Side Business: Three solar contractors discuss selling, constructing solar-covered patios

Skylift

The Skylift is a new mounting product designed for attaching to an existing roof, grounding one end of the patio while elevating the ceiling and solar array.

Solar-covered patios are a niche product worth exploring as part of your solar business. The first step in pursuing these projects is knowing they aren’t for everyone. Many solar customers are interested in cost per watt, so pitching an addition that comes in around $7 per watt will stop conversations. This doesn’t mean it’s a dead end, just that they require a different sales and marketing approach and locating the right, easy-to-install solution.

What’s the market?

Andrew Read at Voltage River had high hopes for pursuing solar patios out in southern California, considering the high-income customer base and year-round outdoor living in the area, but he found that traditional advertising didn’t get the return he needed.

“Finding customers for this is not easy,” Read says. “I wanted it to be bigger than it is, and I did push it for a bit but have backed off trying to market it.”

Instead, he lets most of the business come to him via referrals from a cadre of high-end architects and builders. Approaching the market this way has been a success.

“We sell them for a high price because of what they are: a statement piece. Anyone looking to get out from under an electric bill, it’s not the system for them,” he says.

Region matters here more than in the standard residential PV business. John Hunter at Florida-based Premium Solar Patios, for example, is a bit more bullish on the current market for the solar patio, calling it “astounding.”

“We have seen a major influx of interest from your average homeowner to track homebuilders,” he says. “Today we are fulfilling orders from dealers around the country as well as installing sales from our inside sales teams.”

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One angle that has worked for Hunter is in HOA developments that make it difficult for homeowners to go solar. The solar patios they install are often a way around HOA rooftop aesthetic issues. They also can be placed anywhere on a property to get the best direct sunlight if the home is shaded.

But a word of warning: You think regular solar permitting is annoying, try coordinating between one person for the patio itself and then another person for the solar portion.

“It can land on a desk of someone used to seeing one thing, they don’t know what to do with it and then you get stuck in the washing machine of bureaucracy,” Read says, noting it took him six months to get one project through in Laguna Beach.

Construction

Once you are ready to pursue solar patios, the question is whether you want to also get into the patio construction business and offer a turnkey solution or just handle the solar piece and contract out the rest.

“The people good at doing this are the same that build regular patio covers because it’s an extension of what they do,” Read says. “From my experience, solar guys get hung up on patio covers. The patio cover structure guys can build that pretty easily, and then I can bring in a contractor just to wire up the panels and get it plugged into the main circuit.”

Premiums Solar says a solar patio installation, in most cases with an experienced crew, will take three days, due to the concrete drying time and footer/house attachment inspections where required. Vince McClellan with Solar Energy Design calculates a typical job takes about a third longer than mounting the array on the roof.

“After the structure is up, our Solar Rainframe system installs in about the same time as a typical solar array mounted on a roof,” McClellan says. He notes the market for solar patios is just starting. His company’s Solar Rainframe racking system (originally designed for parking structures) creates a water shedding roof using standard framed solar electric modules — a design built with 10 years of experience designing and building BIPV canopies. It uses no seals or gaskets and creates a weatherized roof out of standard solar modules, meaning there is no need for a separate roof under the solar array because the solar array is the roof.

That’s the other thing: Each solar installer we talked to had developed and settled on their own structural and design approach for the solar + patio.

“I’ve been toiling along with different solutions and finally found something that works. Hasn’t come from a simple stroll down the aisle at Wal-Mart,” Read says. “This solution literally took years of futzing around and figuring out because these are elegant systems and not designed to be cheap.”

“With our awnings, the wire is hidden behind wireways that are a part of the system,” McClellan says. “The extruded aluminum rails of the Solar Rainframe product can span about 20 ft with only two points of contact. This creates an uncluttered look underneath the awning because there is no need for additional beams supporting the solar array.

