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

On the scene: New solar installation products we saw at the California Solar Power Expo

We attended the California Solar Expo in San Diego last week. Here’s a rundown of some of the notable new solar products we spotted around the trade show floor.

S5 standing seam

S-5! is known for its rigorous testing and compliance standards for mounting solar on standing seam metal roofs. Its latest update on the module here (which you probably can’t see) is a better wire management solution than the disc they had been using, after customer feedback indicated it wasn’t wide enough for every application. The update here completely addresses that concern.

Coming soon, you can look out for a solar installation calculator on the S-5! site.

Pegasus

Pegasus Solar is introducing a new tile replacement solution that they say will remove the need for cutting tile while still fitting a wide variety of tile sizes. Key to the design is the attachment sitting on the ridge of the replacement instead of the valley, which keeps it clearer from water that would be funneling through the valley.

Solar connections

Solar Connections is promoting its Solar Connection Kit. Tested to UL 2703, the kit’s cable management disc allows for cables to be top loaded and sit securely. Push-Lock Technology secures the disc to the standing seam base clamp without extra nuts and bolts. Installation is made easy with Silver Bullet set screws that have a rounded bullet tip to maximize strength without digging in and damaging paint or piercing the seam.

CED Greentech

More to come on this, because it isn’t ready yet, but be on the lookout for a new website from CED Greentech.

Snapnrack mounting

SnapNrack is all about aesthetics. Well, they do more than that, but a lot of their latest products do give a sleeker look to a rooftop array while still being functional. The look, specifically is the black skirt with no end cap required.

solar roof hooks

Solarroofhook, known for its direct attach and tile hook solutions, has an updated flashing product. Unlike its previous solution that could bend, this one is stiff, which is something its customers were asking for.

APsystems

APSystems is coming out with a trunk cable version of its microinverters for those who couldn’t get into the daisy chain installation.

Energy toolbase

Energy Toolbase packed the demo stage with attendees who wanted to hear more about its new energy storage software. Energy Toolbase might be the most robust tool out there for behind the meter data and PV system modeling and proposal generation, and its new energy storage component is going to be just as robust. We will have more coverage on this posted soon.

Unirac

Unirac was promoting the shorter rows and greater energy density its rooftop mounting solution makes possible. Oh, and the company recently bumped up its warranty to 25 years.

If you are looking for more product info, check out our 2017 Inverters Buyer’s Guide.

— Solar Builder magazine

Unirac bumps warranty to 25 years on several solar mounting systems

unirac

Unirac, Inc. now has a new 25-year product warranty for Solarmount, Sunframe Microrail (SFM), Roofmount and Unirac Large Array (ULA) product lines. The new warranty took effect on February 28, 2017.

“We seek to provide the most innovative industry-leading solutions to our customers. Unirac now has one of the longest warranties for a racking manufacture in the solar industry,” said December Cowen, Unirac Director of Product Management. “Unirac is excited to offer this to the resellers, installers & consumers of our products. Our goal is to instill the highest level of consumer confidence.”

Unirac is the only PV mounting vendor with ISO certifications for 9001:2015, 14001:2015 and OHSAS 18001:2007, delivering the highest standards for fit, form, and function. These certifications demonstrate a high level of excellence and commitment to first class business practices.

“The cornerstone of our success is rigorous testing procedures, proven manufacturing processes and a robust quality control program. Our new warranty confirms Unirac’s commitment to developing and manufacturing the highest quality products,” said Todd Ganshaw, Unirac Director of Product Development.

Unirac’s new 25-year warranty now matches or exceeds many module manufactures’ warranties, allowing Unirac to become part of a systems’ standard warranty package. For more information about Unirac’s new product warranties, visit

— Solar Builder magazine

Unirac introduces new aesthetics package for SOLARMOUNT

Unirac, Inc., a provider of PV mounting solutions in North America, sent word of a new aesthetics package for its SOLARMOUNT. The new Front Trim and End Caps provide a streamlined clean edge for curb appeal, is fully compatible with SOLARMOUNT hardware and maintains integrated bonding for the entire array. End Caps provide a finished appearance, easily snap into place and help to prevent pest infestation. Easily add Front Trim and End Caps to any SOLARMOUNT array with the click of a button on the U-Builder design tool.

“We strive to commercialize products which are not only quickly and easily installed, but represent the very best in PV innovation and design. Front Trim and End Caps create a new superior aesthetics package that represents the next iteration of design and utility for our flagship product line,” states Brandon Carrasco, Product Manager of SOLARMOUNT for Unirac, Inc.

Here is a video demo of the new product:

— Solar Builder magazine

SEIA forms committee solely dedicated to solar mounting systems

Quick Rack has three parts.

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has officially formed a new committee dedicated just to mounting — the PV Mounting System Manufacturers Committee (MSMC) — which is a development that is greatly needed to better standardize and unify the industry around this crucial topic. This committee will work with other SEIA members to ensure the industry is working together to advance solar products, services and policies. It will bring together manufacturers of the components that literally hold the solar industry together.

SEIA“With solar now the fastest-growing clean energy segment in America, it’s more important than ever for the industry to speak with a unified voice,” said Rhone Resch, SEIA’s president and CEO. “This committee will provide a platform for manufacturers of PV racking and mounting systems nationwide to come together and deliver both input and clarity on the key codes, standards and regulatory policies that affect the day-to-day operations of solar energy in the U.S.”

Don Massa, product manager of Mounting Systems, Inc., will chair the committee, which will represent all PV mounting and racking segments including residential, commercial and utility-scale products.

“Now, for the first time, PV mounting system manufacturers can band together in the development of practical, cost-effective codes and standards that directly impact the PV industry, especially racking and mounting,” said Don Massa, product manager of Mounting Systems, Inc. “We, as manufacturers, see an opportunity in working with SEIA to provide and promulgate industry best practices, education and training.”

The committee will work closely with SEIA’s Codes & Standards Committee and will solicit input into the development of building and electrical codes and standards specific to PV racking and mounting. It also will promote clarity and cost-effective standardization and provide training and education on the best installation practices and procedures consistent with SEIA’s Solar Business Code.

Participation in the PV Mounting System Manufacturers Committee will be open only to SEIA members. Founding members of the MSMC represent the largest mounting and racking suppliers in the industry and include: S-5, Roof Tech, Pegasus Solar, Anchor Products, Unirac, PanelClaw, Quick Mount PV, SnapNrack, Everest and more.

— Solar Builder magazine