280410 The 7000-unit solar water heater project launched by President Zuma, the first mass project aimed at low-income households as the government rolls out its campaign to have 1-million solar geysers installed by 2014.This is the first community in Winterveldt to benefit from this compain.photo by Simphiwe Mbokazi 453

The cost of living is only going to increase, which is one of the reasons many people are opting for alternative forms of energy. And since geysers consume the most household energy, installing a solar geyser is a no-brainer. It not only makes environmental sense, but also financial.

They’re not exactly cheap, but the return on investment is worth it. For seven years, Eskom’s rebate system, introduced in 2008, was a great incentive for households to convert to solar. The solar water heating market was booming.

In order to be placed on the list of Eskom-certified installers and suppliers, companies were required to be registered with the Sustainable Energy Society of Southern Africa (Sessa), which acted as the solar industry watchdog. Then, it was stopped suddenly in April last year, companies closed and thousands of people lost their jobs.

(As background: Sessa is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency including all solar-based energies. It’s an inter-disciplinary body, attracting industry members, scientists, researchers and the public. It was founded 32 years ago and is aligned with the International Solar Energy Society.)

With Eskom’s rebate no longer an incentive, the industry was left to its own devices.

Membership to Sessa was no longer a requirement and installers could do as they please.

A 702 listener recently called Night Talk while I was on the show to discuss consumer issues. She wanted to highlight her fight with SunTank, which did such a poor job of installing her solar geyser that she’s hardly been able to use it.

Mabel Pitso reported SunTank to Sessa, which did a thorough assessment and the ombud Deon van Blommestein found in her favour.

“I paid cash for the 200-litre solar geyser which was supplied by SunTank. A few months down the line I started to experience problems with the geyser and this was communicated to the company. A technician was dispatched to come and sort out the problem and the geyser started to work again.

“Once more I started to have problems where it couldn’t produce enough hot water for two people. These (issues) were reported to them again since the geyser was still within the warranty period. (But my) complaints were never given priority except that a lady kept promising to have someone sent to my house, which never happened.

“Out of frustration I contacted Sessa to assist and they provided me with a report. I am currently sitting with a geyser which is not providing the service I bought it for. This is now over 18 months since purchase of the geyser and I haven’t had any joy since purchase.”

SunTank refused to budge on the matter, despite Sessa’s comprehensive report and was expelled from the body.

I contacted SunTank about the matter and the owner, Yoram Gur-Arie insisted: “The solar unit was tested on a number of occasions and found to be working to specifications. (The) customer was advised prior and subsequent to purchase that unit solar capacity is inadequate to meet her family hot water needs and her options are either to increase solar capacity or rely on the electric backup unit to make up for solar capacity shortage. (This unit is an integral part of the supplied system.)

“The installed unit is overdue for routine maintenance service. Customer is welcome to contact our office and arrange for the service.”

When I told him I had spoken to Sassa, who told me it wasn’t installed properly or angled correctly, and that they found against SunTank, he claimed Sessa was not a recognised authority in adjudicating in this matter.

“To save you the back and forth, we undertake more or less 500 service transactions per month. We solve customers’ problems on a daily basis. We rely on 22 years of experience in the business to determine when a customer is right and when not.”

Well, if the complaints on Hellopeter.com are anything to go by, SunTank’s tanking with consumers: of the 22 reviews for them, only one was glowing, a five-star, which described them as just wonderful and even mentioned staff by name. The rest, not so much. They averaged a score of 2.2 out of 10.

Zulteck is another installer about which there are many complaints: they score an average of 3.3 with consumers. Johann Mare has given them a zero.

Mare contacted me about the solar geyser that existed in name only. He paid for it, was messed around endlessly about installation, decided the service was so poor he wanted to cancel the deal, made three trips from the North West to Centurion to get his refund but still nothing.

Mare told me: “I purchased an 110l solar geyser from Zulteck in Centurion and was promised delivery within three days from the date the EFT payment reflected in their bank account.

“On the specified delivery day I was informed that the driver couldn’t make it as he was too late to collect it from the manufacturer. On the second due date I was informed that parts was short delivered and I cannot collect it if it’s incomplete. On the third due date I was informed of problems with the manufacturing of the product. Eventually on June 15 I was told the driver has gone to collect the product and I was promised delivery of the goods to my house in Pretoria to the address I had provided upon request. This never happened nor did I receive any phone calls or even an e-mail to this effect.

“I really got frustrated for the empty promises and eventually on June 22 I was promised a full refund. I provided them with my banking details but until today no refund.

“Representatives from Zulteck now claim they have to wait until they receive a refund from the manufacturer for the geyser before they can do any refund to me and on top of it they will only do the refund at the end of the month. I am of the opinion that this is just another lie as they have never received/accepted the geyser nor did they deliver the product to me. I believe that Zulteck staff is not dealing honestly and in good faith.

“There is clearly no resolution to the issue and everybody working at Zulteck blames everything on their head office, yet there seems to be no head office in existence.

“This past Monday I received an e-mail offering me an alternative model geyser from a different manufacturer at the same price. I declined this offer because if the after sales-service is so bad then I can only imagine the struggles I will have should something go wrong with the product even if it is within its factory guarantee period of one year. I choose to rather purchase the product from another retailer.”

Zulteck is still ducking and diving: I received a response from their IT Marketing employee (no idea of his designation) Melvin Ray Joubert who wrote to me, in capitals: “We apologise for the inconvenience. We did try to give him a nother (sic) option, a nother geyser for the same value. But the customer refused and wants his refund.

“Now in regards to the customer's refund, we did send his request to our head office and they replied to us that they will handle the customer's refund. There is nothing that we can do at this moment accept (sic) offer him something els (sic) in return and offer him instore credit (sic).”

I told Joubert it was not up to Zulteck to determine Mare’s choice of remedy in terms of the Consumer Protection Act, which gives the customer the right to choose a refund, repair or replacement. Mare wants his refund and he bought the solar geyser from the supplier, not the head office or the manufacturer. Zulteck never installed the supposed geyser and has been given ample time to remedy the situation.

There was no response at the time of going to print. Which brings me back to Sessa: independent operators who don’t answer to this recognised industry watchdog are doing as they please. Sessa though have just under 200 members countrywide and are highly competent in arbitration. They have the expertise and are motivated to improve the industry’s image.

In Pitso’s case, Sessa chairman James Shirley told me: “The terms and conditions under the Eskom rebate was that the system was warranted for a minimum of five years. Sessa has proof that the system was not working and we found 100 percent in favour of the customer.

“SunTank are unfortunately by no means the only problematic operators out there. We’re encouraging the public to insist companies are members of Sessa so they’re assured of the service, price, quality, reliability, the fact it’s installed correctly, that the expectations of the customer and the functionality of the system are clearly aligned, and that the warranty is worth the paper on which it’s printed.”

Wise up. Here’s how!

Ask the questions: Is the installer/supplier a member of Sessa? If not, proceed with caution because it seems to be a free-for-all in the industry.

No delivery, messed around? In Mare’s case, with no delivery and empty promises, this might very well be a case for the police to handle.

No joy: In Pitso’s case, the Small Claims Court would be her best option. Her unit cost about R13 000, which is less than the court’s R15 000 maximum value. If her claim exceeded R15 000, she would institute a claim for less than that in order to cut her losses.

 

Sessa’s contact details: 011 214 0668 or 011 214 0666; e-mail: [email protected] or [email protected]

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected] Follow Georgie on Twitter: @askgeorgie