Premium Solar uses its standard reinforced aluminum 3 in. x 8 in. support beam, which makes it an easy fit and retains the style of their other solar patios. Wire management is also key here. Be sure to select conduit or other solutions that will keep the wiring out of view.

“We have a more commercial system in appearance that is a lower cost option to our Premium Solar Patio. Each option can be customized for the application the customer desires,” Hunter says. “Due to it being a more complex project, it does come with an added cost versus a rooftop, but we have come to find markets that sell rooftop for what the patios retail for in the majority of markets.”

Key to each of these unique designs was the Skylift, a new mounting product specifically designed for attaching to an existing roof and grounding one end of the patio while elevating the ceiling and the array. This makes it easy to retrofit a patio cover onto an existing building and attaching the solar while saving money on installing the footers and posts on that side. It also solves issues with eaves in some cases being too low to allow for the attachment of a solar patio along with the need to slope for water runoff. The Skylift allows for the needed height.

“We would have many patios that could not be installed in many cases due to a pool,” Hunter notes as an example. “Depending on where you are in the country, the requirements to offset from a pool wall would be damning to a project. The Skylift provided the solution that allowed us to back further away from the pool and get these special cases permitted.”

“Another great option for building integrated solar roofs using our Solar Rainframe system is using clear backed or bifacial solar modules that let the light shine through between the solar cells,” McClellan says. “It creates a stunning architectural detail for porches, patios, covered walkways, entryways, etc. Coupled with the Skyjack system it’s a great way to add beauty to a home or business while making clean renewable power.

Pairing the right system design with the right sales and marketing plan (and sales expectations), solar patios could develop into a nice side business.

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— Solar Builder magazine

SunSpark to be the main solar module manufacturer for the 3 In 1 Roof solar system

3 in 1 roof solar panel

The 3 In 1 Roof solar integrated roofing system is reaming with SunSpark Technology Inc. as their module manufacturer for all introductory sales and installations.

Although their name is new in North America, it’s not new to the solar industry. SunSpark’s parent company Yiheng Science & Technology Ltd. is based out of Qinhuangdao, China, and has been in the solar panel manufacturing equipment business for more than 20 years. SunSpark’s CEO Sunny Zhang is a business woman with deep roots in the solar industry since the early 1980s.

Both companies will work in tandem to produce up to 3-MW of integrated solar roofs throughout 2019 and up to 280 MW by year ending 2024. The two companies plan on creating hundreds of direct USA and Canada manufacturing jobs.

What is the 3 In 1 Roof?

3 IN 1 ROOF systems retro-fit any residential or commercial slope roof top regardless of the structure’s load bearing capacity. Couple that fact with Class-AA fire rating (self-extinguishing), Class-AA wind rating (200+ mph resistance), Class-AA impact rating (spot-repetitive strike protection), Class-AA solar-gains (zero heat transference into attic area), lifetime roof-tile warrantee, 30-year solar cell warrantee, technology agnostic removable and upgradable solar modules. The 3 In 1 Roof is making a play to be the most efficient, easy-to-install residential solar system design.

Installations for 2019 are no longer available, but new USA and Canada orders will be assigned to 2020.

— Solar Builder magazine

Top roofing manufacturer launches GAF Energy to focus on solar products, installs

GAF Energy

Standard Industries, the world’s largest roofing and waterproofing manufacturer launched a new company to meet the growing demand for rooftop solar. This new company, GAF Energy, will drive scalable adoption of integrated and affordable rooftop solar solutions across GAF’s established distribution network. Customers will benefit from a streamlined, turnkey approach to going solar when selecting GAF Energy, from planning and financing, to installation and permitting with utilities.

“As the largest global player in roofing and waterproofing, we will reshape the way clean solar energy becomes a reality for everyone,” said David Millstone, co-CEO of Standard Industries. “We believe that roofing is real estate and we see a future with energy from every roof. GAF Energy’s offerings will empower people to put their roofs to work with technology that is attractive, accessible and affordable.”

