Most solar energy installers are skilled and effective professionals. But if problems arise, Montgomery County residents have a strong ally on their side.
When it comes to preventing problems between businesses and the people they serve, Montgomery County is proud to have a strong track record. The County’s Office of Consumer Protection or OCP is a law-enforcement body that offers advice on a range of consumer-related issues, from home ownership to health club membership.
Specifically, the office and its experts and investigators strive to enforce consumer protection laws that target unfair and deceptive business practices. OCP activities include complaint resolution, law enforcement, education, legislation, advocacy, licensing, and outreach.
A new industry recently gained prominence on OCP’s sprawling radar screen: solar energy.
“The market for solar has taken off relatively recently, but it’s a very complicated purchase,” said OCP Director Eric Friedman. “We’re trying to educate consumers. They may be subject to deception and misrepresentation.”
Although the nature of problems and complaints varies widely, in a nutshell, installing solar can be an intricate exercise, even in cases where it’s purportedly simple. Falling technology prices have helped lead to virtual land rushes of investment in solar. Accessible solar energy is a good thing for the planet, and for consumers who can get a better deal on monthly energy bills.
At the same time, fluctuating energy prices and complex contracts can sometimes create the conditions for misunderstanding or even misconduct. In a very few extreme cases, major crimes like fraud have been alleged.
The OCP recently created a Consumer Alert for solar installations after receiving an increase in calls about the industry.
Fortunately, OCP offers a range of guidance and assistance for County consumers thinking about going solar or feeling pain after the fact.
According to Friedman, there are an estimated 194 solar panel companies operating in the state of Maryland alone. The large majority of these companies are reputable outlets that do what they say they are going to do.
A few bad apples have attempted to spoil the barrel for some residents, however. But that’s where OCP can step in.
To pick the right company for you and make sure your installation goes smoothly, consider the following points from the recent OCP document Solar Energy: A Consumer’s Guide:
OCP has a number of measures at its disposal to combat bad actors. Some of them are relatively benign, others are more intense.
However, Friedman indicated that OCP has successfully pursued bad-apple solar installers on behalf of County residents.
“We’ve been able to unravel a lot of these,” Friedman said. “[Results include] getting work done or getting a refund. One time, we assisted in bringing criminal prosecution against an installer who stole money.”
The reasons for complaints vary, Friedman added.
“We’ve had cases where the homeowner didn’t know whether they purchased or leased a system,” Friedman said. “We’ve had projects sold by non-licensed home improvement contractor, or not done by a licensed electrician. Some were negligent in doing the work.”
Ultimately, as is often the case with big decisions, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
“Many consumer purchases require some homework,” Friedman said. “Think of it like buying a car. Find out the nature of the transaction. Why are you really buying a solar system, and what do you really want to get out of it?”
The Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection is available online or at 240-777-3636.
By Scott Harris, Freelance Writer. Read Scott’s other posts on the benefits of environmental peer pressure, birds and climate change, eco-friendly ice rinks, residential solar, and congregational rain gardens.