Solar Hot Water Heating: How SunReports Helps Homeowners Become Better Energy Managers

Posted on December 5th, 2011 by

Tom Dinkel, CEO of Sun Reports, discusses how his company’s platform helps homeowners better manage their solar hot water heating solutions.


Ben Lack: I’m with Tom Dinkel, CEO of SunReports. Thanks for being with us today.
Tom Dinkel: It’s my pleasure.
Ben Lack: I’d like to start off by having you talk to us a little bit about what the company does.
Tom Dinkel: Sure. SunReports is in the monitoring space. We measure the performance of solar electric and solar hot water systems at the residential level primarily. We also do some commercial stuff but our primary focus is residential.
Ben Lack: Talk to us a little bit about what kind of information you’re capturing on behalf of your clients.
Tom Dinkel: Sure. We’re capturing performance data on behalf of the end user but also on behalf of the installer. Currently, the installers tend to not offer ongoing service plans or maintenance contracts with the installation of solar electric and solar hot water systems. Primarily because they can’t see the performance of those systems from a remote location. So, they rely on the customer to do their own troubleshooting, “Hey the system’s not operational,” then they scramble and have to send a guy out. What we’re doing is enabling the installer to take a more pro-active role in their management of their customer base because referrals come from that customer base. Consequently, if they’re able to see performance remotely, they can offer some value added services such as performance assurance, energy guarantees, advance service plans, annual maintenance, whatever.
Ben Lack: Give us a couple of examples of the types of data that you’re collecting through the system and then how you educate the end user, that home owner, on why that data’s even important.
Tom Dinkel: Let me talk about the solar hot water space first. The solar hot water space is 50 times larger in installed systems than the PV space worldwide. Consequently, the whole rest of the world uses the sun to heat water. United States tend not to. We use gas or electric to heat our water which is kind of inefficient. The installers in that space have forever told their customers when they’re asked, “Hey, I got this system on my roof but I really don’t know if it’s working.” They say, “Go, feel the pipe and see if the pipe’s hot.” Well, “go, feel the pipe” is not really fulfilling for somebody who’s on Facebook or Twitting or who’s engaged in our modern society. So, what we’re doing is we’re enabling the installer to provide monitoring on these systems and therefore the customer can see for themselves if their system is operational or not. We’re picking up temperature and flow and then converting to BTUs or kilowatt-hour therm, whatever that happens to be.
Ben Lack: How easy an education is that for the customer? I’ll assume the customer has a little bit of knowledge because they’re installing the system into their home. But, as far as the day to day management of these systems, what is that process been like?
Tom Dinkel: For both solar electric and solar hot water, you’d tend to not know if they’re not working. I mean, if the failure of these systems was more spectacular with water or flames or smoke or something, you would know. “Hey, my system’s not working”. They just stop working so you’re still taking a warm shower in the case of hot water; you’re still using electricity in the case of PV system because you’re backed-up with the grid, but your generation system might not be functional. The first thing we’re solving is, “Is this thing that I invested in working or not. Let’s measure the return on this investment that I’ve made”. And then secondarily, when we get more and more performance data and we’re able to do some higher level analytics, then we can start to do some stuff on, “Is my system working as it was designed to work?”. Not just digitally, it is on or off, but is it functioning as it was intended? That’s where we get to some real interesting learning.
Ben Lack: Give me some other additional surprises that you guys have kind of learned, not only about the process to incorporate the software platform and do your network and ultimately end user, but also, what kind of data you’re finding now that your solution is in so many homes?
Tom Dinkel: The first surprise that we’ve had is that we expected that most of the electric systems that we monitor or go out to monitor would be functional. We’re finding like 4 out of 10 aren’t. Some are just off and the customer didn’t know because they still got the utility backing them up, they’re on the grid. Others are half working, so they’re getting some production but maybe a string is offline or a squirrel has eaten a wire or half of their inverter bank is down. There are all kinds of stuff that happens that you might think you’ve got a system but you actually don’t. In hot water space, we’re finding all kinds of interesting stuff around pumps that are running too fast, circulating fluid too quickly through the panels and causing some on/off situations on the pump that will eventually wear the pump out. So, the installers especially from the hot water space, once they see this performance data they can’t go back. They’ve installed the systems blind for 30 years, now they’re seeing performance data, they’re able to do some troubleshooting and they’re hooked, they can never go back to doing it blind again.
