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Solar News 24 April 2010. Which? Magazine report on solar mis-selling misses the point.

Filed under: Latest News

Which? Magazine. Solar report. May 2010. Solar water heating article. Which solar best buy?

Which? Magazine report on solar water heating mis-selling.

NEWS UPDATE 25 May 2010

Interesting that Which? now seem to be drawing back from endorsing Southern Solar.   Here is a quote from a letter from Which? (which was NOT sent to me):

…we found sufficient examples of substandard practice by other companies to determine that only one company, Southern Solar, merited mention for ‘its helpful and sensible manner’. This, however, should not be understood as a ‘recommendation’ or ‘endorsement’ of Southern Solar…

So why did Which? give its name, website & phone number? No others.

Original article 24 April 2010

Today’s Which? Magazine report (May 2010) on misleading claims from the solar water heating industry is a great start on the campaign to clean up the industry, but the consumer champion may need to take the matter even further, in order to be heard at the highest level.

A number of additional points about solar water heating being promoted using misleading claims are overlooked in the Which? solar article, as Barry Johnston, MD of Solar Twin Ltd comments: “At last, this catalogue of misleading claims are out in the open by the Which? and I am really grateful to Which? For bringing them to the public’s attention via this solar feature. They shouldn’t have to, however, because the industry should be as ethical and honest – and environmentally friendly as are some of the solar products being sold!

It is important that the public can determine which solar heating companies are good and which can do a lot better, and I look forward to working with those who can put this right.

He added on “Zero Carbon” technology claims

The Which? report on solar panels does not mention that the solar water heating industry is making repeated false claims: that solar heating systems which have to be plugged into the mains electricity in order to work are zero carbon, when in fact the accurate description of most solar hot water systems would be low carbon.

If a salesmen sold a particular car to an undercover Which? researcher by claiming it could do 50 mpg, when in fact it only did 40 mpg would Which? endorse that business? This is similar to what is happening in the solar industry.

FACT – If most solar heaters are plugged into the mains electric supply then there will be carbon emissions at the power stations. This “parasitic load” will negate about 20% of the emissions which are saved in the the solar system burning gas in the house where it is fitted. It appears that more than 80% of solar water heating systems must plugged into the mains – and switched on – in order to operate. Such solar water heating systems are not zero carbon. To be zero carbon, their pumps would need to operate using, for example solar electricity.

Legionella safety

The Legionella bacterium grows in tepid water. It can cause a potentially lethal form of pneumonia, if it is inhaled, for example, via water spray, from a shower. This risk is important to consumers of solar hot water since the solar water heating plumbing diagram used to illustrate the Which? solar water heating article does not comply with the Health and Safety Executive’s guidance (L8, para 158) on Legionella safety.

FACT – The Water Regulations Advisory Service Website (WRAS) reports L8 non-compliant systems as being “highly likely” to be creating a risk of Legionella.

FACT – The WRAS Legionella risk assessment report was kept secret, at the request of senior players in the solar hotwater industry. It was only released following a Freedom on Information request by Solar Twin Ltd.

FACT – According to UK’s Health Protection Agency, concerning risks from hot water, more people are likely to die from Legionella infection than from hot water scalding.

FACT – In 2009, consolidating their opposition to detailed Legionella safety improvements proposed by Solar Twin Ltd, leading senior member on Europe’s highest solar heating regulatory committee (Europe’s CEN TC 312 Solar Thermal Committee) decided to formally boycott the “sensitive” Legionella debate with Solar Twin Ltd.

Non-disclosure of industry links and extensive industry cover-ups.

The Which? solar article regards only one solar heating company, out of the fourteen which it assessed, as helpful and sensible: Southern Solar. Which? also publish the phone number of Southern Solar in the article. Which? does not state that Southern Solar’s Managing Director is also Chairman of the Solar Trade Association (STA) and that, on behalf of the STA, this individual makes repeated claims to the public and to Government that solar heating is zero carbon (when it usually is not).

FACT – The STA have repeatedly threatened Solar Twin Ltd to be silent on the zero carbon and Legionella issues.

FACT – The STA have specifically excluded Solar Twin Ltd from membership, because of Solar Twin Ltd have sought to raise these matters publicly.

FACT – Solartwin solar heater heating technology IS an innovation which is zero carbon. Few others systems are zero carbon.

FACT – Some years ago Solar Twin Ltd were coerced by the solar industry into not re-publishing independent DTI data on the carbon impacts associated with named conventional solar heating systems, most of which were STA board member companies.

FACT – Solartwin’s hot water storage DOES comply with HSE guidance on Legionella.

FACT – Solar Twin Ltd have sent full evidence of these Zero Carbon and Legionella issues to Which? magazine over the past 18 months.

FACT – Which? magazine were on the point of publishing the Legionella solar story in Spring 2009 – until the STA intervened.

Quotes for simple solar heating installations involving extensive phone surveys and aerial photography.

The Which? expert describes the process of quoting for solar installations by phone as “doomed to failure”. (It reports that two companies provided written quotes based on telephone surveys.) It is possible that Solar Twin Ltd was one of these companies, although this has not been confirmed. Our experience is that this “doomed” claim may indeed be correct for STA type installations where, typically mains wiring and complex high pressure plumbing are all required as a package, but not for Solartwin.

FACT – Quoting by phone is a deliberate part of Solar Twin Ltd’s environmental policy in simple domestic installations, for example where the hot water cylinder does not need to be replaced.

FACT – Solar Twin Ltd have been quoting successfully by phone for over a decade. We ask 60-160 detailed questions. We note all the answers on a database. We look at clients’ roofs from the sky using aerial photographs. Ofter assessing all the relevant factors we issue a quote, where we can.

