Small renewables installers warned they may carry can for ‘dodgy’ selling

Delegates at last month’s AECB conference were urged to report companies using aggressive sales techniques and over-ambitious performance forecasts for renewables to the REAL Assurance Scheme, the body set up by the Renewable Energy Association to provide customer protection.

REAL Assurance Scheme certification assistant Ciaran Burns explained that REAL can act on tip offs, and also warned small local installers to take care when contracted by big suppliers looking to sub-contract installations. “REAL are hearing of sales firms selling systems and handing over the installation of those systems to smaller, MCS-registered firms,” he said. “What the smaller firms often don’t realise is that not only are these sales companies reliant on the MCS accreditation, technical expertise and hard work of the installers to complete a job they’ve only sold, they may try to transfer responsibility for those installations to those installers.”

The REAL Assurance Scheme is an OFT-backed Consumer Code which is monitored by the OFT under the auspices of the Consumer Codes Approval Scheme.

Anyone installing renewable plant which is eligible for the FiT, RHPP or RHI has to be certified under the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS), a requirement of which is to be a member of The REAL Assurance Scheme, and abide by the REAL Consumer Code. The Code covers activities with domestic consumers, and members of REAL must abide by its guidelines on selling, quotations, contracts and after-sales service and warranties.

Mis-selling was a major theme in Ciaran’s session and among the delegates, fears were expressed that in the run up to next April’s cut in the FiT, the rogue traders are likely to become much more active. This was borne out by members of the audience who had seen PV installations on north-facing roofs, or shaded by chimneys or trees. Stories were told, too, of people buying heat pumps only to be told they could not have a grid connection.

Ciaran described how companies with large sales teams often follow aggressive sales techniques. A significant proportion of the complaints about pressure selling to REAL are about these types of companies, he said.

“We take it very seriously. Of the firms that have been the subject of our disciplinary procedures this year, one has been suspended while another has been placed on probation.”

REAL can act on tip-offs and can act on reports of poor practice and Ciaran explained that the more evidence they can get on a company, the better.

For small contractors who are approached by sales companies to do third party installations, Ciaran made a stark warning. “Make sure you see the contract and you’re happy with the marketing and performance claims of the firm you’re working for. If anything goes wrong, it’s likely to be you that bears the responsibility, not the sales firm. If in doubt, contact REAL for advice.”

There are plans to issue further protection under a planned alteration to the MCS 001 which will require the MCS installer to sign the contract directly. Although no date has been scheduled, details of the new standard should be available through the MCS website shortly.

Current Tariff Levels

Ciaran Burns also felt that the FiT was higher than it needed to be at the moment and will be reduced considerably in April 2012. The tariff levels had originally been set in April 2010 on basis of 8% return on investment to customers, and he felt installation prices were not being forced downwards as the FiT is high enough to justify the installation costs. “Panels have come down in price about 30%, and when the tariff goes down, it would encourage installers to look for cheaper products.”

“When the market demands cheaper products, only suppliers who can deliver at lower prices will be able to survive and expensive or inefficient producers will be removed from the market,” he predicted. ‘This is what the FiTs were intended to deliver. With mass production of any product the costs decrease and Solar PV has been a major success. With continued long term support the industry will continue to deliver cheaper products until it no longer needs a subsidy’.

The REAL Assurance Code of Conduct can be viewed here –

REAL have put together a leaflet of top tips for consumers which can be accessed here –

What installers should offer customers (extract from REAL code)

It is very important that members do not ‘oversell’ energy generators to consumers. For this reason, it is essential that members give certain technical information, set out below, in writing to consumers before the contract is signed. These are set out below. This means that, in the case of a sales visit where a contract is signed in a consumer’s home, the information must be provided in writing during the visit. Members must keep records of the information provided.

 Before the contract is signed, members must:

  • give consumers a written estimate of how the energy generator will perform in a format that is readily understandable by them, based on specific performance data for the technology in question;
  • make clear whether the estimate is specific to the property and, if it is, whether it follows a site survey;
  • where the estimate is based on some standard or ‘average’ premises instead, give the full details and source of that standard.