July 2013 “Faces of the Green Pages”: Solar Service, Inc.; Niles, IL
As a regular featured speaker at our Chicago Green Festivals, Solar Service, Inc. owner Brandon Leavitt enjoys seeing his customers from 36 years of Chicagoland solar installations drop by to say hello.
“We’ve counted more than a dozen of our customers at the shows, some of them clients from 30 years ago whose solar systems are still going strong,” says Brandon. We asked him to tell us more about his first solar installation and about his inspiration to start his solar company…
Green America: What does your business do and what are your most popular products?
Brandon Leavitt: Solar Service designs and installs both solar PV and solar heat and hot water systems for new and existing residential, commercial, municipal and multi-family buildings in the Chicago area. Today, our most popular products are multi-family solar hot water systems and residential and commercial grid connected PV.
What makes Solar Service green?
Brandon: Obviously, by selling and promoting the use of renewable energy systems we are a green business at our core. Also, Our solar thermal panels are made in Florida and Minnesota. The solar storage tanks are manufactured in the USA. The vast majority of our PV panels are produced and/or assembled in the USA. We have never purchased PV panels made in China.
We are a ’family friendly’ company where our employees’ needs for flexible work time are respected. We have always recycled our in-office plastics, glass, metals, batteries and paper. We pay our refuse hauler extra for a bin to recycle cardboard. Every year our holiday party is financed by the proceeds from the sale of leftover scrap copper, steel and aluminum from our installs. Our crew plants a vegetable garden each spring outside our warehouse. All our drinking water is purified on tap. Our sales director drives a company-owned Prius. And of course, all three of our company buildings are solar powered…both PV and thermal!
This Solar Service installation for HarvesTime Foods in Chicago incorporates PV panels as a part of the store’s awning.
What inspired you to start a green business?
Brandon: In 1970, while still in high school, I attended the very first Earth Day event in Chicago. I was so inspired, I helped start the first drop-off community recycling center at my suburban high school.
Though accepted to college, I next chose instead to work in the entertainment industry, playing drums for a while, and then managing a very successful rock band for the next few years. When the first energy crisis of the ‘70s hit, I started to think about alternative energy. In July of 1975, I attended Buckminster Fuller’s World Game seminar where he assigned our class to solve the world’s energy crisis, giving us 25 years to phase out the old and bring in the new, with only one rule: our solution could not become someone else’s problem. That led me to a job with a solar design firm in Florida that eventually led to marketing, sales, and engineering opportunities with solar hot water systems.
In April of 1977, I decided to bring solar home to Chicago, opening a business called Solar Energy Products where we concentrated on research and development of cost-effective and reliable solar heat and hot water systems for northern climates. And on the July 4th weekend of 1977, I flew a crew up from Florida to install the first solar hot water system in Illinois on my parents’ home. That system is still working great today!
What has been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Brandon: Back in the mid 1980s before the collapse of the solar industry, I realized I had a company with 21 employees and we had installed over $3 million worth of solar hot water and heating systems in Chicago! Today, when I attend a dedication ceremony of one of our milestone installations and the Illinois governor speaks about our work, I am very proud of our hard-working, dedicated employees. I do know how fortunate I’ve been to make a career out of something I love that also helps give people meaningful employment and makes the planet a better place to live.
On the left: Solar photovoltaics. On the right: Solar thermal panels for hot water.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Brandon: Stay as small as you can as long as you can. Put the customer first. Treat them as you would want a contractor to treat your parents (we call that the “Golden Rule Plus One”). Stand behind everything you do. Don’t take work that doesn’t make sense for you or your client. Train your employees well and let them do their job. Reward and compliment good work. Expect mistakes and learn from them. Stay calm.
We’ve always had extremely high standards, and years ago my office manager asked me if we could “strive for excellence instead of perfection.” That turned out to be great advice and helps explain why our business has lasted over 36 years.
What’s the most hopeful sign you’ve seen recently from the green economy?
Brandon: The shift to a renewable energy world is inevitable. About nine years ago, I saw the marketplace shift from the usual environmentally conscious types we’d see at energy fairs to the more mainstream public. We no longer had to concentrate on the ‘why’ of solar and just went to delivering its benefits as just another commodity people were in the market for.
Today’s market is certainly more interested in PV. With product improvements, net metering and price drops along with a more aesthetically pleasing appearance, PV represents a growing percentage of our business. Even though solar hot water is more practical and cost-effective, we have to listen to the market and adapt if we want to survive. Change is constant.
Solar Service designed and installed this 100kW PV system on a custom-built 50-ton steel frame (erected in one day) atop the Avenue Garage in Oak Park, IL.
What’s the next green step you’re working on right now?
Brandon: We’re continuing to create awareness, understanding, and appreciation for renewable energy. I’m excited about the vast potential for solar and the fact that we’ve only scratched the surface.
President Obama did more for solar in his first term than all the previous presidents combined. His State of the Union speech this year and his climate-action speech at Georgetown University where he spoke of doubling solar on federal lands is very encouraging.
What green product (besides your own!) can you not live without?