CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Joanna Billingsley wasn't really looking to go solar, but a salesman came to her home and sold her on panels.
"I feel like I made a terrible mistake," Billingsley told Action 9. "Everybody makes mistakes. This was a costly one."
The company she went with was Global Efficient Energy, out of Texas.
When asked if the panels saved her money on power bills, she said, "None whatsoever."
Billingsley hired Matthews lawyer Matt Villmer, along with about 180 local customers.
"A vast majority of them were retired, disabled or veterans," Villmer said.
Villmer said Global Efficient Energy promised those customers big savings on taxes, energy bills and other rebates.
"My clients were paying between $15,000 and $30,000 for solar panels that are just not good solar panels and don't do what they promised they would do," he said.
Villmer said he questioned company employees under oath.
In a video of those proceedings, a man said he went to roughly 300 customers' homes and admits not a single family saw the energy savings promised.
"Anytime that a customer would compare their before and after, once the system had been energized, they would never see it. I don't know of a single customer that did," Villmer said.
Villmer said the customers won every case they brought against Global Efficient Energy, but that the company went out of business without paying most of them.
Still, some people rave about solar panels.
You get a 30 percent federal tax credit the year you install them.
If you live in South Carolina, you get other tax breaks too.
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein even has solar panels on his home.
"It can be fantastic, but if you get the wrong company, you can spend a lot of money and you won't see any return," Stein told Action 9.
Action 9 gave Stein a list of the largest solar companies in the state and asked him how many complaints he's received against those businesses.
The answer: none in three years.
No matter which company you're considering, Stein said, "Check their references, call my office to see if there are complaints, check with the [Better Business Bureau]."
"If they're promising you things about tax money and free government money back, go and call your CPA or call any tax preparer and ask them whether those promises are actually legitimate," Villmer said.
"If someone comes and really wants to pressure you, then walk away," Billingsley said.
Make sure you ask the right questions before buying panels:
- Look at your electric bill. How much is for kilowatt-hours (kWh) and how much is for delivery costs? Even if you save on kilowatt-hours, you'll still have to pay your utility's administrative costs.
- How long do you plan to stay in your home? It could be decades before the panels pay themselves off.
- Know your home -- the amount of direct sunlight, the angle of your roof, the direction your roof faces and the condition of your roof.
- Ask your utility company if it will pay you for the electricity your panels produce.
- Ask the solar company how much you pay upfront, how much your payments are, what your financing options are and if the lender can put a lien on your home or system.
- Ask your tax preparer if you're eligible for tax breaks.
- Get multiple quotes, but make sure you compare apples to apples. That means comparing panels, installation, guarantees the company makes and warranties.
- Ask the company who is responsible for maintaining the system.
- Research the company.