Warm up to solar

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Has demand forced you to offer solar as part of your metal roofing systems? Or are you still waiting?

Some people have been waiting since the 1970s for solar energy to “take off,” in a manner where it becomes the norm, instead of the rarity.

Since June 2009, Kulp’s of Stratford in Stratford, Wis., has been offering customers solar options. After talking with past customers and educating themselves about solar, co-owners and brothers Bob and John Kulp sold their first project in less than a month.  Kulp’s has averaged just more than one project per month since.

“We’ve installed 25 systems and about 80-85 percent of them are residential jobs,” says Bob Kulp, company founder and business development director. “Our plan was to go after residential jobs because you can get ink on the contract a lot faster when you’re dealing with residential customers. With commercial projects, you’ve got to deal with the owner and the bean counter, there are just more people to deal with.”

Like any roofer who attends trade shows and reads trade publications, the Kulps were hearing a lot about solar and how it could help grow their business. “In March of 2009, we surveyed our email list and asked 10 questions about solar and how fast they were looking for payback,” Bob says. “The response was overwhelming. Of the 250 responses, about 50 of them said they wanted us to contact them right away. I don’t believe any of them bought, or maybe a couple, but we realized this was something we could pursue.”

As luck would have it, one survey was answered by someone who had 20 years of experience in systems engineering and consulting. That man now heads up Kulp’s solar initiative, Marathon Solar Roofing.

“The first thing John and I did was ask ourselves if we had the time to dedicate to this or were smart enough to figure this out by ourselves,” Bob says. “We knew we couldn’t dedicate the time and weren’t smart enough, but we were fortunate to find someone who could and had the industry background.”

The result: “Because we offer solar, we sold a lot of projects we would not have sold,” Bob says.

In addition to its stone-coated metal offering from DECRA Roofing Systems, Kulp’s operates a portable Schlebach Quadro roll former to run standing seam panels with coil purchased from Coated Metals Group of Madison, Wis. When a job involves applying Uni-Solar laminates manufactured by United Solar Ovonic, the work is done in the shop. The panels, with solar laminates applied, are delivered to the jobsite and installed. “We install the laminate in the shop for total quality control,” Bob says.

Kulp says the biggest challenge may be understanding and wading through all the paperwork involving different utilities, incentives and interconnection agreements. Knowledge of financial payback to the customer is, of course, a major selling point to customers looking for a return on investment — and that’s not the major concern of some customers, according to Kulp. Some are all about crunching numbers and others are about doing what makes them feel good.

“One of the first things we ask is, ‘why are you interested in solar roofing?’” Kulp says. “Some will say they are doing it because it’s the ‘right thing to do,’ while others will tell you, if it doesn’t make financial sense, they’re not doing it.”

It varies from state to state, but incentives will certainly affect the cost of a project. Kulp says in Wisconsin, it’s about 12 percent of the overall investment that is covered by incentives. November and December were busy for Kulp’s as customers were scurrying to get their solar roofing installed before the end of the year in order to be able to file their taxes and get the tax credit in April 2011 rather than waiting until 2012.

Like most in the roofing industry, Kulp has kept an eye on the solar market, wondering if and when the demand is going to hit. He says his company has always tried to be the frontrunner in its service area and believes he’s kept ahead of the competition with solar. “Six or seven years ago, we were the only ones at home shows with stone-coated metal roofing,” Kulp says. “Now there are always a handful. This year, we were the only ones offering solar, but I really see it building up in the next couple years. If you’re doing business in a state with a decent regulatory environment and incentives program, I’d say do it quickly,” Kulp says. “Be the first to plant the flag in your area.”

Kulp says there are several key items to consider before jumping into solar. First, you have to be able to do it and do it right without jeopardizing the business you already have going. You also have to get your sales force on board and excited about the possibilities. Another important thing to remember is the roofer is certainly the right person to be heading up the solar part of the project because the roofer will ensure a watertight installation. Kulps says there are “electricians coming out of the woodwork,” to help with connections, obviously an important consideration for a successful project.

Keeping it simple
Still, a roofer has to know his limitations. Phil Funk at Reliable Sheet Metal of Byron Center, Mich., has long had an interest in being a part of a solar project. Funk got his wish last fall, when he was contacted by Inovateus Solar, a company that specializes in the engineering, procurement and construction of utility scale energy projects.

The city of Greenville, Mich., has jumped on the “green” bandwagon, while supporting a local business — United Solar Ovonic has a plant located there. The city commissioned Inovateus Solar to oversee the installation of Uni-Solar laminate panels on three airport hangars as well as a city municipal building, with its mostly flat roof.

“I worked for Inovateus Solar,” Funk says. “They did all the leg work and pulled it all together — that’s what they do.

“We’ve been waiting for solar to take off here in Michigan. And with these new panels, you don’t need bright sunlight for them to work. If it’s cloudy, they still function.”

Reliable Sheet Metal focuses on commercial roofing, but does some high-end residential work. The hangars provided a unique challenge.

