Sun Badger Solar president Trevor Sumner and lead electrician Eric Grimes join the show to discuss solar energy construction.
Trevor starts by talking about the motivators for going solar. He talks about the installation processes and the different technologies they are using. He highlights the amount of savings homeowners get. Solar Badger provides an in-depth analysis of the solar system that is best for homeowners online, without visiting their homes.
They talk about the type of roofs that make the installation effortless, the panel’s life expectancy, and its proper disposal. Trevor explains that there are precious metals in the modules and there is a logistical challenge in getting them to a place where they can be recycled. They also talk about how the solar system works, uses batteries, and why it typically doesn’t make sense to transfer the panels from one house to another.
For more information about Sun Badger Solar, visit sunbadger.com. For your suggestions for show topics, email email@example.com.
The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.
Bill Oelrich: Welcome everyone, and you’re listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman. As always, your three-legged stool, coming to you from the Northland, talking all things houses, home inspections, and anything else that’s rattling around in our brain. Well, the topic front and center today is solar, and we’re excited to be having a conversation with the guys over at Sun Badger Solar, Trevor and Eric are gracious enough to give us some time to talk through a solar project. I personally have been kicking around, what does it look like if you wanna do a solar project from start to finish, take me through the weeds and let me know all of the hurdles that I need to jump or whatever Dominos need to fall, all that good stuff. So Eric, Trevor, thank you. First of all, for making some time for us to have this conversation, we appreciate it, so without further ado, let’s… Eric won’t you go ahead or Trevor, which if you wanna do the… Do the 30-second elevator pitch on sun badger, but why don’t you give us some particulars.
Trevor Sumner: Yeah. I can talk quick on sun badger, thanks for having us. I’m Trevor, I’m President and Co-Founder, and we are a Midwest-based solar developer and contractor, and we service residential and commercial customers in Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. We’ve been in the solar industry for five years now. Eric Grimes is our Director of Field Operations, so he is the man in charge of the physical construction of the systems, he’s got a wealth of knowledge in terms of solar energy construction. He’s worked for some big national companies, and we are really excited to have him on our team, he’s gonna pick point probably on all of the physical structural elements of our conversation here. But the solar industry right now, it’s on fire. People are really jazzed about going solar. There’s a lot of companies like Sun Badger that are starting to service customers in states that you don’t normally think about solar energy, like Minnesota and Wisconsin, people think it’s dark and it’s cold, but you can save money in the Midwest using solar energy. And we’ve got a lot of customers to prove it, we’ve got a lot of zero dollar electric bills we like to show off to people on social media. The first thing that you’ve gotta take into consideration when you go solar is what your motivations are, if it’s to save money, like most customers, everybody who goes solar saves money, so that’s a great motivator there.
TS: Some people are really big on environment and keeping things green, myself, I’m a big outdoors men, so that’s a motivator for me, and then some people just like technology and having something new and exciting that they’re a part of, and there’s a lot of cool gadgets that come with solar and a lot of things you can do from a monitoring standpoint, and you can get really tech-heavy into it. So the way that we go about determining if solar is right for a customer, is we first look at your energy usage. So you’ve gotta own your home, and then you’ve gotta have some data on what your energy usage is, and you provide that to Sun Badger, and we’re able to put together a really in-depth analysis of what solar can save you. It lists out what the incentives are available, how much you can save monthly, it’ll show you the tax credits that are out there, and they’re lucrative right now, they were actually increased in the Inflation Reduction Act from 26-30%. So there are some really big, big savings there on the tax side as well.
Reuben Saltzman: Now, if you need to get this information from somebody, how much energy usage they have, is there more than simply looking over their electricity bills?
RS: That’s it?
TS: That’s… Yep. It’s as easy as that. And most utilities will actually provide you with all of the data you need to send us. So you can get a copy of your electric bill and you can send it to Sun Badger. We have some programs at our company that can easily source your utility data for you, so we can eliminate that heavy lifting of calling the utility. Nobody likes to sit on the phone with utility customer service, so cut through that red tape for you. And yeah, it’s really as simple as that. We use a Google satellite program that has really accurate measurements of your existing roof, so we don’t even have to come out to your home anymore to show you what you can save going solar. So that’s been a really big boom to the industry, you just have to send a contractor out, somebody had to sit and crawl over your whole house and spend a whole bunch of time getting all of these finer details and then providing you with a Solar Savings estimate, now you can do everything virtually. So our initial consultations are all done online via Zoom or Google Meet, and we’re able to accurately show the savings and talk to customers through what the next steps would be in the solar energy process.
Tessa Murry: And are those savings just based on the surface of the roof that you have to work with and how many solar panels you can fit on it in the orientation of the house?
TS: Absolutely, right, yep. That’s how you determine it. So you look at how much your electricity bill is, and then we can come up with how many panels it would take to eliminate that electricity bill based on the azimuth of the roof, so the azimuth is the direction that your roof faces and so, do south 180 degrees. That’s the perfect azimuth. But you can go east 90, west, panels will produce energy in the Midwest that has a really good return on investment as long as they’re just not facing north. North is generally a no, no.
TM: Okay. Yeah.
RS: Okay, all right. Now, are there any situations where they’ve just got such poor roof construction or azimuths or however you wanna say it? The design is introduce to a system and they have really high usage where you just say it wouldn’t be worth it for you to put the system in. Does that ever happen?
TS: Yeah. Let’s kick it to Eric, he’s seen some challenging situations before and maybe some customers who are, we call them not good for solar.
