How to work design into your workflow
Updated: Jan 31, 2021
There are a few teammates that a solar install company just can’t do without. You need a salesperson, at least one solar-pro, and some people who aren’t afraid of heights. Designers are often an afterthought. A company can outsource sold projects to designers, find a strategic partner, or have someone on staff do them. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method but sooner or later, it makes more sense to have an in-house design team. Here are some solutions and a possible outcome.
Outsourcing Solar Designs Outsourcing projects can make a lot of sense early on in a solar company’s development. You may not have enough projects to pay someone full-time at first. It’s a great option in this case. You only pay for designs as needed. You can develop a strategic relationship with another solar company or leverage a relationship through a solar purchasing cooperative. You can also find other organizations out there that specifically do this kind of work. If you decide to pursue this kind of solution, check on the following when evaluating your subcontractor:
What is their turnaround time e.g., how long will it take to get a completed design?
Will they stamp the drawings?
Check to see if your AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction) requires electrical or structural stamps.
Structural stamps are always a good idea to limit your liability.
Are they licensed to stamp drawings in your AHJ?
Check their references and ask around about them.
Subs are expensive. Can your fees cover their costs?
Bringing solar design in-house Once your sales team starts killing it, the cost of outsourcing looks less and less appealing. The subcontractors take longer and longer to complete designs if they can even handle all the extra work. If they can’t, you may have spent some time evaluating another. The cost of paying a subcontractor twice what it would cost to have someone on staff also starts to nag at you. Costs become harder to control as do profit margins. You make the decision to hire a designer. How do you proceed? Will it get you to your 5 year goal?
Get a drafting software
There are many out there. Basic drafting software is often cheapest like AutoCad or Sketchup. More expensive software is also there like Revit or ArchiCad. Why you would pay so much for a BIM tool (BIM is amazing) is a topic for another post.
Many of these softwares have subscription rates now so you can grow as you need and the cost won’t break the bank.
Get code books like the International Residential Code (IRC), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and the National Electrical Code (NEC).
Find out if anyone on your team wants to do design work.
There is often someone on your team who has had enough of the field and wants to work in the office. If they’re otherwise reliable, see if it would make sense.
There may be a temptation to have your project manager or solar pro do these. If they have the bandwidth available, see how well it works. I personally don’t recommend this because it will not be long for your project manager to be overwhelmed. This is a bandaid solution that should be in place no more than a month. Think instead for where you want to be 5 years from now. What do you need in place to make that happen?
Talk with someone at the AHJs you’re going to be working with.
Make sure you understand what they require to get a permit. If your AHJ requires an electrician to sign off on your electrical drawings, you’ll want to know that before you spend half a day and however much application fee for a rejection. Most AHJs having different requirements so track that and make it easy for your designer to know what each AHJ requires.
Develop a way to make it easy on your designer to copy and paste for easy tie-ins.
You will reuse details and electrical diagrams over and over.
Make sure your designer is trained in solar design, reviewing surveys, the code, and electrical systems.
Look for someone who already has a NABCEP Design Specialist Certification.
Get someone trained and able to get that certification.
**I can personally vouch for solarenergytraining.org’s design classes. They have different levels of training depending on the types of solar projects you work on. I took PVOL202 and it was amazing. They go into the solar section of the NEC, how to design an array, how to apply the code, how arrays may fail, and many of the pitfalls of installation.
Implement a software solution to help field workers communicate with your designers.
Designers will need a scalable app like Coperniq to review and organize the photographs and data from each survey.
At Coperniq, we’re committed to your success. If you need advice on how to establish a solar company or grow a solar company, give us a call. If you would like to see how our platform works and how it can help you, schedule a demo.
If you have any other suggestions that would help a newly-formed design team, please leave a comment or email me at email@example.com. Thanks and have a great day!
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