Ask a Distributor: We ask distributors for their purchasing advice, products to watch in 2018

solar distributors

Solar is now the No. 1 new source of capacity being added to the grid, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and solar installer is the fastest growing job in the country according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And what’s the reason for the rise of this new era? The impending doom of the ice caps melting? Hardly. The advancements in technology? Getting warmer.

Really, things just got cheaper.

This is to say that purchasing plays a large, perhaps outsized, role in the value proposition of the industry and your business. Given that reality, we wanted to kick off the year by polling a handful of solar distributors for their purchasing advice.

You’ll be hearing from:

purchasing

Here’s the No. 1 way to avoid purchasing problems

What are the common problems distributors see when it comes to purchasing systems to install? There are a few quick, solvable issues — stuff like reviewing the details of an order before signing off on it or avoiding last minute purchases.

“Plan ahead and inspect shipments to avoid/mitigate mix ups and ensure fast and timely solutions when needed,” McShea says. “Waiting three weeks until install to say something is missing and you need it now is not effective.”

But all of that feeds into the advice that resonated with us the most: Seeing the distributor relationship as a two-way street that adds value to your business. According to the distributors we talked to, the more often you communicate, the more the distributor knows about your business, the easier it is for them to help.

“Valuing price over loyalty and the quality of the relationship with a distributor, I think, is a mistake,” Schoder from Civic notes.

A simple step up in communication will not only solve a bunch of issues but could create additional value for your business.

“Good communication and transparency are always the best remedies for doing good business and mitigating potential errors,” Dufrenne says. “Everyone is busy and going to make mistakes, including distributors and shipping companies. When all parties pay attention to detail and plan accordingly, deliveries and installations seem to go more smoothly.”

And it’s not just an exercise in mistake avoidance. Keeping everyone on the same page, forecast-wise, can only make the ordering process smoother for everyone.

“At least one call a week to plan upcoming jobs would help avoid supply chain issues,” Kyler says. This ensures all orders and forecasting align with expectations.

There’s also the training aspect. “Manufacturers are constantly offering training, quite often through their distributors,” Bailey notes. “Yet we still see many installers deal with headaches for hours which they could have learned to avoid by going through some quick training on the product features and installation.”

Think about kits

Ordering from multiple suppliers for a given residential job can leave more room for error, such as damage during shipping, incorrect parts arriving or a delayed delivery, all of which lengthens install time and increases costs.

“The best solution I’ve seen yet for lowering soft costs is to have one to two standardized kits which the sales team and installation crew are both very familiar with,” says Leone with Civic. “This mitigates both sales and labor costs. We recommend having multiple kits to protect against upstream challenges such as availability.”

“Ordering from one supplier and having the experts kit the equipment per job before shipping to the jobsite or warehouse can reduce most mistakes that cause delays and additional labor/mobilization costs,” Dufrenne says.

Sticking with brands also avoids the hassle of resubmitting permits with different equipment types or brands.

4 soft cost reduction tips

Schoder: “Utilizing online software programs like Helioscope and Energy Toolbase to drastically reduce the amount of time and effort that goes into a respectable customer proposal.”

Bailey: “Smaller installers like to use microinverters for [lowering soft costs]. In many cases they don’t have the in-house expertise to properly design a string inverter system which can maximize production. Microinverters are flexible, and the installers can design in the field by adding modules as they see fit.”

Dufrenne: “Good operations management [from lead generation to final completion]. Use software, like ENACT.”

Kyler: “Installers should keep at least one administrator dedicated to handling all incoming and outgoing paperwork such as permits, SREC registrations and contracts. This would help reduce soft costs and avoid any confusion or dilemmas later on.”

Truck these rolls

For starters, it helps to have a mini-inventory of small accessories (L-feet, clamps, wire), but stocking extra parts for the rest of the system is always a good idea.

“A common purchasing mistake I see installers make is purchasing just enough for their project instead of calculating for inevitable adjustments when they get on the roof,” Kyler says. “Mostly when it comes to racking, I recommend keeping spare parts in each truck.”
Dufrenne laid it out like this: “Not ordering extra parts for racking and attachments ends up costing much more than you’d think, once you have to roll another truck and pay for overnight shipping charges for parts that are usually less than $10.”

When it comes to the inverter (and we will get into this more on page 28) MLPE or string inverters could each offer a route to reduced truck rolls, if handled correctly. But for now, we just note what Kyler recommends: “Select products that allow remote updates or choose manufacturers that provide service programs.”

“Carry spare parts and get your system up and communicating with your gateway and online account before leaving the site,” Bailey says. “Installers who use gateways can track performance as soon as the system lights up. They can coordinate with technical support and determine within a few minutes that all modules and inverters are performing to spec.”

