Built Well Solar’s founder Dan Sabia was a veteran and first responder at Ground Zero on 9/11. He saw firsthand the destruction and conflict triggered by America’s reliance on oil. He started thinking about the tiny, solar-powered calculator he used when he was deployed and wondered why the country wasn’t using this technology to become more energy independent. He became determined to learn more about it and install solar panels on his own house. More than 20 years later, this passion has helped Sabia grow a solid solar business in Long Island, New York — one that has been featured on Solar Power World’s Top Solar Contractors List every year since its inception.
In this episode, Sabia talks about creating a solar market on Long Island, and why customers continue to choose a smaller, local contractor over the big national names. An edited portion of the interview is below, but be sure to listen to the full podcast for more insight on Built Well’s vision of an electrified future.
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How did you get into solar?
It actually started back in 2001. I was a first responder at 9/11, down there for about two-and-a-half weeks. My expertise was in nuclear biological chemical weapons, and what I got out of that, everything I saw — this whole thing is about our dependence on foreign oil. Here we are in wars fighting over oil when we have all of the United States school district roofs, town roofs, city roofs, plus everybody’s houses that could be run on solar.
When I was in the military, I had a solar calculator. In the middle of the woods, you open it up and then it’s on, it’s alive. I said, “Well, this is just a great invention.” And I always had this passion that I wanted to do solar on my own house. After 9/11, I came home and went to a Solar Pioneer program. I had taken the course; I have a background in architecture and engineering and I went ahead and put solar on my house. At that time when I did it, neighbors and friends started asking, “What’s this all about?” I did probably seven or eight friends’ houses on weekends with helpers and everything. Twelve months later, I said, “I guess I’m in business now.”
The first thing that stuck out to me on your website was that you never knock on doors. Why is that important for your company?
We’ve been in business for 21 years, and over the 21 years, we’ve joined a lot of organizations, we’ve won a lot of awards and we’ve isolated ourselves. We actually do Nassau and Suffolk County — that’s 110 miles long and thousands of homes here to do solar on. We have no pressure when we meet with a customer; we do no cold calls and we don’t do any door knocking. It’s word-of-mouth and through organizations; we do minimal advertising and it’s been very successful for us. We’ve been in business so long we’re actually getting leads from the parents doing their sons and daughters houses.
There’s 40 years of solar to be done here and there’s enough room for everybody. There’s more roofs on Long Island and we have the second highest electrical rates in the country, so the payback is approximately four-and-a-half to five years. It’s really a no-brainer.
What is preventing you from installing more solar?
We have 47 different building departments we deal with, and I would say there’s probably only maybe five or six that use the same paperwork, so you’ve got to go to that building department and they all have a stack of paper you have to fill out. In New Jersey, they have a state building department, so all the paperwork is the same.
But here [in New York], there are many locations and that becomes an expensive thing. You’ve got to almost become a professional with each building department to know what you need.
We’re also uncertain about the future of tax credits right now. We’re all sitting here wondering, “Where is it going to be?” I’m not talking about in January of next year, but where is it going to be for the next three to four years?
I have to say that New York State has really stepped up. We have a $5,000 tax credit from the state and 26% federal, but it would be nice if it goes back up to 30% the way it was a couple of years ago.
The supply chain issues stop us from growing too. We’ve got three jobs right now just sitting here, all inverters installed, racks installed, just waiting for the panels to come. But we’ve maneuvered around a lot of things in 21 years. We’ve been through Hurricane Sandy, we’ve been through COVID, we’ve been through… I don’t know what’s coming next, the tidal wave?