Eric Grimes: Yeah, we’ve seen quite a few customers actually, where they wanted to pack their entire roof and put the majority of the panels on their north-facing roof, it was just… Just that alone, having to communicate that is the start to educating the customers on the solar process. Yeah, long and short, it’s just finding the right place to put the panels and then do you have the right roof for it as well, that’s a major thing that we look for when we’re doing the physical installation is “Do you have the structure to support what we’re putting up there?”
BO: Okay, alright.
RS: Silly technical question for the fancy software that you use, is the software able to determine pitch or slope of the roof. How much of a factor is that in how well your roof will produce solar electric?
TS: Yeah. Well, the software that we use actually goes one step further, it has a built-in… It has Google Project Sunroof, which is a national program that’s powered by Google, and it actually has solar irradiance data for most of the country, and so you can pull up Google Project Sunroof and it will show you on the roof, the places on the roof that are getting the most sun, and then from there, it will show you the places on the roof that have the less favorable or no sun. It’s pretty crazy.
TM: Is that free? A free service?
TS: Yeah, yeah. Google Project Sunroof. It’s free.
EG: Somebody’s probably paying for it.
TS: All of those Vitamix ads, when they’ve come up and everything like that, it’s probably paying for Google Project Sunroof. But yeah, we use it. It’s integrated into our design software, so when we’re designing the solar panels on your roof, it’s taking into account that data and it’s pulling those production numbers and then it’s spitting out what you can anticipate producing with that solar array. And there are programs even that will calculate the shade from surrounding trees, so some of them use LIDAR, which is like a more advanced imaging tool, and so you can actually see where the shade from nearby trees is falling on the roof and try to… And really try to dial in where you’re putting those panels. We also can get information on the roof types, and that’s probably a good point for Eric to chime in, because there are some roof types and some roof pitches that are really favorable for solar energy, and then there are others that are not.
EG: Shingle roofs all day long, those are the easiest for us to install on, they’re the most comfortable, they give you grip when you’re actually walking across. On metal ropes as well, some of them have certain challenges to them, some of them don’t. Tile roofs, we try to avoid tile roofs because you walk around on a tile roof, you break a tile roof and it’s all replacing that stuff. To speak to Trevor is a point about the shade collection as well, like back in the day, we used to use a tool called a Sunnai, where you had to physically get up on the roof and go to each point where your array is going to potentially be just to the measure the irradiance and verify that you’re gonna be getting proper sun exposure on those roof planes. So the fact that we can do this now with a technology like that just at the click of a button is refreshing.
TM: How long has this technology been around? ‘Cause I feel like, I didn’t know that existed, and I still thought that you had to send someone physically out to a house to inspect it, to collect that data, like you’re talking about.
TS: Yeah. There’s a program while the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL is the acronym there, they have been developing these types of tools to track solar irradiance and data like that, and I believe that Google Project Sunroof has probably simply just plugged into that information and then just formulated a strategy for getting it out into the mainstream. But there’s also a program called PV Watts, which has been around for as long as I’ve been in the solar industry, which is I’ve been in solar for seven years now, and that program has been available.
TM: Gosh, it’s fascinating how fast technology changes.
EG: Yeah, yeah. That’s crazy.
TM: And with that too, I know we’re gonna get into the weeds on this, but has the actual physical structure of the panel change significantly to the actual collection of the sun and turning that into electricity? I’m sure it’s gotten more efficient with time. And are panels smaller, lighter significantly than they were like five, 10 years ago?
EG: I would say yes. Compared to five years ago, solar panels are definitely much more efficient, they’re certainly lighter.
TS: And you’ve listed a lot of them, Eric.
EG: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah, yeah.
TS: They were heavier seven years ago, he was a younger man back then too, now so luckily, they’re getting lighter.
EG: Thankfully, they’re getting later.
RS: Now, what’s the life expectancy of a solar panel?
TS: We like to say 35 years, most of them are guaranteed for 25.
RS: Okay, alright.
TS: So the panels that we use have blanket warranties for 25 years at least, so there’s a warranty against the physical defects of the panel, so that would just be simple breakage or if there’s a short circuit or something like that, and then there’s a little bit more complex warranty called the performance guarantee, and that’s a 25-year performance guarantee on the panels as well, so they’re basically guaranteed to last for 25 years, most of them are gonna last longer than that. What we’ll see over the next couple of decades is we’ll see a really big drive to recycle old modules, so there are already a couple of companies out there that are trying to strategize on how do we recycle modules, not only because we wanna be sustainable in all aspects of solar energy, but there are precious metals inside those panels, and those are gonna be more and more valuable as those precious metals become less and less prevalent in the world. So getting that stuff back out of them safely and efficiently and of course economically, so you can make some money while you’re doing it, that’s gonna be a big business in another 15 or 20 years.
RS: I’m glad you brought that up ’cause I remember 10-15 years ago, that was a big complaint that people had about these is that you put this on there and then once the panel is dead and you gotta get rid of it, there was nothing to do with them, it basically will be… It goes into a landfill was the best that we could hope for, so that’s changed a lot in the last 10, 15 years.
TS: Yeah, it’s getting better, I would say.
RS: Okay, alright.
TS: Yeah, really it’s more about the logistical challenge of getting the modules to a place where they can be recycled and less about the actual process of recycling. So if you think about… The average home has 20 or 30 solar panels on it, and there are precious metals in those 30 solar panels, but the logistics and the work to take down those 30 panels and then move them to a place where they can be recycled for that small amount of precious metal, that’s a cash flow negative proposition right now, like nobody is going to be able to make any money off of recycling just 30 panels from a home in St. Paul or a Brooklyn Center or something like that. But when we’re talking about a field of 50 or 60,000 solar panels that are all in one place already, taking those down and then moving them to a facility to recycle the precious metals, probably is looking a little bit more economically viable, and over time, there will be a solution, hopefully to just complete the entire life cycle of a solar panel and get it back into a place where the metals can be reused again in future solar panels, but then, yeah, it’s just logistics.
