FOCUS investigates customers’ complaints against a solar company
Customers spent thousands, waiting months for solar systems to generate power, some are still waiting. Read the company's response and the full FOCUS investigation.
It’s not all sunshine when it comes to solar energy.
WHAS11's FOCUS investigative team started looking into one solar power company after joining a private group on social media where customers were throwing shade. There were posts from people all over Kentucky and several other states.
“We do have a perfect location,” Tim Morrow explained to FOCUS. His house sits atop a hill in Taylorsville. “As far as getting sun from sunup to sundown and no shade.”
Morrow and his wife are public school teachers with retirement in sight. This solar panel system was supposed to offset their electric bill -- at least that's what Morrow said Solar Titan USA sold him on.
In December 2021, Morrow financed $57,000 for a 12-kilowatt solar panel system, and about a month later installation was underway.
“It's on the roof," he told FOCUS investigators. "They were very quick about getting them on the roof."
Fast forward to April 1, 2022 and Morrow said his system still wasn’t producing power. The Morrows were stuck with a nearly $300 loan payment on top of an electric bill that was almost $300.
“They've basically done everything illegally here,” Morrow explained. “They never got the permit before they started it, they guaranteed me, 'Yes, we had the permits, you need to let the people on your property to work because we had the permits.'"
A Spencer County inspector confirmed to FOCUS that the required permits were not pulled prior to the installation is started.
In an email statement, Solar Titan USA explained, in part, “Our policy is to pull ALL required permits PRIOR to installation. We have had some personnel challenges in some of our Kentucky areas that we have now addressed...”
More payments: "A lot of unhappy customers."
Another Solar Titan USA customer in Frankfort, told FOCUS investigators that his family purchased a $44,450 6-kilowatt solar panel system and battery.
Kenneth Bryant signed the contract in October last year and in November the solar panels went up. But similar to Morrow, as of April 1, Bryant said his system still wasn't producing power.
Similarly, the Franklin County Planning, Zoning, and Code Enforcement Department confirmed permits were not filed until March 7, again after the installation.
“I've been paying on a system that I have not seen an ounce of electric from,” Bryant said, adding that he's had five payments of about $250 automatically withdrawn from his bank account.
“[The] system's not operational, so there's nothing really nullified, I'm just stuck with an extra payment,” Bryant said.
According to the contract with Solar Titan USA, the first payment is due approximately 60 days after installation.
“To me installed means the job is done," he said. "And it is operational and ready to go."
The contract also states that the solar company can use photos of their work at customer properties for social media and promotions, it prohibits customers from posting anything negative about the company on social media.
That didn’t stop customers from creating the Facebook group "Solar Titan Screwed us."
“There are a lot of unhappy customers,” Bryant said.
Read: Portions of the Solar Titan USA buyer contract
Attorney General's investigate: "No way I was going to sign that."
FOCUS discovered the Kentucky Attorney General's Office is investigating at least 10 complaints against Solar Titan. But Kentucky isn't alone, our FOCUS team found that the Attorney General’s Offices in both Tennessee and Georgia are also looking into several complaints against the company as well.
The Kentucky Attorney General's Office, declined to speak specifically about Solar Titan because the case is under investigation.
However, Chris Lewis, executive director of the Kentucky Attorney General's Office of Consumer Protection, did share some insight on some of the contractual language.
FOCUS Investigator John Charlton: “As you see it, installation then is actually putting the solar panels on the roof, running all the circuits, and having everything inspected, and then finally turned on with the right meter and everything running?”
Lewis: “It should be and if consumers are purchasing something less than that, then they need to be aware of those terms."
After a Better Business Bureau complaint, Solar Titan offered to reimburse Bryant two payments, totaling $504.56, as long as he agreed to sign on as a positive referral and give positive reviews and ratings.
“I'm not going to take a payment to give a positive review,” Bryant said.
He brought his objection to Solar Titan and said that term was removed, saying he was reimbursed for three payments totaling $756.84.
The accuracy of those ratings and reviews, which include payments for positive reviews and ratings, could that put the next potential customer at a disadvantage?
