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IES’ approach to installing solar systems

Steven:

Hi, there. I’m Steven from Artifact. And today, I’m speaking with Brandon Rickett of IES TX Solar. Brandon and IES pride themselves on providing solar solutions that are tailored to the individual needs of homes and to the lives of the people who live there. Brandon, thanks for joining me. To start off, could you just tell us a little bit about yourself and about IES?

Brandon Rickett:

Sure. Hi. Yes. My name is Brandon Rickett. I am the business development manager for IES, Texas Solar. We are a energy services company. We provide solar power energy services for residential, commercial and utility scale solar systems. I have been working for the company for the past 10 years. IES has a long history relationship working as an electrical contractor in the state of Texas. They’ve got over 40 years worth of experience. Their primary business is wiring new construction homes.

Brandon Rickett:

And when I got hired on, solar was very new to the industry in terms of builders that we’re looking at incorporating solar energy as a part of their new construction projects. IES has some long term relationships with a lot of builders across the country. And one of the builders that we were working for at the time was interested in installing solar panels as a part of the new construction of their homes. As the electricians on the job, we were kind of given first choice as if we wanted to learn how to install solar the proper way, going through training and certifications.

Brandon Rickett:

And so we did and that was the first taste that we as a company got back in 2010 on installing solar for a national home builder. And I was hired on to help kind of discover and develop the business side. We didn’t know anything about solar from a sales standpoint. So I was responsible for basically learning the industry, learning how to get material, learning how to approach customers, learning how to size solar systems, learning how to design them, learning what utility requirements were needed and kind of really just all facets of the industry. I became immersed in the rest is kind of history.

Steven:

What can you tell me about your role specifically and what your sort of day to day work looks like?

Brandon Rickett:

Yeah. So having worked as the sole salesperson for the company, helping out with operations, helping out with sales, managing, I’ve decided that my niche focus within working at IES has really been focusing on developing relationships with custom home builders and bringing IES as a solution provider, as a resource to help their customers decide if solar energy is a good option for them. We also talk about battery backup solutions. We talk about generator options.

Brandon Rickett:

A lot of customers now are interested in looking at these solutions for their custom home, so that they don’t have to worry about where their energy is coming from. And my job working for IES is to kind of handhold these customers through the process of designing, developing, and installing a solution that fits for their home. We’ve got about 50 custom home builders that we work with in the San Antonio New Braunfels area.

Brandon Rickett:

Our Austin shop has about 50 plus builders that we work with. Our job is to be a resource for our customers, which are the custom home builders and work directly with their customers that have entrusted them to build their house. So we, as a company, we do the wiring of the home, we do the installation of the solar equipment. And there’s a huge benefit of working with one company. We can come in at certain aspects of construction where the frame is up.

Brandon Rickett:

We’ve just got the wood timber that’s supporting the house before all the sheet rock and drywall is actually installed. And we can go in and actually install all the pieces that help support the solar system prior to the construction of the home being completed. This helps improve the aesthetic factor of the home. It allows us to control where the equipment goes, working with the homeowner so that they can pinpoint exactly where they want the boxes to be. And we can do all the roughen equipment at that point in time.

Steven:

What do you say to people who are maybe looking to build a home, who are curious but on the fence, what are some of the things that seem to be sort of stopping them or making them hesitate and how do you guys address that?

Brandon Rickett:

So a lot of the benefits of why solar has become so popular in is number one, the cost of the solar systems have come down considerably over the years, to a point where anybody can afford to go solar. They’ve got financing options that are available that allow you to kind of roll in your solar purchase as a part of your mortgage. But also, there’s third party finance companies that allow for you to finance solar systems that are really low interest rate.

Brandon Rickett:

And so when we, as designers of solar energy systems start looking at what the cost of going solar is, we compare what is their electric bills going to be versus what does a solar payment look like. And a lot of times the solar payment is actually lower than the utility bill. So our job is to help educate customers on the benefits of going solar, which it always starts off with, what is the cost?

Brandon Rickett:

And so we start going down the road of how much does solar energy cost? But in addition to that, we also look at what is the long term benefit. Solar has really improved in technology over the years, the modules are more efficient, the racking systems that help support the systems are lighter weight, they’re built with better materials, the inverter systems that we use are the brains of the systems. They are smarter. And so a lot of this product development has attributed to the faster adoption of solar. And a lot of that has started with the cost coming down.

Steven:

Could you just sort of walk me through, if someone is looking at building a custom home and they come to you about potentially incorporating solar energy into this home, what is that process like? What do you guys look for and how do you help them design that reality?