RS: Alright. Now, that we’re on this fan, I’ve got a follow-up question. This is more of a personal question. I was looking at buying this house earlier this year, and part of the agreement was gonna be that the homeowner wanted to take the solar panels with them, and I couldn’t wrap my mind around how that was supposed to work, I just thought…
TS: Well, Eric can tell you how it should work in theory.
RS: Okay, yeah.
TS: You’re talking about removing on and moving them?
RS: Yeah, he wanted to take them to the next…
TS: What does that look like?
RS: House, but it wouldn’t be part of the purchase. Help me understand how this could work.
EG: It’s gonna be part of the purchase, essentially. If you’re gonna buy a house that has solar on it, you’re getting the solar with it. And if you want a house to have solar, obviously, reach out to us and have us install a solar for you.
RS: Okay, alright, ’cause I thought we’re gonna have holes in the roof from the screws, it just… It’s seemed so goofy.
EG: Just to give you an example, if we ever have a hailstorm come through and it does serious damage to the roof, to where you have to make an insurance claim, the solar panels themselves will bear that impact and they won’t… Generally speaking, they won’t shatter, but the roof itself will be damaged to the point where you’re making the insurance claim, you get the entire roof replaced, we have to come out there and remove all of our solar panels and then at a different time and come back and re-install all of those solar panels back exactly where they were.
RS: And what’s an average cost for something like that? I know you can’t give me an exact number, but just a range.
EG: Well, that’s a good question, I’ve never… I’m not the one who deals with the finance on that side of thing.
TS: It sometimes depends on the scope of work involved. If the roof is very steep, if the system is located pretty far away from a contractor, it’s gonna cost more, hopefully, we don’t have a lot of insurance auditors listening to this. But most firms are going to go high on the estimate to remove and reinstall panels simply because it’s not what people in the solar industry wanna be doing right now, they wanna be putting up new solar energy systems and inter-connecting those for new customers. And so again, because this industry is so new and because it’s moving so fast, there are all of these niche opportunities for the right type of person or business, like you could run a business simply taking panels down and putting them back up. There is enough interest right now in that for businesses to exist and it’ll only get greater as there are more and more people with solar. To your question, Reuben, so these people wanna take the solar with them, I’ve never heard of anybody succeeding in that.
TS: As a customer, in theory, you could do it, but the cost to them to take it down because they wouldn’t be taking it down themselves we would, Sun Badger would be, or a different contractor, and then to move it to another home, you would be starting to process over again on the electric side, so you’d have to permit it again, you’d have to interconnect it with the utility again, you’d have to get a new design based on the new home. It would probably be… It would probably cost as much to just simply get a new solar array on the next home and just leave the solar array on your house. And then you got a house that’s… You’re buying a house that’s solar powered, you don’t have to worry about filling back in those penetrations on your roof with sealant, and Eric can tell you the different types of sealant we use, and it’s good stuff, but I’d prefer not to fill up my house with it if I didn’t have to.
EG: Well, also you get the peace of mind that you’re leaving a place where you left an existing solar system that’s functioning and helping the planet in that regard, so now you’re responsible for two solar systems.
BO: Sure, that’s awesome. Well, that’s a great segue to where I wanted to go with this conversation initially is, let’s talk about just an individual project. I’m Bill, the guy who lives in St. Paul, whose house is north south. I wanna solar array up on my house, what am I going to go through as a homeowner to get that work done? Kind of from A to Z.
TS: Yeah. Well, I’ll talk about the initial development and the way that we provide consultations for customers, and then Eric can talk about the operations and installation portion of Sun Badger solar. So what you would do is, well you’d first be in touch with our team of solar energy consultants at Sun Badger, and they would ask for those things I spoke about earlier, they would need your utility usage information, you’d provide that to them with a copy of your bill or you’d use some of the other programs that we have to get that information, and then obviously, address contact information, and then you would set up a time to do a consult by Zoom or Google Meet. During the consultation, they would run through the design with you, so they would show you where our estimated areas of panels would be. Where we’re gonna place the panels initially, or at least what we estimate will be the location. And then, you’re gonna see the product that we’re using.
TS: So right now, we use a micro-inverter technology, which is, I believe the best on the market from a residential solution standpoint, is manufactured by Enphase. So that’s the inverter technology that we use. And they’ll show you the panel type and they’ll give you a visual understanding of what the panels look like, most of our customers opt for an all black module because they like the aesthetics on their home of all black, and then they’ll talk to you about what the financial savings are gonna be, and so they’ll tell you how much the system is going to cost as an initial investment, what the monthly savings would be. And the way that we actually develop solar is the project cost is not what you… You’re not writing a check for this, you’re actually financing that project cost through one of our lenders, and the idea is, is that your monthly payment for your solar is less than what you are paying monthly to the utility. So if your energy bill is 100 bucks a month, Sun Badger is going to do solar for your $90 a month, so you’re coming out ahead and you’re simply swapping out your electric bill for a solar bill. Now, eventually, you pay that loan off in full and then you have no electric bill ever again, is the principal there.