“Technically you can make an argument that that's going to be a deceptive business practice under our consumer protection laws,” Lewis said.
Kentucky's Consumer Protection Act protects consumers and KRS 367.170 defines ‘unlawful acts’ as “Unfair, false, misleading, or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce...”
Morrow also got a conditional offer for reimbursement of one month's payment, $323.49.
“One month's payment was one-fourth of the interest that I owe," he said. "So I told them no way I was going to sign that.”
By May 6, the inspection was completed on Morrow’s solar panel system, but he said he was still waiting for it to produce power for his family.
Solar Titan USA's response: "Solar is a new emerging industry"
The FOCUS team spent weeks trying to reach out to Solar Titan USA to give them an opportunity to explain the pattern of issues customers told us they experienced.
On May 12, Dale Roden a Technical Operations Manager from Solar Titan USA sent this statement:
“Thank you for reaching out. Solar is a new emerging industry. Many large corporations are embracing a Solar solution along with utilities adding massive solar fields to their sourced energy options, it is clear Solar Energy is going to play large part in the solution for future energy needs. Electric cars along with many other new technologies are and will be placing an increasing demand on the existing electrical grid. The last few years of technology changes and improvements have brought solar power from just a commercial solution to being a great option for many residential homeowners as well.
Like with any new and fast growing industry solar energy, as a combination solution with the electrical grid for residential homes, has had a lot of growing pains. This is due to many factors. It requires many separate groups to be able to work together for a common goal. With the newness of the industry a lot of these processes haven’t been perfected, or even created at times, which can cause delays and frustration. Also, there is at times intentional road blocks put up, most of these are due to certain entities fighting or fearing the ‘new’ Solar Energy option. Fearing customers will be taken away and not understanding that with the growing demand for electricity these new options will be necessary! Also, there is good and bad in every industry. A few bad apples have made it hard for the ones trying to pave the way for the future of green energy. We don’t claim perfection by any means and are working hard to ensure our customers are taken care of in a professional and timely manner. We have had delays on some of our projects, which we are compensating our customers for. These can be due to processes that are rapidly changing with the parties we work with, new requirements that change during the process, and our own internal challenges to create best processes, procedures and communication. Again, Solar Titan is committed to taking care of our customers and getting all projects complete. We would encourage any of our customers who have concerns to reach out to us directly so we can address their issues or concerns.
-Solar Titan USA
Later, Solar Titan USA agreed to answer specific questions from WHAS11's FOCUS team in an email.
Read the full email response to FOCUS' questions sent on May 16 :
FOCUS: In the contract, what is your definition of “installation?” Why are some customers being required to pay monthly loan payments if the system is not fully up and running?
Solar Titan: Equipment installed on the home, is installation. This is followed with inspection and commissioning. The finance companies have differing loan options and terms and depending on which one is selected that determines the payments start date. (We reimburse customers if they start making payments before they are up and running.)
FOCUS: How many customers currently are there who have been waiting for more than a month for their system to be activated?
Solar Titan: Most of our customers are up and running within 4-8 week of installation. Many things factor into this timing. Delays with inspectors, utility requirements which change during the process or personnel challenges with us or the other parties involved. Also, there have been a significant number of warrantied parts waiting replacements. We are working thru these issues with the manufactures, who are taking full responsibility, but unfortunately, we as the installer are bearing the blame.
FOCUS: In which states does Solar Titan sell and operate?
Solar Titan: KY, TN, GA, AL
FOCUS: Why is work being done without the proper permits being pulled first?
Solar Titan: Our policy is to pull ALL required permits PRIOR to installation. We have had some personnel challenges in some of our Kentucky areas that we have now addressed. Along with this, many utility districts have changed the required permitting this year. For example: only about 5% of our installs required building permits last year. This has increased to more than 50% in 2022. We weren't told of the change until after we started the projects, again this has been remedied, but we were not alerted to the changes. Some of these changes came after we already started the projects and unfortunately these projects were not grandfather in. We have had to go back and add them after the fact.
FOCUS: What is a reasonable time folks can expect for the entire system to be installed and then turned on, from point of sale to full activation?
