Strength in numbers: How solar installers can build business through third-party programs

Quick Mount PV QRail

Install of new Quick Mount PV QRail rooftop racking system.

As the story goes, solar system costs came down, which drove up demand. But this story is a bit too simplistic because the price drop and demand rise allowed the solar market to mature. In those years where module, mounting and inverter manufacturers drove down costs, quality increased, better sales and marketing concepts emerged and overall project economics and design strategy became better understood. As a result, there are more ways for savvy solar installers to build their brands based on quality, strength and value than ever before.

In this article we want to explore the value of these services — both intangible and tangible — from manufacturer-driven certification programs to third-party bidding sites to new financial vehicles that can empower regional solar installation companies to grow their own businesses and evolve the solar industry right along with them.

Strengthen your brand

Manufacturer installer programs can be a win-win for both sides — a symbiotic relationship — in which solar installers deliver quality systems and strengthen their place in their markets, and manufacturers ensure their products and brand names are installed far and wide and synonymous with the best installers in the business. Since its start in 2008, Sunrise Solar Solutions, a moderately sized solar integrator in upstate New York, has built its brand over the years by only installing quality systems and not making decisions to chase price. Its current point of differentiation is being a SunPower dealer.

“In a competitive market, price can be a differentiator, but if that’s your only differentiator, then you will start to see your competitive advantage fall apart, either through a lower service level or price erosion,” says Rand Manasse, COO with Sunrise Solar.

Along with a proven product, SunPower provides comprehensive training workshops and courses that cover all aspects of the solar business, from sales and installation to design and marketing. Manasse has found the SunPower sales training to be most valuable, which is split up into two different courses for residential and C&I.

“It allows me to establish a template on how the sales process should occur, and then they allow me to make changes to meet my my own process,” he says. “It allows for my way of doing business but within the framework of what they do. To me, that’s more important than the technical training.”

RevoluSun, a solar company based in Massachusetts, is both a SunPower dealer and a certified Panasonic Premium installer for similar reasons, and president Doug Pierce is a big fan of the services built into the Panasonic certification program.

“The marketing is a big tool for us,” Pierce says. “We have a co-op fund with Panasonic, and for every dollar we spend we get a percentage back from them. That goes into a marketing fund, and then we use that money to purchase leads to do co-branded marketing, events or whatever promotes both of our brands. It generates revenue for both of us. They’ve really saddled up next to us at the table and done a good job collaborating with us on ideas to help generate revenue for both of us, like co-branded videos and co-branded leave-behinds for customers that substantiates both of our brands.”

Manasse says this type of support is factored into any of its product decisions: “When people are pitching their products to us, I ask if they have something to help us position their product. If they don’t, we don’t take that product on. Or, if we do, we factor that into the cost of selling their product because we will have to develop our own sales and training program around it one way or another.”

The intangible marketing benefits can be just as powerful. A certification from a brand like Panasonic can be its own sales tool — a stamp from a well known outside source that vouches for your work and also stands behind the system that’s been installed. Usually, that stamp of approval comes with additional quality assurances for the customer as well, such as a better warranty, which is a huge win for the installer and its customers.

For example, roofing manufacturer CertainTeed recently expanded its solar installer program by creating a second, higher tier — the Master Solar Installer. In addition to upping lead generation, marketing support and other benefits of the program, Master Installers are covered by a 25-year workmanship warranty on the installation of the system.

“Our program requirements allow Master Installers to offer a longer warranty, while our Credentialed Installers can continue to offer our 15-year workmanship warranty. Both tiers benefit because they can differentiate themselves in the market which reduces the pressure to compete on price. We’ve seen our installers winning more jobs at greater profit margins,” says Chris Fisher, product manager at CertainTeed Solar. “The benefit to the homeowner is that they get all system components and the installation workmanship warranted directly by CertainTeed. We still honor the warranty even if the original installer is no longer in business.”

All of the manufacturer programs featured in this article carry robust warranty coverages on their products. If there’s a product defect, that truck roll and labor cost is often covered. What makes this possible is the criteria of these certification programs. Every program is different, but certified installers need to show a track record in the business, have up-to-date insurances and often must maintain a high standard to keep their status.

“They do surveys every time we install a system, then they check how happy our clients are,” Manasse says of SunPower. “It’s kind of like a dealer satisfaction survey. We have to maintain a score of a certain level to stay in the program.”

Manufacturer programs usually include leads as a value proposition too — those that come in through their website or sales channels and are funneled through their partners — but any leads that do come in this way are usually seen as a bonus and not a real driver of growth.

“We don’t rely on anyone to support us on leads and marketing. Leads are hard to come by, period,” Manasse says. So, don’t make leads a top reason to join a manufacturer installer program, but this should be a top reason to join an online sales network or third-party bidding platform.

This feature originally appeared in our March/April magazine. Subscribe for free here.