TS: And so, we like to say if you can afford to pay your electric bill, which I see your screen on, so clearly you have power at your house, you can make that payment, then you can afford to go solar. That’s as simple as it is. And you will save money as soon as you go solar because that bill will be reduced from 100-90 or it’ll be reduced by 15% or 20%, generally right out the gate. You’re also fixing your energy cost because you’re paying $90 a month for solar energy, 10 years from now, you’re still paying $90 a month for solar energy, meanwhile, your neighbor has been hit with 10 years worth of utility increases, so now his bills is $150 a month and yours is static at 90. So our customers are, they’re basically hedging against rising utility costs. They’re fixing the cost of their energy by going solar today, and they’re fixing it for 25, 30 years. Very, very cool. So you’ll go through this whole consultation. And my team is an educating team first, they focus on educating. And I’m not gonna lie, they’re salespeople at heart, they wanna get you to go solar, but they’re gonna focus on the educational aspect first, they’re gonna make sure that you understand the technology, the product, how you’re going to actually save money.
TS: Then you go solar, you sign a contract with us, you get the project financed through our lender and you sign those documents as well, and then the project moves into the operational portion of the install, and that’s where Eric would come in and talk a little bit more about that.
BO: Awesome, awesome. Okay, Eric, just from 30,000 feet, how many different things are gonna be installed in my house? I’m gonna have some solar panels on my roof. Am I gonna have some relay station somewhere else? Am I gonna have some meter somewhere else? What are the components of a finished system?
EG: Well, you said you’re in St. Paul, correct?
EG: So you’re probably in Xcel territory.
EG: You are gonna have an additional meter put on your house, so you’re gonna have two separate meters. You’re gonna have two disconnects between those meters until they change the rules for that. And then you’re gonna have combiner panel, which essentially aggregates all your solar. It also has a gateway that serves as communication for the solar device itself. And all of that is just gonna be hanging right on the side of your house. So not a lot, but more than most people are probably prepared to, or I should say aware of what they’re gonna be receiving.
RS: What about a battery? Do you guys ever do batteries?
EG: Oh yeah.
EG: Yeah, batteries are definitely a different beast altogether, because we’re using the Enphase System and they are on the IQ8 series. That’s a series where you are allowed to go off grid essentially with your system. If the utility is to lose power, they have a neutral forming transformer, which will seamlessly transfer over to the battery system and power your house based on whether it’s a whole home back-up or just a few circuits for your critical loads, like your fridge, well pump, what have you. Those boxes themselves, that’s certainly more equipment that you’re gonna be having on your house. Up in the Midwest here, we typically try to put all of that inside, in the instance of the battery, just so that we don’t have to worry about the temperature constraints.
RS: How much room does that take up?
EG: Oh, it depends on the size of the system that you get ultimately, but a battery itself, the physical battery is probably going to be about four feet wide, three feet tall, and it sticks out maybe 12 inches from the wall.
RS: Okay, alright. Got it.
EG: And the transfer switch itself, the IQ controller is what it’s called, that is roughly the same dimensions, but it definitely sticks out a little bit further.
TS: And you don’t need batteries to have a solar energy system. So there is a… Right now, because the industry is new and a lot of customers are still learning, there can be a misconception that solar doesn’t work unless there is a battery, but there’s actually different… We have to talk about what the motivation is, remember. So if you are just looking to save money, which I would say is probably 95% of our customers, then a battery is completely unnecessary. You are saving money simply by creating energy, using it in your home or exporting it to the grid, and then the utility is recording it, and the easiest way to explain the relationship is like a solar energy checking account. And when the sun is shining, your checking account goes up, when it’s night time or there is no sun, you are debiting from your checking account. And that checking account is managed by the utility, they are recording everything that goes in and out of that solar energy system, so everybody saves money that way.
TS: Batteries and the cool technology that Eric spoke about, which is a micro-grid technology essentially, that is a situation for a customer who wants to backup their home or backup critical loads, maybe they’re one of those really tech forward customers I spoke about who just likes having new things and new sciences as part of their home. Batteries are very expensive, and so understanding what you’re using them for before you’re committing to them is very important, and we have a battery expert on our staff that walks our potential customers through and really understands, “Do you need a battery? Do you want a battery? Here’s what you can do with it, but be aware that it’s going to cost X amount of dollars more.” So I have solar energy on my home and I do not have a battery system…
RS: Okay, alright.
TS: Because there’s no financial benefit for me to have it, and I don’t have issues with power here, we very rarely lose power, we’ve got a very good electric grid in the greater Milwaukee area, and so there is no financial reason for me to have a battery, and there is no real backup reason for me to have a battery. So I have solar energy from a financial and an environmental standpoint, and I would say, again, that’s probably 95% of our customers.
RS: No, I know Bill is not gonna like me asking this question ’cause we’re getting really technical with this one, but I’m wondering if you could just give me a basic understanding of how it works for you to give power back to the utility company. How does that work? I don’t get it.
EG: Well, it works because in Xcel territory, for example, also in We Energies’s territory, you already have a consumption meter on your house, it measures the energy that you’re using. When we do our installation, we also put a production meter in place and it measures what the solar is producing and all of that, like Trevor said, is getting recorded by the utility and they take all of that information and just basically do some basic math.
RS: But how does that power go backwards, how does it feed into the grid? Can you help me understand it? Is it like you’re just hooking up a battery and then everybody pulls from that battery and you got a one-way valve on your system that doesn’t let it more go back? I can’t wrap my head around it.
EG: Well, it’s electricity essentially. Electricity goes where it wants to, so long as it has a path to go along.
EG: So if you have wires connected to your house, all of the electricity that’s coming into your house is, A, it’s being metered, but it’s also the same electricity that’s going into your neighbor’s house and your neighbors down the street and what have you.
RS: Okay, and…
EG: Electricity is constantly shooting back and forth super fast, speed of light, almost.
TS: The path of least resistance sometimes, or to a site, a demand site. So in the scenario where there’s a production meter, most of those systems are designed for export only, and so the energy is actually all being exported back to the grid, so it’s going… It’s being converted from DC energy at the panel level to AC energy at the junction or a combiner box, or in this case at the inverter, at the point of the inverter, and then that energy is kicking straight into the grid and the production meter is logging it, and then they are just balancing your checkbook.
