Category: Ranting


  02:01:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1049 words  
Categories: Residential Solar, Ranting

Solving the Solar Sustainability Problem

Editor’s Note: This is the third of a three-part series asking the question: Is Solar Unsustainable?  You can find Part One: Shoddy Work here, and Part Two: Shady Business Practices here.

It is easy enough to cast aspersions, but it is far more valuable to offer suggestions for improvement.  Having devoted 3,000 words to the former, it is time offer some thoughts on the latter.

Too Big to Fulfill

Time to restore trust in the solar industry

I attended a solar workshop sponsored by our favorite distributor, BayWa r.e., and I heard the head of a solar company offer what might have been the saddest assessment of success I had ever heard.  This man had built his company to become the largest player in his region, but most of the time, he said, “I wish I could go back to being just two guys and a truck."  Growth is hard, and with it comes the risk of shoddy work creeping into your projects.  (Indeed, one of the jobs that we highlighted in our first post was done by a company that once had a great reputation, but grew too fast and lost control of quality.)

When a company becomes too big to fulfill its obligation to provide top-quality work, it is too big.

A greater emphasis on training is one way to grow while still keeping the quality high.  NABCEP is a good step in that direction, but companies need to support their employees to get the training that they need. (Of course, this says nothing about companies that are looking to rip people off - they represent an entirely different type of problem.  More about dealing with them later.)

From Customers to Clients

Right now the solar industry treats consumers like customers, and that’s a problem.  Customers represent a transactional relationship - gas stations and fast food restaurants have customers.  The customer hands over their money and gets a commodity in return - end of story.  But purchasers of solar power systems are entering into a long-term relationship with the product that we are selling - quite likely the longest lived product they will ever own, short of the house itself.  A relationship can only last that long when it is founded in trust, and that is the nature of a client relationship. 

Recognizing that we are entering into a client relationship changes the focus from the short term transaction to the long-term process of building confidence.  That means starting with absolute candor and at every step in the process enhancing the client’s trust.  The solar professional owes the client three duties: a duty of candor, a duty of communication, and a fiduciary duty.  The consequence of those duties is that you have to keep your client in the loop, and you must safeguard your client’s financial well-being.

How do you fulfill those duties?  By communicating clearly at every step in the process, identifying and disclosing problems as they arise, and by providing comprehensive contracts and then living by that contract (i.e., keeping change orders to a minimum).

Time to Come Clean

Solar companies need to provide comprehensive disclosures to their clients.  At a minimum, such disclosures should include:

  • All of the major components (specific solar panels, inverters, racking) to be used on the project, and the per item cost of each;
  • If financing is being proposed, the total cost of that financing;
  • Savings calculations that are actually tied to the client’s utility rate structure (or a structure to which the client is entitled to transition);
  • All assumptions (such as utility rate increase percentage, system output degradation, etc.), built into any lifetime savings computation.

Such comprehensive disclosures would eliminate the scourge of “generic solar systems,” and would allow consumers to make more accurate comparisons of competing bids.

Guiding the Market’s ‘Invisible Hand’

I spoke about many of these issues on a panel this week as SPI.  There was a great deal of agreement among the panelists, despite our disparate backgrounds ranging from a (refreshingly progressive muni utility) to Sunrun to me.  But the one comment that bothered me the most came from industry veteran and CALSEIA board member, Ed Murray.  In response to my stated concern that the bad business practices documented in my first two posts in this series constituted a serious threat to the industry, Mr. Murray’s response was that “the market will take care of it, bad companies will fail and the good ones will survive, hopefully without too much of a black eye to the industry.”

If only it were that easy.

We rejected such laissez faire notions with the rise of the modern regulatory state decades ago, and to suggest that the solar industry can or should survive without additional regulatory involvement is misguided.  The solar industry is far less regulated here in California than it is in many states.  For example, to participate in the solar incentive program in New York solar installers must be NABCEP certified.  Such a requirement here in the largest solar market in the country would go a long way toward cleaning up our act.

