Withdrawing my previous recommendation for SunBug Solar

By | May 29, 2018

About seven years ago, I paid SunBug Solar a lot of money to install a solar panel array on my roof. As I wrote at the time, I was quite impressed by SunBug and preferred them over the many other installers I evaluated. Since then, I have recommended SunBug to numerous people considering solar installations.

Unfortunately, since then, there have been three significant problems with my solar array. Because of how SunBug has responded to these problems, I must withdraw my previous recommendation and discourage others from using SunBug. Here are the three problems, in decreasing order of severity:

Negligent installation leading to microinverter failure

Several months ago, one of the microinverters in my array failed and stopped producing any power. I asked the installer who replaced the failed microinverter — not SunBug — whether there was any sign of animal damage, which would void the microinverter’s manufacturer’s warranty. They replied as follows:

The microinverter we replaced did not have animal damage, it was the last microinverter in the circuit and did not have a branch terminator cap installed on it to prevent water from entering the cable (likely cause of failure), the installer taped the end of the connector with electrical tape which would, unfortunately, void the warranty.

In other words, SunBug Solar was negligent in their installation of this microinverter — using electrical tape rather than a branch termination cap as required by the manufacturer. As a result of their negligence, I had to pay hundreds of dollars to replace the microinverter, and I lost several months of production on one of the most productive panels in my array.

I have contacted SunBug asking what they intend to do to make me whole for their negligence. I will update this posting if I hear anything substantive back from them. Given the other issues described below, I’m not holding my breath.

UPDATE: SunBug replied, “By your own written admission (email correspondence), within the past year your solar array has been serviced on at least two occasions by a solar company other than SunBug. As a result, there is no definitive evidence to conclude that SunBug’s original installation of your solar array was performed in an incorrect or negligent fashion.” Yes, you read that right. Without any evidence, and in the face of an explicit statement to the contrary by the installer that fixed the problem, SunBug is blaming them for causing the problem in the first place.

UPDATE 2: TL;DR SunBug has now agreed to pay me $500 to resolve this matter. This came about through the following sequence of events which occurred after SunBug’s initial response quoted above:

First, I contacted the other company and asked if they would be willing to sign an affidavit indicating that they had not touched the failed microinverter before it failed, and also if they had any photos of it. They replied that they would be willing to provide a signed statement indicating that they found the failed microinverter with the bad termination and had not touched it before it failed, and they provided several photos of the failed microinverter showing the electrical tape where the termination cap should have been.

I then sent SunBug a Chapter 93A demand letter, in which I asserted that their use of electrical tape instead of a proper termination cap was negligent and constituted a Chapter 93A violation in its own right, and that refusing to take responsibility for their negligence when being confronted with it compounded the violation. I demanded that they reimburse me for the $250 cost of the failing microinverter, told them that as provided by law they had 30 days to respond to my complaint, and that if they did not meet my demand within 30 days, I would be taking them to court and asking for triple damages as provided by Chapter 93A, on not only the $250 repair cost, but also on the value of the electricity generation that was lost between when the microinverter failed and when I was finally able to get it replaced.

After a delay of several days, they replied that although they didn’t believe they were negligent, they would pay me the $250 to put the matter to rest. They then sent me a settlement agreement which they asked me to sign before they would pay me the settlement.

Unfortunately, the settlement which they asked me to sign had two issues, one minor and one major. The minor issue was that the language of the agreement said that I had already been paid, when they weren’t actually going to pay me until after I signed the agreement. I wasn’t going to sign a document saying that I’d already been paid when I hadn’t actually been paid yet.

The other, bigger issue was that they wanted me to give up the right to pursue any claim against them for any other problems with my array at any point in the future. I was not willing to do that because if they used electrical tape instead of a termination cap on one branch of the array, for all I know they also used electrical tape to terminate the other branch as well, which means at some point in the future the last microinverter in that array is also going to fail due to water damage.

I replied to SunBug and told them that they need to resolve these two issues with the agreement before I would be willing to sign it. For the first issue, I suggested that they simply change the language to indicate that SunBug would pay me the settlement within seven days of the agreement being fully executed, and if they wanted me to sign a statement indicating that I’d been paid, they could enclose it with the check and I’d sign it and send it back to them, though really, their FedEx record and the canceled check from their bank would be more than enough evidence that I’d been paid.