TS: Yep. And then, once it enters the lines, then it becomes just like any other energy that is on the utility line and it would go to the point where the demand is the greatest, and it would go through the transformers and all of the high tech, high voltage stuff that they’ve got going on, but in terms of your house, it’s simply being produced and shooting back out. There are other scenarios, different utilities have different methods, sometimes you are using the energy at the point of production, and then whatever you are not using at that time is going back. So there are scenarios where your house is actually running on solar power too.
BO: Is that the utility and how they have their grids set up?
TS: Yes, it is the utility. And all customers who go solar have to sign an interconnection agreement, which is part of the administrative process, and it is an agreement between you as an individual power producer, ’cause you own this PV system and the Utility. And it’s an agreement that establishes what happens with that energy? How that energy is valued, your responsibilities as a producer, their responsibilities as the utility, it’s a very long agreement that I’m sure lawyers spend hundreds of thousands of hours writing and revising, and it’s generally governed by the Utility Commission as well, so changes to those agreements happen throughout the years, and they can be positive or negative for customers, just depending on who’s in office or what the agendas are from a political standpoint.
RS: So now, let me ask, do you end up seeing people starting to change their appliances to go away from gas and move over to more electric appliances, like swapping out a gas water heater with an electric water heater because they’re getting cheaper fuel, cheaper power for this? Do you ever see that happening too, or do you guys stay away from that aspect of it?
EG: I don’t see it too much, but it’s definitely something that I try to encourage all of our customers to do. Something so simple as just changing out your light bulbs from incandescents or compact fluorescent over to LEDs, all the way up to, like you said, going electric range or removing yourself from the gas system, those are definitely a more involved kind of upgrade process to your house.
TS: The big push is gonna be EVs, right? Everybody is talking about electric vehicles these last couple of years, and the new Inflation Reduction Act has a ton of incentives for EV development, I’ll give an example, when gas prices shot over $5 a gallon in June of this year, and we all remember that pain at the pump, probably every other customer that called in had the grand idea that they were gonna get an electric vehicle because they were getting slammed at the pump, but the reality is, is that there are just huge savings from using an electric vehicle. And I drive an electric vehicle, I drive a Tesla, and during that month of June, it would cost me roughly 18 bucks to fill the tank, so to speak, on my Tesla with energy, and it costs me $100 to fill my gas tank on our other family vehicle, and so just a massive amount of savings between those two types of vehicle.
BO: Alright, guys. I’m taking the reins back, Reuben.
TS: Take it.
BO: Stand down. We’re talking projects here, you’re a minutiae man.
RS: Sorry, Bill.
BO: I do appreciate the questions, though. So we’re back to my project here in St. Paul. When do I sign that contract? ‘Cause clearly that contract is a thing, is that early in the process or late in the process?
TS: I hope you sign it on that very first meeting. [laughter]
BO: I’m not signing your contract, I’m signing that 100-page contract with the utility.
TS: Oh, the utility contract? Oh, sure. Well, Eric can… Yeah, Eric can talk about the administrative steps then.
EG: Yeah, that’s a little bit further down the process for you, but before you’ll sign that, we’ll send out… There will be things working administratively on the back end, but we’ll send out a site surveyor to go and take detailed photos of everything that we’re gonna be interacting with on our installation. So they will go and open up your electrical panel and take countless snapshots of every single breaker, the model of panel that you have, anything that might be connected to it that would be relevant to our installation. We’ll go so far as to trace out to the grounding path for your electrical system. We’ll crawl around your attic and just to verify that there’s space and that there’s proper structure for where we’re gonna be doing our installation.
EG: We’ll take a look outside, we’ll look at your meter, if the utility allows it, we’ll open up that meter and gather as much information again as we can, and we’ll just gather general photos of the area where we’re gonna be conducting our installation so that we could have a robust suite of information to reference whenever we need to assist the installation. We will also fly a drone around your house, and we will use that drone to capture as many images as possible, to build a 3D model of your physical structure. So even after we’ve done the whole Google suite from the sales side, we’ll conduct our own survey to build a 3D model of your house, and we will physically try to replicate that just to verify everything that the sales team has gone through and we’ll work out those details, we’ll hammer it down until we get it just right for you.
TM: I’ve got a more technical question for you, Eric. But what do you do if a house doesn’t have an accessible attic space? ‘Cause one of the things you said you do is you crawl around the attic to make sure there’s space.
TM: We’ve got a lot of houses here in our area where it’s like a storey and a half house and they’ve got slant ceilings and there’s no space to physically get in them or a vaulted ceiling or something like that.
EG: Yeah, in those instances, we can look at a garage and just verify that there’s structure similar to what we’re looking for, and with vaulted ceilings, you’re gonna wanna have a stronger structure to begin with because you don’t have the luxury of that attic space to do it all. Typically, if we need to verify that structure with the local jurisdiction, we’ll do a poke test, is what we call it. We’ll poke up through your drywall or whatever structure there is, just to find where those beams are so that we can find the spacing and get a good estimate as to the size of those rafters.
TM: Okay, so your inspection is mainly just to see the size of the rafters and make sure they can carry the load of the panels, and if you’ve got an attic you can’t physically get into, you’re just verifying that there’s enough structure to hold the panels?
EG: Correct, and we’re also looking to see if there’s a path that we can run our electrical through the attic.
TM: Okay. Okay, so if that attic doesn’t exist, is there physically a lot of wiring that has to come through a ceiling somewhere?