The original roof on the hangars was an exposed fastener metal panel, which isn’t conducive to hosting Uni-Solar panels — Funk calls it a “stitched roof” because of the exposed fastener look. Funk says McElroy Metal engineers designed developed a solution that consisted of panels of various widths, designed to be installed over the existing metal roof panels. A McElroy crew then attached the peel-and-stick solar laminates to the panels while the panels were on the ground. Reliable Sheet Metal laid the panels back into the crates they were delivered in and hoisted them to the roof.

A total of 1,222 custom roof panels were manufactured and laminated with Uni-Solar panels. Panels were bare 29-gauge Galvalume and run in two different widths to accommodate the rib spacing on the existing through-fastened panels.

“You have to be a little more careful (because of the laminate,) but this stuff is tough,” Funk says. “You can walk on it, it’s a tough material. Applying it takes a little care, it’s not something that someone with no construction experience would want to try, because once you put it down, it’s not coming off. It’s like anything else, you have to follow the instructions.”

The Reliable Sheet Metal crew installed approximately 25,000 square feet of the McElroy panels on the three hangers. Solar laminates — more than 1,200 — covered as much of the roofing material as possible. In fact, to get the necessary square footage of solar panels installed to meet the promised wattage, Funk, with help from McElroy, had to design and install an extension to one roof to accommodate the solar panels. Funk’s crew then had to punch about 1,200 holes in the roofing material to accommodate the solar panels’ electrical wires. The wires all run through a two-piece tray at the ridge. “We installed the bottom part of the tray with the roof panels and the grommets for the wires, then the electrician would come through to make connections,” Funk says. “Then we went back and installed the second tray piece to protect the wires.”

Funk says the wire trays had to be custom engineered to fit the application — a joint effort by McElroy and Reliable Sheet Metal.

Funk says it’s important to work with experienced experts. “It takes two different tradesmen to make this work,” he says. “We know the roofing end of it, our crews know the OSHA rules. Inovateus knows all about solar.”

Funk believes the growth of solar is inevitable, especially in a green-conscious city like Greenville. At some point, he may consider adding his own electrical staff. “No doubt,” he says. “If it becomes popular enough where we’re doing solar year-round, we’ll certainly move into it further. If we’re only doing it once or twice a year, it doesn’t make sense.”

Trying to keep up
No one likes to get left behind. Victor Bolkhovzkiy, estimating manager at FM Home Improvements in Denville, N.J., started attending classes and seminars on solar about three years ago. FM has owned and operated its own multiple-profile roll former for almost a decade and Bolkhovzkiy was witnessing the growing numbers of opportunities for solar projects and metal roofing.

FM recently completed a standing seam roof project for Englert. “They came to us because we’re a good customer,” Bolkhovzkiy says. 

The New Shrewsbury Racquet Club project in Tinton Falls, N.J., was a combination metal roofing retrofit project and a 281 Kw roof mounted solar project. The project was developed by CSS Energy Services of Matawan, N.J., while Pro-Tech Energy Solutions of Branchburg, N.J., was the design / build integrator. Pro-Tech is a turnkey solar developer in New Jersey that provides more than just installation services.  Paul Shust, CFO at Pro-Tech, has personally filed nine ITC grant applications for various Pro-Tech clients and supervised receipt of payment from the U.S. Treasury. This ability is a real benefit for Pro-Tech clients not to have to hire a financial person or accountant and have to pay to provide this service.

Colin Chernowetz, Senior Project Manager for Pro-Tech, supervised the installation of Kyocera crystalline panels on the Shrewsbury project. Chernowetz says Pro-Tech works frequently with Englert roofing as well as other metal roofing installers. The key to making any solar-metal roofing project work is planning … and more planning.

“That partnership is very important,” he says. “Communication on every detail ahead of time is important. I’ve always said the most important thing when two trades are working together like this is a mutual respect. Without it, all jobs are doomed to fail or at least be very difficult.” Tony Newman of Englert supervised the project for Englert.

Chernowetz says details like panel width, seam height and type of seam are only some of the considerations during the planning process. It’s important the panel seams accommodate the clamps employed by the solar installer. Clamp spacing is affected directly by the panel width — trust the solar installer to know what panel width will make for the most efficient solar layout.
In other words, the solar installer wants to use as few clamps as possible because it’s economical and labor efficient. In a large-scale commercial project, the costs could add up fast if you end up using and installing hundreds of extra clamps.

There will always be a learning curve — Chernowetz says one project he worked on resulted in extra work for the roofer because of a problem created by the roofer. The metal roofing contractor installed a standing seam roof that had a 90-degree seam, making it impossible to attach a clamp that attaches the racking system that supports the crystalline solar panels. The roofer had to come back and fold the seam over 180 degrees.

“The roofer wasn’t too happy, but it had to be done,” Chernowetz says. It seems like a minor detail, but it resulted in callback time for the roofer.”

Solar projects don’t just happen — you have to educate yourself and seek them out. If it isn’t already happening, a competitor is likely a step ahead of you.  Pro-Tech understands that as the solar industry grows it has an obligation to educate people the metal roofing industry who will help grow the solar industry larger purely based on their comfort level with solar installations on metal roof buildings.

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