OCOEE, Fla. - Edward Hardy, of Ocoee, wanted to install solar panels on his home to save money and help the environment.
"I told all my friends and everybody, 'Look, I'm getting solar panels, I'm going to lessen my imprint and fingerprint on the planet, trying to make power,'" Hardy said about his solar endeavor. "It will go back to the power company, and they'll pay me for the power."
Hardy said even though he uses his electricity sparingly, his electric bill was getting out of control. He even put in a new, energy-efficient air conditioner and insulated, energy-efficient windows and doors, but his bill was still topping $200.
So Hardy was looking forward to the cost-saving going solar was supposed to provide. Hardy says he even cleared out a bunch of trees on his property in preparation for the installation. Then, he started researching for a solar company to do the job. That's when he got a call from Code Green Solar, a New Jersey company that had just opened an Orlando office this year.
"They had a great rating," Hardy said. "A+ ratings, so I didn't see any problems with it."
Hardy, who works at Disney as a cook, paid them $5,000 of his hard-earned money, and then financed another $20,000 with a company called Dividend, which Code Green Solar recommended. Hardy says within a week and a half, workers from Code Green Solar came to his house and installed solar panels to the roof of his home.
Then, he discovered the work had been done even though the permit for the job had been rejected by the city.
"I'm livid," Hardy said.
He says when he called and emailed Code Green Solar to find out what happened, no one ever replied.
Now, he is stuck paying for solar panels on his roof that don't work and is still having to pay his electric bill, too.
He says being a single dad, the added cost is getting to be too much for him to handle.
"They got their money and they're gone," Hardy said.
Janel and Mark Diehr, of Longwood, can relate.
They contacted the Florida Attorney General's Office about their experience with Code Green Solar.
According to the complaint, they signed a solar agreement with the company in March of this year, and say workers with Code Green Solar also installed their solar panels without the proper permits. Then, last month, they discovered a leak in the roof right by where one of the panels was installed.
They say at first, Code Green Solar responded to their emails to come out and fix the damage and finish the job but soon after stopped communicating altogether. Then, they discovered Code Green Solar's website disappeared. Now, they are stuck paying a $35,000 loan with a damaged roof, non-working solar panels and no warranty.
News 6 went to the Orlando address listed for Code Green Solar and found an empty office suite.
Those who work in the building say they used to see workers coming in and out of the office, but for the past month and a half, it has been silent and empty.
News 6 even tracked down the electrical contractor Code Green Solar hired locally to handle Hardy's solar panel installation. Nestor Montalvo is a licensed electrical contractor from Kissimmee and was the name listed on the rejected permit applications with the City of Ocoee.
He says Code Green Solar contacted him to supervise some of the work and to pull the permits. But he says the company installed the panels on Hardy's home without his knowledge.
"They started doing the work without pulling the permits, and that's illegal to do," Montalvo said.
Montalvo says the last time he talked to his contacts at Code Green Solar was two months ago, and he says he, like Hardy, feels cheated by the company.
News 6 did more research online and discovered Code Green Solar, which made millions installing residential solar systems, now owes millions in court-ordered arbitration. Code Green Solar is named in several lawsuits accusing the company of unethical sales practices, unauthorized sales calls and breach of contracts.
The New Jersey company also did business in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, California, Florida and Puerto Rico. Just last year, the FBI raided the company's Cherry Hill location, and the company is currently at the center of an ongoing federal investigation.
News 6 called the numbers listed on the company's state incorporation papers, as well as its corporate office in New Jersey, but there was no answer and no way to leave a message.
Meanwhile, both Hardy and the Diehrs are left paying for panels that still need to be correctly permitted. Hardy says Code Green Solar was also supposed to monitor the solar panel system and provide a warranty on the panels for the 20 years of the loan.
Hardy says after News 6 got involved, he got results.
Dividend -- the finance company that provided the loan -- agreed to suspend his payments, and is working to get a local, reputable solar contractor to fix and finish the job.
News 6 also turned to the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association for answers and results. Members said this is not the first time an out-of-state company has swooped in to try to sell solar systems here in Florida.
"I think it is really bad news for our industry," FLASEIA member Richard Smith said. "It is giving us a black eye, and it's a problem we're trying to attack head-on."
Smith, who is also the CEO of Superior Solar Systems in Altamonte Springs, warns customers to watch out for predatory solar sales companies canvassing and calling local neighborhoods. Smith says consumers should always do a thorough background check, since oftentimes these transient companies hire subcontractors who may or may not be licensed to perform the work.
"Previously, you had to have a solar contractor's license to engage in the sale of the contracting of a solar system as well as to install it," Smith said. "They (the state) lifted the requirement to have a license to sell it, so anyone is allowed to sell a solar system now, as long as they subcontract it to a licensed subcontractor. So it is very under-regulated now."
Smith says they get calls all the time from customers who are left with unfinished work from some of these out-of-state companies. He even heard from the Diehrs, who filed the complaint with the attorney general.
"They'll oftentimes go just far enough within the process to get paid the lion's share of the money and then disappear," Smith said.
So what can you do to determine if the solar company you pick is reputable and licensed in the state?
Here are some tips from Florida Solar Energy Industries Association when conducting contractor interviews:
1. Interview at least two contractors. Three is better.
2. Ask for at least five references in your area to whom you can speak.
3. Research contractors through the Better Business Bureau, Angie’s List, etc.
4. Verify the contractor's license at www.myfloridalicense.com. A licensed solar company with have its license number on the contract, and it should begin with "CVC" if it is licensed to do solar.
5. Ask for a copy of the general liability and workers' compensation insurance forms.
6. Require a contractor to include in the contract that no "second" or blemished materials will be used on your project.
7. Research the solar products proposed on the bids.
8. Double-check the warranties on your materials and make sure you get your installation warranty in writing.
9. Make sure your project has an approved permit before construction begins.
10. Before you make a final draw payment, do an inspection on the system and make sure the materials and quantity on your contract match the installation.
11. Ask for a certificate of completion or approved inspection results from the jurisdiction issuing the permit.
For more information or questions, go to www.flaseia.org.
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