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

2016 Editor’s Choice Projects of the Year: Solving space limitations

beardWe say it every year: When it comes to solar projects, we are all winners.

We already announced the winners of our 2016 Project of the Year vote, but we at Solar Builder liked a bunch of the other submissions too. Welcome to the first in our series of Editor’s Choice winners! These are projects that
didn’t garner the most votes from readers but we felt were still pretty darn cool too.

Strictly Pediatrics Surgery Center

Strictly-Pediatrics-2

Comprised of nearly 2,500 solar panels, the 812-kW system designed and installed by Freedom Solar Power includes two solar canopy structures on the parking garages, a roof-mounted solar array on the building and an in-lobby monitoring system that shows the energy savings in real-time. The limited space on the building’s rooftop was covered with panels during phase one, but phase two is where the real innovation took place — Freedom Solar Power designed and installed a custom solar canopy to shade the top floors of the parking garages while providing a significant amount of the building’s energy needs. The solar installation is expected to offset 50 percent of Strictly Pediatrics’ energy needs and generate more than 1.2 million kWh of electricity per year. The solar project will pay for itself in less than seven years. and save Strictly Pediatrics more than $3 million over the next 25 years.

Strictly-Pediatrics-3

 

Location: Austin, Texas

Size: 812 kW

Completed: May 2016

Developer: Freedom Solar Power

Contractor: Freedom Solar Power

Modules: SunPower

Inverters: SMA

Mounting: Schletter (for rails and clamps)


Mashpee Commons

Mashpee-commons

Mashpee Commons is an open-air shopping center that is the physical and social center of the quaint Cape Cod town of Mashpee. SunBug Solar was ultimately selected to carry out the project and was careful to address several key requirements of the client. At Mashpee Commons, where the visitor experience is paramount, SunBug Solar made sure not to impinge on the enjoyment of the guests. The use of heavy equipment was limited; all panels, racking and ballast was lifted onto the roof using cranes in the early morning to avoid interfering with shopping hours. Street trenching and overhead wires were also not allowed. To further complicate the project, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts requires a formal waiver from the Department of Public Utilities to install more than one net meter on a single parcel of land, so the seven rooftop solar arrays had to be tied into one main Point of Interconnection — without cutting pavement. SunBug Solar decided to use horizontal underground drilling to connect the arrays to the main panel (2,000 ft of underground conduit and wiring). In order to connect inverters on seven separate roofs to a single cluster controller, SunBug Solar installed NanoBeam wireless devices on each roof to wirelessly connect to the local area network.

Mashpee-Commons-3

Location: Mashpee, Mass.

Size: 443 kW

Completed: June 2016

Developer: SunBug Solar

Contractor: SunBug Solar

Modules: SunPower

Inverters: SMA

Mounting: Ecolibrium

— Solar Builder magazine