CALSEIA has a consumer complaint process - consumers who feel they’ve been badly treated by a solar company in California can start the process by clicking here to fill out their complaint form - but the process itself is secret, and the rest of the consuming public never learns about those complaints.

Similarly, utilities often have experience with bad solar contractors who do shoddy work, but they don’t publicize what they have learned so the public remains uneducated about the bad actors out there.  That should change.

Unfortunately, that leaves us, for now, in a position where the burden remains on the potential client to do the homework needed to find a reliable contractor.  NABCEP’s member list is a good resource (although made less so since you can no longer sort results by zip code), as is CALSEIA’s.  State contractor’s boards - responsible for licensing contractors - are a good source to verify that the contractor is properly licensed, and to determine whether there are any outstanding complaints against them.  (For California, here is a link to the “Check a License” page at the state contractors board.)  Yelp, Angie’s List, and the BBB can all be helpful.  But consumers must demand to be treated like the clients that they are, and reject solar companies that fail to honor that demand. 


  10:04:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1579 words  
Categories: Residential Solar, Ranting

Is Solar Unsustainable? Part Two: Shady Business Practices

Editor’s Note: In Part One of this three-part series on the crisis facing the residential solar industry, we wrote about the growing potential for a client backlash due to the increasing prevalence of shoddy work.  Today in Part Two we turn to an even greater threat to our industry’s sustainability: the unethical, and sometimes outright illegal, business practices employed by some solar companies.

Solar companies used to have a pretty simple business model: find a potential client (usually because they contacted you), do a site evaluation, write up a bid, sign a contract, and do the job.  The density of solar companies in a given area was pretty low so there was very little direct competition.  There was no such thing as social media and you never heard an ad for a solar company on the radio.

How Can You Compete with Free?

Tear up that contractBy the time we founded Run on Sun in September 2006, that model was starting to change.  SolarCity was a thing, but its lease model wasn’t.  Major players like Sunrun, Vivint Solar, and Verengo did not yet exist.  But with the dawning of the California Solar Initiative in 2007 and the end of the cap on the federal ITC in 2008, the solar industry was turning into the Wild West.  Add in the collapse of the housing market at the end of 2008, and all of those investor dollars that had been earmarked for mortgage-backed securities had to go somewhere else.

Voila, enter the solar lease (and its evil cousin, the residential PPA).  Readers of this blog know that Run on Sun has never offered leases, and we have explained our reasons for avoiding leases in great detail many times.  Yet for awhile, they were all the rage.  As one potential client who decided to go with a competitor’s lease explained to us, “How can you compete with free?"  Of course, those leases were far from free, but he had a point.  If the leasing salesperson glosses over the details, as numerous lawsuits have alleged that they do, the consumer being pushed to sign on the dotted line may get swept away with an offer that sounds too good to be true.

Proper disclosures would go a long way toward solving this problem, but the solar industry certainly isn’t pushing them.  Indeed, driven by the largest players in the industry, trade groups generally resist calls for standardized disclosures under the absurd logic that the marketplace will handle this itself.  Ah yes, the “invisible hand."  But when the leasing giants bring armies of marketers, pushy salespeople, and corporate lawyers into the marketplace, what chance does the average consumer have?  This is an unfair fight and it is stacked against consumers - our potential clients - and the powers that be know that, and are ok with it. 

But that approach is unsustainable.

Why Buy a Generic Solar System?

Even crazier than the lack of proper financial disclosures is the abject failure to even disclose the products that are going to be placed on the consumer’s roof and left there for the next twenty years!  We are constantly being contacted by people who have been pressured to sign a contract for what can only be described as a generic solar system.  When you press them on the details it turns out that the high-pressure solar salesperson never disclosed the actual equipment that is being proposed. 

