Lessons Learned from Inventing a Solar Installation Tool and How it Can Help you Sell More Projects

     

Let me first start by saying that this article is indeed a piece of shameless promotion. It is about a solar installation tool that I invented while I was running a crew installing residential photovoltaic arrays in Massachusetts.

At first, I was not going to share the story and details of the tool. However, I now believe that the story of how and why we created the tool is a useful one. Also, we’ve received some initial sales and positive feedback from solar installers, leading me to believe other installers will find it useful. Lastly, everyone in the industry is looking to increase profitability by making high quality installations go faster and with less manpower and time. The PV Pal address all three of the issues. Here is the story behind its invention, what we learned and how you can apply it to sell more solar projects to homeowners, and how you can get more information on the PV Pal.

The Story – Why did we Invent the Tool?

The story is indeed very simple. Anyone who has installed residential solar knows that the hardest part of the array installation is getting the first row in and parallel with the bottom of the roof.  It MUST look parallel. This can be challenging for an experienced crew and very difficult for contractors new to being on a roof. The rapid growth and demand for solar installers has created a few precarious situations where contractors new to, and maybe nervous of,  the roof find themselves on the edge of a roof trying to install solar panels. This is the situation I found myself in.

Last year, I was running a three man crew of electricians who had never installed solar, had never been on a roof, and were afraid of falling. I loved these guys, they were hilarious and great electricians, but it made installing panels efficiently a challenge. The homes were two stories high and we only had two feet to work with between the edge of the roof and the bottom of the panel. And remember, the PANELS MUST LOOK STRAIGHT. You must make them look like the green line in the below photo, and not the red line. This may seem simple, but again, anyone who has been in the field knows that every roof is different and this is much more of an art then a science.

Yes, I know, I should have had a different crew. But I didn’t and had no choice, so I need to find a solution of how to work with these guys. It was a 10 home sub-division, each with a 5kW array. We had a construction schedule that needed to be met. I quickly noticed that the hardest part was getting the first row in. Sometimes, we’d get 5 panels on, only to remove them and retry because they were not straight enough.

I took my inspiration for the concept behind the PV Pal from solar thermal installations. With the Schuco panels I had experience installing the rail came with a bottom clip that had a lip. The lip would hold each solar thermal collector. This had two huge benefits. First, if the rail was straight the collectors would be. Second, it would hold the collector in place so you could fasten them.  Solar thermal collectors tend to be much heavier than pv modules.

See photo below to get an understanding of what I’m talking about with the solar thermal rails.

I realized if we could create the a device for solar pv modules that acted like the above clip, my life would be much easier.

So I started working on some ideas. The main resource I was using was the excess thread left from connecting the rail to the L foot seen below.

We ended up with the finished tool that can be seen in the video at the top of this article.

What I learned about developing a new tool and how this can help you sell more solar to homeowners. 

We started playing with ideas of how to utilize the excess thread and soon came up with an idea and prototype. As quickly as possible I got the new tool into the field. Luckily, everyone on the crew instantly saw the value in what the tool was trying to do and were excited to try it.

  • Learning 1: Make sure your customer “gets it”. The product development timeline of the PV Pal would have been much SLOWER if I had to convince the crew that using a new tool was necessary AND THEN convince them to use the tool. Thankfully, they saw the value in using a tool immediately, so I just had to convince them that my tool was awesome.
  • How does this apply to solar? For selling solar, focus on the low hanging fruit first. This means, sell to people are who are already sold on solar and are just looking for a company to work with. This will make your sales cycles shorter and closing ratio higher.
  • Learning 2: Create a super team. When prototyping the PV Pal we had a great team. It was two people. Me, the customer guy, and Adam, and the product guy. Our relationship was run on trust and we never had to follow up on the other person. If someone said they were going to do something, they did it. Each person had mutually exclusive skills so they perfectly complimented each other. Also, we each knew enough about the other’s specialty so we could easily communicate.
  • How does this apply to solar? If you’re starting a company or expanding one, you need to very selective about who you bring onto the team, you need someone who kicks butt and takes names and that brings a skill to the team that you do not have. Recruiting a good team that works well together will be key to increasing your profitability. You need to recruit a team that loves solar, wants to build a great company, kick the competitions a$%, and trusts each other. Don’t skimp on hiring even if you’re in a pinch. Recruiting a good team that works well together will be key to increasing your profitability. For more on this read, How to Use Lean Startup Methods to Increase Profitability and Lessons Learned from Selling a Company to SunEduson.
  • Learning 3: Don’t assume you know what the customer is thinking. I was the customer that I was creating the product for. So, I thought I knew everything. Think again. Within 10 minutes of showing the guys the product, they thought of a way to make the product more simple and robust that would also decrease manufacturing costs of the beta version by 500%. Also keep in mind that incorporating feedback from customers when you’re prototyping makes them love your product even more and tends to make them more engaged and excited about trying the next version. All good things.
  • How does this apply to selling solar? In the solar pv world this means a couple things. First, the shift from early adopter to mass market solar clients means that customers’ values are shifting. Just because you the installer love the technology and love to think about P and N junctions doesn’t mean the client cares. Also, many companies don’t get a good idea of why customers ARE NOT buying.

The Benefits of the Tool

The benefits of the tool for solar companies that are installing a lot of residential systems are clear.

  1. Straight edge the first time, every-time. Because the PV Pal hold the modules, it guarantees the modules will be straight the first time. This will save time.
  2. Fewer people on the roof. For an experienced crew, this could mean using 2 men instead of 3 and sending the third person in the home to start mounting the inverter, and running a chase. For an experienced crew, this could mean going much faster with a 2 man roof crew, or simply having one man focusing on modules while the other is wiring.
  3. Easier installation. By holding the module, less physical work is required by the crew to hold the module while fastening it to the rail.

How can you more information?

We’re being very selective about the installers we’re selling to. We are only selling to serious solar residential solar installers that believe residential solar pv is the future of their business.

If you’d like to get more information with a spec sheet or purchase a PV pal, please fill out the below form.

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About Chris Williams

Chris Williams works with HeatSpring developing products and managing online content. Chris is a NABCEP Certified Solar PV Installer and an IGSHPA Accredited Geothermal Installer. He has installed over 300kW of solar PV systems, tens of residential and commercial solar hot water systems and 50 tons of geothermal equipment. You can find him on Linkedin
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