Solar installer profile: Buglet Solar

Buglet Solar keeps it small for big impactWhitney Painter’s mother called her Buglet as a child. The nickname stuck, and, try as she might throughout her life, she could never shake it.

When her now husband Bart Sheldrake learned of the nickname, it became beloved. And before Painter knew it, they had incorporated Buglet Solar as their co-owned business. Today, the two hold true to the intimate nature of the name. They are Buglet Solar.

The company has had plenty of time and opportunity to grow, but Painter and Sheldrake like working together, just the two of them, to install exactly the right solar arrays for their customers.

Right now they are installing a large solar array on the steep roof of a barn in Evergreen, Colo. Howard and Jan Duncan will get about 110 percent of the energy they need to power their home from the solar panels Buglet is installing.

It’s the second solar array the Duncans have hired Buglet to install. The first one was on a remote cabin in the mountains.

They owned a piece of vacant land, but taxes on undeveloped property had gone up to 29 percent, Howard said. Taxes on a cabin would only be 7 percent, he said.

“So we built a cabin,” he said.

But getting electric to the remote area would have cost a fortune, so the Duncans shopped around for alternative energy options and heard about Buglet Solar from friends.

The cabin’s solar array feeds into a battery storage system.

“Out there, off the grid, you have to have a battery,” Howard said. “Here, in Evergreen, Xcel is our battery.”

Xcel is the utility company in Evergreen. The Duncans said that even though the system isn’t cheap, and it won’t pay for itself in the blink of an eye, the payback is improved by state and federal tax incentives along with incentives from Xcel Energy.

Painter and Sheldrake started their business in 2005. They both come from different but complimentary backgrounds that make them an ideal pair for operating a solar installation company.

Painter is business savvy, with a marketing and journalism background. She covered the White House for CNN for some time before moving to Colorado.

Sheldrake is an engineer. He worked for several years at Lockheed Martin before leaving to build custom carbon fiber bicycle frames.

buglet solarToday, Painter handles the business side of Buglet Solar, and Sheldrake manages the technical side. They both go to all of their installations together and work on the roofs together in most cases. Most of the time, it’s just the two of them.

For heavy-duty ground-mounting jobs, they bring in some help to dig the holes, Sheldrake said. That can become back-breaking work in a hurry. Both Sheldrake and Painter have brothers who work in construction and live in the Denver metro area who they can call on if they need a little extra help.

“Otherwise, we really kind of like it being just the two of us,” Painter said.

They started Buglet Solar in 2005 before demand for the technology really took off and before incentives helped to spur solar’s popularity.

“Things have changed a lot since we got started,” Painter said. “When things got a little crazy this spring with the Xcel rates, I think it might have been easier for us to weather the storm since we are so small.”

Xcel suspended its solar rebate program due to overwhelming popularity for a time this spring.

Buglet Solar gets 95 percent of its business through referrals and doesn’t contract with one specific solar manufacturer.

“We build everything custom,” Painter said. “We work with a lot of different suppliers so we can get exactly the right fit.”

Some of Buglet’s customers have unique shading or roof grade issues, and some are very concerned with the aesthetics and can only have all-black solar installations.

They are currently working with one customer who is an employee at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The lab will measure his solar installation and is helping to pay for it. But he wants a specific combination of technologies. Buglet has found that a lot of their clients are people with some technical background who really know what they want and are looking for something specific that other solar retailers may not have the flexibility to offer, Painter said.

Solar was a good fit for the couple. Mutual friends introduced them to each other and they hit it off right away. They had a lot in common. Painter had a stressful job and was burned out. She wanted to do something different. She and Sheldrake were in the market to do something together. They wanted to do something that was good for the environment and the world. Sheldrake had been interested in solar since his high school physics class.

They don’t just do right by the environment by helping people go solar. They commute to all of their solar sights by bike if they can. The commute from their home in Golden, Colo., to the Duncan home in Evergreen takes 2.5 hours and is uphill the entire way.

They don’t mind.

“It part of what this is all about for us,” Sheldrake said. “We look at it as an opportunity.”

He likes long bike commutes like this one and looks at them as an extra challenge and chance to get a good workout. They park their Buglet Solar box truck outside of the house they’re working on and ride back and forth. When they go together, Sheldrake and Painter take a tandem bike.

Sheldrake used to race, and now the two of them participate in tandem races occasionally. They did a 100-mile race through mountain terrain the week before they started work on the Duncan installation.

Painter said she loves working in the solar industry. It’s different from previous jobs in media, she said.

“This is more tangible,” she said. “When you work on solar, you can see it go up, and you can measure its results and know you did something. It’s quantifiable.”