A gentleman who called the other day is representative - he has been talking to SolarCity for six months but all he knows is that they are purporting to put a “6.6 kW solar system” on his roof for $27,000, to be financed over 20 years at 3% interest. That 6.6 kW system starts out at $4.09/Watt (not a deal, even in SoCal) before you tack on an additional nearly $9,000 in interest over the life of the deal, bringing that actual cost (before ITC) to $5.45/Watt!

But here’s the kicker - this homeowner does not even know the make or model of the panels that will be on his roof.  He doesn’t know what type of inverter will be used, or its make or model.  And he certainly doesn’t know what sort of racking is going to hold this all together.

So let me just ask you this: who among you would spend $36,000 on a generic car?  No info on the car at all, other than you are stuck with it for the next twenty years and it is a generic, four-door sedan.  I submit no one would; and yet, major players in the solar industry are asking consumers to purchase an over-priced generic solar system, every day of the week.

That is not sustainable.

A Confusing Canvass

Years ago I worked for an environmental group that funded its operations in part by way of a canvass; that is, eager young men and women who would fan out each evening into a targetted neighborhood going door to door, explaining our work and trying to encourage strangers to contribute.  My role in this process was to educate the canvassers on the policy issues that we were then pursuing so that they could answer questions with homeowners at their front door.  If that sounds like a tough way to make a living, it is.  Many canvassers are paid on commission - have a dry night and you come up empty.

But some of the environmental group’s canvassers were consistently successful.  They had the moxie to press until they could close - and if that meant stretching the truth a bit, or a lot, they felt it was alright because they were working in service to a greater good.

And so it seems to be with solar canvassers.  The ones who succeed won’t take no for an answer, and they are apparently comfortable saying whatever is necessary - regardless of how disconnected it might be from reality - in service of the good of getting more solar on more roofs.  Or is it more in the nature of self-service, just plain old greed?

Run on Sun doesn’t run a canvass, but we regularly hear from potential clients who have had someone camp out on their doorstep and all but refuse to leave until the hapless homeowner signs a contract.  (We spoke with one woman, not a native English speaker, who had signed a contract with a canvasser who would not leave, for a system roughly twice the size of what could effectively be installed on her roof.)  More distressingly, these tactics seem to be especially aimed at senior citizens, who for whatever reason, find it harder to turn these people away.

Is there anyone out there who enjoys being on the receiving end of such high-pressure tactics?  Of course not.  So why do we subject consumers to them?  That’s simple, because they often work, at least in the short term.  And if all you care about is the short term, then this works for you as a solar company.

But it is unsustainable.

Lead Astray

Which brings me to lead generation, quite possibly the most annoying aspect of solar business models today.

Several times a day, each and every day, we receive emails imploring us to purchase leads for hot solar prospects.  Once or twice we have followed up on a proffered lead that was provided to us, only to discover that the person on the other end of the phone is irate over having been called twenty times in the last two days when all they did was try to make use of a “free” solar calculator on a website that required them to submit their contact info before they could use it.

Many lead gen mills use robo dialers to repeatedly call potential customers, and often do so without concern for such niceties as the National Do-Not-Call registry.  Such tactics might generate leads, but they are also illegal, and the solar company that contracts with the lead gen mill is liable for their conduct - as Verengo found out when they were sued and forced to settle the case for more than $2,000,000.

By definition, that which is illegal is unsustainable.

Backlash Building

Customer experienceNo industry can long survive treating it’s customers with such contempt.

The graph of customer experience for SolarCity is from the BBB website serving the San Francisco Bay area.  82.9% of SolarCity’s customer reviews were negative!  Now it certainly stands to reason that unhappy customers are more likely to write a review than happy ones, but a six to one ratio is a troubling statistic no matter how you spin it.

Not just class action lawyers are taking notice, as state Attorneys General and even members of Congress are calling for investigations into questionable business practices of solar companies across the country. 

