Solar heating is a great way to save money, but beware of shady installers.


There has been a lot of negative coverage about the solar panel sector as of late, signing articles warning consumers about the rising risk of getting ripped off by unsavory solar water heating contractors. I would compare people in the sector who are more concerned with generating a profit than protecting the environment to the double-glazing business of the 1980s. However, when done right, the potential cost savings realized by adopting solar water heating might be overshadowed by an exaggerated focus on the possibility of being ripped off. In addition, I have doubts about the claimed savings of 5.5% across the board for heating expenses, whether we’re talking about gas, electricity, or even my own oil-powered central and hot water heating system.

I am pleased with my solar water heater. For reference, my annual heating bills for a detached house consist of roughly £1,200 for oil paid via standing order + £60 for a load of logs. Of course, this cost is felt most acutely in the colder months.

Mostly, I don’t use any heating fuel from the end of May until the end of September, when the heating system is turned off. I have saved roughly 1,000 liters of oil each year thanks to my new solar water heating system. Instead of saving 5.5%, as stated in the prior post, we will save roughly 25% since the 1,000 liters translates to about £400, or about a quarter of our former total heating fuel expense.

To counter claims that our savings are lower than we’ve been led to believe, I will add that we don’t keep our home at a constant, comfortable temperature; rather than crank up the heat, we wear more clothes. Our house is the last one on the block to shed its snow, so we use extra insulation to keep the heat and cold out. Moreover, we prefer to heat individual rooms to the house as a whole, so the amount of heat associated with water heating rather than space heating may be higher than usual, resulting in more significant relative savings. The savings of £400 would remain the same as a fixed amount even if we turned up the thermostat, however, as a proportion of the more significant total heating expenditure.

Because more energy is used to heat water than living space in an energy-efficient home, the marginal percentage savings on the heating fuel bill from installing a solar hot water system are much more significant in a well-insulated “Super” home.

Let’s discuss shady vendors again. One of the latest articles alludes to the installation business I contacted initially when I began looking into solar heating, albeit it doesn’t identify them by name. After my initial phone contact requesting a rough estimate, a knowledgeable salesperson in a sleek vehicle drove out to meet with me. When it came to my gasoline costs, in particular, the salesman threw forth a lot of questionable data with which I strongly disagreed. Getting a sign in front of my house advertising the company seemed to be a significant selling element.

Also, I wouldn’t say I liked the argument that the preferred system, evacuated tubes, was worth the cost because it was 10% more efficient than flat panels. Roof space isn’t in short supply, so why not have more inexpensive flat panels instead? (This is ultimately what I did). Since then, I’ve learned that the high failure rate of evacuated tube systems in Germany has resulted in the country shipping its surplus inventory to the United Kingdom.

My primary concern during the appointment was that I never received an answer to my repeated requests for a cost breakdown. Ultimately, I informed the salesman that our meeting would be over until he disclosed the price of the equipment. I paid him £7,500 to depart in 2001 when we wasted time together.

After some time, I connected with a solar panel maker that also functions as a distributor. The local installer connected me with installing the system I now have. After factoring in a subsidy of £400, the total for a three-panel system amounted to £3,600, or around six square meters of flat plate solar collector.

Then, in 2005, a year before Green was hip, I convinced my previous employer, a utility, to begin advertising the same solar panels. There was a lot of interest, so the installer we subcontracted did hundreds of visits and surveys, but we only closed two deals. Even though the advertised cost was relatively low—£2,500 to £3,500 before the grant, depending on the setup—this was the case.

I dug a little further and contacted a firm peddling identical systems. We took the gentle route of having a technician contact the potential consumer while they hired a commission-based salesman and increased their prices by at least £2,000 per installation. Compared to their 35% sales rate, our 1% rate was laughable.

Since the higher-priced company’s technology is identical to mine, I have no reason to criticize it. Likewise, I have no reason to discredit the claims made by the salesman; I listened to his entire presentation without finding any flaws, and I seriously doubt that the journalist who wrote the scathing “Green con trick” article could have either. However, it speaks volumes that customers will shell out over £6,000 for a’sold’ installation but reject the same system at half the price when the salesman isn’t present.

Installing these systems could be the single most significant step from a sustainability perspective. In the long run, it doesn’t matter how much money people spend on them because they recover the environmental cost or carbon footprint of production within a few years.

So, what would I recommend? Learning as much as possible about this topic is your best advantage. Solar water heating should be at the top of your list if you want to reduce your carbon footprint. Get multiple quotes (around £3,000 each) and take your time making a decision; if the salesman pressures you into signing on the spot, look elsewhere.

Simon is currently consulting for, where he discusses the best ways to use renewable energy to reduce monthly utility costs for homeowners.

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