FACT – This eco-survey approach saves time, money and CO2. Called eco-surveys, such comprehensive surveys are a significant and practical way to save on mileage and carbon emissions which would otherwise be incurred by visiting someone’s home. Most customers know their own homes better than most solar salesmen ever will.

FACT – A typical Solartwin installation involves adding two pipes, one pump and a solar panel. Our plumbing is low pressure and is much simpler than most. There are no mains electrics involved at all (the pump is powered by low voltage solar electricity).

FACT – The Solar Trade Association have repeatedly tried to oppose phone surveys, even for   simple installations like ours, on the generic grounds that site visits are require for complex installations (which most of their members promote).

Solartwin background

Solartwin’s Scottish-invented “disruptive technology” is a winner of a SMART award for innovation and a best buy from Ethical Consumer Magazine. After 10 years of STA-led opposition on commercial grounds by the self-regulating solar heating industry, it was officially accepted by the UK solar accreditation scheme (MCS) run by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in 2009.

Solar heating subsidy background

The solar hot water industry is gearing up for tenfold growth, thanks to a forthcoming subsidy scheme called Renewable Heat Incentives (RHI). If implemented, RHI will probably triple the return on investment and move solar water heating out of the green ghetto and into the mainstream. Solar Twin Ltd have made numerous representations to Government about consumer, safety and sustainability interests needing better representation at industry and government levels. Solar Twin Ltd regards the involvement of these wider interests as being critical to the success and credibility of the solar thermal industry.

Office of Fair Trading background

FACT – Giving the context of   under 100,000 installations in homes, the Which? magazine solar water heating article reports that the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has recieved around 1000 complaints about the sector this year. The Which report describes this number “as far too high”. Solar Twin agree with their assessment.

FACT – Every year for the past five years, Solar Twin Ltd have formally asked the OFT to investigate the solar thermal industry, because it has been beset with competition and false claims problems. This has largely been due to “light-touch” Government policies almost encouraging the solar industry to “self-regulate” so that (1) innovative technologies (2) more honest business and (3) deep green business models face regulatory, and thus, commercial oblivion. But the OFT have always declined to intervene substantially. Solar Twin Ltd would welcome an immediate investigation into the conduct of several dominant players in the UK solar thermal market, and hope that the May 2010 Which? Report on Solar Water Heating will be its catalyst.

Competition issues of the moment

One concern with today’s Which? Magazine article is that Which? almost seem to be pulling their punches – to keep the conventional solar thermal industry happy – at the expense of innovators and dissenters such as ourselves. Their website says:”No advertising, no bias, no hidden agenda. Just expert advice from an independent source.” Are Which? completely meeting this claim?

Recap: Quick quiz

Q – When is a false claim not a false claim?
A – When it originates with the STA.

The lobbying aims of the Solar Trade Association include:

“making it difficult for less reputable companies to function successfully” As a non-member of the STA, we are proud to regard ourselves as being more reputable than the STA! But it begs the question of whether this possible illegal aim of market restraint is a deliberate part of the STA’s modus operandi….

Please lobby too!

UK Office of Fair Trading: Enquiries@oft.gsi.gov.uk

European competition: Stateaidgreffe@ec.europa.eu

Which? Editor is Martyn Hocking: Martyn.Hocking@which.co.uk

Follow up report dated 28 April 2010.

We have now found out that the Which? press release which accompanied the punch-pulling solar heating article when it was originally sent to the press says:

“It is an offence for a company to make misleading or false statements that cause consumers to buy products.”

We have asked Which? why they are not reporting their only crowned supplier, Southern Solar, to the be disciplined by the REAL code or to be investigated by their local trading standards since their Chairman makes false claims on Zero Carbon which will cause people to buy old fashioned plug in low carbon solar systems believing that they are is zero carbon (which the DTI report typically have a 20% carbon clawback due to emissions at the power stations) instead of more sustainable zero carbon systems such as Solartwin’s. We are awaiting a reply from Which? about why they are covering up for Southern Solar’s misdeeds.

We have, however had offcial confirmation that Which? are stonewalling us. Here is the email:

From Which? External Relations.

Dear Barry,

Thank you for your email and for summarising the points we discussed on the phone this morning, 28th April. I can confirm the article was three pages long. I can also confirm that we addressed telephone quotes in the article and that Which? stands by it’s criticism of telephone advice, in the light of expert advice received. Iagree to cancel your membership with immediate effect.

Kind regards, Natalie Goodrick
Principal External Relations Account Manager
Which?
2 Marylebone Road, London NW1 4DF
T: 020 7770 7570

To Which? External Relations, earlier the same day.

From: Barry Johnston
Sent: 28 April 2010 10:11
To: Natalie Goodrick
Cc: Martyn Hocking
Subject: Which? stonewalls

Dear Natalie,

You phoned me at 0945 today to say that Which? have reviewed the issues I sent in my emails, and have taken legal advice, and that the position of Which? is as follows.

  • Which? are confident and satisfied that the solar article is fine, and that it is accurate and independent.
  • Which are aware of our views on Zero Carbon , Legionella and Phone Quotes but that these cannot be covered in a two page article.
  • Regarding the expert, Which? have relied on his advice and are not prepared to debate his merits or disclose his affiliations. They are besides point.
  • Which has no legal duty for any loss or damage.
  • Which have not identified us, so we have not been libelled.

We are making no formal response yet except to note that the article was three, not two pages long and that phone quotes were, in fact, addressed. It is surprising, on points 2 and 5, that given Which?’s supposed position on exposing false claims that even this phone communication contained inaccuracies which appear to downplay reality. I express my disappointment that Which? have taken none of our comment on board in any way at all.

You have agreed to cancel my private Which? membership at my request.

Regards, Barry.


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