Strengthen your sales

Despite falling system costs overall, customer acquisition costs have actually risen over the past several years, increasing from $0.41/watt in 2013 to $0.52/watt in 2016, according to GTM Research, which is due in part to previously winning sales strategies like lead purchasing and canvassing becoming less efficient. But GTM Research expects customer acquisition costs to decline back to $0.40/watt by 2022 by means of further market maturity, proliferation of the long tail of installers and changes in lead generation strategies. Key to this are more sales converted online.

According to GTM’s U.S. Residential Solar PV Customer Acquisition 2017 report, third-party bidding platforms are expected to grow in popularity as consumers become more comfortable shopping for solar online. EnergySage, for example, is the most heavily trafficked website in the solar industry, attracting a wide variety of in-market, motivated customers who are more likely to convert because they’re already in the midst of researching and shopping for solar. EnergySage reports that the average close time through its site is only two to three months, compared to the industry average of eight to nine months.

“Based on our research, we’ve found that installers can increase sales while reducing customer acquisition costs by 50 percent or more on our platform,” says Vikram Aggarawal, CEO of EnergySage.

There is a measure of quality control on the EnergySage site as well, with listed installers needing to show at least three years of experience, licensure and insurance, NABCEP certification and a high level of customer service. But this strategy isn’t for every business because of its emphasis on immediate quotes and price, so you will have to weigh the pros and cons of casting that wider net for sales and how you will internally approach those leads.

Strengthening your online presence, whether you join a third-party network or not, is a powerful tool. A nice value-add in CertainTeed’s Master Installer program, for example, is a search engine optimization consultation for your website to help make sure as many potential online customers as possible can find and navigate your website.

Strengthen your offering

The residential solar market has shifted as homeowners now see the value of owning their PV system versus turning to third-party owned leases (down to about 37 percent of the market in 2017, from 53 percent in 2016, according to GTM Research). This is likely a trend here to stay.

Continue to page two for a rundown of new financing options and streamlined sales processes.

— Solar Builder magazine

New York’s Sunrise Solar Solutions starts to install sonnenBatterie with solar systems

sonnenBatterie-eco

Sunrise Solar Solutions LLC, the largest locally owned and operated solar installation company in New York’s Westchester County and the Hudson Valley, unveiled the  sonnenBatterie battery back-up solar power system at last weekend’s Fall Westchester Home Show in White Plains, N.Y. To ensure power reliability and cost efficiency — the battery features a unique power detection system that will sense outages in real-time and will automatically switch over to battery power.

The sonnenBatterie is available as a separate purchase. However, Sunrise has also created a more cost-efficient option with its special value-added offer that combines a complete solar system installation-and-battery package – including a 30 percent federal tax credit.

According to reports, the majority of home and business owners experience anxiety related to losing power, especially as it affects their ability to perform daily household and business tasks. Many say that portable generators are not reliable enough to alleviate their worries as they often break down, and require gasoline to run. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, studies found that 30-50% of people who survived suffered from PTSD. After Hurricane Sandy, more than 20% of residents reported PTSD, 33% reported depression and 46% reported anxiety, according to Fortune Magazine.

The sonnenBatterie is a 24/7 home energy storage solution that uses intelligent software to manage the energy needs of your home, every minute of every day, season after season. Practically speaking, this means that you’re not only covered throughout the day, but then able to use your solar power at night too. And should a power outage occur, sonnenBatterie has the capacity to keep you humming along even during extended grid failures. The program is user-friendly and even features a downloadable sonnenApp where you can check your energy usage and production anytime and from anywhere. You can, therefore, monitor, analyze and take control from your smartphone or tablet as much or as little as you like.

Primer for buying, installing residential solar+storage systems

Says Sunrise president and CEO Douglas Hertz: “We have customers that have been asking and asking for the power assurance of a battery, and here we are! We’re really excited to be able to offer this now, and especially with such great savings included with the federal tax credit.”

He added, “In addition to eliminating worries about getting caught in the dark or shivering in the cold, adding battery backup to solar installations is an important step to increasing grid resiliency and furthering the move towards clean energy.”

— Solar Builder magazine

Sunrise Solar Solutions enters SunPower Dealer Network

Sunrise Solar Solutions

Sunrise Solar Solutions LLC, the largest locally-owned and operated solar installation company in New York’s Westchester County and the Hudson Valley, is expanding its partnership with SunPower. As a member of the SunPower Dealer Network, Sunrise Solar Solutions will exclusively offer SunPower’s premium Equinox AC solar panel technology to all its residential customers.

“One of the founding principles of Sunrise Solar Solutions was to build the highest-quality solar energy systems possible, using the best available technology,” says Sunrise president and CEO Douglas Hertz. “We’ve consistently made a practice of staying on top of the latest innovations, and constantly evolving to incorporate new products with demonstrated value to our customers.”

“As a certified member of the SunPower Dealer Network Sunrise has had the opportunity to see firsthand the superior quality and performance of SunPower Equinox™ AC solar panels. These products are the perfect match for our own high standards for exceptional design, quality and service, and we are excited to enter into this commitment with SunPower. This also gives our customers the security of a one-stop, 25-year all-inclusive warranty from a global solar leader.”

— Solar Builder magazine