GAF is branching out from its familiar role as a manufacturer of roof coverings to offer a line of residential solar panels called DecoTech.
The low-profile panels are attached to the roof with a proprietary frame that GAF developed, skipping conventional metal racks that keep panels elevated slightly above the roof surface and require installers to drive fasteners through roofing shingles. The edges of the array are flashed to prevent water intrusion.
GAF has been involved in the commercial solar business for several years with “proprietary financial relationships” that encourage commercial and industrial rooftop installations. But this is the company’s first foray into the residential solar market, now dominated by installers like Solar City, Vivint Solar and Sunnova.
The reason is solar’s growing mass market appeal, Tony Ruffine, GAF’s vice president for sustainability and strategic marketing, said in a telephone interview.
He called DecoTech the “first of a road map of solar products” that GAF plans to roll out in the future. “DecoTech is a gen[eration]-one product and we know that this is going to be a continuing, evolving market,” he said. “This is not a one-shot program for GAF.”
Buy the laminates, make the frames
Ruffine said that GAF buys Tier 1 solar laminates from companies such as SolarWorld and mounts them in a framing system that it developed. The U.S.-manufactured panels have a rated capacity in the range of 300 watts.
“Our product is actually integrated into the roof. There are no shingles underneath it, and not a bunch of penetrations underneath it,” Ruffine said. “It’s flashed all around it. If you watch someone put solar onto a shingled roof and you’re a roofing person, you kind of wince at what they do to get the product in place.”
He said the systems should sell for between 10% to 15% more than a conventional rack-mounted system.
DecoTech was launched at the International Builders’ Show in January, and to date only a dozen or so systems have been installed. But Ruffine said that DecoTech panels are available in most if not all U.S. markets, although some parts of the country are more attractive than others from a climate and net-metering point of view.
Building-integrated choices are few
GAF is trying to make a splash in a tough market. Last year, Dow announced that it was abandoning its Powerhouse Solar System, shingles using a thin-film cell manufactured by NuvoSun. Although the cells blended into the roof visually, they weren’t cost competitive with conventional racked systems.
CertainTeed still makes an integrated solar shingle called Apollo II, and Tesla is now taking pre-orders for its solar cells, which are made with a textured glass surface that looks like conventional roofing. But GAF doesn’t appear to have many competitors in the building-integrated arena.
Ruffine said that GAF is avoiding problems that helped sink Dow’s building-integrated solar program. “We’re taking a different approach,” he said. “They went with a shingle-sized solar product, and that has a lot of costs built into it, a lot of inefficiencies in output built into it,” he said. “When people are serious about solar, they’re trying to generate as much electricity as they can in the space that they have.”
The key for GAF, he said, was to make solar appealing to the mass market, not turn it into a boutique product.
“We looked at solar and said if we’re going to launch something it needs to be a mass-market product,” he said. “It needs to be differentiated enough to make sense. We designed our product to be a great entry point for roofing contractors, roofing professionals who are trying to get into solar. I won’t say it installs like a shingle, but it installs in a way that is intuitive to a contractor.”
GAF offers training to roofing contractors who want to become solar installers through its Care Program, which has eight full-time trainers on hand.
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