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GAF Energy empowers roofing contractors across the U.S. with a comprehensive and economical approach to solar installations, bypassing the high-cost of customer acquisition most pure solar technology companies face today. With dedicated support teams and training for project management, design, permitting and installation of GAF Energy’s integrated solar roofs, local and regional contractors can effectively grow their businesses while meeting demand for more clean and sustainable sources of energy.

“We are best positioned to accelerate the growth of residential solar with over a century of waterproofing experience and the largest network of roofing distributors and contractors in the world. Our team is in the kitchen with the homeowner at the moment a new roof is required: the most perfect time to provide the opportunity to go green. We couldn’t be more excited to have Martin DeBono and a world class team lead the evolution of rooftop solar for years to come,” said David Winter, co-CEO of Standard Industries.

“GAF Energy capitalizes on the historic challenges facing the rooftop solar industry – acquisition and installation costs – and turns them into demonstrable strengths – making it easy for customers to say ‘yes’ to solar rooftops,” said Martin DeBono, President of GAF Energy. “Our product is smart, integrated and economical, and we hope it will mark a fundamental shift in rooftop solar adoption around the world.”

— Solar Builder magazine

SolarRoofHook continues to evolve, rebrands as QuickBOLT

QuickBolt

In response to the housing crisis of 2008, Quickscrews launched its first ever non-woodworking division: SolarRoofHook. Its team helped lead the charge to build a new market in solar residential mounting hardware.

In 2012, the company’s received a patent for its QuickBOLT, securing ownership of the technology. Seven years later, it has gained acceptance in the industry and become one of the fastest growing solar mounting products in the nation. The QuickBOLT is installed without lifting shingles and features the innovative Microflashing technology. You can read all about it in our Residential Rooftop Report from last year.

Another update is now in store as Quickscrews International Corporation announced it is changing the name of it Solar Division from SolarRoofHook to QuickBOLT.

“We will still be providing the superior service and quality products that you’re accustomed to and we are committed to making solar more affordable for all,” the company stated.

Check out its new website: www.quickbolt.com

— Solar Builder magazine

Pile On: Horne Brothers Construction explains the dramatic growth of its solar division

vermeer

The Horne Brothers solar division operates more than 35 pile drivers with the Vermeer PD10 pile driver representing the majority of its fleet.

The solar division of Horne Brothers Construction is hitting its stride in today’s hot market. Based in Fayetteville, N.C., the division has expanded from around 30 employees to over 400 in just three years. The highly specialized company handles everything from driving piles and installing racking and modules to land clearing and erosion control.

“Many of the companies we work for started in the solar industry around the same time we did, and as their needs expanded, so did our services,” explains Tom Kosto, EVP of solar for Horne Brothers. “They’re working on multiple projects all over the country and by virtue, so are we.”

Keeping busy in Texas

While Horne Brothers have projects happening all over the country, Texas has been the hotbed of activity for the company over the last two years. Kosto says last summer his team was working near Sherman, Texas, constructing five new solar farms that produce approximately 75 MW. This year, Horne Brothers is working around Sherman, Greenville, Waco, Wallace, Warren and Beasley.

“We’re working our way toward Houston, and when we wrap up the last one, we’ll have completed 100 MW in 2018 in Texas alone,” Kosto adds.

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The majority of the work is being done for the same customer, Cypress Creek Renewables. As one of the nation’s leading utility and community-scale solar companies, Cypress Creek Renewables has worked on more than 250 projects and has 2.3 GW of solar facilities currently deployed across the United States. The company is responsible for developing, financing, constructing and operating each of the facilities. The relationship Horne Brothers has formed with Cypress Creek Renewables has proven to be advantageous for both companies as well as the communities where each project is being located.

“Cypress Creek Renewables continues to grow, just like we do, but the number of jobs created doesn’t stop there,” Kosto says. “Each project has a need for local labor during construction, and sustainable new revenue streams are created in every community. Solar is a huge win for everyone involved.”

