A number of Winterveldt residents now have access to hot water in their houses as the result of the goverment national solar water heating programme. Picture : Masi Losi

Londiwe Buthelezi

Between 40 percent and 70 percent of solar water heater installations were estimated to be unsatisfactory to customers, the Sustainable Energy Society of Southern Africa ombudsman said yesterday.

The ombudsman, Carel Ballack, said his office received about 15 complaints a month. This number might seem fairly low, but Ballack said this was because the ombud’s office was not known to customers.

He said installation problems were not alarming, but customer dissatisfaction also arose from service received after they had installed their solar water heater systems.

In winter there were a lot of complaints about systems freezing, while in summer there were overheating issues.

Eskom has also been telling households that have installed solar water heaters with mechanical dump valves to service their systems twice a year so that these would not develop frost or freeze.

The utility even advised that the use of mechanical dump valves in solar geyser installations was now prohibited by the SA Bureau of Standards.

While faulty installations have frustrated a number of households, Eskom said the only recourse for customers was to approach the ombudsman or revert to the Consumer Protection Act because the customer’s installation agreement was with the installation company, not Eskom.

Eskom’s spokesman for the solar water heater rebate programme, Andrew Etzinger, said in most cases installations were done correctly but acknowledged that the utility had received a number of complaints about faulty workmanship.

He said in such cases, Eskom retained a portion of the payment claimed by suppliers until the faults were rectified. This had caused payment disputes with some suppliers.

“In the majority of cases the disputes relate to the quality of workmanship where a supplier believes the quality is adequate and Eskom believes otherwise. Eskom deploys auditors to sites who take photographic evidence to substantiate concerns,” Etzinger said.

Last week Frost & Sullivan released findings of its recent study, which showed that the uptake of solar geysers by consumers had been disappointing.

Yesterday, Frost & Sullivan energy and power research analyst Muneera Salie said the issue of faulty installations emerged very strongly when the firm conducted the study. “The product is often good quality but the system does not work properly and people feel frustrated.”

Customers did not want the product any longer as they thought the solar heater was faulty, but the problem was the installation, she said.

She said the study also found that some installers posed as if they were contracted by Eskom and when people tried to call them when problems arose after the installation, the companies had vanished.

Frost & Sullivan’s study showed that 40 percent of new suppliers left the industry every year because of disappointing demand and that the solar water heater market generated revenue of only about R810 million last year.

Etzinger admitted that the amount that had to be paid by homeowners for solar geysers, even after the Eskom rebate, was still too high to achieve a large uptake of the high pressure systems.

Eskom offers rebates of between R3 936 and R8 964 on different sizes of high pressure geysers. Through the rebate programmes, including that of the Department of Energy, 336 391 were installed in the country by April 5.

Eskom said the installation companies registered in its rebate programme met the minimum required qualifications and skills.

But Ballack said some installers were not too concerned about the functionality of the system when installing the geysers, while others did not understand the technicalities.

“Three years ago, a certain supplier flooded the market with 12 volt circulator pumps, which are not reliable and some consumers are not even aware that their systems are not functioning because of this,” Ballack said.