Brandon Leavitt, owner of Solar Service Inc., Illinois' oldest full-service solar installation company.
“It was brutal, but you feel like you conquered it once you get done with it,” Eli Lopez says as he attaches piping on the side of an Oak Park home. “There’s really nothing I can’t handle now. I mean, Chicago’s got some of the toughest weather in the country.”
Lopez is warming up after spending much of the winter on the roof. As Solar Service Inc.’s newest technician, he’s been with the solar panel installation company for eight months. On this particular day, the temperature is 43 degrees and the sun is out, so he wears only two long-sleeved shirts underneath the company t-shirt. A few weeks before, he and his co-workers, Matt Vester and Matthew Robert Bart, were wearing full-body thermals under their shirts and jeans, heavy-duty Carhart overalls, coats and ski masks.
Vester has been with the Niles, Ill., company for three and a half years, and he says he prefers working in the cold to the heat of summer. He tries to get away with as few layers as he can.
“I think it’s pretty fun, actually,” he says, and agrees with Lopez that he feels like he’s “beating winter.”
“Sometimes I bring them hot chocolate and cookies,” says owner Brandon Leavitt. “But they’re very hardy.”
Leavitt says his company is as busy during the winter as it is in the summer, just like the solar panels it installs. Contrary to what you may think, solar panels work regardless of the air temperature, as long as the sun is out. It’s a misconception Leavitt has been working hard to dispel for over 30 years.
“The idea of solar is like magic to some people,” he says of Chicago residents. “But to us it is simple science. Sunshine is income falling out of the sky.”
Leavitt first learned about this “simple science” from engineering luminary Buckminster Fuller, under whom he studied as a young man. Scrapping a career in music to learn from Fuller, Leavitt spent the mid-'70s in Florida, working with a company that prototyped solar equipment. He came back to Illinois, where he was raised, in 1977 to prove solar could work up north as well as it did down south. He started by installing solar panels on the roof of his parents’ Lincolnwood home--the first solar installation in the state, he claims.
“The utility company called my dad to ask why the bills had dropped so dramatically,” he chuckles.
Leavitt started Solar Service Inc. in a Niles storefront that same year, designing and installing solar thermal and photovoltaic systems for residential and commercial properties. Today it is the oldest full-service solar company in the United States, Leavitt says, employing 16 people and taking in about $3 million in sales last year.
Solar thermal panels collect heat from the sun and transfer it to a home’s potable water system, where it can replace a gas water heater about 70 percent of the time, according to Leavitt. He says larger thermal systems can also replace up to 50 percent of a home’s heating system, saving the average family $600 per year. One reason the systems work year-round is that most of the installation is under the roof, not on it.
Photovoltaic panels capture the sun’s rays and convert it to electricity. The average installation of 16 panels can provide 40 percent of a home’s electricity, which adds up to about $440 in savings per year.
The systems aren’t cheap: Residential contracts can run from $12,000 for a hot water system to $48,000 for a configuration that includes heat, hot water and electric. In states with mid-range utility rates such as Illinois and Indiana, the pitch can be difficult.
“That’s one of the tricky things,” says Lisa Albrecht, a renewable energy specialist at Solar Service. “Whenever people are looking at solar, there’s two sides to the equation. One is how much does it cost, and two is how much does it save me?”
Solar Service had an unexpected boon in 2006 when Al Gore released “An Inconvenient Truth,” his critically acclaimed documentary about global climate change. Sales jumped 25 percent. But when the financial crisis hit in 2008—coinciding with a further drop in utility rates—residential business dropped by half, and has been slow to recover.
“We follow the same curve as general construction and new homes sales,” Albrecht says.
However, while many homeowners hold on to their money in the aftermath of the recession, commercial property owners still appreciate the potential for predictable, long-term savings offered by solar panels. Commercial sales have doubled since 2008, mitigating the effect of the recession on the company’s bottom line. On very cold winter days Leavitt and his employees keep busy in their warehouse designing and assembling materials for large-scale projects they’ll construct in the warmer months.
Both Leavitt and Albrecht say it also helps to have the most clean-energy-friendly president since Jimmy Carter. A provision in the government's stimulus package gives a 30 percent tax credit to homeowners who invest in clean-energy systems. Illinois state government gives an additional 30 percent rebate on the remainder, meaning right now that a $12,000 system could set you back only $4,600. After government rebates, the return on investment takes about eight to 12 years, Leavitt says. That doesn't include the added value to the home, a benefit touted by the solar industry.
While the company is faring well in the uncertain economy, two things still worry Albrecht. First, the price of copper is rising, and since thermal panels contain copper coils, the wholesale price has risen markedly. This makes Solar Service’s projects more expensive.
Second, the permit process for rooftop systems is not standardized, and the cost varies wildly from one municipality to another—from $50 to as much as $7,000. The big price tags, and prospective delays, drive customers away more than the cost of the system, Albrecht says. Solar Service has partnered with the Sierra Club and Vote Solar to work on this issue.
Five years ago, Albrecht was stranded in her car in a blizzard for 14 hours. Dissatisfied with her dot-com job and with nothing to do, she spent that time figuring out what in the world annoyed her the most, and what kind of job would let her do something about it.
“What I decided was what really annoyed me were wars over oil—people losing their lives over a crazy commodity,” she says. “And so what really inspires me is solar.” Albrecht took classes online and in California, and volunteered at the Illinois Solar Energy Association when she met Leavitt. She has been with the company for almost four years.
But snowy revelations and “hardy” temperaments aside, sometimes winter still beats the Solar Service crew.
“Well, we had that big blizzard not too long ago,” Lopez says, smiling. “We took a few days off there.”