Head to page 2 for advice on system purchasing

— Solar Builder magazine

Clamps of Approval: Here’s what to look for when selecting PV clamps

AceClamp

Photo courtesy of AceClamp

The following advice was sent our way via Civic Solar. Check them out here.

Clamps, the racking component used to fasten and ground modules to rails, are an integral component of a racking system. Knowing what to look for in a clamp is a great place to start when vetting racking solutions. Ideally, solar module clamps should be versatile, high quality, aesthetically pleasing and ultimately save you time on the roof.

Versatile solar module clamps are important because they allow for streamlined purchasing and ensure that you always have the right materials in stock. With framed modules ranging from 30 to 50 mm in height, a clamp that can accommodate any height means that you only have to worry about stocking one part, regardless of the modules that you install. With module prices dropping, this simplicity allows you to opportunistically shift your module purchasing without having to worry about changing the racking you stock. Going one step further, the most versatile clamps will be both module height agnostic and double as a mid and end clamp. Having both of these features reduces SKU count and increases simplicity.

Does it meet standards?

Quality of the clamp needs to be considered because racking systems are responsible for the structural integrity of solar systems that will be around for more than 20 years. Some factors to consider are code compliance and certifications, the amount and quality of testing that has been done and the warranty provided by the manufacturer.

A clamp needs to be UL 2703 Listed, which means it passes electrical, mechanical and fire testing. Be sure the clamp is UL Listed rather than just UL Classified or UL Recognized. UL Classified means it has only passed a portion of the required testing, and UL Recognized means that only a component of the racking system has passed a portion of the testing.

Warranty is important because it shows the level of confidence a manufacturer has in its product. The industry standard for a racking product warranty is 20 years.

Is it a looker?

Aesthetics of a clamp should be considered because sleek looking systems will increase the adoption of residential solar.

For a clamp, more attractive means having multiple finish options and a hidden end clamp. Matching the color of the clamp to the color of the module frame will give the system a cleaner look. A hidden end clamp eliminates protruding rails, helping rail-based systems rival the aesthetics of rail-less while remaining more cost effective.

Does it save you time?

Purchasing a clamp that is pre-assembled with a low part count and integrated grounding can save you tons of time. Now, almost all of the top racking brands have integrating grounding, where modules are bonded directly to the rail through teeth on the clamps that bite into the module’s anodized coating. This eliminates components, reduces cost and results in significant labor savings. Also, choosing a clamp that is able to stand alone in the rail channel will increase ease-of-install and turn a two person job into a one person job. Some brands accomplish this through single pre-assembled pieces that have a robust enough end to stand alone while others use spring loaded clamps. Another consideration is whether the mid clamp has a t-bolt or square bolt end. Square bolts need to be run through the rail prior to installation, whereas t-bolts can be inserted into the rail at any point.

Looking for these key features will ultimately save you time and money and allow for a smoother installation process.

Marisa Borelli is product manager for racking at Civic Solar.


System Profiles: Clamps

SunModoSunModo’s Universal Bonding Mid Clamp Kit

These Pre-Assembled Universal Mid Clamps have a unique T-Bolt locking feature that ensure the T-Bolt remains vertical and in full contact with the rail to eliminate pull out. The spring-loaded top clamp and open collar nut accommodates module frames from 31 to 50 mm. The added Loctite easily engages the T-Bolt from the top of the collar nut. The shared rail adaptor converts standard rail to shared rail to allow landscape mounting of PV panels on E-W rails.

How does it save time and cost?

The SunModo self-grounding system that includes the pre-assembled universal bonding clamp eliminates separate module grounding hardware and saves installation cost.

  • Material: Aluminum
  • Certifications: UL 2703
  • Warranty: 20-year structural, 5-year finish

S-5!


The PV Kit from S-5!

The S-5-PV Kit is one of the first solar module mounting solutions to be listed to the new UL subject 2703 that covers both bonding and mounting. The S-5-PV Kit fits two grab components. The universal PV grab attaches adjacent panels, while the EdgeGrab cleanly resolves end condition requirements. S-5! clamps do not penetrate the roofing system or affect the roofer’s warranty. Fits the majority of metal roofs, including exposed fastened and corrugated.

How does it save time and cost?

With the new S-5-PV Kit, the module is simply anchored with the kit and automatically provides a ground path in the module frame. No lugs or wire required except to connect one string of modules to another and to ground the system. This connection detail represents installed electrical cost savings of $6-$12 per unit.

