For Solar Thermal Installs, Project Management Trumps Technology

bigstock_Ok_in_sky_Element_of_design__18657494by: Michael Puttre’

When Los Angeles-based ReGreen took on the installation involving 112 separate solar hot water and photovoltaic power systems installed over the rooftops of 34 separate buildings in its home city, it did so under a tight project deadline.

The project involved the installation of Heliodyne solar thermal panels and 1,664 PV panels. Complicating the project was the expiration of the California bonus depreciation rebate, which expired in 2014. Most of the properties were low-income housing, so they qualified for the bonus depreciation schedule. ReGreen had to finish the project before the end of 2013 for tax purposes.

Kevin Refoua, co-founder and CEO of ReGreen, had a long-established
relationship with the client, property owner and developer Goldrich Kest Industries.

“We were in from ground up,” Refoua says. “From design, engineering, installing, running the financials. We did everything ourselves, and we did it from the beginning.”

With a background as the “go-to” green company for the client’s sustainability projects, Refoua says he was able to pitch a solar solution after the other low-hanging fruit had been addressed. Prior to the solar thermal and PV install at the housing complex, ReGreen had performed a number of energy-efficiency projects. When it came time to talk solar, Refoua says the client was prepared to listen.

Despite the project complexity in terms of the number of sites and building trades involved, Refoua says his policy was to let the client drive the decision-making – even if the decision was to let ReGreen handle the details. The direction Goldrich Kest wanted to go on the technology was based on its utility expenses. Refoua says his first step was to break down the utility expenses of the individual buildings.

“If they were more for electricity or more for gas, we would go with the technology that would offset the most,” he says. “Most of the project happened to have high gas bills, so we went with a lot of solar thermal.”

ReGreen calculates Goldrich Kest’s total annual energy offset for the housing development is 6,840,777 kWh – a 70% reduction in the firm’s energy usage. Approximately 84% of its investment will be recovered by the end of the first year because of the 30% federal solar tax credit, state depreciation and utility rebates.

“We are application specific and product agnostic,” Refoua says. “I never specifically promote a particular product, one way or another. Rather, I provide a few options that I feel would best satisfy their long-term needs.”

Due to his involvement in prior projects, Refoua says he had access to building floor plans, roof layouts and even utility bills. He and his team were able to produce their plan and sign a contract in July. After the permit package was approved by the city, ReGreen was able to move forward with the installation in four months.

Refoua says about 90% of a project’s headaches are logistics and coordination rather than the implementation of the project. Once the time came for installation of the solar thermal panels and the technology, each property was typically handled within two weeks.

“If you do your planning right, the installing is actually the easiest part of the project,” he says.

In terms of project management, ReGreen was in the position of being a large company with several divisions and nearly all of its professional engineering and trades talent available in house.

“I try to minimize the amount of work I outsource,” Refoua says. “A lot of the engineering was done in house, so I had control over that. It was a lot easier for us, because we really just had to do internal coordination versus having to deal with other companies and other contractors.”

Refoua says the company has the man power internally to handle a large project – even multiple large projects – at any given time.

ReGreen performs about four to five major projects per year. While Refoua was working on the Goldrich Kest project, other teams were working a number of other projects, including the Lorenzo upscale housing complex near the University of Southern California.

That project itself involved 428 Heliodyne solar collection panels with attending heat transfer and plumbing supporting 10 domestic hot water systems and four swimming pools.

While an important aspect of the company’s approach involves investing in resources the client requires, a successful project manager knows when to add to the resources on hand in such that it does not affect the client’s schedule. While managing a largely salaried team has advantages over handling lots of subcontractors, planning is essential in not making your problems the client’s also.

“The client never felt that we had to delay anything because of our internal resources,” Refoua says. “We always planned ahead and made sure that we were staffed properly. I didn’t let the client feel there were going to be delays because of any lack of capabilities on our side. I ramped up with additional labor before it was going to be an issue.”

In addition to putting the client’s needs first, Refoua says it is absolutely essential for a successful installer to maintain a good relationship with his vendors.

“Obviously, because of the amount of money I spend with them, they are very accommodating,” Refoua says. “So, if I need something right away, or if I need them to hold something for me or ship it, they’re flexible.”

Article source: http://www.solarindustrymag.com/issues/SI1410/FEAT_04_For-Solar-Thermal-Installs-Project-Management-Trumps-Technology.html

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