.
Some decent companies resort to these lead generation methods because they want to grow very quickly. But this quick growth is not likely to lead to informed salespeople, quality installation, or great post-installation service.
Buying Solar Shouldn’t Make You Feel Dirty
As a long-time solar professional, this whole interaction was pretty unpleasant. Solar is a wonderful technology and investment. But in the span of five minutes, just about everything I heard from these telemarketers was either misinformation or plainly untrue.
These business practices are bound to give the solar industry a black eye. In fact, we sometimes hear from people who’ve been continually hounded by these companies, but want a second opinion. We’re happy that they’ve called us, so we can sit down, and have a low-pressure, informative conversation about solar. But some consumers might not think to contact a local business before signing a contract that will lead to sorrow down the road. This is one of the most important reasons why we are passionate about educating consumers about solar—whether here, on social media, or in person.
You now know some red flags to avoid when considering solar installation. But what are some things you should do?
Tip #1: Call potential solar installers
Instead of waiting for shady telemarketers to call you, call reputable local solar companies. Make sure you can actually talk to someone who is knowledgeable about solar, and cares to discuss your needs. How to find good solar installers? Check out the next tip.
Tip #2: Check reviews, credentials, and licensing
When looking for a solar installer, check their reviews first. Google and Facebook are a good place to start. The specialty website Solar Reviews is even better. Talk to your neighbors and friends, too!
See if a company has NABCEP certified installation professionals on staff. NABCEP offers certification programs to renewable energy professionals throughout North America, and is known as the “gold standard” for installation certification.
You should also check the Arizona Registrar of Contractors website to make sure that any potential contractor holds the proper licensing for the work you’d like done. Residential electrical work requires a R-11 or CR-11 license. Commercial electrical work requires a C-11 or CR-11 license.
Tip #3: Meet face to face
An in-person meeting will allow you to gauge the expertise of the solar sales professional and of the company they represent. Are they knowledgeable not only about solar technology, but also about financial benefits, environmental benefits, industry trends, and policy trends? Can they answer your questions (or find out if they don’t know)? Do their company values fit with your values?
Tip #4: Don’t be pressured to sign a contract
Although the end of net metering in Arizona is approaching later this year, there’s no need to “sign today.” If a company tries to use high-pressure sales tactics to sell solar, odds are they aren’t your best choice. The cost of solar installation has declined significantly over the past few years, but it is still major purchase. It is entirely reasonable to wait to sign a contract and make a down payment until you’ve thought it over for a couple of days.
Don’t Let Unscrupulous Business Practices Discourage You From Installing Solar!
We know that dealing with shady telemarketers and wading through the solar sales process can sometimes demoralizing. But now is actually a great time to go solar! Technology has improved, prices have dropped, and we see interesting technology trends on the horizon.
When you’re ready to make your move to a clean, independent source of energy, we’d love to sit down with you. Just remember—we are Net Zero Solar, not Energy Information Savings Area. If you want to talk to those folks, you’ll have to wait for a call. It will probably come at dinner time.