Derecho disaster forces Iowa installer to change plans in 2020

ECG installers have been working to tear down and reinstall solar projects in late 2020. Group Energy Consultants

In August 2020, Iowa solar installation outfit Energy Consultants Group (No. 330 on the list of the best solar contractors of 2021) was just finishing up a long list of repair orders after two major hailstorms swept through the area. Although some solar panels saw hail damage, EKG was busier removing and reinstalling solar systems so homeowners could replace damaged roof structures.

“We had only just found out when the derecho hit,” said Jason Gideon, CEO of ECG.

A derecho is a widespread, prolonged wind storm that can bring hurricane-force winds to an area sometimes unfamiliar with those conditions, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Gideon and his colleagues were at the EKG office about 15 miles west of Cedar Rapids when their phones buzzed with a local news report telling them to seek shelter.

“We went to the second floor of the office and from the west it was just as dark green. It was just really bad quiet, and then all of a sudden just – bam. It was crazy,” he said. “You could feel the whole structure moving.”

While ECG’s office building suffered no damage, most of eastern Iowa was less fortunate. Cedar Rapids saw wind gusts up to 140 mph, and the storm knocked out half a million Iowans, according to the Des Moines Register. The Washington Post reported that the derecho was the costliest thunderstorm in US history.

After the storm passed, Gideon and his team braced for the second impact: more O&M calls than they could handle. While he said none of ECG’s solar systems had been damaged since the company designed them to withstand gusts of 120 mph, dozens of people had parts torn off or damaged in some way. They needed ECG to remove and reinstall panels once the roofs were repaired.

The derecho winds caused this grain bin in Iowa to collapse. Phil Roeder

The calls came in droves. Not just from ECG customers — other solar homeowners sent to voicemail by their original installers asked if ECG would help. Gideon was determined to do everything he could.

“This is my state, man, I was born and raised here; I was one of the founders of the Iowa tax credit,” he said. “I’ve been so helpful with all things solar here that I thought, ‘I’m not going to disappoint my community.'”

ECG charged customers for the tear-offs and reinstallations based on system complexity, location, and other factors, but insurance usually covered the cost. That meant coordinating with multiple parties, from insurance experts to roofers, adding time and effort to an already massive undertaking.

In addition, there were no other available contractors to hire to complete the maintenance tasks and also keep up with new jobs in the pipeline. Almost every skilled worker did some work to rebuild the state after the destruction.

“It was impossible to find anyone. I had to pull my family; I had to pull myself; I had to go back into the field. My fiancé, even my mother, was in the field working on these projects,” Gideon said. “We committed all the resources we could because we didn’t want to abandon our existing customers who had committed to new systems before derecho.”

Soldiers from the Iowa National Guard and the 224th Brigade Engineer Battalion help clean up eastern Iowa after the derecho. The National Guard

The hours were long, the weather was hot and humid, and COVID-19 made logistics even more complicated. Gideon said each employee worked at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

“I remember my own feet were literally bleeding, rubbed raw, because you sit on these rooftops day in, day out. But you have to continue the next day. It was absolute physical exhaustion, it was mental exhaustion and believe me, there were some fights,” he said.

Nearly a year later, the EKG team is finally getting to the end of the tear-off and reinstallation list and the sense of normalcy is beginning to return. Gideon said the difficult time actually helped improve the company for the future. They have reworked rack designs to make systems even stronger in the event of other natural disasters, and they are now well versed in dealing with insurance companies. But Gideon wouldn’t want to relive that year again.

“I was happy to watch 2020 go by,” he said.

This story was featured exclusively in our Top Solar Contractors 2021 issue. Check out the issue and full list of the best solar installers in the US here.

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