Ben Lack: If 4, let’s just say roughly, 4 out of 10 customers are realizing that there’s some sort of issue with their installation, is that trend prohibiting other people from wanting to include this technology into their home because it’s a 4 out of 10 success or it’s telling people this is what’s going on, now you can really take the types of advantages that you were thinking of when you bought the system.
Tom Dinkel: I don’t think it’s inhibiting people. I think there are other drivers that inhibiting that monitoring can actually help with. The biggest factor I think that causes people to not invest in this is that they don’t understand what they’re buying. The installers have tended to rely on their one bullet which is a low price and have been pitching hard on the price portion of the equation and I think that risk is in many instances more important than price. If customers are able to get some assurance from their installer, that the installer has their back on the performance of these things and the installer is sharing the risk with them, I think that barrier tumbles. We should see a more rapid adoption of solar. One thing that we do with our monitoring data is we help the end user share performance data on their system with their Facebook friends. It seems kind of a non sequitur jump to go from monitoring data to Facebook, but these people are connected and they’re technology savvy. They’ve made an investment in a technology they don’t quite fully understand for benefits that they can’t quite articulate and yet, we’re given the opportunity to share their data on Facebook with their friends and it’s pretty innocuous. It’s just, “Here’s my performance data on my solar system,” and the goal is that peer group then says, “Whoa, you’ve got solar? Tell me about. How’s that working for you?” Now, the real unique part of that, I mean it’s unique enough to save it on Facebook. The really unique part is branding travels with it. And so, the installer’s brand goes with the Facebook post so that your friends, if they trust your judgement, they aren’t going to shop for solar, they’re going to start with who you decided to go with and that’s a real boon for the installer.
Ben Lack: And this is really two types of technologies that you’re introducing to residential customer. Not just solar, but also the energy management side of what that solution offers. Does the homeowner, is this their first entrée to management of power for that customer or does the homeowner typically have some other type of management system in their home that they’re already familiar with?
Tom Dinkel: It’s a real mixed bag. Some of them have an idea about energy or they wouldn’t have gone the solar route anyway. So, they sort of self-selected as being interested in the technology. The interesting part is in California and in many parts of the country where the smart grid exists, smart grid and net metering which you have if you have a solar system, they don’t overlap. That Venn diagram does not intersect. And so by definition, in California, if you’ve got solar, you don’t have a smart meter. Well, that’s kind of odd, so now the person who cares the most about energy is the least served by the technology provided by the utility. And so you have to then come in and do some other form of energy management or energy reporting information and you can use our platform to do that.
Ben Lack: As the year is coming to a close, talk to us a little bit about some of the highlights that the company has accomplished this year and what’s ahead for 2012?
Tom Dinkel: We have done a really good job in the hot water space and we are almost the de facto standard in terms of monitoring for these systems. Massachusetts Clean Energy Council Coalition has used SunReports extensively to measure the performance of their installed systems. We’ve just been selected by the City of Milwaukee to do all of the monitoring of their solar electric and solar hot water systems that they’re installing. That part of our business has grown really well. We’ve spent more time in the hot water space than we have in the PV space and now we’re getting ready to launch into the PV space.
Ben Lack: How does your software platform differentiate yourselves from the competition that’s trying to offer the same thing to the same customers?
