What’s in a solar installer’s toolbox? Drills, pliers, caulk guns, wrenches—all basic tools. What’s in an electrician’s toolbelt? Electrician tools. A plumber’s toolbox? Plumbing tools. Where are the solar-specific tools?
“It’s amazing how simple of tools we need to make our work so much easier that we’ve never used,” said Kevin King, solar installer and founder of Solar Tools USA. “For as mature as the solar industry is getting, there’s a lot we need to do for the solar installers when it comes to tools specific to us.”
King has a whole collection of tools in patent stages within Solar Tools USA, all with the aim to reduce labor and increase installation speed. The first being released to the public—the Solar Panel Hanger—acts as a second set of hands on the roof, holding panels in place and assisting with alignment.
King has needed some extra hands many times in his 20-plus years in solar. He co-founded installation company EvenGreen Technologies (EGT Solar) in Idaho in 2009 as a very lean organization. Bryan Lawley did sales and brothers Kevin and Ryan King did the labor—Kevin on the roof and Ryan working the electric side.
“What’s tough for a startup company like that, you’re generally low on cash [because] it’s being invested in more projects or trucks or marketing,” King said. “With two guys working on a job, one doing electrical, one doing the rooftop work, there are always those points where you need an extra hand to lay panels or do something. You have to climb off the roof, go get the electrician, wait until he’s at a stopping point, come back, get started, jump back down…”
This frustration led to King inventing some tools so he wouldn’t have to wait for his brother to climb onto the roof.
“Necessity is the mother of all invention. Out of saving the relationship of my brother and I doing these installs, I came up with version 1.0 of the Solar Panel Hanger,” King said. “I kept redesigning and re-engineering it, and we’ve used it in EvenGreen since then. The main [credit] I give our company when it comes to speed of installs and accuracy is having that tool and being able to run a [quicker install] with fewer guys.”
The Solar Panel Hanger is an adjustable tool that hangs off a rail to hold and position panels. The tool works with all rails, although each brand of rail coincides with a specific jaw-type to secure to the rail. When installers purchase hangers from Solar Tools USA, they let the company know which brand of rail they usually use and receive that specific jaw.
The main “body” of the hanger can be adjusted to the panel size (and in both portrait or landscape orientation) so the panel sits against the bottom foot. A red knob at the bottom of the hanger does micro-adjustments. So while the primary function of the Solar Panel Hanger is to act as a second set of hands to hold panels in place, it goes above and beyond just that.
“While holding [the panel] in place, it allows you to get the solar panel perfectly square with the roof,” King said. “We’ve all been there when you install a 20-panel array and you get to the other side and your whole array is off by 6 in. and it looks all catawampus. [The Solar Panel Hanger] allows you to align the panels. As you go through, you have the red knob that allows you to do 1/16-in. adjustment on any angle so it’s perfectly square.”
The hangers also help with safety. When a project is on a steeper roof, the Solar Panel Hangers remove the concern when someone is on the edge trying to prevent a 50-lb panel from falling off. Wire management and positioning of MLPEs is also easier when a tool helps hold one end of the panel in place.
If an installer has enough hangers, an entire first row of panels can be positioned before anything is tightened down. At the minimum, King said a smaller installation company can have two sets of tools (four hangers total) and still increase speed and decrease labor. EvenGreen uses 10 to 20 sets of tools on every job. One person is positioning panels while the other is doing wire management and tightening everything down.
Since the top jaw of the hanger doesn’t actually touch the solar panel (the hanger sits underneath the panel), removal is easy with just a small twist. Once the panel is tightened down, the whole hanger is twisted and the jaw comes off the rail, sliding underneath the system. Then the hanger can be used in the next section.
King is still a full-time EvenGreen employee, and that’s where his full focus is. He’s hired people at Solar Tools USA to get his side-gig off the ground and give it the full attention it deserves. Solar Panel Hangers can be purchased on the Solar Tools USA website or through various distributors as relationships are established. A set of two hangers costs $500, a price King justifies based on the labor savings. The cost associated with one employee and their insurance for a year is exponentially more.
Reducing operational and labor costs is a goal for every company, and in an industry that charges by the watt rather than by labor, labor savings go right back to the company.
“If you’re being competitive and everyone is selling at $4/W, that includes your labor costs,” King said. “If you can reduce your labor costs to do the same job that everyone else is doing, that’s pure profit margin. You’re not giving that to the customer. You’re still maintaining price competitiveness at a reduced cost.”