Solar installers, like every other profession, make mistakes sometimes, but many don’t like to admit it for fear of losing customers. Hutchinson, Kansas-based installer King Solar (No. 368 on the 2019 Top Solar Contractors list) is not one of them. The company made a few major mistakes last year and isn’t shy in talking about it.
“Most of them were my personal fault, which, as the owner of the company and NABCEP-certified guy on staff, I felt fairly stupid whenever I found out that they happened,” said CEO Mark Horst.
During one installation, he made a mistake in the design process that led to mis-wiring a residential rooftop array. Going back and re-wiring added another half-day to the job.
A larger and more costly mistake happened during an agricultural ground-mount installation. The landowner wanted the array installed right up to the edge of his property. Horst set his compass to what he thought was the correct direction, accounting for the magnetic declination in Kansas (the angle between magnetic north and true north). As he and his team were about halfway done with the project, the customer came out and said it looked like the array was partly on his neighbor’s wheat field property. The team found the property line markers, and sure enough, the new ground mount was over the line.
“The east edge of the system was where he wanted it. The west edge of the system was about 3 ft in the neighbor’s property,” Horst said.
He realized he had set his compass backward — adding too much correction for magnetic declination — and installed the array 10° off where it should have been.
They got to work problem solving. The customer asked how much it would cost King Solar to redo the array, and Horst said around $5,000. Then, they talked to the customer’s neighbors, who said they did not mind that it encroached on their property since they were friends. But Horst stressed to the customer that this neighbor may not care now, but future neighbors might.
In the end, King Solar and the customer got creative to remedy this error. King Solar gave the customer the $5,000 it would’ve cost in parts and labor to redo the array in cash. The customer used that money to have his land resurveyed and then purchased 5 ft of property from his neighbor so the array would now technically be on his land.
“His neighbor sold it to him for like $2,000, it cost him a couple hundred bucks for the surveyor, so he actually ended up with cash in his pocket and five more feet of ground, and he was happy. He was like, ‘Man, you guys owned up to this,'” Horst said. He said the customer tried to give the leftover money back, but Horst insisted he keep it all since he would’ve been out that cash anyway if he had to redo the project.
The other big mistake of the year was a flexible solar panel repair project on a city building. Horst didn’t realize the panel adhesive wasn’t designed to stick to the specific type of shingles on the roof, so the modules flew off in a windstorm.
Horst estimates that those big mistakes along with some smaller ones along the way cost the company between $15,000 and $20,000 last year.
“We are blessed to be able to swallow that and not be out of business,” he said.
Although the lost money stings, King Solar uses these mistakes as lessons learned, and even as a unique marketing tool. When customers ask for references, Horst said they usually expect to be given the information for a project that was executed without any problems. But he sees an advantage in also including references where things didn’t go as planned.
“I say, ‘Hey, look, I’ve got a reference of somebody where we really screwed up, and I’d be happy to give you their name and have you talk to them so you can hear how we work as a company when we screw up,’” Horst said.
The agricultural ground-mount customer was so happy with the way King Solar handled the error that he was willing to serve as one such reference for the company.
Horst said it doesn’t matter how much of an expert you are, mistakes will happen. Approaching its errors with grace and flexibility has helped King Solar build its reputation as customer-focused and trustworthy.
This story was featured exclusively in our 2019 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.