How Apex Solar Power streamlined its PE letter process with Vector Structural Engineers

Apex Solar

Overview of Vector solar lab; this is new space (and people) devoted to solar.

Apex Solar Power is headquartered in tranquil Queensbury, N.Y., which is upstate close to Lake George and not too far from the Vermont line. Over the past two years alone, Apex has installed more than 3,000 home and business solar systems throughout the Northeast. Along the way it has learned some important lessons, among them the need to take quick action when a customer says yes.

“Speed is everything,” says Apex Chief Operating Officer Chris Hall. “An additional day to process a project is another opportunity for the customer to cancel.”

One potential delay point in the process, Hall notes, is the requirement for a letter stating that a professional engineer, licensed in the state where the installation is to take place, has reviewed the engineering drawings for the project, and certifies that it meets the requirements for that particular state. Before installation can take place, this letter must be submitted to the appropriate housing authority, along with the building permit application and the plans.

For the past three years, Apex has relied on Vector Structural Engineers of Draper, Utah to provide these letters.

“For one thing, they’re fast,” Hall says. “They give us a 24-hour turnaround time, which is awesome. They’re also competent. We operate in 900 cities and towns in seven states, and all the jurisdictions appreciate their verbiage, layout and calculations. We never have issues with anybody questioning their work.”

Waste-free model

The system Vector uses to accomplish this task was developed in the course of work for another booming industry, telecommunications.

“From the beginning we developed this around the customer’s needs, and what the customer practically always needs is speed,” says Joe Sharp, Vector’s senior project manager. “Our client has been tasked by their client to put up a structurally engineered four-legged telecom tower. They’re behind schedule, and they need a structural design tomorrow.”

As Sharp describes it, the process works like this:

•The client starts by dragging and dropping all their drawings, photographs, and information onto their Vector Engineers landing page.

•Vector responds to the client as quickly as possible with questions, requests for additional information, and value engineering ideas. (Value engineering, Sharp explains, is essentially a matter of having engineers look at somebody else’s plans with a fresh pair of eyes and say, ‘As we see it, if you change this or that, you can save a lot of money.’)

•Once those decisions are made, the project engineer assigned to that client starts putting the plans and drawings together. Internally, the process links the project information to the CAD department, who create drawing templates and detail sheets.

•When that’s done, the project engineer meets with the engineer with responsible charge (i.e., who’s licensed in the state where the tower is being built) to review the structural design.

“We complete the necessary engineering and drawings and the engineer that has responsible charge reviews and stamps them,” Sharp says. “The package is sent electronically to the client with a digital certified stamp on it. While all this is going on, the client’s accounting department and our accounting department sign off on the pre-agreed fees and coordinate with our payables department. The job is typically turned around in twelve to twenty-four hours.”

Ready for the sunrise

Apex-Vector 2

Perez house project, Delmar, N.Y.; Dr. Richard Perez, [left] and Chris Hall, COO, Apex Solar Power.

The cell phone boom started more than a decade before the solar power boom, so Vector had some fifteen years to fine-tune this approach before it started hearing from solar installers that needed the above-mentioned certification letters.

What Vector was hearing from these installers were not just requests for engineering services, but stories about wait times for certification letters dragging into weeks. This, as Chris Hall noted, resulted in projects being canceled because the paperwork took too long. Another problem was that the documents, whether they came quickly or slowly, often didn’t meet the jurisdiction’s criteria. Meanwhile, structural engineers’ fees for doing all this were edging up toward four figures.

Vector formed a solar group in 2015 that has rapidly emerged as one of the nation’s leading residential and commercial solar engineering firms. Over the past two years, the company has hired 32 new full-time and part-time engineers to support the solar practice.

Meanwhile, up in the Northeast, Chris Hall and his colleagues at Apex Solar Power are doing what they can to keep the Vector team busy. “Over the course of my ten years in the industry,” says Hall, “I’ve used probably 30 different PE firms, and Vector has just out-performed them in every way. Speed. Quality. Price. And they’re also—engineers are not always the most friendly people, but at Vector, they’re personable. They’re easy to deal with.”

Apex Solar and Vector Structural Engineers have integrated their workflow processes to rapidly and professional service their respective client’s needs. Both companies see the demand for rapid turnaround as an important factor to drive solar power growth.

— Solar Builder magazine

How Apex Solar Power streamlined its PE letter process with Vector Structural Engineers

Apex Solar

Overview of Vector solar lab; this is new space (and people) devoted to solar.

