There are plenty of obstacles in solar construction that can cause significant delays and jeopardize installers’ schedules if they’re not prepared for them. The biggest lesson DMH Solar (No. 43 on the 2020 Top Solar Contractors list) founder David Heilman learned in 2019 was that it’s better to own the equipment to physically remove those obstacles than to rely on someone else to deliver it.
DMH Solar of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, has been constructing PV arrays primarily in the Eastern U.S. since 2012. Heilman entered the solar industry several years before and cut his teeth in running construction crews.
“After about three years of that I split ways and went on my own because I started to notice that the mechanical end is very in-depth, just like electrical, because there’s so many different parts,” he said.
DMH install crews handle system assembly, excavation and mounting, and leave the electrical work to another contractor.
The rocky soils of states along the Atlantic shoreline, especially in New England, often warrant piledriving equipment to get ground-mounted solar foundations in place, and up until early 2019, DMH was renting excavators for on-site drilling.
“On every job, it’s always timing. When you find out you hit rock and you have to wait for a driller to come, you sign a contract, they have to mobilize and they’d have no sense of urgency,” Heilman said. “In the mechanical end of solar, we strictly make money on labor alone. I don’t buy the racking or anything – I’m the installer.”
After experiencing equipment delivery delays, and at one point needing to ask a direct competitor for assistance on a project, Heilman commissioned REV Drill of Maryland to build a smaller model of the excavator the company was renting.
This was in January 2019, and Heilman saw immediate returns on the decision to own custom machinery.
“I put it right on a job and I didn’t get finished with that job and I was already building the second [machine],” he said.
By March, DMH commissioned a second drill rig and shortly after acquired a couple of post pounders. These commissioned excavators lend themselves to better navigation on solar construction sites, Heilman said. The previously rented rigs were larger and made for use in other construction industries, like underwater drilling and bridge construction. These smaller excavators DMH commissioned can navigate rows of solar racking much easier than the larger models, Heilman said.
With the addition of post drivers, DMH installers are drilling holes for foundations with the rigs and pounding piers into place immediately after. Having this equipment on hand has made the company and its 22 employees more mobile and created install opportunities in states DMH previously avoided because of high rock presence. Install crews are traveling to solar construction sites with the drill rigs and post-pounders in tow, ready to work upon arrival.
“We put up a decent amount of money to make this work and we rolled the dice, because you just don’t know, and it ended up taking off really good for us,” Heilman said. “Now, it’s pretty much a given that customers know we can get through this rock, so it’s opened up the doors this year to doing double the work of last year. It’s just been a great thing.”
This story was featured exclusively in our 2020 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.