Commuting to work used to be a breeze for Steve Allen.
The Kahului, Hawaii, resident, who has been running Allen’s Plumbing: The Drain Surgeon since 1983, used to fly commercially between the islands of Maui and Oahu for plumbing jobs.
“One of the airlines kept having an unlimited flight pass sold on a monthly-use basis. They would go back and forth every hour,” he explains. “I’d go five and six times a week. It was simple and easy.”
That travel special de jour evaporated about seven years ago, leaving Allen, one of the country’s experts on solar thermal heating, looking for an alternate means of transportation between his Maui and Oahu locations. Allen operated in Maui only until 2000. He owned and operated another plumbing company on Oahu from 2000 to 2007 and then opened Allen’s Plumbing on Oahu in 2009.
“I got mad and got a plane,” he laughs. “I took flying lessons and bought a Piper Saratoga six-passenger, single-engine plane. We use it for cargo and technicians on a weekly basis. I’m up there at 7 a.m. flying by the highest sea cliffs in the world. It’s a wonderful life.”
Going between Oahu and Maui via plane (named Jack) has allowed Allen, whose company also specializes in pipe relining work, to continue to bring his solar thermal wizardry to Hawaiian residents and businesses.
“Steve’s a sharp guy. He’s an original thinker,” notes Ron Richmond, who works in business development at Inter-Island Solar Supply, a distributor that has been in business since 1975. Richmond also designed and implemented Hawaii’s residential solar water heating program, which establishes standards for more than 60 independent contractors who have become members of the program.
“Steve’s a problem-solver with solar,” Richmond says. “He makes things happen. When he focuses on something, he goes all out.”
Early Solar BeginningsAllen, a California native, took his first class on solar energy in 1977.
“I went to a class at American Appliance Water Heater in Santa Monica and they were spouting off about solar to local wholesalers. It caught my interest from Day 1,” he states. “I decided to go live in Hawaii. There was solar potential there. I figured it was the plumbing industry’s job to install solar, so I pursued it as a plumber.”
Allen moved to Hawaii in 1981 and hit the ground running in his pursuit of solar work. When he got to Maui, he hooked up with a company that was innovative in solar technology and was tackling the commercial solar market.
“The first thing I did when I got here was to try and get solar jobs. I wanted to learn from the ground up,” he says. “By the time I opened my business in 1983 I was thoroughly knowledgeable on installation and application. The first solar job I did was this two-tank, 6,000-gallon solar system for a condominium. I went for the big stuff right away. I’ve done as large as 5,500 gallons with my own company. That’s a lot of panels.”
Solar EverywhereHigher energy costs have contributed to Hawaii being the nation’s hot spot for solar thermal installations.
“We have the highest utility rates in the country,” Allen points out.
Thus, it is not surprising Hawaii was responsible for nearly 80 percent of solar installations in the country in 2009 (Allen cites 14,000 installs in the United States that year with 8,200 coming from Hawaii). Allen notes in the counties that encompass Oahu and Maui, 3,656 residential systems were installed in 2010.
Allen’s company does about 200 to 300 solar thermal residential installations per year. Those add up to $2 million in annual revenue.
“Realistically, I could do 400 a year. The commercial sector is still huge,” he says. “We’re in a unique environment and marketplace here. There is nothing else like it in the country. We don’t have freeze problems [the majority of Allen’s systems are open, meaning no heat exchangers, glycol solutions or freeze-control mechanisms are used]. Piping installations are as basic and simple as they can be.”
While Hawaii continues to be at the forefront of solar, Allen feels certain potential hot spots in the country are missing the solar boat.
“Germany installed 100,000 solar thermal units in 2009,” Allen points out. “The U.S. did 14,000. Why is Germany so pro-solar? It’s cultural. Nobody cares here. Burn it and burn it some more. The southern belt of this country has 90 million people in it. It’s basically untouched. It’s ridiculous what is being left out on the table.”
Plumbers, Step ForwardAllen is a strong proponent of having plumbers install solar systems.
“I don’t think the solar industry will become anything unless plumbers tackle it and embrace it,” he states. “If the plumbing industry does not take this seriously, solar will not take off as an industry like it needs to. There are guys here who are not plumbers but are running solar companies as sales and installation outfits. I believe plumbers don’t do solar work because of the sales and marketing aspect. Solar contractors are not technical enough to handle the larger installations with pipe sizing and the more mechanical applications. If you are a plumber, you can kick butt with this.”