Apex Solar Power is headquartered in tranquil Queensbury, N.Y., which is upstate close to Lake George and not too far from the Vermont line. Over the past two years alone, Apex has installed more than 3,000 home and business solar systems throughout the Northeast. Along the way it has learned some important lessons, among them the need to take quick action when a customer says yes.

“Speed is everything,” says Apex Chief Operating Officer Chris Hall. “An additional day to process a project is another opportunity for the customer to cancel.”

One potential delay point in the process, Hall notes, is the requirement for a letter stating that a professional engineer, licensed in the state where the installation is to take place, has reviewed the engineering drawings for the project, and certifies that it meets the requirements for that particular state. Before installation can take place, this letter must be submitted to the appropriate housing authority, along with the building permit application and the plans.

For the past three years, Apex has relied on Vector Structural Engineers of Draper, Utah to provide these letters.

“For one thing, they’re fast,” Hall says. “They give us a 24-hour turnaround time, which is awesome. They’re also competent. We operate in 900 cities and towns in seven states, and all the jurisdictions appreciate their verbiage, layout and calculations. We never have issues with anybody questioning their work.”

Waste-free model

The system Vector uses to accomplish this task was developed in the course of work for another booming industry, telecommunications.

“From the beginning we developed this around the customer’s needs, and what the customer practically always needs is speed,” says Joe Sharp, Vector’s senior project manager. “Our client has been tasked by their client to put up a structurally engineered four-legged telecom tower. They’re behind schedule, and they need a structural design tomorrow.”

As Sharp describes it, the process works like this:

•The client starts by dragging and dropping all their drawings, photographs, and information onto their Vector Engineers landing page.

•Vector responds to the client as quickly as possible with questions, requests for additional information, and value engineering ideas. (Value engineering, Sharp explains, is essentially a matter of having engineers look at somebody else’s plans with a fresh pair of eyes and say, ‘As we see it, if you change this or that, you can save a lot of money.’)

•Once those decisions are made, the project engineer assigned to that client starts putting the plans and drawings together. Internally, the process links the project information to the CAD department, who create drawing templates and detail sheets.

•When that’s done, the project engineer meets with the engineer with responsible charge (i.e., who’s licensed in the state where the tower is being built) to review the structural design.

“We complete the necessary engineering and drawings and the engineer that has responsible charge reviews and stamps them,” Sharp says. “The package is sent electronically to the client with a digital certified stamp on it. While all this is going on, the client’s accounting department and our accounting department sign off on the pre-agreed fees and coordinate with our payables department. The job is typically turned around in twelve to twenty-four hours.”

Ready for the sunrise

Apex-Vector 2

Perez house project, Delmar, N.Y.; Dr. Richard Perez, [left] and Chris Hall, COO, Apex Solar Power.

The cell phone boom started more than a decade before the solar power boom, so Vector had some fifteen years to fine-tune this approach before it started hearing from solar installers that needed the above-mentioned certification letters.

What Vector was hearing from these installers were not just requests for engineering services, but stories about wait times for certification letters dragging into weeks. This, as Chris Hall noted, resulted in projects being canceled because the paperwork took too long. Another problem was that the documents, whether they came quickly or slowly, often didn’t meet the jurisdiction’s criteria. Meanwhile, structural engineers’ fees for doing all this were edging up toward four figures.

Vector formed a solar group in 2015 that has rapidly emerged as one of the nation’s leading residential and commercial solar engineering firms. Over the past two years, the company has hired 32 new full-time and part-time engineers to support the solar practice.

Meanwhile, up in the Northeast, Chris Hall and his colleagues at Apex Solar Power are doing what they can to keep the Vector team busy. “Over the course of my ten years in the industry,” says Hall, “I’ve used probably 30 different PE firms, and Vector has just out-performed them in every way. Speed. Quality. Price. And they’re also—engineers are not always the most friendly people, but at Vector, they’re personable. They’re easy to deal with.”

Apex Solar and Vector Structural Engineers have integrated their workflow processes to rapidly and professional service their respective client’s needs. Both companies see the demand for rapid turnaround as an important factor to drive solar power growth.

