It’s early September and I’m driving a rental car through the drying fields of Indiana on assignment. I’m scheduled to visit one of the fastest-growing solar distributors in the Midwest - Solar Usage Now - to get a feel for where this whole solar thing stands today and where it’s going.
But as I reach my destination, I’m greeted by unfamiliar road signs warning me to yield to horse and buggies. Where exactly is this place? Even my GPS is unsure, but a call on my cell phone and directions from Solar Usage Now Vice President of Business Development Tom Rieker soon have me pulling into a parking spot in front of a country store-like building.
Don’t let its quaint façade fool you; the Solar Usage Now headquarters is a blending of traditional and cutting-edge. From its weathered, reclaimed barn wood exterior - sporting working flat-plate collectors and evacuated tube arrays - to its modern steel building out back filled with retail store fixtures made by Amish workers, everything has a duality.
Inside the main facility, again, is the strange feeling of stepping into the past and future at the same time. Various wood finishes, tin and corrugated ceiling panels are juxtaposed to highly efficient mechanical systems on display. Each sales office is filled with the modern amenities, yet I’m shown into a conference room of painted-white built-in cabinetry.
It’s there that I meet the President and CEO Thom Blake.
Things ExplainedOne of the first questions I have for Blake is about the unique décor of his offices. What’s with all the wood furniture? Turns out for the past 25 years Blake has been designing and supplying high-quality retail store fixtures to big names like Victoria’s Secret and Hollister. This Harlan, Ind., facility is his showroom where store designers can walk through the “museum” of wood finishes, cabinets, display tables and more.
Blake is keen on showrooms and product displays, which is why he suggests all his Solar Usage Now dealers build their own showrooms. He explains it for two reasons: One is to familiarize yourself with your own product. “Unless you put in [a solar thermal system] yourself, you don’t quite understand it,” he tells me. And two, once the system and display is up and running, customers can come in and actually see it in action, feel the warmth on the arrays and hear the mechanicals at work.
“Seeing is believing,” Blake says.
Building a strong, educated dealer network for the hand-picked brands of solar components he sells is important to Blake as well. “If they’re not a dealer, I don’t sell to them. I have to train people; they have to come in and understand the process,” he explains.
Solar Usage Now originally had different owners in the early 1980s during the heyday of U.S. alternative energy. Blake partnered with the company to install solar thermal on his own home project - a renovated church where the coal bills were getting out of hand.
After reading a Wall Street Journal article about the widespread use of solar in China, he saw the tides turning once again. It was through that article he discovered the Apricus brand and immediately began to educate himself about the products.
“I realized that solar is in its infancy,” Blake says.
Blake told Rieker that in addition to retail fixtures, he would sell solar. After Rieker made contacts through Ohio school facilities and engineering firms, the company discovered a renewed interest in solar. Blake became a U.S. distributor for Apricus after reviving the Solar Usage Now name for his own use and ordered the collectors he needed to get started. However, no one knew how to install them.
It was time for this former high school teacher to start educating contractors on the business of green technology.
Slow And SteadySolar Usage Now designed a solar catalog, filled it with the tested and proven systems and components the company felt proud to stand behind, and began to build its business. His team, which includes Plant Director Elmer Lanagher, Blake’s son T.J. and former student Randy Straka, improved the catalog and demand continued to grow.
“We have to be careful to not grow too fast. What’s happening right now is I’m getting people who want me to quote things every single day,” Blake says.
It’s not that he doesn’t want the business, but for him the proper channels of distribution have to be there.
“I think we’re finding people outside the dealer network starting to hear about us, but we want them to become a dealer,” Rieker notes. “We want to grow this thing slow and methodical, and make sure we’re involved in every installation, that we have a trained and qualified person - and a quality person - because what goes around comes around.”
The current Solar Usage Now list of projects is lengthy. There’s university dorm rooms, laundromats in Chicago, community school pools in Fort Wayne, Ind., a California winery, fire stations, police academies and low-cost housing.
