Tesla solar panels have become a nightmare for some homeowners, especially for one Colorado woman whose roof went up in flames

Oct 16, 2019 03:44 PM ET
Tesla solar panels have become a nightmare for some homeowners, especially for one Colorado woman whose roof went up in flames
Image: businessinsider.com
Briana Greer was out of town when the fire started in her Tesla solar roof panels. Luckily, her neighbors in Louisville, Colorado — a town outside Boulder — were vigilant, and they were able to put out the fire before the fire department arrived.

That was on August 1. The day before, Greer said, Tesla had contacted her to let her know its system had been detecting voltage fluctuations for a couple of days. The company said it would send a crew to check it out on August 8. That was too late.

Greer, an environmental consultant, said she had yet to receive a report explaining why any of this happened.

"They purposely keep a lot of people in the dark. For an energy company, that's ironic," Greer told Business Insider in an interview last month.

Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this article, but a local Fox station in Colorado reported last month that Tesla told it that "its solar panels are safe and very rarely catch fire." The Fox report also said that Tesla said it was working with Greer's insurance company.

Tesla has not agreed to let her out of her contract, so Greer set up a GoFundMe to raise funds for an attorney to deal with this matter.

Greer said she believes Tesla was in breach of its agreement with her and Xcel, a third-party electric company that installed her meter and connected Tesla to the grid. Her contract with Tesla, viewed by Business Insider, says Tesla maintains the solar panels according to manufacturer specifications.

Xcel did not respond to a request for comment.

Greer's panels were made by a solar-panel manufacturer called Trina, whose handbook says its panels should be physically inspected twice a year. Tesla was not doing that, Greer said.

Trina did not respond to a request for comment.

Greer's contract also said that Tesla should maintain the panels according to state law. In 2017, the year Greer had her panels installed, Colorado adopted the National Electrical Code. But Greer, who provided Business Insider with diagrams of her system, said Tesla did not update her solar panels to code. For example, the NEC 2017 rules require all solar panels to be capable of a rapid shutdown at the module level, and according to Greer, the system that caught fire did not have that.

Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In an email dated September 23 and viewed by Business Insider, a Tesla representative told Greer that the company did not have maintenance records "aside from remote monitoring and reactive response." The company does not visit people's homes proactively, the email said, unless it's performing a mandatory service in a customer's neighborhood.

In August, Walmart sued Tesla, claiming that it failed to maintain the solar panels on stores across the country. Seven of those stores caught fire — one ultimately closed for a week this spring — and millions of dollars in losses and damages occurred, it said. Walmart's complaint says, just as Greer alleges, that Tesla never explained why the fires started.

Walmart had the resources to look into it. Its complaint detailed its finding that Tesla had installed faulty Amphenol connectors that could not regulate heat going into the solar panels. As a result, it said, the panels experienced temperature spikes that could lead to fires.

After the Walmart suit was made public, Business Insider reported that last year Tesla started a secret program, called "Project Titan," to replace as many of these Amphenol connectors as quickly and quietly as possible. Tesla told Business Insider that its software-monitoring applications found that a "small number" of the connectors experienced failures and disconnections higher than their standards allowed.

In that September 23 email to Greer, the most Tesla said about the fire was that her system "was not flagged" as having issues with the Amphenol connectors. To her, that simply isn't enough.

"They're playing with my life while collecting money from the rate-payer," Greer said.

Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment about Greer's claims.

Shut down and paying anyway?

To understand how customers may be affected by Project Titan, Business Insider spoke with five Tesla customers, as well as one former and two current Tesla solar employees. Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment about their claims.

All the customers — who were in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland — said they were given little to no explanation of why their panels needed to be serviced. They said they were told to turn off their systems and wait for a crew to come and do maintenance. All of them said they were forced to continue paying Tesla leasing fees, as well as an estimate for power, while their systems were shut off.

One customer, Christina Caron of Phoenix, Arizona, told Business Insider that her system started having problems in August 2018. Then in November, she said, she received an email from Tesla informing her that her system was producing an arc-fault reading. According to two current Tesla employees, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, an arc-fault reading shows that the connectors have overheated at one point.

Inside the company, the people said, there is a ranking system for the severity of an arc fault. The employees said an X means that a customer should be serviced right away. An arc fault 1 is the next most severe, then an arc fault 2 and, finally, an arc fault 3, the employees said. Caron said she did not know where her arc fault ranked.

A Tesla crew inspected Caron's system in February and determined that it had been damaged and needed to be replaced. The crew didn't say why, but told Caron that there were hot spots and moisture patches in the panels. The system's been off, at Tesla's request, ever since.

However, Caron said she was still paying Tesla to lease the panels, as well as an average energy rate that the company calculates. Plus, she has to pay her local electricity provider.

"So my electric bills are not $250 or lower — they have ranged from $400 to $800 for one month because my solar has been shut off, and that is with roughly the same usage as last year and the year before," Caron told Business Insider. "Nobody could give us any answers except to say, 'We are not responsible for the high electric bills that are coming in when the system is off.'"

Jeffrey Sutherland, a homeowner outside Boston, also experienced an arc-fault error, but he had to let Tesla know about it, he said.

"The claim that they are actively monitoring their systems is not true," he said of his experience in a phone call with Business Insider. "I had to call them in March to ask about the arc-fault errors I had been seeing on my inverter for months. The tech-support person looked at the logs and immediately instructed me to turn the system off."

Sutherland said that Tesla sent someone out to inspect the system in April and that they said they needed to "replace parts that are sending faulty signals to the inverter." They also said there were "faulty components" but did not elaborate on what exactly the problem was, he said.

So after seeing that he was still being charged for 400 kilowatts of production even though his system was turned off, Sutherland turned his system back on.

"The billing representative insisted that I needed to pay under the purchase-power agreement, even though they turned off the system. He would not reverse the charges," Sutherland said.

In August, Sutherland said, his system would intermittently go into standby mode. He would turn it back on only to have it shut down 15 to 20 minutes later. It wasn't until Sutherland read about Project Titan, Tesla's secret project to replace faulty connectors, that he became concerned and shut the system off entirely, he said. As of October 3, his panels had not been replaced.

Inside out

Two current Tesla employees and one former employee told Business Insider that the company instructed its people not to say the word "fire" but "thermal event" instead.

Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the employees' claims.

They also said that there was widespread concern within the company about the quality of the Trina panels that were on Greer's house. Trina did not respond to Business Insider's request for comment on the claim.

If a customer asked what was happening above their heads, one current Tesla employee who works in solar-panel installation told Business Insider, employees were to read a script that sounds something like this:

"We are here today to replace a part on your system that has shown a propensity to fail and can cause interruption to your service. We're here to prevent that today, and once the work is complete, you'll be able to enjoy uninterrupted, flawless service."

Two current Tesla employees said they were instructed not to tell customers anything specific about why their roof needed maintenance, or anything related to Project Titan.

"At the start, Tesla was being transparent about the connectors. Then they began to hide why maintenance was required," one person said.

"I think people need to understand that we're lucky that no one has died," they said, adding, "This could be on your home, over your kid's bedroom."

Indeed, at Greer's house in Colorado, the fire started over her 16-year-old son's bedroom.

Business Insider sent Tesla an extensive list of claims made in this story. Tesla did not reply to repeated requests for comment via phone calls, emails, or text messages.

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