December 16, 2020, was already an atypical day of year-end operations for Florida-based contractor Solar Source (No. 209 on the 2021 Top Solar Contractors list). The company was rounding out the year of adapting to installing solar in a global pandemic, which resulted in steady sales in pool and water heating and a slight decrease in residential PV projects.
That December day at the company’s Tampa location, installers were out in the field and office personnel were working on site as usual. No stranger to extreme weather, the area was put under a severe weather warning at 3:48 p.m. Solar Source warehouse manager Bo Short stepped outside at 3:49 p.m. to see a tornado heading straight for him, so he ran back inside.
Everyone took cover as the F2 tornado ripped off about a quarter of the building’s roof, along with the solar modules attached to it. A side of the building came down, causing wind-induced suction to run through the 13,000-sq.-ft space, sending bay doors flying, dropping ceilings and shattering glass.
“It’s like a freight train. It lasts about 15 seconds and went right through,” said Rick Gilbert, executive VP of Solar Source. “Because our building is concrete block, we were lucky. The building right next to ours is condemned, and a few people are shut down permanently from it.”
Uprooted trees and totaled vehicles blocked the road, so emergency services evacuated everyone in the plaza on foot after the tornado passed. Debris from other buildings was found on Solar Source’s property and vice versa. The tornado had thrown solar modules blocks away and knocked out cable, electric and water infrastructure in the affected area.
“I’d been coming here for over a decade of my life,” Gilbert said. “Just to walk through the building and see the ceilings down, and that was that person’s office. It’s hard to explain the emotional side of that.”
The out-of-season tornado carried on for about 13 miles, but luckily no one was killed or injured by the natural disaster. In a state familiar with annual superstorms in the form of hurricanes, Solar Source is used to installing arrays to withstand them, but this was the strongest tornado to touch down in Florida in 28 years.
Solar Source’s Tampa headquarters was very much a museum of solar, chronicling the decades since the company’s inception. Before the tornado, an awning made of still-functioning 75-W modules wrapped around the building.
“We hear a lot of people say that we’re dinosaurs,” Gilbert said. “We were established in 1984. It’s been 37 years and it’s always been solar.”
For the last 37 years, Solar Source has tracked the American solar landscape, adapting to market demands, starting with solar hot water, and later adding PV sales. The company adapted again in 2020 and kept trucks rolling through the pandemic — and after a tornado.
The company lost a few days of work to the tornado, “but we got back on track as quickly as possible,” Gilbert said. Some people from the Tampa location are working out of construction trailers while the office is being rebuilt.
With its other office in Orlando, Solar Source has consolidated and moved some roles around until the Tampa building is back in shape. The roof has been replaced, so warehousing has already resumed at the tornado-ravaged location. Gilbert expects to be working out of trailers through at least December 2021.
“But the blessing is when we get out of these trailers, we’re going to be in a newly remodeled location,” he said.
Despite the setback, solar installations continue at Solar Source. The company is finishing its largest solar + storage project to date, a 1-MW array with 1.25 MW of storage, and just constructed a 500-kW carport system atop a parking garage.
“We’re still making sale, back to doing in-home appointments again, and all things considered, we’re doing pretty well,” Gilbert said.
This story was featured exclusively in our 2021 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.