Three ways to improve your solar business during COVID-19

Three ways to improve your solar business during COVID-19

Over the past few weeks, we at Scanifly have spoken to customers around the world to check on how they're responding to COVID-19. Specific to the United States, sales have slowed, especially in the residential market. Existing projects have continued since many engineers, project managers and operations teams can work remotely. However, depending on the AHJ, securing permits may be slow to impossible as many municipal workers are at home. While the duration of these challenges is unknown, our team at Scanifly has noticed three trends that point to a silver lining and opportunity for increased efficiencies.

1. Transition to remote surveying through drones and homeowner assistance
Solar surveying doesn't have to slow. Drone-based 3D modelling software, like Scanifly, enables surveyors to capture all external dimensions and property details in a 10- to 15-minute drone flight. Solar surveyors (or drone pilots) can do this from a property's edge. Andrew Fuhrmann at Positive Energy Solar in New Mexico said that "drone site surveys are extremely helpful for adhering to social distancing." If a solar company doesn't have drones, Scanifly has a network of pilots that can be deployed anywhere to collect exterior site data.

While drones can keep the layout design process moving, they aren't able to solve the internal half of the site survey, including the structural and electrical details that are critical for permitting. Some companies instruct technical sales personnel to photograph the meter, electrical service panel and rafters upon their sales visit. But few are doing home visits now.

An eager homeowner and property owner can help. Either with a simple checklist or video conferencing, they can take pictures of the internal systems. Karin Poelstra of CleanTech Energy Solutions in Oceanside, California experimented with a homeowner-led survey before COVID-19. "Homeowners are becoming more educated and are very proactive," she notes.

In San Diego County, the main service panel is generally outside the home and can therefore be checked without enlisting the homeowner. Many of the roofs are also newer and follow basic construction codes, so rafter alignment can usually be communicated or verified by a photograph.

Shane Helle at Porter Electric in Illinois has also coached a homeowner on conducting an internal survey. "It depends on their comfort," he mentioned. "You have to take things slower and let the homeowner decide. It could be a liability if the customer does something and gets injured."

He concluded that the homeowner could do a soft site survey by taking pictures of the electrical equipment and the rafters. If something looks abnormal, or the house is in a historical area, then an electrician can roll a truck to do a hard site survey to verify anything onsite. He clarified that this was only possible for residential properties; commercial sites should always entail an in-person walk-through.

In Texas, Brandon de la Torre of TAC Solar amended his site survey form to make it easier for homeowners to follow. Homeowner-led internal surveys are feasible, he believes. Yet, even though "70% of the time, a picture with the (service panel) cover on it tells the whole story," he said, he would strongly prefer to not ask homeowners to take off the cover of the main service panel, also known as the dead front.

In western Colorado, like Montrose, Delta and Mesa counties, electrical equipment is outside, according to Kevin Love of Atlasta Solar. Few jurisdictions have structural concerns in his territory. However, the only showstopper, like for TAC Solar, is taking off the dead front. If the homeowner isn't comfortable then Love would rather do it himself.

Rudy Garcia of CalSolar operates in Central Valley, California, where many homeowners do electrical work themselves. Garcia is comfortable with them removing the dead front if (a) they have the requisite background and (b) indicate that they are comfortable doing so. However, an inexperienced homeowner should wait for him to arrive, he stated.

The feedback from Scanifly's customers indicates that surveying externally with a drone, and internally with a homeowner's assistance is feasible. We anticipate this practice to be deployed more broadly during COVID-19 and as a solution to minimize truck rolls in the future.

There is no silver bullet solution though. Taking off the dead front is universally agreed upon as a liability. Identifying structural issues in old homes, like in the Northeast, is also very difficult for an untrained eye. Relying on a homeowner to provide images could slow the development process. Homeowner conducted surveys could also lead to unseen issues on site, resulting in change orders and on-the-fly alterations during the installation.

Conversely, some of these problems already persist. Surveyors occasionally don't capture everything on site to begin with, so perhaps a careful homeowner following simplified instructions would actually work better. Minimizing truck rolls for engineers and electricians undoubtably saves time. Many service panels are mounted on the outside of homes, making it easy for the external survey to include lifting up the dead front. And a homeowner-assisted survey means the homeowner doesn't have to miss work.

Scanifly ultimately believes that the industry could shift the interior survey to be conducted by sales professionals during the first truck roll, when they typically try to close the sale. The exterior survey will be conducted by drone pilots that rover around a specific territory and are capable of doing 10 to 15 site surveys each day.

2. Digitize your workflow to foster decentralized teamwork
Many solar company operations are still paper-dependent and require in-person interaction. However, software, specifically customer relationship management (CRMs) platforms, allow for more decentralized teams.

Pete Kennell at River City Roofing near Peoria, Illinois, has led the charge for his company. He's strategizing how River City can operate across multiple geographies, industries and processes all in the cloud. The inclusion of drones and centralized software are at the core of his efforts.

Many solar designers have already digitized their crafts. Clay McKelvy, formerly of Freedom Solar in Texas who now runs Avid PV Designs, can design a project from anywhere. As long as he has the orthomosaic map from a Scanifly drone flight, he can leverage Scanifly's 3D model and AutoCAD to produce a design.

Shannon Ware, a solar veteran and formerly of StraightUp Solar, has a similar approach. She is positioning herself to provide a variety of consulting services around the Midwest from her base in St. Louis. She believes that "the residential market will actually pull back as homeowners engage their economic fears; conversely, the flood of cheap money (no interest) and the massive federal rescue funds may actually make commercial solar look very attractive, even without the state incentives. The price of power from the big utilities is unlikely to go down."

3. Leverage the slowdown to learn something new
Many solar companies are leveraging this pause to reflect on their internal processes, identify time and cost efficiencies, and invest in new technology.

Tim Wachtman of Capstone Solar in the greater Seattle area is all-in on new tech. His company is tripling its drone pilot count and using the pause to get everyone trained on their Part 107 drone pilot's license. Scanifly's discounted curriculum via its partner Drone Pilot Ground School allows students to learn remotely at their own pace. From Olympia up to Bellingham, Capstone Solar will have drone and installation teams ready for when the virus passes.

Capstone's strategic positioning is reflective of a broader trend. Solar Energy International (SEI), a leading global solar curriculum provider, now offers online webinars. The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) offers continuing education (CE) courses online year-round. Scanifly is teaching its monthly NABCEP CE course on Drones, 3D Modelling and LiDAR class on April 22.