UNITY, Maine ― For Joas Hochstetler, manager of the Amish-owned Backyard Buildings, the idea of manufacturing a shed equipped with solar panels was always in the back of his mind.
After all, as part of their mission to remain off the grid, Hochstetler’s family and others in the Amish community that has settled in Unity use solar power technology in a variety of ways, from powering lights on their carriages to charging power tool batteries.
“Solar is pretty passive, there’s no moving parts, you don’t have to feed it, it doesn’t take gas,” Hochstetler said. “We’ve already made the decision to not be on the grid […] so the benefits of solar for us are just endless.”
Despite perceptions of Amish communities being wary of technology, off-grid solar power technology offers a way for those in the community to stay off of the mainstream power grid in a way that is minimally intrusive to their lifestyle. Hochstetler said that Amish people were some of the early adopters of solar.
So when Matt Wagner of Insource Renewables approached him in January about teaming up to produce a shed that was equipped with the same solar technology found on traditional roof-mounted systems, Hochstetler was sold.
“We’ve talked about it before but didn’t have a reputable company to collaborate with, or the solar expertise,” Hochstetler said. “I like the principle of solar, so I would gladly do work in a field that will generate more solar power for the state.”
For the last six years, Backyard Buildings has been manufacturing a wide range of portable structures including storage sheds of varying sizes, animal shelters and even small cabins.
Located a short 15 minutes away in Pittsfield, the folks at Insource Renewables were familiar with the quality structures that Hochstetler and his crew of employees were crafting. In some instances, Insource Renewables was contracted by customers of Hochstetler’s to install heat pumps in large sheds they’d purchased with the intention of using them as off-grid camps.
Living in Knox, Wagner drove by Backyard Buildings on his way to work everyday. So one day he stopped by to formally introduce himself and to let Hochstetler know that Insource Renewables had been doing some work on the buildings he was making after they were delivered. Wagner initially proposed the idea of just collaborating on installing heat pumps in some of the buildings before they were sold, and the idea quickly morphed into making storage-type structures with solar panels mounted on the roof.
For both parties, the opportunity to work with another local company to bring a new solar energy option to their customers was a boon. “What we found is we can basically deliver the same size solar array we would put on someone’s roof onto this solar [shed] building for about the same cost, and you get this great shed. It’s sort of a no brainer,” Wagner said.
With Insource Renewables bringing the solar expertise and Backyard Buildings bringing the construction know-how, prospective customers are able buy a shed that is outfitted with a solar array that can capture enough energy to power their entire home, as well as a soundly constructed shed that can serve a range of storage purposes.
Since the shed will be constructed to hold solar panels, Hochstetler and his crew have come up with a new design that can bear the weight of the array while also having the roof sloped at an angle that will provide maximum solar gain.
Wagner says the solar shed serves as a great alternative to roof-mounted solar systems in instances when a home’s roof might not be south-facing, is not in the best condition or is heavily shaded by trees. Typically, when a home’s roof is not optimal for mounted solar panels, the alternative option is installing a ground mounted array. However, between the aluminum fabrication that serves as the ground mounts and bringing in an excavator and cement truck to make a concrete base, ground mounts are about 25 to 30 percent more expensive than roof mounted systems.
By offering a solar shed at a cost comparable to roof-mounted systems, the collaboration could make solar more attainable. The state’s net-metering rules would also apply to these systems.
“All of the people that have been looking at solar for a long time and have wanted to do it, a lot of them are just waiting for something to tip in their favor. [For example], if they were put off by the high cost of a ground mount, if their roof needed to be replaced, if their roof wasn’t in a great location. We can put these [sheds] anywhere,” Wagner said.
The solar sheds will be constructed at Backyard Building’s workshop in Unity, where Hochstetler and five employees are able to build a shed in two days using tools that have been retrofitted to be powered by compressed air or storage batteries, to keep their production process off the larger power grid. While the base model for the solar shed must feature a long slanted back roof to accommodate the solar array, customers can work with Hochstetler to customize the appearance and features of the building to suit a host of uses.
Once the shed is constructed, the work is then turned over to Insource Renewables, who will work at the Unity site to mount the solar array and do the electric work on the shed. Before being delivered to a customer, the shed must undergo an inspection by a state licensed electrical inspector. Once delivered, the solar array must be wired to the home, and the power grid, by a licensed electrician.
For both Wagner and Hochstetler, the beauty of the solar shed lies in the efficiency of the collaboration, in both terms of cost, time and the ability to work locally to bring new solar options to Mainers.
“If we can help Insource out, if we can help our customers out, that builds our business. We can build almost any type of building that can fit on a trailer and go down the road. We just assume build solar sheds.”