— Solar Builder magazine

Wire you doing that? Top four solar installation wire management issues

solar panel wires

1. Cross-mating

Cross-mating, which refers to the plugging of connectors from different manufacturers (between modules to optimizers/microinverters, modules to field-connectors, optimizers to field connectors or field connectors to the BOS system) is one of the most common PV wiring mistakes. In fact, the EU-funded Solar Bankability Project’s Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA), which sourced data from over 1 million documented insurance claims, showed that “different kinds of connectors” (cross-mating) had the highest risk potential in PV installations, and it wasn’t even close.

The reason for the risk here is connectors from different manufacturers have different dimensions, materials and engineering tolerance. The slight variation between different manufacturers can result in higher contact resistance (heat), water intrusion or unexpected deterioration of contact or plastic parts.

“Each connector has different critical dimensions and even using the most precise calipers to copy connectors still doesn’t guarantee a secure connection,” says Dean Solon, CEO and founder of Shoals. “Secondly, these connector manufacturers do not always utilize the same metals or procure their contact terminals from the same vendor. As a result, mixing dissimilar metals will unquestionably lead to thermal events [read: fires]. Pre-fabricators or field installers should use the opposite polarity from the same connector manufacturer used on the module datasheet. If it is not explicitly stated what type of connectors are being used on the module datasheet, reach out to the module manufacturer to identify.”

UL1703/6703, IEC 62548 and IEC 62852 (EN50521) testing does not allow for cross-mating. The good news is this is an easy problem to avoid during project planning. When designing or purchasing modules, field-connectors, inverter and optimizers and BOS systems, one needs to make sure that all connectors are coming from the same manufacturer. If you are using connectors labeled “MC4 compatible,” be sure to obtain a written statement from both manufacturers.

We have more on this topic right here.

2. Skimping

One of the most common issues in solar installations occurs when wire management is seen as an optional expense or somewhere to save on installation costs.

“The long-term system and maintenance costs that result from poor wire management practices far outweigh the effort required to implement a proper solution,” notes Sarah Parsons, Wiley product manager at Burndy. “Supporting PV wires at required intervals with listed solutions made from environmentally rated materials [such as stainless steel or UV-rated polymer] is the only way to align the lifetime of the wires with the intended system lifespan.”

This goes for the cables too. Jeff Wang, business development alternative energies – North America for Stäubli Electrical Connectors, recommends using only black XLPE cables and tin-plated copper cables.

“Color cables don’t survive the UV for the lifetime of PV system,” he says. “Incorporating carbon black in polyolefines greatly increases the UV resistance, and carbon black acts as UV absorbent and screens the polyolefine from the damage of UV lights. Bare copper starts to react violently with oxygen when temperatures reache 90 degrees. It forms copper oxide and greatly reduces the current carrying capacity of the wire. In outdoor environments where there is humidity and high temperature, tin-plated wire is the sure choice.”

3. Misapplication of components

Similar to No. 1, but more specifically: Understand the details of securing wire safely or choose a fastener that is tolerant of a wide variety of installation methods. For example, when putting metal-coated or plastic ties through sharp module mounting holes. With low-cost plastic ties, you should know exactly what you are getting as a system designer, which is a solution that could last as little as a few months. A metal coated product can lead to far greater damage than just product failure, like wire damage.

“In choosing a particular material or type of wire management component, metal tends to be more forgiving to install but less forgiving to the cable if installed improperly,” says Nick Korth with HellermannTyton. “Plastic wire management runs the opposite, requiring more care to design and install but is ultimately kinder on cable insulation. These considerations are an important part of your wire management strategy to ensure a long-term solar installation.”

Heyco sees a lot of installations where side-to-side cable retention cannot be achieved simply because of the mechanics of the part being used. For example, a standard cable tie is only going to provide so much side-to-side cable retention before it begins to sag throughout the array. Most PV module clips come with a unique spring retention tab that accommodates a variety of wire diameters while still providing side-to-side retention on the cable.

In large-scale applications, trends of higher voltages and the use of more string inverters out in the field call for a complementary update in wire management.

“Solar installations are now carrying energy as high as 1,500 volts with current approaching 1,000 amps, and it is critical for life safety issues to properly house the power cables to ensure a safe working environment for the solar technicians,” says Roger Jette, president of Snake Tray. “With more inverters in use, AC and DC cables need to be carried through a cable management infrastructure versus using hooks.”

4. Not planning for landscape

Module manufacturers are designing positive and negative leads anticipating they will be installed in portrait, though most rooftop installations are in landscape. Some 72-cell modules are manufactured with leads that do not reach adjacent modules in landscape, making it impossible to string a row together.

