We asked Chris LaForge, instructor of several solar and storage courses on HeatSpring, what steps companies newer to energy storage should be taking to get up to speed and do quality work. Chris explains the value of training, why your company needs to install a fully functioning display system onsite, and the importance of finding quality suppliers. Tune in to his answer below. 

That’s a fantastic question. And it’s an important one. Since we’re a training organization, it fits right in with shameless self-promotion because you want to basically make sure that you’ve got the training to work with the equipment more than anything else.

It helps to identify what market you want to focus on. A lot of our people that are taking training are working in the residential/small commercial market. Focus. And this is the logical pattern. Start with residential. It’s not as lucrative as the small commercial will be or the larger commercial, but those things are harder and you got to have some more street cred to get into that market.

Start with residential and look at the course offerings that are available.

Once you’ve started to get your chops down on how you work bringing in what we used to call batteries and now, we call energy storage. You want to understand the ongoing design errors and the ongoing operation and maintenance. 

Nothing’s going to help you more than building a system for your business. Now, this can be either if you have a storefront and shop, build it for that. If you don’t, if you just have a shop and it doesn’t lend itself to walk-ins, build it on one of your team’s homes and use it as a display, which means that it is a display. 

Now in business terms, displays get written off in one year. This is an economic boom. It may lead to such a great tax advantage that you’ll have to roll it and take some of the tax advantage in the following year, but that’s totally legal. 

Let’s just say that Sun Farm has three major systems that we operate off-grid here. We’ve been off-grid since we started. We have four small minor systems and they’re all displays. 

Staff are gonna learn because you’re going to install it as a team. That’s the first main reason to put a system up on your own property is because then the only person there to kick you, if you get it wrong, is yourself. We all know this self-kicking thing is fine compared to having a client who’s not happy. Then you get to operate it. Nothing’s going to teach you about how solar and storage works better than an operating system. You’re going to learn real quick, a number of different elements in the operation and maintenance of them, that you’ll be able to teach clients.

The display element is a great money saver.  You really look much more professional if you have a car with the tires on it, on the road that you can pop them in and drive down the block. If you’re just selling the vehicle based on pictures, that’s nice. But people will say, how many of these have you put up? Once you’ve done your own system, you can say we’ve done this one and we’ve got four more on the design block. 

When they can see it, you know, when we started 32 years ago, we sold systems that were all off-grid, because there were very few grid-tied inverters available. It was pretty new back then, but I could bring clients back to our display here on Sun Farm, which has always been a hundred percent off-grid. You know, this recording is powered by sun and wind. I could show them a table saw that I could rip a board with that was powered by solar and wind. This was because we were selling to the residential market of generally couples. I could show them our clothes washing machine and that I could do a load of laundry in front of them. People thought you powered a calculator with it. Now they’re seeing tools work.

With that ability to display, you get the same kind of high quality sales tool and you get an invaluable experience building it on your own property, under your own supervision, and then being able to understand how they operate, how you monitor them and starting to find out some of the things that can go wrong.

So we had a real economic advantage, not only buying wholesale as an elite dealership will, but also to be able to write it off as a display, rather than amortizing it as a business tool over time. It’s a good way to know that you can get your display up and running fast and save a bunch of money. 

Then you’ll experience the revenue stream that these systems create. When you’re in sales, you want to express sales in a way that highlights the greatest benefit. People will often come and say, “what’s the payback on that battery?” If you look at it carefully, it’s very hard to calculate because most residential batteries are built on a payback that is based primarily as your main service is resiliency. You have power when the power is out. Now how you put a dollar factor on that is complicated. There are a number of nonprofit groups that have started to create calculators, like if you can keep a business going during power outages, you can calculate what money you’re avoiding losing. And so there’s a way to see payback. 

But resiliency on a residence is mostly psychological. I feel great that I don’t have my freezer rot, if I get a power outage for three days. I feel great that I can communicate and keep my lights on and keep my basic systems functional. That’s a very good feel good thing, but it’s hard to put a dollar value on.

So what you want to look at is the overall cash flow of the system. Because we promote solar plus storage, you get a really nice cash flow from the generation of the solar. If you’re in the grid-tied with battery backup market. Then if you’re off-grid, you just calculate all the energy that you get to use that would normally get you a bill from your local utility and you see your cash flow.

This is a way to sell systems. It’s to talk cash flow rather than payback, because payback can be a fairly long term. Once you introduce batteries, remember energy storage adds a cost to your system anywhere from – for a tiny addition of storage – 30-100% increase in the cost of your system.

It also adds complexity because you have safety issues that stand-alone solar systems that don’t have storage don’t have. You have additional maintenance systems and we’ll talk in another segment about operation and maintenance systems, but let’s just say there’s a lot more work to keep your energy storage system happy than there is just watching your PV system work. 

And so get your training. Get a good connection to supply to make sure that you get the best selection of storage. Then realize that a number of suppliers are vertically integrated companies. If you want to vend Tesla, for instance, to vend PowerWalls, you have to be accepted by Tesla. You become a Tesla dealer and then you get all these incentives from making that effort into selling one thing. Tesla’s popular. Being a Tesla dealer probably is a good foot into the market. They’re not the only group on the block, so you can look at a number of different opportunities and a lot of new players are gonna be very competitive. Generac for instance. Sunverge has always been good, but they’re more specific to working for systems that are going to be aggregated at the utility scale. And then, a number of good players. 

I would suggest that you start out using systems that are integrated at the start so that you’re not designing your own system, where you bring in a storage element, a battery, and then you tie on an inverter and you tie on a car charge controller and the array, because that’s more difficult. It’s what you eventually want to do. I always like building my own shoe for my client, because a good cobbler knows you get the best shoe that way, but it’s more complicated.

What you want in your first sales is a bunch of slam dunks. You want them just to work. So work with an integrated system and 4 out of 5 of the suppliers are like that. Then make sure that you shop around, because pricing varies considerably for a lot of the same product.