Ina Opperman

By Ina Opperman

Business Journalist

Installing alternative energy? Watch out for these problems

Many South Africans are opting for alternative energy sources but they need to be careful when choosing providers and equipment.

Alternative energy sources are highly technical and it is not always easy to understand why something goes wrong when there is a problem. Consumers have to be careful and ensure they follow instructions and get what they pay for.

The Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman recently shared two complaints about alternative energy installations that consumers can learn from and pointed out that without any technical knowledge and proof, it is not always easy to decide who is right: the consumer or the supplier.

In the first case, a consumer complained that the inverter installed was faulty. She paid R168 900.94 for the supply, delivery and installation of 10 solar panels, two batteries with a storage capacity of 6.4kWh each and an 8kW inverter.

She claimed that the inverter was faulty when the installed products were tested, as it was not charging the batteries and was switching off during load shedding. The supplier came out to inspect the inverter and told the consumer that it would take two weeks before the system is fully functional.

After the two week commissioning period, the problem persisted and the consumer said she noticed that the battery consumed 25% of the power immediately after load shedding and another 25% five minutes later. When the consumer told the supplier of this, he told her to switch the inverter on and off.

At this point she noticed that there was only one battery instead of two according to the quotation and the battery she had seemed to be old and faulty. According to the consumer, the supplier promised to exchange the battery in November 2022 but to date has failed to do so despite numerous calls from the consumer.

ALSO READ: Watch: Sick of load shedding? Follow these steps to go solar

Use of high heating elements with alternative power

The supplier told the ombudsman that its representative went to the consumer’s house to resolve the complaint on 30 January 2023 and its technician investigated the root cause of the problem. The technician found that the load demand was more than the solar system was designed for.

According to the supplier, the load demand could have changed after it installed the system. The supplier also asked the consumer after commissioning not to use high heating elements during load shedding as it caused a problem with the batteries.

The supplier said he interviewed the consumer’s younger sister, who confirmed that they sometimes use a two-plate electric stove to prepare food during load shedding, which was against the supplier’s recommendation.

When the supplier contacted the sister the next day, on 31 January 2023, to check how the system was performing, she said the system was working perfectly. The supplier confirmed that the system was working properly and recommended that the complainant and the other people living there reduce the load on the system to get the best performance out of the solar PV system.

The consumer wanted the supplier to resolve all the issues and install a new inverter and two batteries as stated in the quotation.

ALSO READ: Installing solar panels or generator? Beware of these expensive mistakes

Ombudsman can only assess evidence

According to the ombudsman its assessment can only be based on the evidence furnished by the consumer and the supplier. It was clear from the evidence that there is a dispute of fact about whether the system is working properly and is suitable for the purpose it was intended for.

In trying to reach a decision in cases where there is clearly a dispute of fact, the ombudsman must consider all the evidence in support of each version and weigh this up to establish which is correct or, alternatively, more probable.

The ombudsman says on a balance of probabilities and in the absence of the technical report it is unable to determine whether the system is working properly or not, as it comes down to the word of the consumer against the word of the supplier.

“If we cannot reach a decision on the evidence or on a balance of probabilities, we must dismiss the complaint according to our terms of reference in which we decline to deal with or discontinue dealing with matters where there is no reasonable prospect of resolving the complaint.”

Based on the facts of this case, the information provided and the principles of reasonableness and fairness, the ombudsman’s office could not reasonably make a recommendation in the consumer’s favour.

ALSO READ: Returning those unwanted goods to the store isn’t always as simple as you think

Problem with solar gel battery

Another consumer complained after he bought a solar gel battery with a six month warranty. He had the battery tested before installation and the report revealed that the battery was functioning at 88%, which dropped to 50% when used with minimal load. The consumer wanted his money back.

Responding to the ombudsman, the supplier maintained that the test was for a regular flooded battery and not suitable for the solar gel battery the consumer bought. The supplier refused to take responsibility for the consumer’s actions and refused to refund him for the battery.

Considering the complaint, the ombudsman referred to section 55 of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), that provides that every consumer has a right to receive goods that are reasonably suitable for the purposes for which they are generally intended.

These goods must also be of good quality, in good working order and free of any defects and consumers must be able to use them for a reasonable period of time, considering how they would normally be used.

In addition, these goods must comply with any applicable standards under the Standards Act or any other public regulation.

The ombudsman says on a balance of probabilities and in the absence of the technical report, his office could not determine whether the system is working properly or not, as it comes down to the word of the consumer against the word of the supplier.

Based on the facts of this case, the information provided and the principles of reasonableness and fairness, the ombudsman could not make a recommendation in favour of the consumer.

ALSO READ: From faulty beds to lay-bys, learn from these customer complaints

Provisions of section 56

However, the ombudsman pointed out that section 56 of the CPA also applies to this case.

According to section 56, there is an implied provision in any transaction or agreement for the supply of goods to consumers that the producer or importer, the distributor and the retailer each guarantee that the goods comply with the requirements and standards contemplated in section 55, unless those goods were altered contrary to the instructions after leaving the control of the producer or importer, distributor or retailer.

Section 56 stipulates that a consumer can return the goods to the supplier within six months without penalty and at the supplier’s risk and expense if the goods do not satisfy the requirements and standards contemplated in section 55.

In this case, the consumer must decide if the supplier must repair or replace the failed, unsafe, or defective goods or refund the price paid for the goods.

Section 55 of the CPA gives every consumer the right to receive goods that are reasonably suitable for the purpose for which they are generally intended and are of good quality, in good working order and free of defects.

ALSO READ: High Court confirms legal protection for goods bought on credit after BMW turns into a lemon

Consumer can return battery and get refund

The ombudsman says the consumer can return the battery to the supplier within six months and claim a refund or require the supplier to replace or repair the defective battery in terms of section 56 (2) of the CPA.

The office of the ombudsman asked the supplier for a copy of the test report conducted before the battery was dispatched to the complainant, but the supplier did not provide it. The ombudsman then referred the supplier to section of the Consumer Goods and Services Industry Code of Conduct, which provides that the ombudsman can require that the supplier provides records of the transaction or process that gave rise to the dispute.

This can include sales records (including recorded transactions), advertising copy and inspection or repair records.

The Code and the ombudsman’s office were established to guide the industry about the minimum standards of conduct expected when engaging with consumers and assist in resolving disputes that arise between consumers and the industry in terms of the CPA.

The supplier eventually agreed to replace the battery, the ombudsman says.

Read more on these topics

Load Shedding renewable energy

Access premium news and stories

Access to the top content, vouchers and other member only benefits