How monitoring and control is changing solar businesses

Monitoring is perhaps being underestimated by solar installers and retailers who could be 'supersizing' their operations with locked-in forward revenue streams.

I just keep getting drawn back into the monitoring and control discussion lately.

Almost every single day I hear wondrous stories about what manufacturers can do with data – and I hear stakeholders (consumers and others) pleading for increased sophistication and simpler solutions.

In its purest form, monitoring has historically been viewed as a cash-register by utilities and as a gadget for solar consumers – energy in, energy out, net result. The crucial function of registering what has happened is arguably becoming ever more important, too. Whether it’s a need for better (more granular) accuracy, automated (cheaper) data collection or amalgamating data streams for power purchase agreements (for example), monitoring isn’t going away.

Smarter, cheaper monitoring helps businesses save time and money – just ask any utility who has rolled out a fleet of smart meters. As utilities and others are finding, monitoring gets really interesting when you use the data to proactively manage your business better – if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it.

At the residential level basic solar monitoring has been around for an age. But typically viewed as an optional gadget, it hasn’t been pushed hard in the past and arguably wasn’t great value for money for customers.

I heard a classic story recently, however, which highlights how monitoring is perhaps being underestimated by solar installers and retailers. Mrs Jones had a PV system for years: never missed a beat, good system and she even got a gross feed-in tariff after she had installed it as a bonus. Mrs Jones had got used to her cheque arriving each quarter for her exports; it was essentially her only signal that everything was normal, because she didn’t have monitoring.

One day, the cheque didn’t arrive.

In a panic, she rang the installer and demanded action “My money’s gone!” she said. The installer discovered that the inverter had failed almost three months earlier (unbeknownst to Mrs Jones) although she did know her rights and quickly insisted on compensation – with a legal claim. The installer replaced the inverter under warranty but bore the time and installation cost – that’s a few hundred dollars down the drain to them as an emergency call-out. To sort out what was an increasingly angry customer, they settled on the FiT compensation costing then several hundred dollars more.

I’m sure you get my point. Monitoring would have told Mrs Jones there was a problem sooner, and some products can even tell installers. What a different conversation it would have been if the installer had turned up and said “Mrs Jones, we detected a problem a couple of days ago, deployed a crew who were in the area and have replaced your inverter. Here’s a movie voucher to apologise for the intrusion, have a nice day”. Would she be more likely or less likely to recommend that company to her friends and family?

To prove this point, another company I know had an entirely different experience because they install monitoring on every system they sell. They detected a small problem on a commercial project and the next time their crew was in the area, they dropped in at minimal cost. They found that an isolator had been switched off, and checked with the owner. “How did you even know that?” he asked. “Our monitoring system picked up the problem and we decided to sort it out because that’s what we do; we maximise your uptime as part of our package.” As it turns out, the customer was doing some maintenance and had isolated the AC, but he was so impressed at the response he recommended them to others and they got more business because of their quality support.

Now, monitoring is moving into a new era.

Lower cost, more sophisticated and more reliable devices are arriving with a host of back-end support services which are changing the game.

One local company, Solar Monitoring Australia, has taken these lessons to heart and developed a new solution designed to solve these issues. This new solution essentially provides all the usual monitoring bits and pieces, like energy charts, but adds much more. As a white labelled solution the installers brand is front and centre, improving the long term relationship with the customer. The platform also provides some other cool stuff; such as a support ticketing system, mapping tools, multi-inverter support, dedicated 3G back haul, it will even include a 'customer relationship management' and asset tracking application in the near future. Essentially, it’s a solar fleet manager.

By combining all these functions together into a really streamlined package the humble monitor has become an enabler to better service and lower operating costs.

And being clever sods, they then took it a couple of steps further.

Firstly they made the monitor better: smaller, cheaper, easier to use, more reliable, much lower access and data costs and, of course, completely product agnostic.

There is some awesome Australian-designed logic in this one. Then they realised that by including an output guarantee service they could allow installers to offer a guaranteed output to customers, which adds value and the chance for support and maintenance to be built-in – and all managed through the CRM and management system, of course.

To an installer this means they can bank ongoing monthly fees for support and deliver guaranteed output with a financial warranty – supersized solar. The real value in this is not only that customer’s feel reassured but the installer is now building-in forward revenue streams which increases the value of his business in the event he ever wants to sell or expand. (Having had some pretty depressing experiences with the installation and use of monitoring devices in my own home, I have to say that their attention to making set-up as easy as possible is much needed. No climbing through the roof with cables. No multiple phonecalls and trying to interpret bizarre instructions, meaningless codes and long strings of alpha numeric passwords that you know you’ll get wrong. Nope, these boys simply embedded a QR code on the device. Scan, load, connect and typically you’re done in 30 seconds.)

Now clearly, I’m helping spread the word about Solar Monitoring Australia’s new product. Regular readers would know I’m a monitoring junkie and have a variety of products installed at home where my young boys and I do our best to test, break and operate under real-world conditions.

What has become clear to me in testing these products and talking to installers is there are a variety of things you can do and problems you can solve using different monitoring products and some are better than others in certain areas. What I like about this new product is that it has taken a system monitor and evolved it into a smart business tool. For savvy solar retailers trying to make their businesses more efficient, develop new income streams or offer higher value service offers, it's pretty powerful stuff.

Smart monitoring has come a long way and is just going to keep getting better. For solar businesses in Australia, systems that can help you build annuities, minimise costs and back-sell to past customers seems like pretty good sense to me.

Nigel Morris is the director of Solar Business Services. 

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