Nova Scotia

Homeowners say Efficiency NS recommended company that botched solar panel installation

Several homeowners who participated in a rebate program to install solar panels on their homes say they've been left with huge repair bills after their installer went out of business, and they want Efficiency Nova Scotia to help.

Frustrated customers question Efficiency Nova Scotia's role in fixing faulty work from approved installer

Sarah D’Apollonia says her family's Dartmouth home has been damaged by the faulty installation of her solar panels. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

When Sarah D'Apollonia and her partner decided to renovate a rundown property in Dartmouth, they immediately knew this was their opportunity to invest in solar panels. 

"I just like the whole philosophy of it to support renewable energies," she said. "It's always been a dream of mine."

But two years after their system was installed, D'Apollonia said it has been nothing but a nightmare that may cost the family more to fix than they paid to install it in the first place. 

"It's just been one problem after the other. There's components up there that aren't working. The system has never worked at full capacity," she said.

The problems have left D'Apollonia questioning who is responsible — the installer, or Efficiency Nova Scotia. 

That's because in order to qualify for thousands of dollars in provincial rebates, she had to choose an installer on Efficiency Nova Scotia's list. 

Dissatisfied customers speak out

D'Apollonia isn't alone. CBC News has heard from three other customers who chose East Coast Solar who are all struggling to get help with their systems.

Each told similar stories of questionable installation practices and faulty grids that have left them wondering where to turn. 

Workers from another company inspect the problems with D’Apollonia's solar panels on her Dartmouth home. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

In Lower Sackville, Gail Conrod saw solar as an opportunity to lower her costs as she prepares to retire. 

A group of her colleagues had all been sold on East Coast Solar's warranties, so in April 2019, Conrod hired the company to put panels on her roof. 

"My first issue came about in the fall of the same year, when it was noticed that four bolts from one of the panel frames were protruding from one of the frames," Conrod said.

She said she was scared the panels would crash off the house and hurt someone, so the company came and fixed the bolts. 

Trouble getting answers

In 2020, the optimizers on six of the 20 panels failed, meaning the system wasn't generating power at full capacity. When the owner of East Coast Solar arrived at Conrod's house, she said he didn't fix the problem and instead told her he was going out of business. 

Conrod said in the months that followed, she spent hours on the phone trying to get someone to cover the work that was supposed to be under warranty. At one point, the manufacturer of the system put her in touch with an engineer in Romania. 

"Basically had I known that I would have gone through all of this stress and frustration, I would have spent my hard-earned dollars elsewhere," she said.

Five of the six people who hired East Coast Solar at Conrod's office also had issues with their systems, she said. 

Frequent equipment failures

At D'Apollonia's house, she said the installers didn't wear safety gear on the roof and dropped panels on the ground. 

Once installed, she said the optimizers frequently failed and pigeons started roosting under the panels.

She and Conrod said they contacted Efficiency Nova Scotia for help when East Coast Solar went under, but their concerns were ignored.

Now, Efficiency Nova Scotia is asking them to reach out again. 

Homeowners come forward

It told CBC News it has received several complaints about the company, which has since been pulled from the approved installer list. 

"This is a really unfortunate situation," said Janet Tobin, a spokesperson for Efficiency Nova Scotia.

"Obviously we hope that things like this never happen and we want customers to have confidence in the installers that they choose to work with."

Tobin says Efficiency Nova Scotia's solar program has had a 90 per cent satisfaction rate, and most issues have been quickly solved. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Efficiency Nova Scotia is operated by EfficiencyOne, an independent non-profit. The province's utility and review board provides regulatory oversight. 

Tobin said they'll work with the homeowners on a case by case basis to see what can be done, but didn't specify what the solutions may be. 

"We want everyone to have a really positive experience with the program," she said. "We've had over 2,000 rebates handed out for solar installation. It's been a really successful program."

While the rebate program requires customers to use an approved installer, it also includes a disclaimer that Efficiency Nova Scotia is not liable if something goes wrong. 

Over 60 installers are on the approved list, and Tobin said in the 2½ years since the rebate program started, only two companies have been removed because of issues.

Efficiency N.S. 'confident' in installers

She said all installers must meet the criteria of having safety certification, liability insurance and workmanship warranties. The length of time they've been in business is also a factor in getting on the list. 

Tobin said the industry shouldn't get a bad reputation because of the actions of one company. 

"I, and the organization, are confident in the companies that are on that list," she said.

Still, Tobin encourages all homeowners to do their due diligence by getting multiple quotes and asking for references. 

Those who struggled with East Coast Solar, however, said they spent months trying to find the owner, Rayman Hopwood, to see if he would repair their systems. He replied to CBC News immediately after being contacted. 

Hopwood says he's spent the past week trying to repair solar panels installed on homes by his former company, East Coast Solar. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

He says the solar industry is so young, contractors are acting like they're in the Wild West.

"I started it in my early 20s," he said of the company. "I thought I was doing all the right things."

Corners were cut, says company owner

Hopwood said some of the issues were manufacturing problems, but that he should have kept a closer eye on his staff, who were taking shortcuts.

"As soon as I found out some corners had been cut, I started going myself and inspecting each system. Quite a few of the systems were perfectly fine, but then you'd find the odd system here and there where there is an issue," he said.

He acknowledged some of his workers weren't using safety gear when he wasn't around, and provided CBC News with photos he alleged are of other companies doing the same thing. 

"I decided if all of these issues could happen without me knowing or seeing it in advance, then I'm not well suited to run a solar company," he said.

Hopwood said people need to realize that even if solar systems have lifetime warranties, they'll still need maintenance that can add up. He said most people don't read the fine print. 

"It's a large investment. I firmly believe it's an amazing investment if it's done right," he said.

Owner asks former customers to reach out

Since first speaking to CBC News two weeks ago, Hopwood has given out his email address: ray@eastcoastsolar.ca. He's asking all former customers with problems to reach out, and he's offering to go back and fix the issues. 

Hopwood said he's spent his life savings trying to hire subcontractors to fix his company's mistakes. 

"If I could go back and change things, I think what I would have done is I would have shown up to every job site, and I would have maybe even informed the customers to take pictures," he said.

On the day CBC News met Hopwood, he was at Conrod's house. She said she was willing to give him a second chance since he was stepping up to the plate. 

'It's just been so frustrating'

D'Apollonia and one other customer, however, say they have lost trust in Hopwood and won't let him on their properties. 

They've reached out to Efficiency Nova Scotia and they're waiting to see if a solution can be found. 

She's been told her entire system needs to be taken down because the racking system is backward. Hopwood disputes that and says it's impossible for that system to be installed that way.

D'Apollonia said she's received wide-ranging quotes for the repairs going as high as $20,000.

"Just this whole experience has really turned into a nightmare," she said. "It's just been so frustrating — not having a voice, not being able to just rectify this, and being blamed for choosing a company that was on an approved list."

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carolyn Ray

Videojournalist

Carolyn Ray is a videojournalist who has reported out of three provinces and two territories, and is now based in Halifax. You can reach her at Carolyn.Ray@cbc.ca

now