In normal times, selling solar is a relatively old-school process.
Branded vans cruise neighborhoods, unloading employees who knock on dozens of doors. When they’re lucky enough to find a sympathetic ear, many sellers step into a customer’s home, ready to sign the contract right then and there.
Though the utility of rooftop solar panels is more complex to explain than, say, encyclopedias or a fancy set of knives, the general technique for selling them has been used for over a century. Door-to-door sales practices, used most aggressively in solar by companies such as Vivint Solar and employed by most of the industry's largest firms, are viewed as an essential tool in finding new customers.
The coronavirus pandemic shut much of that down. But only for a time.
Of the nearly 20 home solar companies Greentech Media contacted to ask about current door-to-door sales practices, many said they are currently canvassing.
Sunrun and Vivint Solar, two solar companies that have merged and accounted for about 15 percent of installations nationwide in 2020, confirmed they are using in-person sales “everywhere it’s allowed.” New Jersey-based Suntuity knocks on doors in states including South Carolina and Florida and has only suspended those operations in a couple of states. While Louisiana-based Sunpro “ceased canvassing out of respect for the health and safety of the local communities” where it works for a time, it has since resumed door-to-door sales in cities such as Houston and San Antonio.
The activity can be hard to monitor. Many companies contract with separate sales organizations, and door-to-door sales are largely unregulated. Eight of the companies Greentech Media contacted didn’t respond at all. Others declined to offer specifics on where they had resumed door-knocking. And a few said they had been extra cautious about a return to canvassing. Long Island’s SUNation Solar Systems stopped unsolicited in-person sales in March and hasn’t resumed, though it is now authorized to do so.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 case rates in many regions are higher than in the spring when some states, counties and cities asked residents to stay home or imposed restrictions on how businesses can operate. Even so, those restrictions have been lightened or lifted entirely in many parts of the country — and solar companies are taking advantage of the situation.
The decision about how to conduct sales has not been a simple one. During the course of the pandemic, solar companies have had to cope with a patchwork of shifting coronavirus-related restrictions. Some states with a significant solar market, such as California, have limited many activities.
Others have established few restrictions. Arizona, for example, doesn’t have a statewide mask mandate. In many states, solar was also able to negotiate its way into the “essential work” category.
It can also be nearly impossible to enforce safety protocols in private homes, though some companies such as Sunrun have laid out the steps they're taking. (Sunrun also told Greentech Media it is not aware of any cases of transmission to customers or potential customers.)
The fact that some home solar installers rely on a diffuse network of dealers or contractors makes it harder to track how each company is conducting its work.
“I think some companies exploited that where they could to keep operations running as smoothly as possible,” said Bryan White, a solar analyst at energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie. “We know that not every company has followed the rules.”
Overall, U.S. cases are currently in decline, and vaccines are on the way. Still, the health implications of in-person solar sales are unclear, and health experts have a range of views on the risks.
Some solar companies use door-to-door sales to gather names of potentially interested buyers, a process in the industry known as “lead generation.” That would require minimal face time, according to White.
But other companies, such as market leaders Vivint and Sunrun, often strive to close sales on the same day canvassers make contact. That traditionally requires a lengthy conversation and an in-home consultation, which could mean more exposure depending on adherence to public health measures like social distancing and mask-wearing.
Neither option is wholly without risk, according to Marissa Baker, an industrial hygienist and assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences. But having short conversations outdoors while masked is better than communicating inside for an extended period of time, she said.
“The kind of environment that this disease likes to spread in is indoors in close proximity [and among] people who are interacting for longer than 10 or 15 minutes,” said Baker. “A contact tracer would consider that an exposure event.”
Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security who specializes in emerging infectious disease and pandemic preparedness, said home visits can be conducted safely with “simple safety policies” consistent with public health advice. But he also encouraged shorter outdoor interactions.
The American Industrial Hygiene Association has assembled protocols for “at-home service providers” such as electricians and plumbers, a category that would also include at-home sales. John L. Henshaw, a former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration who helped write those recommendations, told Greentech Media that at-home visits still carry meaningful risk.
“I do think it’s a significant risk, at least currently,” he said. “Primarily because you have a person traveling from home to home.”
Lack of adherence to public health guidelines such as mask-wearing could put sales workers and homeowners alike at risk. Only about half of U.S. adults surveyed in a recent nationally representative study from the University of Southern California said they wear masks — now a polarizing choice in the United States — when interacting with people outside of their households.
WoodMac’s White noted that widely diverging attitudes about the severity of the pandemic across the nation have compelled solar companies to assess the potential threats to their brand alongside the possible health risks of selling door-to-door. Many have opted to shift some or a majority of their sales online.
“There’s inherent risk to [door-knocking]. Not just from a health perspective, but [also from the] response by the customer,” said White. “It only takes a couple of people to get mad about it before you have a problem on your hands.”