As a solar contractor, you’re on the front lines of the incredible transition to cleaner energy–bringing your customers more control over their energy bills and the peace of mind that their energy is sourced responsibly.
But, as you no doubt know, running a solar contracting business isn’t always easy. You have to be able to roll with the punches of things beyond your control, like the imposition of tariffs and uncertainty in solar policies and incentives (for instance, decisions by Connecticut and Michigan to eliminate net metering this year).
But there’s one common solar contracting struggle that you can control–the efficiency of your site assessment and solar design processes. Here at Aurora Solar, we’ve encountered these challenges firsthand. That’s why we’re passionate about finding ways contractors can work smarter and more efficiently, saving time and money on their design and sales processes. In today’s article, we explore some of the ways solar design software makes that possible.
Aurora co-founder Samuel Adeyemo installing a commercial solar installation on a school in Kenya. In the process of designing the system from across the world, he and co-founder Christopher Hopper realized the barriers to remote solar design without effective software. They founded Aurora to address that need.
1. Follow up with leads faster
When you get an inquiry from a prospective customer, where do you start when it comes to determining if their home is suitable for solar and putting together a quote?
If, like many solar contractors, you set up a time to visit the site, climb on the roof, and take solar access measurements before compiling a proposal, your time-consuming approach could be costing you sales. Cascadia Solar learned this the hard way.
A family business serving Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula, Cascadia Solar prided themselves on their exceptional customer service and detail-oriented solar design process. But over time, they started to find that companies with faster turnaround times were beating them to the punch. Sometimes, by the time Cascadia arrived to conduct their site visit, the customer would already have several quotes from companies that used remote site assessment.
When Cascadia Solar learned about Aurora Solar design and sales software and how it could enable them to develop a proposal that was just accurate as their previous process without time-consuming site visits, the choice was easy.
Since switching to Aurora, Cascadia’s solar sales have doubled month over month, and more than doubled year over year! In addition to being able to send a proposal quickly (getting back to the customer while they’re most engaged is key to closing sales), they can now pursue leads that would have been too costly to target before.
2. Save time and money on site visits
Not only can a more efficient solar design process help you close more sales by responding to inquiries faster, the time and money saved by reducing your site visits and manual measurement processes can be significant.
In a low-margin industry like solar, where every dollar counts, adopting an accurate remote solar design software like Aurora is a powerful way to put more money back in your pocket. NREL has estimated that installers can save ~$850 per 5-kW install with remote site assessment software (savings of $0.17/W).
For Solarponics, a residential installer in California serving San Luis Obispo county, switching to Aurora allowed them to cut initial site visits by 90% while doubling installs.
3. Achieve superior accuracy with state-of-the-art technologies
Of course, these benefits of software-based remote solar design are only meaningful if the results are as accurate as traditional methods rooted in on-site assessment. That’s the beauty of the technological advances that enable remote solar site assessment and design.
NREL has found that Aurora’s shading engine (which allows us to precisely calculate irradiance on the roof) produces results that are statistically equivalent to onsite measurements. But we haven’t stopped there. Commitment to developing and incorporating the latest technologies is at the core of our company culture.
One key technology we offer customers to help improve design accuracy is LIDAR. If you’re not familiar with it, LIDAR is a lot like SONAR but instead of sound pulses it uses laser beams to create a detailed topographical map. This data is perfect for ensuring that you’ve accurately modeled the height of a tree or the pitch of the roof, which could affect the solar access and energy production of your design.
Additionally, we've partnered with HD imagery provider Nearmap, to make the most up-to-date and crisp imagery accessible to our customers for purchase in small, affordable bundles within the Aurora app. This way, if the Google or Bing satellite imagery for your project site is not recent enough or lacks clarity, HD imagery is just a click away.
We’ve also pioneered the use of computer vision for solar design. This field of computer science teaches computers to interpret visual images. At Aurora, we’ve developed computer vision approaches that allow you to take precise measurements of the project site using a combination of street-level and aerial images.
Aurora’s computer vision tools give solar designers the ability to take measurements
of a project site using aerial and street-level imagery.
Our computer vision tools also make it possible to automatically detect similar roof obstructions. This can save considerable time, especially on commercial projects where there might be hundreds of repeating skylights or vents that would otherwise have to be drawn out by hand.
4. Build trust with customers
Being able to demonstrate to your customers that you’re using the latest technologies to develop a personalized solar design for them is also a great way to help build trust and stand out from the crowd of competitors.
Scott O’Hara, Solar Energy Consultant at Baker Home Energy, a San Diego area solar company (twice ranked the #1 solar electrical subcontractor in Solar Power World’s Top 500 Solar Contractors list), can attest to this.
“Aurora’s software has given me a significant advantage in an extremely competitive market. It allows me to show customers why we are proposing a specific panel layout with the help of the sun path simulator.”
Aurora models the sun’s movement, and resulting shadows, at every hour of the year.
Showing the sunpath animation to your customers can help explain design decisions.
Numerous other companies have found it helpful to show off their Aurora design processes during the sales process–such as Sunworks, which operates a solar design showroom where they create personalized designs in Aurora with the customer.
Another key to building trust with customers is the accuracy of your energy production and bill savings estimates. According to O’Hara, “[Aurora] also increases consumer confidence, because they know we are using the best technology available today to accurately project the performance of the system.”
Unlike other solar software programs on the market, Aurora takes into account the exact stringing configuration of your system as well as the capabilities of the components you’ve selected, such as whether your inverter performs global maximum power point tracking. Aurora also pioneered the approach of simulating PV production at a submodule level, adding another layer of precision.
Aurora even details the causes of reduced system performance in it’s system loss diagrams, allowing you to understand the impact of factors like inverter clipping. These insights can help you arrive at the best design approach for your customer (as we discuss in more detail below).
(For a deeper discussion of some of the key factors for accurate performance simulations, see our article in Solar Power World.)
Aurora’s system loss diagrams indicate how much different factors are impacting energy production.
A final, powerful reason solar design software can improve your design processes is that this streamlined approach makes it considerably easier to compare multiple designs, in order to arrive at the one that best meets the customer’s goals.
We all have a limited amount of time, so without an efficient process for iterating through different designs it may not be feasible to evaluate many options and find the best (as Aurora co-founder Christopher Hopper discusses in his article, “Four Steps to Optimize PV System Performance in Shaded Conditions.”)
One key factor on which to evaluate solar designs is how much they will save the customer on their electricity bills. Aurora has an extensive database of utility rates (and makes it easy to add new rates) so you can assess the bill savings impact of different designs given the customer’s utility rate.
For instance, if the customer is on a time of use rate, a design that produces more energy during hours when electricity is most expensive might save them more than a design that produces more total energy.
Aurora’s AutoDesigner tool takes design iteration to the next level, applying approaches from the field of mathematical optimization to create an automated process that mimics natural selection to arrive at the ideal design given different objectives.
A depiction of how Aurora’s AutoDesigner iterates through potential
designs to arrive at the optimal one for the customer’s goals.
As a solar contractor, you’ve got a lot of demands on your time. Advanced solar software for remote site assessment and solar design can cut the time and cost of site visits, freeing you up to focus on quality installations and satisfying your customers.
Interested in learning more about how Aurora's state-of-the-art remote solar design tools can help your company work more efficiently?