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Solar news: 8 October 2011. Widespread misleading performance claims about solar heating reported to industry watchdog.

Filed under: Latest News

Solar panel sales companies. Solar heating performance. Free hot water solar website claims. Free energy claims. Misleading financial claims. Exaggerated environmental performance. Parasitic energy in solar thermal. Solar water heating cowboys. Solar customer protection. REAL Consumer Code intervenes.

News: 40 “exaggerated claims” by solar heating companies sent to green energy watchdog for investigation.

Yesterday the head of the UK’s renewable energy industry consumer code, a code which bans misleading marketing claims, thanked Solar Twin Ltd for its “supportive attitude” to the work that they are doing in cleaning up the solar water heating industry.

Virginia Graham, head of the REAL Code, sent her thanks and best wishes within minutes of Solar Twin Ltd submitting to REAL evidence of 40 solar heating websites which appeared to be making exaggerated or misleading claims about the financial or environmental performance of solar water heating systems.

At least twelve of these forty solar heating websites were claiming to be run by supposedly REAL Code compliant companies – who displayed the REAL Code logo on their website. The REAL Assurance Scheme Code, to give it its full name, is a consumer code for suppliers of renewable and low carbon micro heat and power generators to domestic consumers.

The REAL Code specifically:

  • Bans false or misleading information about a company,   product, service.
  • Bans any statement that is likely to mislead the consumer in any way.

Grateful for response

Barry Johnston, Managing Director of Solar Twin Ltd a supplier of solar heating and solar electric installations throughout UK welcomed the REAL Code’s constructive response today, saying:

“I am very grateful to the REAL code for welcoming our evidence of widespread misleading claims and also for describing us as supportive.

“Today, consumers of some solar water heating technologies may not only be denied safety information by some solar installers (a matter which we have already raised with REAL) but now it seem that too many people who are deciding how to choose solar, and who are asking which solar technology to buy, are also being misled in other important areas where accuracy, rather than exaggeration, is necessary. This is very worrying.

“So we have formally sent to REAL what we think is evidence of widespread misleading information on financial and environmental performance by solar water heating system companies. What amazes me is that I discovered these apparently  exaggerated claims by accident – after a one-second Google search for this search term: solar “free hot water” UK

“I am stunned not only the ubiquity of these  exaggerated claims but their prominence. Many are positioned on the page to catch the reader’s eye, for example at the start or at the end of pages. Others are given special emphasis, such as by being highlighted in bulleted lists or by being used as headings.

“The prominence of these exaggerated claims suggests that numerous companies are not only making these claims without fear of being called to account by any consumer regulator, but also that these  exaggerated claims, in fact, form an essential part of their sales and marketing strategy.

“That is why I am particularly delighted that REAL appear to recognise that widespread customer deception is happening today in the UK solar thermal industry and appear to agree with me that much of our industry needs to clean itself up – right now. With the hope of a Renewable Heat Incentive being introduced soon as new solar water heating subsidy, it is vital that the solar industry starts off as it intends to proceed: clean and green.

Selling solar heating systems using exaggeration must no longer be regarded as acceptable practice in the solar heating industry. And solar thermal companies who share our concerns about possible mis-selling must no longer be expected to keep silent and to follow the party line, by turning a blind eye to a widespread and unacceptable practice which we seem to have have unearthed.

“It seems from this issue that regulators are not doing enough to protect the consumer from  exaggerated expectations being raised by  exaggerated claims being made by a large number of supposedly reputable solar panel heating suppliers.

“I would really like to know whether consumers of solar water heating who have been potentially mis-sold “free hot water” systems which are in fact, not delivering free hot water at all, will soon be able get their solar heat for free by having the element of electricity bill which increases because of their use of certain types of solar technology refunded by their solar panel supplier.

“These existence of, and lack of solar industry action on, these  exaggerated solar performance claims seriously distort competition – by diverting customers away from solar panel companies such as ours which offer technologically superior solar products, ones which are capable of making such claims sincerely because our radically different technology can actually deliver them.”

The REAL Code’s stated position stand against mis-selling is robust.

Responding to an article in Which? Magazine article which exposed some aspects of solar mis-selling, the REAL Code issued a statement which included the following:

“The REAL Assurance Scheme exists to protect and raise standards for consumers who purchase small-scale energy generation for use in their own home. Scheme members are legally obliged to comply with the Consumer Code at the heart of the Scheme and overseen by the Office of Fair Trading.

“The REAL Assurance Scheme welcomes the Which? report, providing consumers with advice on what to look for when installing solar thermal systems. It is essential that this information is disseminated as widely as possible so that consumers know what to look for.

“We also welcome the report’s highlighting of examples of mis-selling and poor service by some companies who supply solar thermal equipment. We will be contacting Which? magazine to follow up on their investigation, and take any action necessary against any of the companies which are members of our Scheme.

The REAL Assurance Scheme takes evidence of non-compliance very seriously, suspending offenders from the Scheme. We regularly check members’ compliance by auditing on a regular basis and mystery shopping where we have reason to suspect non-compliance. We are currently investigating compliance on the part of one of the companies mentioned in the report.