Solar Titan: For most of our customers this process will be 2-4 months. For some of our customers this can be as short as 4 weeks, for some this can be longer (the national average for solar sale to commissioning is 6-9 months).
FOCUS: Why is Solar Titan offering credits/reimbursements to customers as long as those customers sign a form stating that they will give positive reviews and referrals?
Solar Titan: We do offer reimbursements to our customers if they have made payments before their system is up and running. This process and wording has recently been revised to create a better way to communicate with our customers. We do ask that customers bring frustrations directly to us so we can take care of any questions or concerns directly. We want to assure you and all our customers that we take customer service very seriously! We have recently added several new positions to handle calls and proactive communication with our customers. We encourage any customers to reach out to us with any questions or concerns.
Solar Titan did not answer the FOCUS team's direct question about those reimbursements being contingent on positive reviews and ratings, saying instead that "the process and wording has recently been revised" to improve communication with customers.
Days after our we aired our initial story, Solar Titan USA sent an email to further explain concerns from customers. They described changes being made to ensure permits are pulled prior to installation and efforts to change the wording on reimbursement agreements. Click here to read their full response and check out our follow-up reporting.
FOCUS confirmed with officials in Franklin and Spencer County, in both Bryant’s and Morrow’s cases permits were not pulled before work was done contradicting Solar Titan’s policy, which is to pull all required permits prior to installation.
Morrow says, after waiting nearly five months, his panels are finally operational. Going on seven months since signing up for solar, Bryant is still waiting.
Interested in solar energy?: Finding reputable vendors
Here are some tips for those interested in purchasing solar panel systems:
- Make sure to vet the potential solar company before committing and signing a contract. Search reviews and social media to see what current customers' experience has been. Check to make sure they have filed the proper paperwork and are in good standing with the Kentucky Secretary of State’s Office. Click here to search.
- Get multiple quotes to compare all your options
- Check with your utility company to learn how much energy you are using so that you are not paying for a system that is more or less than what you need.
- Ask for all the terms of the contract to review prior to signing any contract. Make sure to carefully read every line and ask questions if you do not understand.
- If you are financing the purchase, make sure to explore multiple financing options. Consider taking out a home equity loan.
- Make sure you know what permits are needed by calling the Planning and Zoning and/or Code and Regulation Enforcement offices in your area. There may be additional requirements if you live within the limits of a city.
- Consider additional costs that may be required to optimize the potential energy output. For example, you may have to trim some trees. If the panels are being placed on the roof, there may be additional structural work required to hold the weight of the panels.
- Prior to any work being done or installation, check with local officials to ensure the proper permits have been pulled even if the vender said they take of all the permits for you.
- Request the name and contact info of any sub-contractors and check with the city, county, and/or state to make sure they have the proper licensing.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also offers consumer advice and more things you might consider when looking to buy into solar power.
Louisville Metro Government and the Louisville Sustainability Council have launched a program called Solar Over Louisville that is offering solar energy products at a discount for the following counties:
Kentucky: Louisville/Jefferson County, Oldham County, Shelby County, Spencer County, Bullitt County, Trimble County, Henry County, Hardin County, Meade County, Nelson County
Indiana: Floyd County, Clark County, Harrison County, Washington County, Scott County
The deadline to sign up is June 30th. Sign up here.
How to choose a solar power installer:
Review these tips offered by the Louisville Climate Action Network and the Solar Energy Industries Association. A list of local solar installers is available on the KY Solar Energy Society webpage.
How to report concerns:
If you have concerns about a product or service, you should file a complaint or report issues to multiple agencies.
- Submit a complaint to the Attorney General's Office in your state. In Kentucky, you can file a complaint online or call the Consumer Protection Division at (502) 696-5389.
- Contact the Kentucky Public Protection at 502-782-2736.
- Contact your county and/or city officials to report the issues and seek additional guidance and resources.
- If you live in Louisville Kentucky and you feel the work was not done up to code or without proper permits, contact Metro 311.
Have a story tip? Contact the FOCUS Investigative team at FOCUS@whas11.com.
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