EG: Yeah, We will run our conduit across a rooftop, we’ll try to be as discreet as possible with it and find the least visible path for those things. Oftentimes the basement even can kind of serve as a way to hide a route for your wires. But yeah, if you don’t have any attic space to be that discrete, then yeah, we will definitely go outside.
RS: So you’re running a conduit up the outside of a house, probably through the gable. Is there like a weatherhead that that will just connect or does it have to be in conduit the entire way, or…
EG: If it’s outside and it’s exposed, it’s gonna be in conduit the entire way, and some jurisdictions will require us to have conduit, regardless if it’s in the attic, in the basement, anywhere. Some jurisdictions will allow us to run non-metallic cable through an attic.
RS: Gotcha. ‘Cause now, we’re talking about electricity. You guys install solar panels, do you do the electrical work where you’re running these cables, or is that where you bring in a subcontractor, an electrician to do that work?
EG: Yeah. We have licensed electricians on staff to conduct all of these installations.
RS: Okay, so you’re not subbing out any of the electrical portion of the install, that’s all kept in-house?
EG: Yeah. We bring it all in-house.
RS: Okay, perfect. So then this is a one-stop shop that we’re dealing with, we’re not John Solar Company who’s then gonna contract with an electrician and a carpenter and an X, Y, Z. Your project is tighter than somebody who has fewer of these services all under one roof?
EG: Correct, yeah. But that’s not to say that we won’t sub-contract if we have a need for it. Generally speaking though, we try to keep everything in-house so that we can have all of our team members to be just specialized in what they’re working on and being able to provide the kind of experience that we want to give to them.
RS: That’s great.
BO: Just to follow up, I assume, and just to put this into construction terms, you have laborers and carpenters who are going to do the installation of the panels, you have electricians who are gonna run the wires, is there any other trades person that would be in this, under this umbrella too, or is it just those two trades?
EG: Those are generally the kind of trades that we’re gonna have, but when we hire, we hire people who don’t have prior solar experience, generally speaking. So that we can train everyone specifically for the kind of skills that we’re looking to put on a person’s roof. As far as electricians go, it’s gonna be much easier to hire someone with prior solar experience, but a good electrician is gonna be worth their weight, regardless their background.
TS: There’s some bad habits out there in the solar industry that it’s easier to hire new and train our staff in the quality and the workmanship that we come to expect at Sun Badger, than to hire a solar installers from company X, and they come with all of that… Maybe not necessarily bad habits, but just a different way of constructing solar for a company, maybe that’s a national company or some out-of-town company. The interesting thing about the Minnesota solar industry is that all of the people working on your home have to actually be either registered or unregistered electricians with the Department of Labor and Industry, and so in Minnesota, there are… And you guys do a podcast on construction, so you know how the State of Minnesota works from a construction standpoint, they’ve got more regulations, they’ve got more oversight. And the idea is, is that with that additional oversight should come more quality contractors in Minnesota. And so, all of our Minnesota team members that are on site are all registered with the Department of Labor and Industry. And we are a class A electrical contractor as well in the State of Minnesota. We are a class A electrical contractor in every state, but in Minnesota, it’s obviously much more. It’s just highly regulated area for construction.
RS: Forgive my ignorance of what class A is, but does that mean you have a journeyman on staff or multiple journeymen?
TS: It means there is a master, we have a master electrician who is our license holder and qualifier, and he is registered with the Department of Labor and Industry with the State of Minnesota. And then there has to be a journeyman, registered electrician on every site as a supervisor, and then there can only be a certain amount of unregistered electricians working under him at any given time. So the idea is, is somebody on site needs to have the knowledge and experience that you accumulate over the years. You can’t just send three guys in a truck to just slap things on a roof in Minnesota.
BO: Great, awesome, okay. So what I’ve heard so far is there’s a planning team that’s gonna come out, and forgive me, but do the sales pitch, give you the features and benefits of the system that we believe is best for you. Next rolls out the sort of site planning phase of it, where we’re gonna fully understand, make sure there were no gaps and knowledge here, I assume the next step in this process is crew shows up. And is this something that happens in a week, in a day, in… What does a typical install look like from, you have shingles on your roof to you have a solar array timeframe-wise?
EG: Well, there’s a big administrative pause between the survey team and the install team showing up. There’s a lot of little T’s that need to be crossed and I’s that need dotted, what have you, in order to properly get this installation set up. We gotta get our permits in order, we gotta make sure the jurisdictions are ready, if we’re conducting a utility shut down, we need to coordinate that with the utility and get the relevant inspections lined up. All of those little details need to be in order before we will actually set foot and begin installation. But however, once we do begin installation, it’s again, depending on the size and complexity of your system, it can be anywhere from one to five days, that’s the typical installation time frame.
BO: Awesome, so you wanna turn this around quickly, I’m sure it doesn’t do anybody any good to drag a project out of this nature.
TM: What’s the time frame from start to finish then, from your first call to you guys to having the solar panel on your roof, what’s the average length of time that takes?
TS: The average install timeline from customer commitment to project complete.
TM: Yeah, yeah.
TS: It’s gonna vary by market, definitely in Xcel Energy territory and other utilities, they have longer approval time frames. And so as Eric said, we really can’t do anything until all the approvals are in. I would say that the typical start to finish is generally between four and six months, but right now, the solar industry and definitely Sun Badger is feeling the pain of the supply chain, AC, material shortages, all electrical contractors are having trouble buying key components, that is pushing out our installation timeline. The labor shortage is real for people on the call who might not think so and I think that there’s just nobody out there that wants to work. It is a real thing. Finding skilled laborers is extremely difficult right now.
