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Business heats up for solar company based in Concord

Future looks bright for Your Solar Home after striking distribution deal with American utility

SUN POWER: Solar collectors from Concord-based company, Your Solar Home, are embedded in the wall on the back of an enviro home in Windsor, Ont. Photo courtesy Your Solar Home

Todd Kirkpatrick, a veteran of the high-tech world, went decidedly old school in 2000 when he bought Kerrydale Stables, a Muskoka-area commercial horse farm.

It wasn’t long, however, before the long, cold cottage country winters froze his furrowed brow with thoughts of the substantial investment needed to heat his new venture.

The main barn was warmed by four 220-volt, 5-kilowatt construction heaters, while the main viewing area and offices were kept comfortable by conventional baseboard heaters.

“I had a large energy bill,” Kirkpatrick said earlier this week from the Vaughan offices of Your Solar Home Inc., the company spawned from his hunt for a way to shrink that bill’s bottom line.

What he developed for the stables was a two-section, 71-square-metre solar air collector that produced roughly the same energy as two small residential furnaces — about 22 kilowatts in total.

Out of that project, which reduced his heating costs by 40 percent, Kirkpatrick designed a prototype for a smaller, modular, pre-fabricated solar air collector. By March 2004, he was ready to go into production, and Your Solar Home was launched at the Spring Cottage Life Show.

“We built the very first product actually in a horse barn where the original prototype was developed,” he said. “The next dozen or so we built in a chocolate factory.

“From there I drove them around in the back of my truck and demonstrated them to people, but a lot of people didn’t really understand what it was.”

The early days, he says, were “quite painful”.

From those humble beginnings, Your Solar Home has grown to include a network of 200 dealers across North America, which it supplies from its 10,000-square-foot headquarters and manufacturing plant in Concord.

“I liked the look of the industrial space here,” Kirkpatrick said. “It was clean, it was professional and it was very new.

“I wasn’t very familiar with Vaughan. I just liked the feel of it.”

As the president and chief executive officer, he oversees a workforce that averages five employees, though that number swells when large orders come in, he said.

“We’re still a small company but we’ve really got a nice, lean manufacturing system in place,” Kirkpatrick said. “We’ve spent a lot of money and a lot of time engineering our plant layout.”

Last month, Your Solar Home announced it struck a distribution deal with Xcel Energy, a major U.S. electricity and natural gas utility operating in eight states. Though initially launching in Colorado, the deal could eventually see Xcel distribute Your Solar Home’s products in Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North and South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin.

For more than a year, Kirkpatrick said, his company has been working with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program, aimed at helping low-income households. He is also working on possible new deals with an international skylight manufacturer, a western Canadian utility and an Ontario-based company that rents hot water tanks.

“Business in the past year has really taken a dramatic turn for the better,” Kirkpatrick said, putting his current success in the context of the tough circumstances of the not-so-distant past.

“When I wrote my business plan in early ’04, oil was $38 a barrel,” he recalled. “Now we’ve got $92 oil and it’s been swinging upwards to $99.”

The rising cost of energy, plus a few recent societal “aha” moments — 9-11, the 2003 blackout, Hurricane Katrina and Al Gore’s high-profile environmental activism — have contributed to greater interest in Your Solar Home’s products, Kirkpatrick said.

“People see that their bills are much higher,” he said. “Their heating costs are up 400 or 500 percent in seven or eight years.

“There’s just much more of a social conscience now about people wanting to be more green.”

Kirkpatrick easily perceives the environmental penny-pinching mood in the collective social conscious because it describes what drove him during the cold Muskoka winters of a few years ago — and still does as his company grows.

“I would say I’m a businessman humanitarian,” he said. “I’m not a tree hugger or a staunch environmentalist, but at the end of the day energy is energy, whether it’s electricity or it’s heating, and it’s costing everybody a lot more.”

Vaughan Today
Online: December 27, 2007 [link]