“Proposals to consumers must only include estimates of savings, periods of recovery (‘payback’) or other measures of financial effectiveness where these are based on information from the consumer on his or her existing energy use and cost and should not mislead the consumer into affecting their economic behaviour.”

Here is a pdf of the Which? magazine solar cowboys article.

“Free hot water” exaggerated claims in solar water heating: Technical  background.

Of course there is a commercial dimension to this matter: some of our competitors are stealing our thunder by inaccurately claiming “free hot water”…

Solar Twin Ltd only sell solar thermal products which are solar electric pumped. However, nearly all of our competitors sell mains pumped solar thermal products. Anything which is plugged into the mains electricity supply consumes electricity when it is turned on. Two independent studies in UK (DTI and EST) have measured the energy consumption of conventional solar water heating and both found that its consumption accounts for about 8% of the collected solar energy.

The fact is that mains pumped solar water heating systems (ie the majority) do not deliver free energy. They only deliver low cost energy. They do not deliver free hot water either. They only deliver low cost hot water. Low costs are of course desirable, but a technology should not be misrepresented as zero cost when it is not.

What is this low cost? Looking at the operational energy, if the electricity which is used to pump and control a system costs 12.5p per unit then 8% of 12.5p is 1 penny. So the operational cost of solar water heating systems is around   is 1p per kilowatt-hour (kWh or unit). Unless, of course, its pumping (and control) is really done for free, with no electricity charges whatever.

Then its operational cost would be zero.

Can such totally free operation of control and pumping really happen? Yes. Here are two ways. Thermosyphon systems use gravity circulation. Systems with solar electric pumping are another example. Solartwin’s award winning solar water heated technology is one such technology. So there are some genuinely zero carbon technologies which really can deliver free energy in the form of free hot water.

As a supplier of solar heating systems which are really zero carbon in operation and which supply free hot water (by not being mains pumped) we applaud REAL’s active assistance in supporting our quest to end all such  exaggerated claims.

Of course all 40 sites which we referred to REAL might be actually making correct claims.  But I suspect that most are, in fact misleading people who buy solar water heating systems.

What might the REAL watchdog do?

We hope that REAL will support the rights of any misled solar heating customers who want free upgrades to solar water heating systems which do actually deliver free hot water – and we have suggested to REAL that they may want to:

  • Take and log dated screen shots of each solar website page which contains a potentially misleading claim (I hope they are all gone by the time that you read this!)
  • Ask, company by company, and under the REAL code, for removal of this claim from this solar webpage and from all other marketing literature.
  • Suggest that the solar heating system supplier refers instead to “low cost energy”, or similar.
  • Refer any apparent non-members / persistent offenders to their local Trading Standards.
  • Write immediately to all REAL solar thermal member companles (not just to those about whom we have expressed concerns) asking them not to claim “free hot water” or “free energy” or “zero carbon operation” etc, unless they can justify their claims under the REAL Assurance Code.
  • Write to any solar trade associations or similar bodies associated with REAL and REA asking them to ask their members to do the same (pointing out that financial and performance claims must not mislead).

Iceberg-tip: there is even more…

We have also noted that this claim is but one example of one  exaggerated performance/financial environmental claim in respect of “free hot water”. That there are many such false claims out there in the solar heating market place and it seems that consumers may even be systematically misled into sometimes choosing the wrong product in UK’s crowded solar thermal market. We have suggested that REAL may also want to start googling for (and remedying) equivalent exaggerated claims such as: “free energy” in relation to solar water heating.

It is great to know that REAL is now taking action on this long-standing exaggerated claims issue, in the teeth what will probably be industry opposition.

Regards, Barry.

4 weeks elapsed and nothing much has actually happened. In fact REAL have apparently not questioned or sanctioned anyone. So here is a summary of a chaser email sent to some REAL code Supervisory panel members 2 November 2010. What a waste of time!

Solar industry misleading claims / passing off as “zero carbon” and “free hot water”

Please excuse me writing to you as a solar thermal supplier in UK which is committed to transparency and sustainability, but I would like to alert you to my concerns that the REAL Code do not seem to be delivering to consumers what they were set up / expected to deliver.

Aware that you are connected with the REAL Code Supervisory Panel, I am writing to you in your capacity with the Panel to express my concern at the apparent inertia of the REAL Code, a supposed consumer code, of which we are paying subscribers, and to ask for your help in chasing REAL to deliver what, in writing, they say they deliver.

In particular it seems that to date REAL have not taken prompt and proper action against on widespread misleading / passing off “zero carbon” claims by leading solar thermal industry players, claims of which they were informed about six months ago. Nor have REAL responded adequately in response to us sending nearly a month ago the details of 40 solar thermal websites which make apparently misleading “free hot water” claims, 12 sites of which displayed the REAL logo.