Tom Dinkel: Good question. As we look around at the available monitoring solutions, it’s unclear to me that they’ve got a really clear view in their own minds of the sort of data that they’re trying to serve to which audience. We’ve got a number of different audiences that have different data needs. The end user has a need for simplified data that’s sort of a digital, is it working or is it not working and attaboy, you’re doing great. The installer needs more detailed data about the performance of that system. Maybe the performance against its expected performance that they’ve sold to this customer based upon the ROI that they offered, and the performance of that system against the performance of its peers in a similar geography. The regulators have a different set of information needs and they want to see a rolled-up version like the City of Milwaukee, wants to see a rolled-up version of their performance of all their systems so that they can tout themselves as a green city like San Francisco does, the greenest city in the country, so they can tout themselves as a green entity and have some proof points to that.We tend to keep in mind as we’re showing data, as we’re developing views for our users, we’re trying to keep in mind who that user is and what their knowledge base is, are they able to interpret or synthesize this data. Many customers don’t know the difference between a kilowatt and a kilowatt-hour, showing them a very detailed engineering graph isn’t cutting it for them. We need to have simple views that are easy to understand and easy to comprehend.
Ben Lack: What tools are currently in place if a customer doesn’t understand what’s being displayed to them? Do they contact their installer? Do they contact you directly? Is there something on the side that says, “I don’t know”?
Tom Dinkel: Currently, they contact their installer. We tend to get a lot of requests directly from people who forget who their installer is which is why we’ve added the branding capability to our views. The next step for us is the creation of an energy community around solar technologies. If you’ve got a solar electric system or solar hot water system, you’ve a lot in common with other people who have a solar hot water system or solar electric system. It’s interesting to think forward about, how do I introduce those communities to each other and what data can they share and what group of learning can we create by causing something along those lines.
Ben Lack: Is this a community that you’re trying to build on your own site or is this something you’re trying to do with Facebook or a collaboration of both?
Tom Dinkel: There are so many communities around now. The idea would be let’s find the place where people already are which is why we’re on Facebook now. There’s like a billion people on Facebook now. Seven hundred million as of May, six months later, I’m sure there’s close to a billion. If that community already exists and we’re able to facilitate the discussion around solar, so much the better. If we need to have a more intimate community, then we’ll just create that on our own site.
Ben Lack: Just very briefly, talk to us about what that experience is like trying to work with local municipalities to try to get them to incorporate your technology and solution to their offerings?
Tom Dinkel: Mixed bag. It is always convenient to rely on some established standard for metrology or for accuracy and unfortunately in the hot water space, we sort of don’t have that. There are some European standards that some of the regulators have tried to bring across, that aren’t directly applicable. So, we’re working with the regulators to help keep things simple. Our sort of motto, we borrow it from Einstein is, “Make things as simple as possible but not simpler”. Many times, the program administrators don’t adopt that and it is absolutely possible to make an airplane too big to fly and make these standards too complex to be adopted by the marketplace. And we’ve got an instance of that where the requirements by one of the big jurisdictions around pretty much obviate the need for monitoring. It’s so expensive to comply with that, that people are saying, “Screw it. I just won’t do monitoring on these projects,” which is the exact wrong answer in terms of a regulation or a market development agency.
Ben Lack: What’s on tap for the upcoming year?
Tom Dinkel: We’re looking at some international expansion. We’re looking at markets where the sun shines all the time like Australia. We’re looking at getting into Europe. The European market is far more advanced than the United States is. Many more installed systems, more established competition, so it would be interesting to stack-up against those guys. Working on some integration with existing players where we’ll take our reporting technology. We won’t use our hardware, we’ll get built into their solution and that would be very interesting to see how that plays out.
Ben Lack: Why does this space interest you and why have you chosen to do what you’re doing?
Tom Dinkel: Well, I’ve been in the energy world forever. On one side of the customer’s meter or the other. I’ve spent some time with Honeywell and Johnson Controls in the ESCO space. I’ve spent some time in the Smart Grid space with Whisper Communications, only 15 years too soon for the Smart Grid space. Energy fascinates me. Energy at retail at the residential level fascinates me because we have such tremendous opportunity here. You look at an installation map of the United States compared to the solar installation of Germany. Germany’s installation is equivalent of Alaska. The opportunity here to use the sun for renewable energy for hot water heating or for electric, it’s completely untapped. We’re under 2% penetration in this country and it’s just fascinating to me to figure out what are the barriers to more rapid adoption in the space to more mass adoption of solar and to help knock down some of those barriers.



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