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Oregon Solar Case Study and Interview: Jim Houser, Owner, Hawthorne Auto Clinic

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This morning, I had the pleasure of speaking with Jim Houser (above center), owner of Hawthorne Auto Clinic in Portland Oregon. Late last year, Jim and his business took the solar plunge. Here’s a transcript of our conversation (audio links coming soon). These wonderful photos of Jim and the crew were taken by solar energy ninja Peter Chee, who is also a professional photographer. He’s one hell of an artist, check more of his work on his website, PeterCheePhotography.com. Enjoy!


Dan: Thanks for taking the time to do this by the way.

Jim: Sure.

D: So, first off, before the solar decision came to pass, was there anything else you’ve done to conserve energy?

J: Let’s see, since we’ve opened the business we’ve been pretty focused on environmental social responsibility. That’s one of the reasons we decided to do this.

We used to share our building with Sunflower Recycling company. I’ve never met a more dedicated group of environmental activists. I think that rubbed off to a pretty strong degree. We learned a lot from those folks.

D: No kidding. Like what?

J: They were very “Reduce, Re-use, Recycle” and so we had the opportunity to learn how to break down boxes and separate materials so they could be useful for recycling.

It was a big old State of Oregon fleet building so we had lots of room . At that point it was primarily recycling, but there was a certain… ethos that goes along with that so we looked for ways that as materials became available, we used less hazardous chemicals, our practices improved, we didn’t wash the floors and flush it into the sewers, we used a damp mop, things like that. We used a lot of trays and tubs to catch things that didn’t end up on the floor.

D: So did they work with you to help improve your processes?

J: We maintained their equipment and they watched very closely how we did things. It was a very close relationship, I mean, we shared the same bathroom and toiletable. We were in constant daily contact. So, there were lots of opportunities for deep philosophical conversations as well as, practical “Gee how do we handle this problem? How do you handle your used oil, antifreeze, and brake fluid?”… All of that sort of stuff.

Because it was easy for us to be very proud of their philosophy in the way they were doing their work, we had a lot of respect for them…they sure weren’t making any money at it . I mean they had routes set up, the first in the city to do curbside recycling pickup. They had vehicles that had to be maintained, and so we had lots of conversations about that as well, in terms of “what’s it mean to be driving around picking up trash?”

But it seemed more efficient than having you know a hundred people each drive their vehicle to the recycling center than have one person pick up everyone’s recycling. And then eventually of course it spread to the rest of the city, they proved it could be done and essentially created the model for what is now commonplace. Everybody does it. But this was in the mid 70s. Pretty forward thinking then.

D: How did the discussion around solar start?

J: When we started it was just the two of us, and now there’s fifteen of us here. So, we’ve got this nice big huge roof which was due to be re-roofed and there are incentives currently in the state of Oregon, so it all seemed to come together very nicely that we could afford to do it, and it was going to make a very nice impact on our electrical usage- reverse the direction we were taking in terms of more electrical usage.

D: Were you actually using less, or just starting to generate some of your own power?

J: Yes, right. There was no way we were gonna stop washing car parts, we’re not gonna stop using computers, and we’re not gonna lay anybody off, so it was our way to lessen what was going to have to be generated for us externally.

D: So, if you could break down some of the financial reasons to do this, we’ve been through a lot of the environmental type of stuff, but you just mentioned the importance of the incentives in Oregon. Could you talk a little about what that meant to your business and your ability to pull the trigger on this decision?

J: Well, we were going to be able to reduce our electric bill by about 40%. So, that was a big one. We can do that, but how long was it gonna take us at that rate (for the system to pay for itself)? Last year our electric bill was $500 a month. This year it’s going down, down, down. I think it was $200 last month. So, we got together with Andy (Oregon’s REC Solar Guru) and our accountant to look at our tax liability.

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Liz and I own the building, so we’re the ones who receive the tax benefits on this. So after talking with them, it figured that based on the various incentives it was going to be paid off in about five and a half years. I mean, there are lots of pieces of equipment that don’t return in that amount of time, and that seemed like a very reasonable return on our investment.

D: Yeah, that’s one of the things we harp on, you’re looking at about a 4 to 5 and a half year payback, and the system is guaranteed out to 25 years and will probably last a lot longer than that.

J: Yep.

D: Is there anything that you’d recommend to any other businesses in terms of working with a solar installer?