Brandon Rickett:

So IES, as a company, we work directly with home builders on the custom side, we walk them through the different options that exist on solar, batteries, generators. We kind of have a very holistic conversation about what options are exist. And then we dive into the details with the customer. We talk about where the house is located on the lot itself. What kind of roof surface material are we using, what is the orientation in which the panels are going to face. We talk about things that we as a company do as a prep for going solar.

Brandon Rickett:

We install boxes that allow for the wiring and the conduits and everything that connects the system to be hidden within the walls and the attic space. And then we talk about the various equipment locations that are going to be needed for where all of the solar inverter equipment’s going to go and all the safety disconnects that are necessary for the system to work. We discuss with the homeowners, the difference between using a gas appliance versus using an electric appliance.

Brandon Rickett:

We look at the size and the footprint of the home, and we kind of develop this lifestyle barometer, if you will, to help measure where they’re going to fall from a consumption level. We have a lifestyle conversation. And the lifestyle conversation details how many people are going to be living in the house. Knowing how many people are going to live in the house, we can determine how many showers are happening, how much loads of laundry is going on. How is the AC being controlled.

Brandon Rickett:

We talk about what is the setting on the thermostat for during the day when people are home during the night. We ask questions like, “Are people working from home all day?” Because that’s going to impact how much usage the house is going to have. Or, “Is the house normally vacant during the day because everybody works or goes to school and is out of the house?” We also talk about future goals of the home, “Are you driving electric vehicles currently? Are you going to be driving electric vehicles one day? Do you have a pool? Do you want a pool?”

Brandon Rickett:

We try to develop a very comprehensive load profile so that the solar system is kind of a set it and forget it mentality. However, people’s lifestyle changes. Occupants that are living inside a home change, types of vehicles that we are driving change. You may decide to one day get a hot tub. This all impact your overall consumption on your home. A big point about our solar systems that we install is that they are modular. They are plug and play.

Brandon Rickett:

If the day comes five years from after you own your home and have your solar system that you just need to add more panels because your usage has gone up, we can come in, add additional panels. There’s no additional infrastructure that’s needed to help support those panels. This is a add a panel, add a micro-inverter and we go on our way. We don’t have to do any major overhaul to the existing system. So this is very helpful as a part of our initial conversation to kind of help set the foundation for the system and the education approach with the homeowner to determine what their lifestyle is to then match up the solar system that meets their needs.

Steven:

Yeah. I have to say your description of this sounds a lot more flexible than I’ve been led to believe the solar systems the are, right? Is that something that you hear from your clients a lot?

Brandon Rickett:

Absolutely. I mean, we are designing and developing solutions that are very specific to our customer, but we want to make sure that we take a very education based approach so that they fully understand what they’re getting, they fully understand all their options, they fully understand that they can contact us for other add-on services. A lot of our customers decide to just start with the solar system and then add on batteries at a later time, or they add on a generator at a later time. And it’s great for them to know that they can contact one company and get all of their solutions taken care of.

Steven:

What are a few features or sort of just a few trick of the trade that you guys have that the customers are pleasantly surprised with? Because I mean, you talk about the need to sort of, to assess the house as a whole and the design as a whole.

Brandon Rickett:

Yeah.

Steven:

And I feel like a lot of people are probably hesitant to want to include solar in that design. Yeah. What are a couple of [crosstalk 00:10:37] yeah. Sorry.

Brandon Rickett:

The number one reason why people don’t like solar is the looks.

Steven:

Right.

Brandon Rickett:

And so as a part of our conversation, we try to really help benefit the aesthetic approach of going solar. If you look at pictures of our portfolio of jobs that we’ve done, you will see that we take the utmost care of making sure that not only the system is installed properly, but that it’s functional, that it looks balanced in the approach of the arrays that are mounted on the roof. And it’s in the most unobtrusive areas of the house as well.

Brandon Rickett:

So a large part of our conversation with the homeowners is we talk about where the sun rises and sets. And so we all know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. And where is the sun focusing the majority of its direction? And that’s the south. And so we start looking at where houses are being placed on lots to help maximize the energy production availability of where these roof lines are going to be facing so that the homeowners can get good energy production out of their system. We even go through details such as the roof pitch.

Brandon Rickett:

What is the latitude that we are facing towards the sun. Here in the San Antonio area, our latitude is around 28 to 29 degrees. So from a production standpoint, the closer we can get to those angles, the better long term annual production that we’re going to receive out of the system. And a lot of that is part of the conversation that we have with the homeowners. They’re is 50 different types of roofs that you could have on your house, whether it’s a shingle roof, [inaudible 00:12:19] panel roof, a standing seam roof, a tile roof.