  • Material: Stainless steel
  • Certifications: UL and ASTM tested for use with extensive list of metal roofing manufacturers, profiles, materials and gauges.
  • Warranty: 25-year defect warranty (applies only when the S-5! product is properly installed, used and maintained).

AceClamp


AceClamp’s family of clamps

AceClamps are factory-assembled clamps with patented design features that allow strong connections to standing-seam roof panels without the use of set screws or any other loose parts that could damage the surface of the roof panel. Accessories include Solar Kits for securing PV solar panels; a Micro L-Foot to mount microinverters directly to the standing seam roof rib; and a custom designed L-Foot for attaching a racking system to the AceClamp when needed. AceClamp designs have been vibration tested during the development stage and incorporate special locking features to ensure that the bolts do not back out when subjected to vibratory loads from wind flutter and light seismic activity.

How does it save time and cost?

AceClamps and Solar-Kits are pre-assembled at the factory saving time at the jobsite. Four clamp styles fit the majority of the roof panels on the market, resulting in inventory cost savings. AceClamps install in less than half the time as most set-screw mounted clamps

  • Material: 6061-T6 aluminum and 303 stainless steel
  • Certifications: AceClamp ML and A2 UL Listed to 2703; AceClamp ML approved by Factory Mutual (4471) for wind uplift attachment. A2 and Solar-Kit tested to UL 467 Grounding.
  • Warranty: 20-year limited

EcoFasten


Ecofasten ASG-U Clamps

ASG-U clamps are efficient solar roof mount attachment options for any metal standing seam roof. Installation of the ASG-U clamps will not pierce the roofing material. ASG-U clamps are available in configurations for both vertical (double-lock) and horizontal (single lock) standing seams.

How does it save time and cost?

Two oval-point set screws are included as well as a hex-headed flange bolt for racking, making the ASG-U clamps not only fast and easy to install, but they will also maintain the integrity of your roof by not voiding roofing manufacturer’s warranties.

 This section appeared in our 2017 Mounting Guide. Not a subscriber? Sign up for a FREE subscription right here.

— Solar Builder magazine

SimpliPhi’s residential energy storage system now available through Civic Solar

In anticipation of the planned reopening the Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP), SimpliPhi Power and CivicSolar are partnering to bring versatile energy storage solutions to residential installers in California. The AccESS all-in-one-box storage system from SimpliPhi was developed in partnership with solar and energy storage installers for power security that is safe, reliable, non-hazardous and efficient.

AccESS is now available from CivicSolar as a fully integrated storage and management solution that is ideal for those installers new to energy storage and interested in applying for SGIP incentives for their residential projects. The program, scheduled to reopen by April 2017, reserves incentives specifically for residential energy storage projects of 10kW or less, with incentive levels decreasing as demand grows.

RELATED: Who really won the Super Bowl? In Hawaii, it was SimpliPhi Power Batteries 

SimpliPhi benefits

simpliphi-access-integrated-power-storage-solution-open-cabinet-door-outdoors-web-ready-1280-1700Because of the inherent safety and non-toxicity of SimpliPhi’s lithium ferrous phosphate chemistry and proprietary battery architecture and management, the AccESS allows installers to eliminate the complexities of ancillary equipment necessary for thermal monitoring. This standardizes an integrated solution without the risk of thermal runaway or fire characteristic of cobalt-based lithium batteries and safely install energy storage inside or outside the home.

“CivicSolar, like SimpliPhi, believes in empowering customers to make informed decisions about their power storage and generation needs with systems that are dependable, safe and enduring; without having to wait for ambiguous product availability dates that have not been deployed or validated through years of performance and field tests,” said said SimpliPhi CEO Catherine Von Burg. “We partnered with CivicSolar because they have a dedicated, technically savvy sales team that supports customers through the complicated SGIP reservation and system design process.”

The AccESS is a complete plug-and-play Energy Storage System (ESS) that easily integrates power storage into new and existing solar installations, both on and off grid. SimpliPhi’s fully integrated solution includes the company’s award-winning battery technology combined with a Schneider Electric inverter charge controller, associated power electronics and overall system management in one elegant box. Pre-programmed software settings and system performance monitoring complete the solution for a variety of installations, including self-consumption or net metering.

“Our knowledgeable team are expert at the solar-plus-storage landscape and aim to simplify everything from design and procurement to financing and applying for incentives for these systems,” said CivicSolar’s Product Manager Owen Fox. “Working with SimpliPhi helps extend this mission by making storage more accessible, safe and reliable for contractors. The AccESS is easy to install, comes complete with integrated intelligent management and incorporates dependable components from partners like Schneider Electric.”

 

— Solar Builder magazine