“The list goes on and I have even more to price,” Blake says. “What we’ve done here is set ourselves up as a distributor of fine products, but we can also provide design services and stay on the cutting-edge of things.”
His close working relationships with his dealers are strengthening the solar channel every day. Like his collaboration with David Hammontree of Ohio Radiant Floors in Wauseon, Ohio. Hammontree and wife Mindy are Solar Usage Now dealers and have, in Blake's opinion, a solar showroom done right.
“Dave didn’t spare any expense. He’s done everything he can to show people what he can do with solar and was willing to make the investment to do it,” Blake says. “You go there and he convinces you that he knows what he’s talking about. And he does.”
On To OhioI’m soon back on the road following Rieker east into Ohio to meet with the Hammontrees. What I find is another unexpected pleasure: Main Street USA with an alternative energy twist.
The Hammontree storefront is a classic, mid-century appliance store, left over from the days Hammontree’s father ran the business, selling TVs, radios and other home appliances to the townspeople.
A closer look in the window, however, shows a piped hot water system, a solar array soaking up the noonday sun and various other hydronic products on display.
“It all goes back to educating people,” David Hammontree says. “People that are educated understand [solar] and they’re the ones stepping up and purchasing it. So if I educate people in this area, they’re going to buy.”
He admits progressing into the solar business reminds him a lot about getting his feet wet in the radiant floor market. “I feel we’re at least three years ahead of the competition. I look at them like I did with radiant; it’s going to be a while until they catch up.”
Hammontree extends his education of the masses to include his fellow contractors as well as inspectors. He teaches classes and answers questions whenever he can.
“Inspectors are hungry to find out [about solar]. We’re going to teach them and show them what can go wrong if [systems] are not inspected, because they just don’t know at this point,” Hammontree explains. He thinks the industry could die unless inspectors learn how to evaluate these jobs and get rid of the “bad guys.” “Now that it’s all starting to boom, they’re going to have to know. And they will.”
Next Solar WaveWhat Hammontree, Blake, Rieker and the others really want to do is bring the average solar system down in price to where it’s more affordable.
“We don’t want solar to be just for those people in that upper income bracket, because the people in the lower income bracket are the ones that need it the most,” Hammontree says.
Ohio Radiant Floor is spreading its wings with each install, especially through local advocates like John Selz, who is asking neighbors in his high-end property development to set an example of alternative energy.
“I think that’s what’s going to do it; the more jobs we sell, the more we’re going to find a better way to reinvent the wheel to where we can get the price down,” Hammontree says. He and Solar Usage Now are also gearing up for increased demand from recently passed Ohio legislation.
Selz is following the “Berkeley Model” of funding for green projects, in which a set of property owners band together for a revenue bond. Then the revenue bond pays for all the solar installs and those property owners pay back the bond through their property taxes over the next 25 years. Monthly out-of-pocket expenses would be small compared to a lump-sum investment.
“This way, homeowners won’t have to put the money up front,” Hammontree explains. “And if they’re saving so much in energy a year and only paying this much more on their property taxes a month, then it’s really not that much more out of pocket. That’s what’s going to make things really go.”
Another plus to increased installations is a more streamlined, simple execution. “It’s solar, not rocket science. Simple is important,” Blake says.
The products in Solar Usage Now’s catalog aid in efficiency and simplicity. Besides Apricus, the company has the right to sell Germany’s Rotex tank (which goes by the American name S.U.N. Equinox), as well as Solar Hot and Caleffi products.
Blake believes the Rotex Sanicube is going to change the way people heat their homes. “It’s more than storage; it’s a heating system,” he says. “We’re capable of heating all of the domestic hot water and all of the radiant floors as well.”
By adding one mini solar collector, Solar Usage Now can heat a 2,400-square-foot house - an average home - with one footprint at 93 percent efficiency.
“It’s coming this way,” Blake says. “I think it’s going to be big. And I think the people who are going to be successful are the ones with the showrooms and the ones who are willing to get educated and stand by their product. That’s what we want to do; we want to supply good products to those people.”