TS: And if my teenage son is looking for a career, he should become an electrician because they are in extremely high demand. And customer interest is at its peak higher than it has ever been before, which means there are more people going solar today than ever before, and that is pushing out timelines simply from a volume standpoint. And there are just not enough contractors right now to fulfill the demand, which puts Sun Badger, you could say in a good spot, but it also means that we are managing a very high volume and our installation timelines are going longer than we would like right now.
BO: Okay, that’s great, great information. You fill in all of the puzzle pieces. In my head, they’re thrown on the table and we start putting them together, I can kind of get my head around what this looks like. I wanna talk about the day of installation real quick. So is the first step your crew shows up and they wait for the power or the utility to get there and what, drop the line to the house so you guys can work on it or what does it look like? Is it just you guys get there, you start putting brackets on roofs and start handing up solar panels?
EG: Yeah, there’s a few different scenarios that we kind of approach just to make sure that we are comprehensive and efficient in our process. If we don’t have to deal with the utility shut down, obviously, we show up, we start working immediately. We get the structure crew up on the roof, they get their brackets and they get the entirety of the structure and the basic electrical in place, and then they start slapping glass, so to speak. Electrical team is going at it on the side of your house or in your basement and just trying to do as best they can to perform a good clean install up to code, that’s the other side of things. As a slight tangent here is we never wanna fail an inspection, so we try to do the best quality work that we can first run out. A non-battery system for an installation would take an electrician one to two days depending on the complexity and the size of the system itself will determine how long the roof crew will be up taking care of things.
BO: Okay. It feels pretty tidy. The process of installation feels pretty tidy.
EG: We try to keep it that way. Certainly.
RS: Now what about during the winter, is there a time where you guys just don’t do these? What if the roof is snow covered?
EG: Well, if it’s snow covered, depending on the temperature, we’ll still go out and perform an installation. There’s a temperature threshold that our brackets and our sealants are applicable under. So we’ll get up there when it’s snowing… While it’s actively snowing we’ll continue to shovel, brush, whatever, clean that roof off just so that we can continue to keep all of our people employed year-round. Obviously, up in the upper Midwest, it gets a little bit colder than gold, so there will be downtime, but we also try to find strategies to kind of work around that as well.
RS: Now, what would you say to overcome an objection from someone who says, “Well, my roof is already 10-15 years old, I don’t wanna bother putting the system on, if I’m gonna have to replace my roof covering in the next five years. It would be cost-prohibitive for me to even do this, ’cause then I gotta have someone take it off and put it back on”? Are they right or can you overcome that objection?
TS: Yeah. You’d have to replace the roof anyway, right? If your roof has got five years left in it, it’s got five years left in it, and so we generally we’ll say, “Well replace it now,” you… Most roofs are 30 or 40 year roofs. You buy a roof nowadays, they say it’s a 40-year roof, and then Eric’s team puts a solar array on it and that product is guaranteed for 25 years, so now you’ve got a brand new roof and then you’ve got a product on top of it that’s supposed to produce energy for almost a lifetime of that new roof, so you’re kinda killing two birds with one stone. I love also pointing out from just when I’m consulting on solar, what is the number one element that degrades a roof?
TS: Yeah, it’s the sun, right? And, okay, what do solar panels harvest? Well, they harvest the sun. So by putting a new roof on and then placing a piece of equipment over it that protects it from the element that damages it the most, but not only protects it, saves you money in that protection. So yeah, it’s kind of a really cool thing to think about.
BO: Yeah, I figure it would just extend the life of your roof, except for the few places that the shingles are still visible, but even then, they’re taking less hail if a hailstorm comes through, they’re taking less, less, less.
TS: Yes. We’ve got some cool photos of roof planes that we’ve taken panel down from after three or four years for one, or reason or another, and you can see the outline of the panels and the roof underneath it is obviously much younger looking than the roof outside of those solar panels, and it’s a pretty drastic visual.
RS: I bet.
TM: I’d like to just change gears for a second, I’ve got a question for you, if I was a homeowner interested in putting solar panels on my roof. How would I go about making sure that I’m hiring a good company to do it, are there a lot of… Do you guys have a lot of competitors in the market here doing what you’re doing, and if so, how would you advise a consumer to be smart [chuckle] and choose a good company?
TS: Well, I’d ask the company if they’ve got Eric on their team.
TS: But there are a lot of competitors out there, and I’ll speak to some of the differences at Sun Badger, and then Eric can tell you some of the things that we do different on a construction site, ’cause he’s worked for a number of solar companies over the years. But I would definitely look for a company that is local, and when you’re talking about contracting and construction, proximity matters. And this is a big investment and this product is warrantied for 25 years, but I’m not gonna lie, this is a new industry with really cool technology, but sometimes it breaks and it’s warrantied, and you can get new ones for free, but you gotta have them replaced, you’ve gotta have service. So one of the things you really have to think about is post-installation support and service, and you’re gonna get the best post-installation support and service from a local contractor because they’re going to be nearby, they’re going to have the ability to come in and help you and support you.
TS: If you buy from a company that’s out of state or some fly-by-night company that comes in and does two years worth of business and then just disappears when something goes wrong, you’re going to be calling us because we’re the ones that are in your backyard. We get calls every day from customers, “I bought from company X, they’re out of business now, they’re not answering my calls, can you come fix this?” And our answer, unfortunately, is “No, we can’t because we are too busy and we are focused on our customers”. So choosing a local contractor is important, looking at online review is extremely important, BBB, SolarReviews, Best Company, there are tons of contractor review sites and a quality company like Sun Badger, or our competitors, they will have profiles there and they will have customer testimonials. And they’re not gonna all be great, we do a 1000 projects a year, and sometimes we get a couple that don’t go as planned, and we try our best to manage our customers expectations and overcome some of those, but if you look overall and a company has a fairly good review profile, that would be what I would choose.