For example, Arizona’s Attorney General, Mark Brnovich, has brought multiple cases against solar companies for fraudulent business practices, including this one against the aptly named, Stealth Solar, alleging that the company made fraudulent claims:

Some examples of those statements include: “cannot even add one cent to your personal budget,” its customers can “save tons of money every single month,” and that “utility bills will rise 8-14% per year if you don’t get a PV System”.
The Arizona Attorney General’s Office received approximately 50 consumer complaints against Stealth. Many customers did not receive the promised savings and even experienced an increase in their electricity outlay due to the cost of solar equipment.

We ignore this building backlash at our peril.

In my final installment I will offer some suggestions for change from within the industry—before it is imposed upon us from without.


  11:49:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1348 words  
Categories: Residential Solar, Ranting

Is Solar Unsustainable? Part One: Shoddy Work

Next week at Solar Power International, I will be a speaker on a panel looking into the future of the residential solar industry. My message to my fellow solar professionals will be this: as it is presently constituted, the Solar Industry is unsustainable, and unless we change and change soon, we will face a backlash from eroded client confidence.  The consequences of that backlash will do more harm to the industry than anything the Koch brothers, ALEC, or the Edison Institute can conjure, and we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

I am dividing this series into three parts - the first two deal with the problem we are creating (shoddy work and shady business practices) whereas the third outlines my prescription for change.  I don’t expect everyone in the industry to agree with my observations or recommendations, but at the very least we should agree that a conversation needs to begin, and to the extent that it has begun, it must be expanded.

Shoddy Work is All too Common

This first installment is concerned with the shoddy, fly-by-night work that is becoming way too prevalent out there.  A growing piece of our business involves addressing problems that exist in the installed base of solar system owners.  These are folks, many of whom paid top dollar (sometimes overpaid outrageously) and yet ended up with inferior work that is now failing, has already failed, or should never have been allowed in the first place.

A System Under a Tree?

PV system under a treeWe are big fans of microinverters, but some amounts of shade even a microinverter cannot cure. Tellingly, the geniuses that built this system didn’t bother to use microinverters!  We got a call to replace a dead string inverter at this older woman’s home.  Turns out she has two systems (and two string inverters) - one on her main house, and this one on her guest house.  Just one small problem, the array is entirely underneath a tree!

Pretty much every day, all year round, that array is shaded.  In fact, that is not just dirt on those panels, that is accumulated sap from the tree that has created a layer of crud that no hose will ever be able to remove.  Indeed, when we replaced the inverter, it could not turn on because the combined grit and shading - even in the middle of a summer day - was so extreme that there was not enough power for the inverter to switch on.

Who in good conscience would sell such a system?  The homeowner did not realize how big a factor that tree would be, but certainly the installer knew (or should have known).  This is the result of someone willing to make a few bucks off an unwitting  senior citizen even though the installer knew that the system would never provide the promised benefit to the homeowner.

A System Waiting for Take-off

Take-offs are great, when you are in an airplane with a proper pilot at the controls.  Not so great when the take-off in question is the entire array ready to launch itself from the hapless homeowner’s roof.  Check this out:

Tilt-up L-foot in space Ad-hoc engineering

This is a tilt-up system, mounted on a north sloping roof face, tilted toward the south.  Ok, that has a host of potential issues given that our strongest, most dangerous winds all come from out of the north, so if you are going to do something like this, you want to make sure that it is properly engineered and properly installed.  It is abundantly clear that this system was neither.

Take a look at how that L-foot is attached to the roof.  These are flat concrete tiles, and the installer appears to have removed the tile and attached a hanger bolt (hopefully into a rafter), then drilled a hole through the tile and re-inserted it over the bolt.  (The little daub of sealant is a nice touch - given that there is no flashing of any sort to be found.)  The L-foot is floating on the end of that bolt and the bolts are deforming under the load.