Like any other industry, competition factors into the equation.
“Every business of any type is competitive,” Allen says. “I don’t care if you are a roofer, a contractor, a solar dealer or a solar contractor. You have to be good at what you do. Right now, the business margins aren’t quite where I would like to have them.”
While Allen is highly regarded for his technical expertise in the field, he’s also mindful of the ultimate result of taking care of his customer base. Kane Coyle, the operations manager at Allen’s, has seen his boss work his magic around Hawaii for the last 18 years.
“The reason he has been so successful is his purpose is in the right place,” Coyle notes. “He always has been on the driving side of the solar energy industry. Hot water is very much a part of what he does and he brings that attitude to the whole division of the company. Even with tankless gas, he comes up with ways to make it work on the solar end. If we’re doing a commercial job, how do we size it correctly so we’re not over-creating hot water?
“He doesn’t want us putting in systems just to put in systems. He wants to put in systems that are right for the end user.”
Solar Ups And DownsIn 2008, Hawaii became the first state in the nation to pass a law requiring that all new homes built after Jan. 1, 2010, be equipped with solar or other energy-efficient hot water systems. Allen is not a fan of the legislation.
“I’m a board member of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association and our organization wishes the legislators hadn’t passed the new construction solar requirement mandate,” he says. “Our industry had it just right and they have messed up the positive position we had developed with builders prior to this mandate. We are working with them now to try and correct the mistakes they created by meddling in something they didn’t understand.”
But Allen gets excited when talking about the tax rebates available for customers who install solar systems in Hawaii. Residents and businesses are eligible for a 35 percent rebate from the state on top of a 30 percent tax rebate from the federal government. There also is a $750 instant rebate.
“Sixty-five percent is a real big number,” Allen says. “If you sell a $7,500 solar installation to a customer, that becomes $2,625 in the state of Hawaii. We can get that money back in 24 months.”
Still Going StrongAllen has done thousands of solar thermal installations in his career, including one last year for a home that sits on a cliff overlooking the ocean in Maui.
“The homeowner said he didn’t want to ever run out of hot water,” Allen recalls. “There is a photovoltaic system as well as our solar thermal system. We used an Eternal hybrid tankless-style propane backup for an unlimited hot water supply regardless of weather in this very customized home. The entire house and the location are stunning. It was nice to see our custom solar system installed there.”
Allen installed a solar thermal system for a customer who lives in an extremely rural area.
“This guy lives off-grid in the jungle,” Allen says. “We put in a 120-gallon solar tank. We run the pump with a photovoltaic panel and feed hot water off into an Aquastar tankless water heater designed for solar. It covers 90 percent of his hot water needs. It feeds into the Aquastar tankless gas water heater that fires up on temperature and not flow.”
Maui resident Debbie Kahoohanohano and her family have lived in their home for 30 years. Allen installed a solar thermal system there three years ago.
“We’re very glad we went solar,” she says. “Electricity prices here are so high. We have five people in our house. Before, our electric bill was in the $500 range per month. We’re down in the $300 range now. Five of us need to take showers at night. There’s always enough hot water for everybody.”
The commercial segment of the Hawaii solar industry is alive and well. Allen is experiencing that first-hand.
“We have a system going in for a car dealership that sells a massive amount of used cars,” he states. “They have a 1,000-gallon system that heats water to 155 degrees in order for them to clean cars. It’s just more Btus. We’re doing a three-story apartment complex with 2,600 gallons. They have some nice systems in there. You get one or two storage tanks and a couple of array panels that feed into commercial gas water heaters and you can really save some fuel.”
The saving fuel part is what drives Allen. He continues to be a relentless champion for the sustainable technology both in Hawaii and across the country.
“Energy is not falling out of trees,” he says. “You’re looking at $4.50 per gallon of gas. All of a sudden, everybody wants a hybrid car. At what point do you not want your toilet to flush or take a hot shower? When you can’t get hot water, you are going to say, ‘I don’t care what it costs, put panels up there.’ The day will come when you will be forced to rely on natural resources. Maybe not in my lifetime, but it will happen some day.
“On average, an 80-gallon solar hot water system for four people saves about four barrels of oil and a 120-gallon system for six people saves about six barrels of oil each year. Thousands of solar systems are installed in Hawaii each year. We’re doing our job here. I would like to see this take off on the mainland for the sake of this industry and for the jobs it would create. Let’s get serious about this from the marketing and technical side and bang these systems out day-by-day, save some energy and make some money going forward.”