Brandon Rickett:

And so we go through different levels of conversation that talks about why you would prefer a certain roof over another. And those are just some of the levels of conversation that we have to help maximize the homeowner’s decision and investment in going solar. We care about the finished product, we care about the dollars that they’re paying. And so we have a very exhaustive conversation with them in the beginning to kind of help just set the stage for what we’re going to be doing on their home for the long term, 25 year investment of solar.

Steven:

Can you go a little more in depth, just in terms of what kind of cost versus what kinds of savings people are seeing from this? And yeah, I mean, what in your minds are the other benefits of installing a system like that?

Brandon Rickett:

The financial benefit is huge, especially if you consider the long term approach to solar energy. The modules, the panels themselves, the inverters, they all come with a 25 year warranty. The day that you put the solar system on, it’s going to start saving money that you would be spending to the utility every single month. There’s a point in which the upfront cost of buying that equipment is paid for. When I first started back in 2012, paybacks were in the 12 to 15 year range.

Brandon Rickett:

And that was just kind of the norm. Then about three years ago, payments drop below 10 years. Now, we’re looking at about six to eight years at a payback. So when you consider the long term approach of a solar system that has a 25 year warranty from manufacturers, the system itself is actually paid for in the first quarter of its ownership. Every month that goes by that the homeowner is not paying their electric bill, that’s just adding to the savings.

Steven:

Yeah, we’re talking here at the end of the month. I just paid my electric bill. I would love to not have to pay that.

Brandon Rickett:

Yeah. And one of the big things that people consider when you’re building a custom home, this is a home that they’re going to live in for the rest of their lives.

Steven:

Yeah.

Brandon Rickett:

This is a, “I’ve got to this pinnacle of my life. I’m ready to build a custom home. I’m ready to settle. I’m not going to be selling this home.” A lot of people have that conversation internally with family and spouses and stuff like that. So when we’re looking at controlling energy costs over the long term, as we all know, price of energy has gone up year after year after year. Here locally, we are being faced with a rate increase due to the February storms that occurred in our area where the grid was out of power, literally for a week at a time.

Brandon Rickett:

And the utility company that runs the power plants in this area had to go on the open market and spot buy power to be able to provide for their territory. And that was at a very expensive cost. And now we, as the rate payers are having to essentially pay that bill because the utility company provided power for those that were in need. And it really highlights the conversation of where does your power come from.

Brandon Rickett:

And this is the conversation that we have with homeowners who are looking at building a home that they’re going to live in for 10 plus years. How is their energy going to be provided to their home for the 10 years that they live there, 10 plus years that they live there? Why not invest in a solar energy system that can take care of all their energy needs and provide backup power by way of batteries and do the ultimate backup, which is including a generator?

Brandon Rickett:

These are all solutions that we provide. And we help these homeowners take control of their energy so that they know how much energy they’re producing every month, because they’ve got monitoring that tells them. They can control all of their devices in their home by way of our Lumin smart panels and turn stuff off during outage scenarios. These are conversations that we have with homeowners who know and understand that the rates of energy are going to continue to climb year after year after year. Solar is a fixed cost. You buy the equipment once. The fuel, the sunlight that provides power for these panels is free. Haven’t found a way to tax us on the energy that comes from the sun yet, but they’re trying, trust me.

Steven:

As we wrap up, my last question would just be what are some final thoughts that you would want to leave with people who are contemplating building a custom home and contemplating making solar a part of it?

Brandon Rickett:

Yeah. So I definitely think that having conversations with your builder about the options that exist on solar energy, generators, battery backup. Starting those conversations early on, especially if you’re working with an architect or a design firm that’s helping to design the plans for the house that you’re going to be building. Working with a company like IES, we can provide you with a one stop shop. Not only can we do the initial design consultation, where we work directly with the designer, the architect, the builder, the customer, but we can also facilitate the electrical wiring.

Brandon Rickett:

As a company, IES has been around for 40 plus years and wiring electrical homes is something that we’ve literally been the number one company doing. Solar to us is just another added benefit of why you would want to work with IES. And we take the best approach with working with homeowners within a budgetary mindset to make sure that the solutions that we provide as a company are a best fit for their project.

Brandon Rickett:

Solar systems are not to be sold as out of the box or packages. They are meant to be designed and developed by a consultant that has additional resources to help provide information for the homeowners to make an educated decision. And that’s something that we, as a company like to do. We like to provide all the options to be considered. And ultimately, it’s the homeowners decision whether they want to move forward or not.

Steven:

All right. Well that’s great. Brandon, thank you so much for joining me in talking shop a little bit.

Brandon Rickett:

Yeah, absolutely. I appreciate the time. Thank you.