I feel bad for the manufacturers of racking gear who see their products misused in such an extreme fashion.  (In fact, the manufacturer of this racking expressly disclaims using its product for this type of reverse tilt application! The last picture shows that the installer - perhaps nervous as to the strength of his creation - added some ad hoc pieces of black rail to cross brace the structure, attaching them to the tilt-up legs and railing with Tek screws, as opposed to the through-bolts, washers and nuts that the manufacturer provides for tilt-up racking.

That system has been in place for a few years and when the homeowner tried to contact their installer about a problem, the installer never returned their calls.  The roof is already leaking (no surprise there) and it is anyone’s guess as to how long it will be until that system takes off for a destination unknown.  The homeowners had no idea what the system actually looked like (this is on top of a two-story house and they had never been on the roof) until I showed them these pictures.  They paid top-dollar for this installation but all they’ve received in return is a leaking roof and an accident waiting to happen.

Conduits in Space

Conduits in spaceIt is pretty basic that conduit runs need to be supported, and where running between buildings, those conduits should be underground.  But apparently sometimes that’s just too much of a bother.

This is another instance of senior abuse - the homeowner was an elderly man who had already installed one solar system on his property, but it wasn’t meeting his needs so he hired a second company to expand his system.  After he died, we were called in to assess the state of the system for the estate.  The entire system was a disaster, but this one photo pretty well sums it up - the people doing this work simply did not give a damn. 

That didn’t stop them from extracting top dollar - the elderly gentlemen paid $50,000+ for a 5 kW system addition, three years ago!  (It turns out that the contractor responsible for this abomination has multiple complaints against him with the AG’s office and has had his license revoked.)

Here is the real kicker with this project - they pulled a permit and had plans approved by LA County (I saw them).  Those plans called for the conduit run that is presently flying between the two buildings to be buried in a trench a minimum of 18″ below grade - which is code.  But that was never done and somehow this still got approved!

Where are the Inspectors?

Which brings me to the other real scandal here - on top of those doing this shoddy work - everyone of these installations should have been inspected, and presumably they were.  But none of them should have passed, so how did they?

Our experience with inspectors varies greatly.  Many are extremely diligent, looking closely at every component, and  wanting us to open every box and remove each dead front (they are always astonished by the sheer beauty of Velvet’s work so we are always happy to oblige).  But there are others who don’t even go on the roof, thereby doing a terrible disservice to the homeowners who are counting on the inspector’s expertise to protect them from these sorts of nightmares.

California is not Unique, nor even Uniquely Bad

Lest you think that this is just a California problem, believe me it is not.  We previously posted a photo from a New Jersey based company that has a webpage devoted to New Jersey’s ugliest solar installations, and some of them are truly appalling.  Nor is the scourge of shoddy work even a uniquely U.S. problem, as the Facebook group, Crap Solar, highlights some of the worst solar installations Australia and New Zealand have to offer.

But as the US solar leader, it is up to California solar companies to lead the way.  We need to do better.

In Part Two we will look into solar business practices that are making the industry unsustainable.


  07:59:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 231 words  
Categories: Solar Events, Residential Solar, Ranting

It's our Birthday - but You get the presents!

It's Run on Sun's birthday!Ten years ago this month we founded Run on Sun—which, to paraphrase Vice President Biden, “was a pretty big [freaking] deal."  Think about it: when we started in 2006, the California Solar Initiative didn’t exist, the federal tax credit was capped at $2,000,  and looming in the near future was the Great Recession. 

Despite that inauspicious start, we have gone on to install solar at major schools like Westridge and Chandler, ditto at countless homes around SoCal, and we have been honored to make Solar Power World’s list of the Top Solar Contractors four years in a row! It has been quite a ride and we are ready to celebrate!

We are planning a party to share our achievement with our wonderful clients in the coming weeks (watch your email for an invite soon!), but today we want to invite our neighbors to join us in greening their energy.  For all new clients who sign contracts with us during the month of September we will be offering a Birthday discount of $500 off the proposal price!  This applies both to folks who already have proposals in their hands as well as those who get a proposal during the month.

