Secrets of an award-winning solar installer

(From EcoGeneration Magazine – Mon 25 January 2016)

In our ongoing series of solar installer profiles, we chat to Simon Duff of Towards Tomorrow Energy about his award-winning business, his green principles and the toughest things about being a solar installer.

When Simon Duff set up Towards Tomorrow Energy (TTE) in 2001 – long before any talk of a solar boom – he had a vision and an ideal. From his base in West Gosford, on NSW’s Central Coast, he wanted to promote self-sufficiency and sustainable living in the community, educating people about renewable energy and helping them become less dependent on fossil fuels. To this end, Simon, along with his father Peter, started specialising in stand-alone power systems based on solar PV and lead-acid battery storage.

A decade and a half later, the technology may have changed but TTE’s core philosophy has not. Simon and Peter remain dedicated to the principles of sustainable self-sufficiency, and still specialise in off-grid and hybrid solar systems. By now they’re experts many times over, and in 2015 TTE picked up a Clean Energy Council (CEC) Solar Award for the best grid-connect system with battery backup. Here we meet Simon Duff and find out more about his business.

Tell us a bit about your background and how you got into the solar trade.
I come from a family of electricians, but I opted to step away from the industry at first and took up a career in industrial design. I ran a product design consultancy focused on the design and development of environmentally sustainable products for several years. In early 2000 I was asked to develop a range of portable energy products, including a small battery storage system and LED lighting fixtures. One thing led to another and, after designing and building our own off-grid home, I managed to pull my old man out of retirement and we started working together installing stand-alone power systems.

What’s the secret of your company’s success?
Not sure whether there are any secrets, but definitely a lot of hard work and a real passion for what we do. The majority of our work comes from customer referrals, so we pride ourselves on having happy customers. We have also had the privilege of working with a lot of great renewable energy specialists in the industry such as Tranter Engineering.

How would you describe the company’s ethos?
Assisting our community to make the move to renewable energy and reduce our demand on fossil fuels. The promotion and implementation of renewable energy systems is what we are passionate about.

In 2015 you picked up an award for the best grid-connect system with battery backup. Tell us a little about that installation.
The installation we entered into the CEC awards was a battery backup system or grid-coupled energy storage system that was installed in an aged care facility in the Riverina. From what I have been told it was one of the first SMA hybrid systems installed in Australia and was definitely the first battery backup system installed in an aged care facility in Australia.

What are some other key projects you’ve delivered?
We have installed several commercial battery backup systems this year, all with three-phase battery backup and typically 50 kW of PV. They were mostly located in regional areas of NSW.

What is a typical installation for TTE?
Probably a 7.5 kW residential off-grid system, typically DC coupled with a VRLA (valve-regulated lead-acid) battery bank.

What equipment do you prefer working with?
We have used a range of brands over the years, starting out with the 140 W BP poly modules on our first installations with Outback Power gear and Exide FLA cells. Recently we’ve been installing ET SOLAR modules, Radiant racking, and SMA, Selectronic and Outback Power inverters and charge controllers. The majority of our installations still utilise VRLA cells, which are predominately from German manufacturers such as Sonnenschein, Hoppecke or BAE.

What system do you have at home?
We have an 8 kW SMA grid-connect system and a 5 kW stand-alone system that powers the house and gets used for testing new gear. We also have a 12 kW SMA grid-connect system at our factory.

What’s the hardest thing about being an installer in your area?
It would definitely be having our system designs compared with low quality, under-specified off-grid solar kits being sold by newcomers to the industry. We are already starting to receive calls from people asking whether we can repair battery systems that have only been installed for a few months. Working with anti-solar electrical engineers would also be up there.

Any words of wisdom for newcomers to the business?
Enjoy the rollercoaster ride and always have a good understanding of your customer’s load profile before specifying battery storage.

This is an edited version of an article from the February 2016 issue of EcoGeneration magazine.
Read the article online now.