The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters have learned the rush for renewable energy can lead to misunderstandings and disputes and there are things every homeowner should know before signing a contract.
Bob Brown thought putting solar on his Killingworth home was a good idea after learning about “Solarize Haddam-Killingworth” last year.
He received a mailer from the first select woman, explaining how the more people that sign up for solar, the bigger the discounts from BeFree Solar, the company chosen as Haddam-Killingworth's official installer.
Brown said his problems began when BeFree handed him an amended work order in his driveway after the company put different panels on his roof than the ones he ordered. Panels do vary in quality and output, however BeFree insists the ones it installed were an upgrade and a brand approved through the Solarize program.
“I questioned the owner of this particular company. He proceeded to tell me it was the same, in fact it was even a better panel, than the one I had initially subscribed to. Right then and there a flag went up,” Brown said.
In a statement, BeFree Solar stressed it has the right to switch panels, saying in part, “there is a time lag between the signing of the contract and the installation of the solar panels because of the volume of people that have signed up. In that time frame, the original brand of solar panels can become unavailable and our contract allows the substitution of equipment. All homeowners are informed of this at the time they sign up.”
The Connecticut Green Bank, the agency overseeing the solarize programs that made the loan for Brown's panels, agreed that BeFree needed to tell Brown about changing the panels before it installed them. At Brown's urging, it had BeFree take the panels off and restore his roof to its original condition.
Mackey Dykes, of the Green Bank, said that "sometimes the initial equipment that was contracted for isn't available so a change is made. We learn about that and we get the sign off of the homeowner, but in this case it wasn't followed."
The Green Bank said Brown's situation is the only one out of its 14,000 clean energy projects where panels were off the roof. The Green Bank estimated BeFree has installed just under 400 systems through solarize programs in Haddam, Killingworth, Durham, and Griswold. It does not have figures on other customer complaints, but confirmed another Killingworth homeowner had different panels on his roof than the ones BeFree originally ordered, and that dispute was settled with a discount. Dykes added, “When you've got such a quick growing industry, every once and a while there are bound to be some issues, which we take seriously".
Meanwhile, the Department of Consumer Protection shares with the Troubleshooters it now has a pending investigation into BeFree Solar. It cannot share details.
Cathy Iino, Killingworth's first select woman, admits to the Troubleshooters the Solarize program did not go as smoothly as she had hoped, in terms of issues like Brown’s, and installations that still have not wrapped up. Iino believes it might just be a case where BeFree had too much work on its plate at one time.
“It was disappointing that problems started to arise with what seems like a really straightforward idea," Iino said.
And in spite of Brown's troubles, Solarize Haddam-Killingworth is considered a success story in terms of roughly 200 homes now with racks on their roofs, saving money.
“We had no bills! I mean we, last winter, we had maybe two months where we paid about half of what we normally pay," Lynn Clark, a BeFree customer, said.
The bottom line on solar is read the fine print in your contract.
Plus, educate yourself about the quality and output of your panels and how suitable the pitch and direction of your roof is for solar.