Equipment driving efficiency

Texas isn’t the only place that Horne Brothers has crews working. The company’s workforce is spread out across the nation, working at 30 different solar farm sites. In 2017, Horne Brothers installed 800 MW across 5,600 acres, and at presstime was on track to do more in 2018.

To get all of the work done, Horne Brothers rely on specialized teams to perform different phases of the job. A land-clearing crew is usually the first team in on most new jobs. They are responsible for clearing brush and trees. After the perimeter is cleared, the next team comes in with dozers and graders to verify the site has proper drainage and controlled erosion. Once that phase is complete, construction of the racking can begin.

“Driving the piles can be a pretty involved process,” Kosto explains. “For example, on the average 14-MW site, we’ll have to drive approximately 4,500 piles into the ground, and the spacing between each one has to be exact. Our team has it down to a science. In fact, it’s one of the fastest phases of any job.”

The Horne Brothers solar division operates more than 35 pile drivers with the Vermeer PD10 pile driver representing the majority of its fleet.

“To be efficient at this phase of the project, we prefer to have between two and six units on any given job,” Kosto says. “The Vermeer PD10’s compact design allows us to get multiple units on a trailer, which helps cut our transportation costs and saves time.”

On the jobsite, Kosto says the Vermeer pile driver’s operator controls, auto plumb and GPS integration are essential to his pile driving team’s efficiency.

“These features make it much easier for our people to get on and off a job faster and with precision when it comes to spacing the racking. In turn, that makes our racking crew’s job go more smoothly. They don’t have to worry about pile spacings being off,” he says.

The efficiencies of Horne Brothers’ pile driving team and equipment has allowed them to pick up extra jobs in the areas where they already have crews working.

“We tend to do everything on a project, except for electrical work,” Kosto says. “But there are also a lot of solar companies that hire out different contractors to perform each part on a job. We keep the Vermeer PD10 pile drivers working on those types of projects as well. We put a lot of hours on them, and they stand up well. They are also compact and lightweight compared to other pile drivers on the market, which makes a difference when transporting them and helps to minimize ground disruption on the job.”

vermeer

Divide and conquer

Breaking each solar project into phases and using separate crews to complete the work has helped Horne Brothers work efficiently.

“It’s important for each team to understand every step of building a solar farm, but each crew member doesn’t need to know how to do all of the tasks involved on a project,” Kosto says. “Using multiple crews on a job allows our people to be more focused which has helped ensure we’re delivering a quality end product for customers, cost-efficiently and as quickly as possible. This approach is a big reason why we do so much repeat business with our public utility and commercial solar customers.”

Another contributing consideration for Horne Brothers overall efficiency is the equipment manufacturers that they choose to do business with, with the dealer networks being a primary factor in those decisions.

“While solar is going strong right now in Texas, North Carolina and South Carolina, there are many other states that we have crews working in, which is why it’s so important to choose equipment that has support, wherever we go,” says Kosto. “Also, since many solar farms are installed in rural areas, we need equipment partners that can support us even in more remote parts of a state. We get that from Vermeer and its dealer network. No matter where our crews are working, we know we’ll receive a high level of service and parts support.”

Predicting the future

While the present marketplace for solar energy is bright, tariffs and the phasing out of tax credits is a significant concern for the people that make their living in solar. Kosto explained Horne Brothers has experienced 40 to 50 percent growth year after year for the last three years but is concerned that market uncertainties may impact projects in the future.

“Many of the solar farms we’re constructing today have been in the works for a year or two,” Kosto says. “For the industry to continue to grow, there needs to be stability in its future, and that means being able to keep costs in check. Our process and the equipment we use has helped us operate lean and efficiently, but material pricing could impact solar energy production costs soon, which could reduce solar energy as being as successful as it is today for energy companies.”

Kayla Breja is the senior product marketing specialist – Utility & Productivity Tools for Vermeer Corp.

— Solar Builder magazine