New Apps for Solar Installers Providing Competitive Edge

Unirac says its solar apps will make installations 'go smoother' and faster. Industry says such digital innovation can ultimately drive down costs

Solar installation/Credit: CoCreator, flickr

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Doug May used to watch with unease as solar builders assembling his firm’s rooftop mounts raced up and down ladders to fish crumpled manuals from their trucks, or rummaged for instructions on clunky laptops.

And so, like others in the industry, he created an app for them.

Last week, Albuquerque-based Unirac began offering installers mobile apps for its aluminum and steel mounts for photovoltaic (PV) solar arrays. The free products are available for users of Apple’s iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch but could be developed for Google’s Android and other phones later this year.

“For us, it is all about how we can make the installation go smoother and how we can be easier to do business with for our customers,” May, CEO of Unirac, told SolveClimate News.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that ‘solar 2.0’ is happening in terms of taking down the total cost of ownership and providing products and services that meet the engineering requirements of our customers,” he said.

Unirac has a 30 percent share of the North American solar racking market and was recently acquired by Lichtenstein-based powertool giant Hilti Group. The solar firm’s client list includes the Google Campus in Mountain View, Calif., and Universal Studios in Hollywood.

May said: “If we’re going to be competitive in the years to come in this industry, we have to think of ourselves not just as a manufacturing company but really as a solutions provider.”

The solar firm first developed a separate mobile platform for its website in 2008 as Unirac customers switched to smartphones. May said that some 800 installers signed up in the first year and a half, encouraging the company to take the next step.

Unirac then partnered with an unnamed software developer to create the first two apps. The U-Clinometer turns a smartphone into an inclinometer, which measures the angle and tilt of a rooftop to determine the sunniest latitudes for panels and costs around $20 in its non-digital form.

The QR (Quick Response) Code Reader app allows phone cameras to scan a product and download installation guidelines, blueprints and sales information.

The racking company also launched a smartphone-friendly version of its website, though the original mobile platform will continue to run. By logging onto the new version, installers, contractors and project engineers can configure price quotes, locate distributors and access three-dimensional images of sites and products via Microsoft’s Photosynth program.

Marcelo Gomez, Unirac’s director of marketing, said: “Mobility increases the installation rate, and it helps reduce project cycle time.

“We want to do our job so our installers can do theirs.”

The firm’s “Digital Advantage” products so far have averaged 180 downloads per day since going live last week, he said.

Gomez noted that the mobile tools were created specifically for Apple products because nearly three-fourths of people who access Unirac’s website via smartphone do so from an iPhone.

Solar Apps All the Rage

Like Unirac, a rising number of solar industry companies are taking advantage of rapidly advancing smartphone technologies to both speed up solar power installations and market their brand as cutting-edge.

SMA Solar Technology AG, a German PV inverter manufacturer with a California-based subsidiary, offers a Solarchecker app for iPhones that calculates the size and capacity of a solar system based on available roof space. It then uses GPS information to determine costs based on local feed-in tariffs, loan interest rates and potential revenue generated by the system.

Solar engineering firm Solmetric of Sebastopol, Calif., has an iPV app for Apple products that measures shade and evaluates potential energy output of a particular solar array. And customers of San Jose, Calif.-based SunPower can check the monthly and annual production of their system with an iPhone app.

“This is what we are seeing across the solar supply chain. New products and business models that improve efficiency and installation processes, offer flexibility to the customer in financing and ultimately drive down costs for the consumer,” Jared Blanton, a spokesperson for the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), told SolveClimate News via email.

“The result is that solar is more accessible and affordable than ever before in the U.S. Those companies that are able to find ways to reduce costs will be the best suited to succeed in the U.S. market, which is fast becoming the focus of the global solar industry.”

For solar installers, the smartphone apps can help speed up basic tasks in the early stages of installation.

Bruce Bosworth, owner of San Diego Solar Install and a Unirac customer of three years, said that the firm’s apps help him find baseline data that he can later confirm during the actual installation.

“The iPhone apps allow me to gather a lot of accurate data to get a good starting point and to get the project moving forward,” he said.

Bosworth added that he streams power data from Enphase Energy-brand PV electricity inverters using the Enlighten monitoring app offered by the Petaluma, Calif.-based firm.

“I use the live data on my iPhone to show to people who are thinking about purchasing solar,” he said. “I use that as a sales tool right at the kitchen table … and it’s very convincing.”

‘Tremendous’ Efficiency Increase

Mike Dunne, a sales assistant for solar installer Empower Solar in Island Park, N.Y., said that as a former site manager he used the iPhone’s built-in compass and an inclinometer app to make simple assessments of potential sites for solar power.

He also helped homeowners monitor their SunPower-brand modules with that firm’s app — a tool that EmPower uses to track power levels in the solar-charged battery of the company’s Chevy Volt electric car.

“These apps and smartphones in general enable us to increase our efficiency tremendously,” he said in an email. “There are many highly sophisticated devices and technologies which we also use in our site assessment, design and installation processes, but our entire operations staff is also equipped with iPhones and use them regularly.”

However, he cautioned that the portable tools on their own cannot provide precise enough measurements for actual solar installations.

“Apps offer a lot of great, quick on-site estimators and shortcuts, but a great solar company cannot rely solely upon these technologies,” he said.