“These short leads force installers to wire in columns on a landscape rooftop system,” says Jonah Coles, product solutions manager with Ecolibrium Solar. “In this situation, choose a racking system with built-in features to secure wires across the inter-row space. This will make stringing columns as easy as stringing rows.”

Another challenge is that dual junction boxes with a short lead on each side of the module are becoming more prevalent. This makes wiring especially challenging when using optimizers and microinverters because both leads need to be brought to the optimizer or microinverter, which also makes wiring in landscape more difficult.

“Consider these factors when choosing modules. Make a string map to organize the wiring path based on the module you are using,” Coles says. “Then choose a racking system with flexible wiring options and have your racking solution quoted to include wire clips. These planning tips will avoid delays by providing installers with a solid plan and the appropriate material to get the job done.”

— Solar Builder magazine

How to predictably scale and grow your solar installation business

ladders and rocks

Even as the residential solar installation market continues to grow, most solar businesses are looking for ways to lower the cost of acquiring new customers. How can your residential solar contracting business manage customer acquisition so that you have the right amount of business through each season without over-spending on sales and marketing? The answer is to get better at acquiring new customers using the newest trends in marketing.

The holy grail of marketing is knowing whether you’re wasting your time or money, and whether your efforts are generating a positive return on investment for your solar business. When companies generate a consistent ROI for each dollar spent on marketing, they have created a predictable model. That predictability is what makes your business scalable because once you know that if you spend $1, you’ll get $10 back, you can increase your marketing spend and revenue with confidence. Once you’re confident in achieving a consistent return on investment, you can scale the channel to achieve the volume required for optimizing your ROI. In addition, once you have the ability to get customers when you need them, you can grow comfortably, increasing your spend to evenly distribute your jobs over the year to suit your needs.

When a solar contractor manages to generate new customers and contain customer acquisition costs, this creates a sustainable, predictable model. Then, it’s just a matter of defining how many customers your business has the infrastructure to serve in a given period of time and investing in getting them on board. Sales growth is predictable and customers can be acquired at an optimal rate.

The predictability problem

Since 85 percent of all solar installation inquiries now start online, the most measurable lowest cost results will come from digital marketing. However, the home improvement industry remains behind the curve in digital marketing. According to a study by G/O Digital, 77 percent of all contractors have no marketing plan. With so many homeowners turning to the internet for information about solar panel installation, digital marketing has become crucial to maintaining market share.

The path to getting more customers is typically measured by the following:

  • Cost per click. How much does it cost to get a prospective customer to click on your ad or your content to learn more?
  • Cost per response. After a prospect clicks, how many will respond by getting in touch with you? And what is the cost for each of these?
  • Cost per appointment set. How many potential customers for your solar installation business are qualified for your services and will agree to a sales visit? And what is the cost for each of these?
  • Cost per sale. How many potential buyers convert to a sale? And what is the cost for each of these?

Most solar businesses don’t have the resources to invest in developing capabilities to expertly manage this within their business, nor do they have the interest in managing it on a day-to-day basis. So, they take the new customer calls as they come, without any ability to control when they come, or whether the calls they get are from the types of customers they even want to serve. Worse, most solar companies have no tracking of lead sources, so they’re unable to determine which channels and campaigns are worth investing in and which they should discontinue.

Five paths to predictability

There are five ways solar businesses are improving the predictability of their marketing so they can grow at a controlled rate.

  1. Reduce risk by outsourcing part of the process. By eliminating the need to execute each step, you will save time and improve results. By outsourcing lead generation, for example, the cost per raw lead is defined and doesn’t vary from month to month. All you’ll focus on are the last two variables in the process: appointment setting and sales.
    “Utilizing purchased leads, as part of a comprehensive marketing strategy, is a valuable tool in growing a solar business,” says Amy Olsen at Wells Solar and Electrical Services. “Outsourcing lead generation leaves the responsibility to the experts. Paired with an efficient model of processing leads, it can ultimately expand a referral network.”
  2. Respond to leads quickly. The best results go to the contractors that respond to solar leads in five minutes or less.
    “To stay ahead of the competition, you need to have a marketing and technology infrastructure that can react to new solar leads instantaneously, coupled with capable and knowledgeable solar sales staff, or you have lost,” says Justin Jordan, VP of marketing at Sungevity. “There are many ways to measure marketing success, but it all starts with the ability to react quickly and effectively to new leads coming down the pipeline.”
  3. Be persistent. Success rates are shown to be optimal for those who place up to six follow-up calls for their residential solar leads.
  4. Capture permission to stay in touch. Even if a lead isn’t ready to set an appointment or buy, gain permission to add them to your database as a contact. If you nurture them over the period of a year, a certain number will convert to customers when they are ready to buy.
  5. Deliver a quote promptly. Your ability to respond to residential solar leads with a quote will be interpreted as an expression of your overall quality of service. A quick response portends quick service, which will take a winning position against a competitor that takes longer.

