March 4, 2017 • By Dennis Beaver
“I have read your column for years and need your help in righting a wrong, my wrong.
“For the past six months I‘ve been one of those obnoxious, pushy creeps you meet when walking into almost any home improvement store — anywhere in the country — insisting that solar must installed on your roof, is completely free — (which is a lie) — and if you don’t then you are an idiot!”
These were the opening remarks from “Mark,” who dropped by our office a few days before Christmas wanting “to come clean to someone who could help others avoid this free solar scam.”
Over the past year, Mark was not the only former solar employee who contacted us, but he proved to be the most engaging. The misleading sales practices he outlined are currently the subject of investigations by a number of state attorneys general, including California.
“Depending upon the company, reps are given the title of field energy specialist, or field energy consultant and go through a training process having little to do with solar technology but which would make the mafia proud! I do not know how the company has managed to assemble such a collection of dishonest, insulting, abusive people, but they did it, and I have been one far too long,” adding, “And they get this shirt back tomorrow.”
Mark was eager to share strategies he was taught, “Which have one purpose, to schedule an at-home sales appointment where there’s an excellent chance of selling solar to families — especially the elderly — who may never financially benefit from it.” These include:
• Once you make eye contact with a customer and begin to have a conversation — any kind of a conversation — never let that person out of your sight! Stick to them like flypaper!
• Put on a big smile, trying not to look fake, and ask, “Aren’t you tired of high energy bills? We can lower them and, in fact, my parents recently switched to solar — absolutely free —and are saving buckets of money every month.”
• If the customer says, “Sure, I would like to save on energy,” or something similar, then ask, “What is your monthly energy bill?” Regardless of the answer, next state, “We can normally cut that in half, if not even much better.”
“Of course that last statement is pure nonsense, but the idea is to create a sense of urgency to save money.”
Mark was quick to stress that solar can be the right decision for young families — especially if they purchase the equipment — but not for everyone.
“As there is a break-even time line to consider, which can range from 10 to 20 years, solar is rarely appropriate for the elderly on fixed incomes who we target by using the argument of ever-increasing utility rates.”
We asked, “For someone on a fixed income, who would agree to buy a solar system?” The answer was a sales tactic seen as fraud by many consumer organizations: Free Solar.
“We offer installation of a roof-top solar system with a 20-year lease and no upfront costs. The catch is that you buy the electricity it generates from us, and if lucky, saving 10 percent over your regular utility bill. But we do not tell you that:
• As we own the equipment, what amounts to a lien on the house is filed, called a UCC-1 protecting our interest in the equipment.
• This lien can create real problems if you want a reverse mortgage or would like to refinance the house.
• Selling a house with that UCC-1 could force a reduction in the price, require paying off the solar company, or removal of the entire system and roof repairs should the buyers not want solar.
• The fine print in many contracts requires the equipment to be covered by homeowners insurance, frequently raising your yearly premium if your insurance policy even covers solar. You might have to change companies.
• Even though we promise to maintain the system, use common sense. 20 years is a long time. Companies go bankrupt. The homeowner could face significant maintenance and repair expenses.
Mark had one other good piece of advice, and anyone who survived a time-share sales pitch will get his point:
“They show you a chart where hotel room rates are constantly going up, ‘proof’ a time-share saves money. But, adjusted for inflation, rates have gone down.”
So, we ask, “If your utility can’t say what it will charge for electricity in 10 years, how can anyone else promise that you will always pay less by going solar?”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.