Tuesday, March 6, 2012

How to sell a solar water heater in a market with cheap natural gas

With the price of natural gas at a historically low point, selling a solar water heating system in natural gas water heater markets is a tough proposition. While we have to address return on investment as solar professionals, there are many other factors that go into a customer's decision making process about going solar. Solar water heating isn't for everyone so broad brush approaches won't work. The key is to target the right audience with the right message before you spend much time or money. The following is a guide to help you do this.

What to talk about

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People are interested in distributed solar energy for a number of reasons.  Residential solar water heating continues to be an exceptional option in the portfolio of clean energy choices a homeowner has.  Energy cost savings is just one aspect of a clean energy purchase.  Make sure that you are talking about all the other reasons for pursuing solar.  Here are some good ones to start with and expand upon:
  • Solar water heating (SWH) is a cost effective way to reduce home energy consumption by over 10%.
  • Like electric vehicle purchases, SWH is a visible commitment to clean energy for a much lower sticker price than any car.
  • When built into a new home, the net cost of a SWH is on par with the cost of a tankless water heater yet SWH outperforms tankless units in energy savings (EF of 0.82 for tankless vs 1.4 for SWH)
  • While low now, the price of natural gas is set to rise with growing demand from electrical generation and transportation as well as with increasing scrutiny of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) practices. A SWH installed today is a hedge against rising fuel prices.
  • Talk about the avoided costs & externalities of fossil fuels. Natural gas may be cleaner than coal, but it's hardly clean in comparison to solar water heating.
  • Solar water heating creates local jobs--engineering, installation & service, sales & marketing, and distribution.

Tell the story to the right people

You need to maximize the impact of your messaging by positioning them in front of the right audience. The right audience is one that is both receptive and responsive to your point of view. To encourage a conversation and spur interest in SWH, the best approach is a combination of Facebook and blogging. Articles that address your messaging can't be neutral. You have to make a point either with your own blog posts or with comments on articles written by others. Your opinions may alienate some people, but those people are probably not receptive or responsive to clean energy issues in the first place--your target customer is. There are people out there who are concerned, knowledgeable, angry, and ready to act if they find a leader in their community with a solution that resonates with them. Solar is part of the solution and you are that solution provider.  Don't make any assumptions about who a receptive and responsive customer might be; stirring up a conversation about the issues that got you into the solar business in the first place will bring them to you.

Where to tell the story

Web marketing is a hot topic with lots of nuance.  It is an essential part of modern business and is redefining the fields of public relations, promotion, sales, and general marketing.  In the interests of getting you started today, I suggest working with the steps below.  Expand and modify as you get more comfortable and learn more.
  1. Find an article that resonates with you and your team.  Get your friends, family or co-workers to suggest an article to post and select one.
  2. Post the article to your Facebook business page (make a Facebook business page if you don't have one and encourage people to "Like" it).
  3. Make comments on this post that tell your target audience why this article is important to you. 
  4. Get all your friends, family, and co-workers to "Like" the article so their network sees it too.
  5. Directly ask people to read and comment on your post (via email, phone, twitter, FilterTweeps,  etc).  
  6. Repeat every workday.
Once you get comfortable with this daily effort, you can branch out a bit by writing your own blog articles.  Post it to your company website or some other website (Tumblr, Blogger, etc).  Use this as your Facebook link of the day and encourage the comments as suggested above.  Also while Facebook is the current dominant player in social media, explore using other sites like TwitterLinkedIn, Google+, or any of the other growing number of websites to expand the reach of your effort.

Keep at it

Cheap natural gas makes for a difficult sales process for solar water heating. Difficult but not impossible. Continually remind yourself why you got into this business in the first place and find creative ways to connect with like-minded people. Tell people about your company and its goals.  Keep people continuously aware of your projects to build on successes. Help people connect their daily behavior to greater social trends. Be consistent, be informative, and be real. You'll begin to find that the right people will find you.


  1. AK, Good points and thanks for the reminder...don't make assumptions. A client can come out of anywhere. On another note, I asked you about Heat pump water heaters. Below is some of their promotional stuff and my thoughts to date on the "con" side.

    Brand: GE
    Model: GEH50DNSRSA
    ENERGY STARr qualified appliance. Energy factor of 2.35 in Hybrid mode. They say it can reduce water heater operating cost up to 62% and save $320 per year.* (Based on DOE test procedure and comparison of a 50-gallon standard electric tank water heater using 4879 kWh per year vs. the GeoSpringT hybrid water heater using 1856 kWh per year) Fairly impressive! But...

    Investment costs can be hard to recouped quickly if hot water use and electricity costs are low. HPWHs are most efficient in warm climates or when installed in a heated location, such as a furnace room. The efficiency and capacity of the HPWH decrease as air temperatures drop, cold ambient temperature locations should be avoided. Also a by product is cool air. Not so good if in a heated basement. There is also a filter that needs to be maintained. If allowed to get dirty efficiencies go down.

    It is continues to be a single fuel system. SWH is generally dual fuel with the primary fuel the sun! I want to say they are not as well insulated as a SWH system tank is but dont' know. They are said to be slower than electric water heaters by about 25%. Any other cons? jbm

  2. Jim,

    Thanks for the feedback on the heat pump water heaters. I'm wondering what percentage of the time they operate in hybrid mode versus using the electric resistance element. When the call for hot water is high, I know the heat pump has trouble keeping up with the demand. In this case, the EF would be significantly less than the nameplate 2.35.

    I plan to do an upcoming blog post comparing the EF of various water heating technologies and detailing the pros & cons of each one. Efficiency is important but so is quality of life (fewer cold showers).

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