For the second issue, I offered them two options: they could either put an exception in the agreement saying that they would reimburse me for the replacement cost of the final microinverter on the other branch of my array if it should fail at any point within its 25-year manufacturer warranty period, or they could pay me $500 now rather than $250, and I would treat the additional $250 as future insurance against the anticipated cost of replacing the other branch’s final microinverter. I said if they chose the latter option, then I would agree to the agreement’s current language, i.e., I would give up the right to pursue action against them for any future problems with my array.

They just sent me a modified agreement to sign, fixing the first issue as I suggested and agreeing to pay me $500 rather than $250.

I am glad we were able to settle this dispute without going to court, but I am really quite sad that it had to come to this.

Failing to notify customers about known problems with their arrays

When my array was installed, SunBug did not recommend or even mention the possibility of installing animal guards on the edges of the array to prevent birds and squirrels from getting under the array and damaging the wiring.

SunBug claims — and I have no reason to doubt them — that back in 2011, the risk of animal damage to arrays was not well-known to anyone in the business, and it was not typical to recommend or install them. Since then, however — and this, again comes straight from SunBug — enough arrays have suffered animal damage that SunBug now recommends and installs animal guards on most of the arrays they install.

Let me reiterate this: at some point between 2011 and today, SunBug became aware that their earlier installed arrays were at risk for expensive animal damage, and that said damage could be prevented by installing animal guards.

Despite this, at no time did SunBug contact the owners of those arrays to notify them about the risk and suggest that they consider installing animal guards.

One of the things I liked about SunBug when I selected them to install my array was that they reiterated that they were “in it for the long haul” and would continue to stand by their customers and support them for the life of their arrays. I don’t see how to reconcile that with their failure to notify the owners of arrays they installed about this real, substantive risk to their arrays, when the risk became known to SunBug.

Apparently, SunBug’s commitment to stand by their customers after installation was not meaningful.

And yes, my array did suffer animal damage which would have been prevented if I had known to install animal guards, and it did cost me a lot of money to repair the animal damage.

Improper installation of shaded panel leading to repeated microinverter failure

There have been four microinverter failures since my array was installed in 2011. One was caused by the aforementioned animal damage. One was caused by the aforementioned failure to use a branch termination cap. The other two failures had no obvious explanation.

There are several reasons to doubt that the latter two failures were coincidental:

  • Both failures were for the same solar panel. My array has 22 panels, so the odds of the same panel’s microinverter spontaneously failing (i.e., without any specific cause) twice in a row is one in 22, or less than 5%.
  • In fact, a replacement microinverter should have been the least likely microinverter in the array to fail, since age is the most likely cause of spontaneous failures and the replacement was the youngest microinverter in the array.
  • The first failure occurred three years after the array was installed. The second failure occurred three years after the first failure.
  • Most importantly, the panel whose microinverter has failed twice is the most shaded panel in the array due to its position next to a gable, which means that the microinverter connected to it experiences more unreliable power and low-voltage conditions than any other microinverter in the array.

Taking all these reasons together, by far the most rational, logical explanation for these two microinverter failures is that the microinverter can’t handle the conditions produced by the heavily shaded panel. I therefore expect it to continue failing every few years for the lifetime of the array. Well, more precisely, I expect it to fail one more time, after which I will not bother to replace it because the expense of replacing it would exceed the value of the energy it would produce for the remaining lifetime of the array.

In fact, when I was researching the repeated failure of this microinverter, my calculations seemed to imply that even if the microinverters for the heavily shaded panel had never failed, it still wasn’t going to produce enough electricity — over the entire lifetime of the array — to justify the cost of the panel.

In other words, for two reasons — continuous strain on the microinverter caused by low-voltage conditions, and low panel production due to shading caused by known architectural elements — that panel should not have been installed in the array in the first place.

I explained all this to SunBug. They rejected my analysis and refused to accept any responsibility for installing a panel which wasn’t producing enough electricity to justify its existence and which had repeatedly killed its attached microinverters.

Conclusion

People and companies make mistakes. What is most important is not the mistakes, but rather how they recover from them. In all three situations described above, SunBug refused to accept responsibility for their mistakes or compensate me for the financial damage they’ve caused. When it comes to supporting their customers, SunBug talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. I therefore recommend against SunBug as a provider of solar energy installation and maintenance services.

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