Mike Scalia is helping to outfit the Beardsley aquatics center with one of the largest solar pool heating systems in Arizona.

The facility, which is located in the Phoenix suburb of Sun City West, utilizes 60 roof-mounted panels to heat the center’s pool, spa and domestic water, in addition to the facility’s HVAC system.

“It’s something we really need here, especially with such an abundance of sunshine in the Valley,” says Scalia, who owns Carlson Solar Technologies, a distributor of photovoltaic and thermal heating systems in Tempe, Ariz. “And it actually works — it’s a force we can really grow the economy on.”

Boosted by government incentives and a push for energy-saving alternatives, solar heating has provided one of the few bright spots for the pool industry of late. More contractors are learning about and embracing the technology, and some have even launched separate divisions to handle sales and installation.

As a result, manufacturers and distributors of solar systems are working to provide their partners with various means of support, whether it’s technical or material/promotional, in order to help boost business. 

Training days

Training is just one of many services provided by Solar Direct in Bradenton, Fla. And it can run the gamut, says CEO Dale Gulden, from basic verbal assistance and guidance through a manual to full on-site install direction. 

In fact, the company offers training on the client’s job site, or at one of its own projects. For the latter, Solar Direct simply employs the client through its leasing company, and the client pays for any costs associated with its participation at the site. So in terms of workers’ compensation and safety, “they’re legally protected while they’re here,” Gulden says.   

“When it’s on-their-job training, they pay the cost of transportation, lodging, and the daily rate for one of our installation people to show up and train their staff and help them through it,” he adds.

At Heliodyne in Richmond, Calif., a training manager conducts off-site educational workshops two or three times a month, says Mike Stough, marketing coordinator. These daylong sessions, which are free of charge to customers of Heliodyne’s distributors, provide hands-on instruction for both residential and advanced (commercial) training.

The manufacturer offers the same training online: A beginner’s course covers solar hot water theory, as well as proper installation techniques. Additional training topics include sales and quoting, sizing, and service and maintenance.

Participants are taught via a series of videos, illustrations and text, Stough says, followed by an optional online exam. Those who pass are then eligible to become a certified installer of Heliodyne’s products.      

Six months ago, Carlson Solar moved to a new location that tripled the space of its previous facility. In addition to providing better access for transportation and greater inventory capabilities, the site includes three full-size roof mock-ups — composite shingle, s-tile and mission tile. It also includes a classroom that seats 30.

Training includes everything from sales techniques and customer relations to system configuration and positioning to handling applications for rebates and incentives. Some is conducted by Carlson’s own sales force, while other education is provided by the eRenewable Resource Institute, an Arizona State Board for Postsecondary Education-approved renewable energy school. 

“The credibility factor is important for us,” Scalia says, “and that’s probably where the industry is hurting the most — people misdesigning systems, making promises about performance that they can’t keep, or just an overall lack of education on the sales and design side. It always has been, and continues to be, a problem.”

Material benefits

In some parts of the country, dealers buy Solar Direct equipment and sell it to their consumers, Gulden says. But homeowners also contact the manufacturer directly, in which case he turns to his certified dealers for installation.

While he notes particularly strong coverage in Las Vegas and Atlanta, he’s always looking to forge new alliances.

That’s why Gulden developed www.PoolProSolar.com, a one-stop portal for pool professionals that addresses issues such as marketability, training, pricing, delivery and partnership opportunities.

“We’re excited about the continued deployment of the pool industry,” he says, “because there’s a lot more of them in a lot more places. So they’re not only getting equipment and training and consultation from us, but they’re also receiving the projects that we send their way.”

Just outside Santa Rosa, Calif., John Haley is currently building his network of distributors and dealers. The owner of solar system manufacturer Suntopia is working at automating as much of the process as possible,

including customer registration and ordering.

To that end, Suntopia provides a Partner Portal, where dealers can record leads in order to avoid any conflicts between sales channels. It also allows them to submit orders and track their status online.

“It gives them greater visibility into their segment,” Haley says, “and it allows us to scale very easily.”

Other support mechanisms include Club Suntopia, a co-marketing inventive program whereby the company matches 50/50 the dollars its partners spend on certain direct mail, email and branding materials.

Managing expectations

For Adam Shagan, educating dealers and providing material and technical support aren’t the trickiest aspects of the solar business. After all, most solar panels are simple enough to install, says the sales manager at Harter Industries in Holmdel, N.J.

Instead, Shagan explains, the real challenge lies in managing expectations.

“It’s important not to oversell what solar can do for a pool. You don’t want customers to be misinformed, nor do you want your sales people to make false claims.

“So we teach them how to sell the systems, and how to create for the customer an expectation of understanding,” he adds.

Confusion can arise when consumers believe — or are led to believe — that solar heating performs the same as gas. 

Shagan similarly has had to clarify misunderstandings over how much heating is needed vs. what a solar system is capable of generating.

What’s more, procedural mix-ups occur when customers try mounting the panels on surfaces, such as fences or a home’s exterior wall, that don’t get enough sun exposure; in other instances, the rooftop may not even be large enough for solar panels.

And then there are plumbing mistakes, many of which involve failure to use the proper inlets and outlets; or, if the water isn’t piped correctly through all panels and the system fails to heat evenly.

“Unfortunately, some of each day is spent telling people to follow the manual — otherwise it will void the warranty,” Shagan says. “But green is fantastic, and if you can do it, why not? At the same time, if you can save money doing it, again, why not? I’d just like to have a customer go in with the right expectations.”