TS: And then finally, I would just… One of the last things I suppose, but also important would be the type of equipment, just understanding what you’re getting, making sure that the company is educating you on what you’re getting, they’re not simply trying to rush you into an agreement and you don’t understand what it is that you’re purchasing. And then the price, and if that’s a factor for you. Sun Badger was on the very high end of the solar energy price point, and that’s because we use high quality equipment, we have people like Eric on the team that have years of experience doing high quality installations, they’re really taking their time, and that’s just reflective in what it costs to go solar with us, whether it’s some of the construction differentiators.
EG: My background essentially is in servicing solar systems. I’ve worked for a few national solar companies and where I was tasked with going after a system is operational, identifying where the problems are and fixing them. So when I came on to Sun Badger, one of the very first things that I wanted to enact here was when we’re performing our installation, we’re doing so with the intention for someone to come afterwards, how are they going to be able to interact with this system safely first and foremost, but also again, in an efficient manner, so that we can minimize the impact on the homeowner and also get that solar system back up and running as fast as possible.
BO: Okay, I love that, I love that. That’s so helpful. Now, I think we should bring the episode to close, but I have one last question, and I wanna get your guys sort of future thoughts, and this industry is for a long time been supported by the government, there are subsidies, there is… However you guys can explain it better than me, my understanding is you put this on and eventually the utility or the government will pay you back for the work that you’ve done. Are these incentives going to continue on into the future? Is there anything, any concerns you guys have in terms of the burden shifting from the support of the utility to just 100% on the homeowner?
TS: Well, as far as incentives go, the Inflation Reduction Act just extended the solar investment tax credit for another 12 years, so that’s a big win for us at Sun Badger, and they increased the tax credit from 26%-30%
BO: For that full 12 years?
TS: Well, for 10 years, and then there’s a two-year step down. But for the next 10 years, anybody who purchases a solar energy system is gonna get a 30% tax credit, and that is a dollar for dollar credit, there’s not an exemption or a deduction on the cents. If you paid into the federal government an amount equal to that credit, then you receive that credit back on your filing. So that’s gonna be a big one. There are very few industries that are not subsidized in one way or another by the federal government, especially when we’re talking about energy or infrastructure or something like that. So will there be a time when there are no incentives available for solar? It’s possible, but by then the industry will be so developed and the efficiencies of the companies that are operating in it, along with the cost of the equipment will have come down to such a degree, and then traditional energy cost will have risen to such a degree, it will still be a viable solution. Fossil fuels are a finite resource, they are going to cost more and more as they become less and less, solar energy is a renewable resource and you can fix your energy costs there.
TS: There are state programs in every state that we operate in, and those are strong programs that are going to be around for years. But one of the markets that we have the most business in has the smallest incentive from the state. So just to give an indicator of where these incentives are being most used, or if they are necessary, so Wisconsin is the market where we do the majority of our business, and it also has the lowest incentive, it’s roughly about $500 from the State. Minnesota equates to about $4000 or $5000, and Illinois equates to about $7000 or $8000. But we have probably twice as much business in Wisconsin, so that in terms of future development, people throw the figure around that 3% of all viable homes have solar right now, that means that there’s 97% of the market that is still untapped, so pretty excited about that.
BO: Well, the only reason I ask that… Thank you for that explanation. And I agree with you 100%. I mean, if you really wanna know, there’s plenty of subsidies to go around, [chuckle] it’s just like “Who wants to talk about it?” Right? But there’s always some troll you’ll find on Facebook or whatever, that’s like, “Oh, you’re gonna plug in your EV car in your subsidized system,” so I don’t mean to be a troll, I just wanted to kinda get your idea, so I appreciate that. Guys, do you have anything else you wanna share before we bring this to a wrap? I really appreciate the fact that you took this down component by component or piece by piece, I think it helps. But that 30,000 foot view and that two-foot view, I think is really informative, so thank you.
TS: Yeah, thanks for having us.
BO: Alright. Well, I think we’re gonna put a wrap on it. Then there was no closing comments, which is good, just go get your solar system done and when you need help, call Sun Badger. Go ahead and Trevor, tell everybody how to get a hold of you. Let’s at least do that.
TS: Yeah. If you wanna speak with somebody at Sun Badger, you can find us online, sunbadger.com, we have a dial-in number, you can talk to one of our consultants over the phone. We also have a really easy way to get a virtual estimate right through our website. So there’s a button there that says calculate my solar, and it’ll take you through the steps to just get a generic quote, it’ll also show you a little bit about that Project Sunroof Program on that calculator, so you’ll get to actually see where the best places on your roof are to put solar panels. And if you like what you see, you can click a button and you can set up a meeting to talk with one of our consultants. And then eventually, Eric will come out with his team and put solar panels on your roof, and I know he loves barbecue, and I think Dr. Pepper.
EG: It’s coffee. The older I get, the more it’s coffee and black.
TS: There you go.
BO: Perfect. You’ve been listening to Structure Talk. The voices you just heard were Trevor Sumner and Eric Grimes of Sun Badger Solar. You’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman. Thanks for listening, we’ll catch you next time. Hi everybody. Bill here again with Structure Talk. We really wanna thank you for listening to this Podcast. It’s been a ton of fun for us to put this presentation together. And if you could, we would love it if you would go to any of the Podcast platforms where you find Structure Talk and leave us a rating and subscribe to the show. You can also subscribe to our blog at structuretech.com, and of course, you can listen to the show on the Internet at structuretalk.com. Thanks again for listening. We appreciate the support. And if you have any suggestions for show topics, please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.