J: There are a couple of things, because we had four different people provide us bids. Four different companies. I can tell you that the initial cost of the installation was all fairly close, there was one company that was a little less expensive, but they were not providing a turnkey situation. We were going to have to get the permits, we were going to have to get the engineering studies done. They were just doing the panel installation and the electrical portion, and not a whole lot else of what needed to be done. That’s something to consider. It may be that if somebody is retired and they got lots of time on their hands and want to do that, there may be some value to them in that sort of “do it yourself” approach. That was not my goal . I didn’t find that appealing at all.

As far as the other three installers, one was a small subsidiary of a large electrical construction company, which was ok because they probably were going to know their electrics, though it seemed like they had just gotten started and solar was an afterthought. I was looking for someone with a background and a track record. The other company was very small, just two people and they just picked up help as they needed it, and I thought, “What if one of them gets hurt or gets sick, or if they get in an argument with each other?” They had mostly done residential, which isn’t really a big deal, since in some ways this project looked easier.

But again, the main thing was the installation warranty. Everybody else was two years, but you guys were quite a bit longer than that (10 years). I brought that up with everybody else when they said, “Why didn’t you choose us?”…and I said, “Well, I have to say that the warranty was a pretty strong consideration.” They countered back and said, “Well once it’s in, nothing really can go wrong with it.” Then I said, “Well why don’t you put on a warranty if there’s no risk?!” Cause you know, you might be accurate, I don’t know.

D: One less thing to have to worry about.

J: Yeah, so piece of mind stuff. A lot of it was piece of mind, you know. How long has the company been doing business? What kind of interaction are we going to have with them during construction? All of those sorts of things become important because you have to think that all of these things are going to be happening while your business is going to be in operation and you have to think about how is this going to affect my overall business activity.

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D: Sure. How did the installation actually go?

J: It was absolutely great. Your guys were just great. We had huge snowstorms during the middle of all this which made it a little slippery and people had to be careful. There were some days where installation couldn’t go on, plus at the end there was that huge storm and we needed to get installed before December 31st. PGE who was responsible for hooking the thing up by then had pulled a lot of their crews to go take care of downed power lines and we were concerned they weren’t going to have a crew left to hook us up. But they called us and assured us that we were a high priority and they want these things to work. They came out and we were knocking snow off panels and hooking us up!

D: That’s great!

J: Yeah. So everybody worked really well, there were no hiccups, no surprises it all went really really well. It was great fun. We did learn when there was 3 inches of snow on the panels they don’t generate any electricity!

D: That was one hell of a storm this past winter. I’m from Chicago and it actually brought back some warm fuzzy feelings. Yeah, definitely need to get the snow off the panels to make them work. One last question before we go, is there anything that has happened in the past 3, 4, or 5 years that has forced you to change the way you do business?

J: The electric motor/generator technology. That’s fun, something exciting to me and especially our younger techs. It’s fascinating, just fascinating. That, and I believe people are gonna buy fewer cars. I think the whole model of buy a new car every 4 or 5 years is going to go away, not totally, but even when the economy evens out, people are going to want cars that are more durable, last longer, more fuel efficient and economical. All of the manufacturers, now that Toyota has proven they can get 50 miles per gallon from a midsize car, not a little rinky dinky econobox. A car that comfortably seats 5 people and you can get 50 miles to the gallon in that. That’s huge, and it has very low emissions, low CO2.

D: Do you feel like by embracing and adapting to new technology in this way, that this has become a strength of your business, something you do better than others out there?

J: I think there are a few of us who have stayed ahead of the curve, who have adopted the training, tooling, and proper mindset. There’s a handful of shops in Portland who have done that. A lot of the rest of them have their heads in the sand.

D: On the technology front you were talking about more durable cars, if people are not bringing their cars in as much, does that present kind of an issue for you?

J: Well actually, because they aren’t buying new cars, they are bringing their cars in because they don’t have those durable cars yet . So, right now we’re doing just fine. Actually, it’s kind of crazy. I will say that up through last year until the economy went to hell, we were doing more kind of maintenance stuff, now a lot of people are not doing the kind of long term maintenance they’re keeping more cash in reserve but lots and lots of people are fixing their cars instead of buying new ones. So we have more cars per day, but they aren’t spending as much per day—Which means we’re a little more hectic.

D: Thanks so much Jim. Would you mind if I put some of our conversation online?

J: No not at all! I think it’s good you’re doing this.


D: I think so too, thanks again!

J: Yep! Thank you!



If you’re in Oregon and know someone who would be interested in receiving more info about solar energy for Oregon businesses, simply connect with me here, or fill out the form below!

Cheers!

– Dan

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