As you may know, over 90% of solar water heating systems are mains electric pumped. So there is no doubt that the hot water which they deliver will not normally be free. Even if they are pumped using electricity bought on a 100% green tariff it still cannot be said that they offer free hot water, although a green tariff may just about validate a zero carbon claim. So it seems likely that most of these zero carbon and free hot water claims may, in fact, be false.

In the case of these false claims it appears that REAL, as an industry-led body, sometimes tends to err on the side of industry, rather than of the consumer in cases when dominant sectors of the industry might actually be disadvantaged by its actions and I hope this has not been the case with the solar thermal industry.

Today’s continued passing off of low carbon products as zero carbon means consumers are being misled about the financial and environmental performance of solar thermal in a systematic, industry sanctioned, an wholeseale way. Obviously it also potentially means substantial market distortion against genuine zero carbon suppliers (including ourselves). The scale of this distortion will increase massively under the forthcoming Renewable Heat Incentive so I hope that this distortion can now be resolved, preferably led by the REAL code themselves. Why led by the REAL Code? It now needs to be demonstrated that REAL can prove itself as being up to the job of delivering this clean-up, and that REAL is in fact an independent and genuinely consumer-focussed watchdog which champions transparency and quality.

If the REAL Code is of any value to MCS as a deliverer of quality in a potential state aided scheme such as RHI, then it surely must stop some solar thermal supplier REAL Code members from passing off their conventional low carbon technology as zero carbon, etc. I really feel that cannot fix this problem single handed – I am not a regulator – I have a business to run – so timely support from you and from your Panel colleagues at REAL to put an end to this apparently intractable issue of widespread, solar thermal industry-sanctioned deception would be most welcome.

You sit on the Real Code Supervisory Panel whose role includes overseeing the adoption of the Code. You and your colleagues will, I assume, have made a commitment to part 8.8 of its bylaws, which require a commitment to the greater good of the sustainable energy industry rather than any individual sector of it. So I hope you can agree that the greater good is served by REAL ensuring that any such false claims are promptly stopped, specifically that you are able support my request for REAL to only allow free hot water and zero carbon claims to be made if they can, in fact, be properly justified. Also I ask if you could support REAL’s staff in the potentially unpopular task of delivering this change.

I look forward to a reply or perhaps to a phone discussion on this matter, if you prefer. Regards, Barry.

Perpetual motion machine? Update of 3 November 2010 – further chasing of REAL

I hope you are well. Just in case REAL might ever become reasonable enough to follow up this blocked topic, I was reviewing my evidential correspondence with you on the zero carbon / free hot water / free energy etc false claims issue and despite already supplying you with abundant evidence that mains pumps use electricity, I noticed that I had not referred to SAP. As you know, SAP is DEFRA’s Standard Assessment of Performance. It is written by BRE and is required under MCS as an essential tool to be used for performance estimation for solar thermal. Given that SAP has the prestigious BRE label and that is referred to under MCS, hopefully this gives it robust evidential status.

The attached extract showing SAP Table 4f (on electricity use by fans and pumps etc) states that in SAP calculations one must assume that:

1/ Mains pumped solar water heating systems consume 75 kWh of energy per year of mains electricity . SAP does not say you must steal this electricity. So let us conclude that this 75 units per year must in fact normally be paid for. Otherwise MCS and SAP would be promoting crime, and that would never do! Therefore the heat which this solar water heating system’s pump delivers is not free.
2/ PV pumped solar water heating systems consume 0 kWh per year of mains electricity. No electricity means free hot water and a zero carbon operation system.

Thus in terms of solar water heating system operation, any zero carbon / free hot water / free energy, etc claims are only valid for PV pumped solar thermal. For mains pumped systems they clearly are false claims. That’s SAP. Now for some solar pump brochure fun.

And just in case REAL solar companies might have conveniently forgotten (with REAL and STYA support) that their mains powered pumps actually use electricity, here is a reminder that they do actually consume this polluting stuff. Challenge them to provide a pump brochure or specification! Attached is a brochure from a major solar thermal pump supplier called [Brand X]. The two graphs on page 2, around which I have drawn a red boxes, show that all the pumps they report upon use electricity (electricity is measured in watts which are shown as W).

So at least some brand X pump users will be lying – these Brand X pumps use electricity anyway. I have not trawled every pump supplier but you can always ask for evidence of pumps which use no power at all when they are running.

Here’s where the fun really starts – if anyone sends you similar evidence of a mains connected solar heating system pump which does not use electricity to operate, please don’t tell anyone, apart from me. This is because I would like to buy loads of them and flow their output through a hydroelectric turbine and generate free electricity from their amazing perpetual motion machines! I wonder, would the magical electrical output of these be FIT eligible, perhaps? Could Jeremy Clarkson run a free solar pump powered supercar from them? Its wondrous, planet-saving applications are limitless. Please, I beg you, just find me this magic pump today. I firmly believe that it already exists at REAL!

Back to reality with a bump. I just wondered if these two attachments were of any interest?   Again I ask you to please end today’s unreasonable protection of REAL-sanctioned liars.

Yours respectfully, Barry.


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