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Burning Daylight

March 20, 2007
Solar & Efficiency Special
A version of this article appears in the Solar & Efficiency Special issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Renewable Technologies, Incorporated, (RTI) sells, well, renewable technologies, but in the process it offers a service that many of its competitors haven’t yet thought to offer—energy auditing. Darryl Conklin, who founded the company in 1994, understood from the beginning how important a customer’s energy use is. “In order to understand how much power a customer needed, we had to understand what that customer was doing with the power,” says Conklin. So even though he was selling mostly wind turbines to farmers when he started, the sale wouldn’t proceed until an energy audit had been conducted.

Today, RTI, which is based in Sutter Creek, California, has seven certified energy auditors. Customers are treated to an audit, and all obvious energy efficiency opportunities are pointed out. RTI does not offer home performance services, but it refers malfunctioning air conditioners, disconnected ducts, and other low-hanging efficiency fruit to reliable businesses. Conklin has found that understanding energy use is so crucial to his business that he is currently sending all of his sales staff to PG&E’s energy auditing training program in Stockton.  “It’s two days of training, and it is well worth it,” says Conklin.

His sales staff operates throughout California; RTI is also starting to offer services in Nevada, where a rebate program has just gotten under way. About 20% of Conklin’s business comes from residential retrofits, 10% from new construction, and the rest from commercial and industrial installations, including schools. His focus on understanding a customer’s energy use has paid off in an enviably strong brand loyalty. “After twelve years of being in business, almost all of our work comes from referrals,” says Conklin. “We have the luxury of so many people contacting us who are friends or neighbors of existing customers.” And then there’s the next generation of customers. Conklin regularly presents at renewable energy awareness days at local schools, and his company has installed PV systems on several schools, with dozens more in the works. After ten years of these talks, some of those students have become customers.

RTI has experienced fairly steady growth, with some flat spots along the way, depending on program funding. Conklin sees the implementation of the California Solar Initiative (CSI), with its performance-based and energy-auditing requirements, as a step in the right direction for the solar industry (see, “The California Solar Initiative,” p. 6). That’s not coincidental, because Conklin helped to craft the CSI’s language. “Sometimes the technology has been oversold by industry enthusiasts, and sometimes it underdelivers,” he says. That can happen with subsidy programs, and it’s understandable, as sales are what make a paycheck. But that is a shortsighted approach, in Conklin’s eyes. “Other companies may not see how energy efficiency will really help a customer,” says Conklin. Not to mention the environment. Inefficiently using electricity that is produced from nonrenewable fuels has a price—one that is too often visible to Conklin. “Some days you look out and just see this brown cloud hanging out there in the [Central] valley,” he says.  “I’ve taken pictures of it.” To highlight their positive contributions to air quality, all of his field staff sport tee shirts that say: “Now you’re burning daylight.”

Conklin is pleased to be selling renewables as his contribution to thinking globally and acting locally. He is also proud of the team he has assembled to implement his vision. His company is a licensed solar, electrical, and roofing contractor, to guarantee the safest and best workmanship. Its in-house team performs design, engineering, and installations. The company’s standard five-year warranties are fully transferable, should homeowners sell their house during the warranty period. He gets few callbacks—only about 3% of his customers have complaints. “And 80% of those complaints turn out to be related to the customer not understanding some part of their new system,” says Conklin. This in spite of the fact that his company puts every owner of a new system through a detailed orientation training and leaves an owner’s manual with each new system. Often a customer will call when a circuit breaker trips, thinking it must be related to the new solar system. “It turns out to be something simpler, like the customer plugged in too many Christmas lights,” says Conklin. In case a service call is needed, RTI keeps all paperwork related to every sale on file—documenting the exact inverter and modules installed, for example—so that callback visits will be as productive as possible. Conklin appreciates that his business doesn’t stop when a sale ends. “We’re the new utility,” he says.

Indeed, Conklin has noticed that more and more of his customers are opting for battery backup, because they are concerned about power quality and blackouts. Fortunately, Conklin is experienced enough with battery technologies to know which ones will provide the backup power needed to preserve those expensive steaks in the freezer and ignite the furnace in the winter,  or power minimal air conditioning in the summer. He relies on Surrette lead acid batteries. Surrette is a family-owned business, he says, that creates a high-quality product and takes proper responsibility for recycling the lead at the end of the battery’s life.

When asked how the CSI will affect his business, Conklin worries that the demand for modules may drive up the price of the systems he wants to install. “Somehow California has to figure out how to entice module makers to locate here,” he says. But even with all of the module supply one could want, Conklin emphasizes that well-trained American workers are critical to the solar industry’s success here. He believes that his team is top-notch, and he’s not afraid to say so. Hanging by his warehouse door is a sign that on one side reads: “Through these doors pass the greatest craftsmen the solar industry has ever known,” and on the other side reads: “Safety and quality start here.” Is it any wonder that RTI has experienced steady growth?

Mary James is the publisher of Home Energy magazine.


For more information:

Renewable Technologies, Inc.
11851 Fibreform Rd.
Sutter Creek, CA 95685
209-223-3002 or
800-550-SOLAR
www.renewable.com

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