Measure the results

The rigor of tracking and measuring will pay off. This allows you to see where your processes are weakest, so you can then focus on the appropriate efforts to make improvements.

“The key to success is understanding the process and the metrics,” says Bob Brunson, SVP at Zoi Solar. “Once you understand those, you can work to improve the inefficiencies.”

Olsen agrees. “It is very important to track leads, meetings and contracts. Each of the steps in the sales process defines the efficacy of the lead source.”

Ultimately, if you get your cost per raw lead to a predictable number, all you’ll have to work on is the cost per appointment and the cost per sale.

Don’t let marketing people tell you this isn’t possible. It is, and it’s done every day by savvy solar contractors who want to grow strategically. There’s no reason to let your business fall behind because you’re not able to take advantage of the new technologies and services that provide the ability to market in a way that takes the mystery out of the process. You deserve to know what your marketing dollars are generating for you in terms of new customers and to enjoy the benefits of growing your business in an intentional, deliberate way.

Jason Polka is the CEO of Modernize.


roof top reportDownload the new Residential Rooftop Report to heat up your solar sales

The Residential Rooftop Report for the first quarter of 2019 is now available for download. The theme is “Heating Up Sales,” and we’ve teamed up with report sponsor Aurora Solar to examine ways for residential solar installation companies to lower customer acquisition costs, close more leads and overall run a more streamlined, efficient local solar business. Just fill out the form below to access your free report.



















— Solar Builder magazine

PV Pointer: Maintain edge distance for compliant roof attachment

mounting solar panels

The quality of a solar installation has many parameters. One frequently underevaluated aspect is a compliant roof attachment. Load calculations that determine the number and spacing of attachment points prescribe not only the length of lag screws that must enter structural members but also their edge distance or the effective centering of the lag screw in the rafter or truss.

The National Design Standards of the American Wood Council defines edge distance as the distance between the center of the lag screw and the edge of the structural member. For most solar applications, the minimum edge distance is 1.5 times the lag screw diameter. Placed in a common residential PV setting, the center line of a 5/16-in. lag screw entering a 1-1/2-in.-wide rafter must not exit the middle 9/16 in. (37.5 percent) of that rafter. In other words, 9/32 in. (just over 1/4 in.) is the maximum allowed deviation from center. Engineered trusses, or TJIs, have their own attachment specifications available from the manufacturers.

Edge distance compliance factors

First is the accuracy of the installer’s determination of center from the rooftop. The most common locating method, drilling enough probing holes to estimate one or both edges — and from that inferring center — is used where rafters are hidden. Rafters that are exposed (in a vaulted ceiling or porch roof, for example) increase inaccuracies because more complicated methods are often used to avoid cosmetic damage. Second, if a pilot hole is used, an error in placement or angle can set the lag off center. The tip of a 3-in. lag screw angled 2.5 degrees off of perpendicular will end up 1/8 in. off target.

Factors outside the installer’s control and often awareness include warped or skewed rafters that may be 5 degrees or more out of perpendicular, sending the point another 1/4 in. or more off target. In a typical installation with 30 to 50 standoffs, each subject to a combination of these factors, “spinners” are common, and they can be challenging to remedy. Other noncompliant lags go undetected, and some of these will fail under loads they are required to meet.

Noncompliant roof attachments can be minimized by attention to their primary causes. Installers should be equipped with the necessary tools and trained in a variety of methods for rafter center location as well as missed-target remediation. Site-specific parameters will point to preferred approaches. Where possible, visual inspection of rafters before lagging can inform a compliant trajectory in a skewed rafter. Post-attachment inspection may help identify noncompliant lags.

Duane Ediger is an installer with Technicians for Sustainability in Tucson, Ariz., and the founder of RafterEye LLC.

— Solar Builder magazine