KPRC 2 Investigates: Solar panel sales exploding in Houston; Here’s what you need to know to keep from being taken advantage of

MAGNOLIA, Texas – You’ve heard the expression “selling like hotcakes.”

Well right now in Texas, new companies and salespeople are getting rich selling solar panel power systems to homeowners.

All of which creates the perfect environment for solar panel scam artists and shady business people.

That’s something 92-years-old Tommy Ellis, a navy veteran and former AT&T technician, now retired in Magnolia, knows a lot about.

He signed up for solar power months ago and now deeply regrets signing with the company that approached him with big promises and not much else.

Last January, Tommy and his wife Nell took more than $75,000 cash out of their retirement savings to pay one of those solar panel companies to put 22 power collecting, solar panels on their roof.

RELATED: Houston homeowners waiting to have solar panels connected to grid

The salesman promised them they’d be saving the planet and saving on electricity in a big way.

”Well, I wanted to do the right thing, and I’d been thinking about it, and I thought I’d be able to lower my electric bill to where I wouldn’t have much of an electric bill. I’d be producing my own electricity,” Tommy said, shaking his head in disgust.

Seven months later, Tommy wishes he’d never let that solar panel salesman on his property.

“What has happened to your electric bills since you got these solar panels put on?”, KPRC 2′s Bill Spencer asked Tommy.

”Well, they’ve gone up. They’ve actually gone up. It was $250 to $350 a month, but now it’s over $400 a month,” he said. “I am embarrassed to tell you that.”

Over the last five years, the Better Business Bureau has gotten a total of 2,382 complaints against solar panel companies throughout Texas, more than half of those filed against the solar panel installers.

Gage Mueller is a solar energy specialist with ADT Solar who says the solar panel business in our state is literally exploding right now with new companies jumping in everyday to hopefully make a killing.

Mueller says, given this environment, there three big lies you are likely to hear from some salespeople who would approach you for a sale.

Big lie #1: The government will pay for it:

”The government’s going to write you a check for 30% of the total amount of your solar system. So, if the system was $100,000, the governments going to write you a check for 30 grand, and that’s not true,” Gage said.

Actually, the government is offering a 30% tax credit, but that is only to those who have enough taxable income to qualify for that and you have to apply for that credit.

Big lie #2: You’ll never pay another electric bill again.

”The fact is you will not be able to eliminate that electric bill because the utility company is charging a delivery fee that you have to pay. You have to run your system through the utility company’s grid and they are going to charge you for that, regardless of how much energy you collect with your panels,” Gage said.

Big lie #3: Power outages won’t impact you

”Big lie number three, Bill, is you’ll have power when the power goes out. That’s not the case unless you have a battery and those batteries are expensive,” Gage said.

The fact is you do need solar power batteries to do that which can cost up to $15,000 apiece.

What is doable with a good solar system?

”In terms of saving you money, any solar company is going to try to get you under about a $50 to $60 electric bill per month,” Gage said.

So with so many new companies out there now pitching solar, how can you protect yourself and actually get the kind of electric power savings you want?

Step One: Call Your Tax Professional/ IRS first

”Call your tax professional or CPA to confirm that you are going to qualify for the tax credit. The sales guy is a sales guy trying to make a sale, but you need to know if you’re actually going to qualify for that tax credit or not,” Gage said.

Step Two: Make Sure Your Roof Is Solar Ready

”So, you need to find out how old is your roof. How brittle is your roof. Is it going to withstand everything that’s going on up there. Sometimes people do need to replace their roofs ahead of time or wind up paying thousands of dollars more to have their newly installed panels taken down and put up again after the roof is repaired,” Gage said.

Step Three: Buy From A Company That Does It All, Sales, Installation, And Service

”That way you’re going to call one company, or one person throughout the life of your system versus do I call the sales guy, the installer, do I call the 3rd party warranty company. In other words, where am I going to go to get help when something goes wrong,” Gage said.

Finally, keep in mind that in the Houston Metro area right now there is a backlog of solar panel projects that still need to be approved by CenterPoint Energy before those new solar panel systems can even be turned on.

Watch an extended interview with Gage Mueller talking about that problem below:

About the Author:

Emmy-winning investigative reporter, insanely competitive tennis player, skier, weightlifter, crazy rock & roll drummer (John Bonham is my hero). Husband to Veronica and loving cat father to Bella and Meemo.