But September is a short and busy month so you need to act now! 

Click on this link to request a free solar site evaluation, or just give us a call at 626-793-6025 or 310-584-7755.

Let’s party!


  05:48:00 pm, by Laurel Hamilton, Projects Coordinator, Run on Sun   , 657 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Ranting

Velvet Dallesandro - Electrician and Solar Jedi Master

I love conducting solar site assessments and having that first conversation with a potential client. Often we spend far more time discussing all the ins and outs of going solar with the property owner than is necessary for the solar assessment measurements. One of the questions we always spend some time on is: “How exactly is Run on Sun different than other solar companies?” Here in sunny Southern California this is an important question as there are so many people offering PV solar services. Of course I describe how the products we use are selected for their high quality, warranties, and trust in the manufacturers. I also explain how as a small company with a mission focus, we take a very honest and ethical approach to helping people green their energy. But one of the major ways we stand above all the rest is also a feature that is hard to convey in that first conversation. Hence, the theme of this blog post…

My best answer to the above question, “We have Velvet Dallesandro as our Chief Electrician.”

The work that Velvet does connecting the power of the sun to your electric meter is akin to an art form. But alas, the art of a solar electrician is often hidden behind dead plates and easy to overlook if you’re not paying attention. So here are a few examples of Velvet’s work. She may not be in a Los Angeles art gallery but her work is providing people with beautiful, safe, and emission-free energy across the county! 


Service panel


If you’ve ever looked behind the dead plate on your electric bus (where all your breakers are) you likely were frightened by what you saw. A mess of cables, cobwebs, and sometimes outright dangerous circumstances - like the time I saw one missing its main breaker entirely. However, if Velvet is re-wiring your service panel it may look more like something you could put on your wall with rainbows of color coded wires and perfect 90 degree bends. (Service panel shown at left by Velvet, solar AC disconnect work at right by Ralph Carillo.)

Chandler Conduit 

Wiring is far from Velvet’s only art form. How do installers bring solar power from the roof to the electrical service? While the most visually appealing is to hide the magic completely by going thru an attic space and inside walls but sometimes that just isn’t possible. 


Velvet doesn’t just throw flex conduit around willy nilly to get the job done quick like some installers. It takes a lot of creativity to make the wiring run as attractive as possible. First and foremost, she always uses galvanized conduit for outside wiring as opposed to flex - it lasts for the long run and it is much more difficult to punch a fire axe through than flex, making it much safer. Second, Velvet avoids piecing together conduit as much as possible. Her goal is to make whatever crazy runs are necessary as seamless as possible - think avoiding possible leaky weak spots at seams. This means she has become a jedi master at bending conduit. Eight bends in one stick of conduit paralleling windows, gutters, or that pretty bush you don’t want to disturb? Not out of the question when Velvet is on the job (or her prodigy apprentice Ralph for that matter). 


Beyond the art she’s also an all around rock star. Check out this classic; pulling wire for a 45kW job at Chandler School…(That’s her on the right pulling wire through at least 30 feet of conduit on a 100+ degree summer day.)

Pulling her weight

She more than pulls her weight! So if you’re looking into going solar take note, there is an art that goes into the details. And the details really do count! Velvet’s wiring is the safest you will find and truly built to last. A rarity in an industry where most companies are trying to race through projects at lightning speed. Bottom line…we are so thankful to have Velvet on our team!


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Jim Jenal is the Founder & CEO of Run on Sun, Pasadena's premier installer and integrator of top-of-the-line solar power installations.
Laurel Hamilton is Run on Sun's Projects Coordinator, and together they author this blog.
Run on Sun also offers solar consulting services, working with consumers, utilities, and municipalities to help them make solar power affordable and reliable.

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