Contractors: How to Easily Break into the Solar Industry

These days everyone is looking at efficiency, thinking green, and selling solar. It’s easy to understand why: in 2009 the annual grid-connected solar energy systems in the U.S. grew by 40%, despite a down economy. If you’re a contractor repairing or building houses, your business was likely impacted by the mortgage meltdown. But solar continues to grow.

Why? First of all, solar works! More important, tax incentives are strong and homeowners are interested in lowering their energy bills. So how can you get into the business, filling homeowners’ demands for solar energy? What skills do you need? It’s not for everyone, but plumbers, electricians and roofers are well positioned to add this business as a new revenue stream.

First of all, any new building has to have efficient, code-compliant design. As energy prices rise, customers, cities and businesses need to contain these rising costs. Integrating solar into new construction is the ideal scenario. In addition to low-flush toilets and good insulation, a photovoltaic (PV) installation can be incorporated at a very low cost, much lower than adding it later on. If you happen to be a developer and want to add PV to your buildings, it is easiest during the design phase. The key concept here is that a well designed 2,500 sq. ft. home can typically be powered with a 4–6kW solar array—which translates into 18-26, 230-watt solar modules.

But with new housing projects at all time lows, all this solar growth can’t be coming from new buildings, right? There is great opportunity installing solar on existing roof tops. If you’re in the roofing business then you can ask customers if they want solar when a roof is being planned, especially if the roof gets a lot of sun. Recommending solar to a client installing a new roof is an easy job―you just need to ask them if they’d be interested in a solar energy system.

What if they say yes? The solar business requires most of the skills you already have―sales skills, building and construction skills, and project management skills. There are numerous training programs you can take to learn solar, but at the end of the day rooftop solar requires people who can install solar racking that doesn’t cause a leak. Racking is a huge part of solar and most solar schools focus on the electrical aspects of solar systems. So be sure to get both electrical AND racking training before attempting to install a solar roof. If you know the ins and outs of putting down a new roof then you know how to find rafters, which is where the mounting hardware of a flush mount rack needs to be secured.

Know that the installation is easy. The harder part is selling the project to homeowners.

There are many routes contractors can take for solar training. eLocal has recently partnered with SolarTown, a solar distributor that provides excellent resources for those new to the solar industry. One of the company’s best features is how it walks contractors new to the solar business through each step of the process. It can help contractors size a solar array that will generate up to 100% (or any percentage) of the electrical demand the home uses. If the array is too big, or the price point is too high, they can specify a solar energy system that fits a client’s budget, and tell him/her how much electricity the system will produce. More important it can specify all the components contractors will need for the installation. SolarTown can review the plan and help design an approach that produces the most energy.

But how is it installed? As a builder, a roofer, or an electrician you face new challenges every day. To install an array successfully you need a good plan. The basics of a solar plan are:

1. Selecting a good site for the array. This means planning an array with a southern orientation (true south) that is shade free or has minimal shading obstacles (trees, HVAC equipment or other structures).

2. Sizing the array. Estimating the size array needed to offset a certain percentage of the electric demand of the property. Find out the kWh demand the property uses on a monthly basis. Ask the homeowner if they know how much energy they’d like to produce. Chances are you’ll both need to look at a few months of utility bills. Those will show how many kWh the property uses on a monthly basis. If you can, find out the usage level during a peak month of demand, such as the winter months in the northern states and the summer months in the southwest.

3. Picking the home solar panels. Since every solar project is unique, you’ll want to pick the panels most appropriate for the job. Some panels are good for tight spaces, others generate electricity from both sides. Plus, efficiency values vary. While these differences may seem small, over the life of the panel a percentage point difference between panels can make a big impact. You want to get the most energy you can from your array.

4. Designing the rack. Either ground mount or roof mount, the key qualities of any rack are:

o They don’t cause a leak!
o The panels are securely attached, and pointed at the sun.
o The rack won’t degrade or fail in varying weather conditions.
o The rack is easily installed and mechanically sound.
o The rack is attractive and not unsightly.

5. Planning for monitoring. If it’s one thing that has changed solar recently, it’s the energy production monitoring available from solar inverter manufacturers. SolarTown has experience with different monitoring solutions and customers are most satisfied when they can see how much energy they are producing. A good monitoring system will let customers see the energy they make over the Internet, as well as educate them about electricity intuitively. A good monitoring system can inform both the customer and the installer if there is a problem. Production monitoring can inform, educate, and sell! SolarTown can help stage this.

6. Planning the install. Take time to plan the following: a) where the solar modules will mount, b) where the wire runs will go, c) where the inverter(s) will install, d) where the disconnects will mount, and e) where the grounding will go. While you might install a productive array in a good site, if the conduit, wire runs and other components aren’t clean and tight or have an unsightly location the array will make a bad impression.

7. Interfacing with the utility and inspectors. Most roofs, electrical upgrades and building renovations require a permit. As a general contractor you may know your local building inspectors. The key take away here is to plan for an inspection. Clean, well-planned and grounded installation is more likely to pass inspection without changes. Most utilities will only interconnect with a new PV system after it has passed inspection.

As you move forward, consider selling the idea of solar during appropriate projects. Efficient and green buildings are not only comfortable to live in; it’s where the market is headed. Solar requires planning, good choices, and professional installation. The next time you’re planning a new renovation, consider adding solar―it will pay you (and your customers) on many levels!

For more information and to get started in the solar industry, visit www.solartown.com.