Florida solar installer continues to work through the storms, pandemic and a tornado

December 16, 2020 was already an atypical New Year’s Eve for Florida contractors Solar Source (No. 209 on the list of the best solar contractors of 2021). The company completed the year of adapting to solar installation in a global pandemic, resulting in steady sales in pool and water heating and a slight decline in residential PV projects.

A canopy of 75 W modules used on the edge of Solar Source’s headquarters in Tampa, Florida.

That December day, the company’s Tampa site had installers in the field and office staff working on site as usual. No stranger to extreme weather, the area received a severe weather warning on 3:48 pm. Solar source warehouse manager Bo Short stepped out at 3:49 PM and saw a tornado coming right at him, so he ran back inside.

Everyone took cover when the F2 tornado ripped off about a quarter of the building’s roof, along with the solar panels attached to it. One side of the building came down, sending wind-induced suction through the 13,000-square-foot space, causing the doors to fly, the ceilings to drop and the glass to shatter.

“It’s like a freight train. It took about 15 seconds and went through it,” said Rick Gilbert, executive VP of Solar Source. “Because our building consists of concrete blocks, we were lucky. The building next to ours has been condemned and a few people have been permanently cut off.”

Uprooted trees and total loss vehicles blocked the road, so emergency services evacuated everyone in the square on foot after the tornado passed. Debris from other buildings and vice versa was found on the Solar Source site. The tornado had flung away solar panels, knocking out cable, electricity and water infrastructure in the affected area.

“I’ve been coming here for over ten years of my life,” Gilbert said. “Just to walk through the building and see the ceilings down, and that was that person’s office. It’s hard to explain the emotional side of that.”

The off-season tornado lasted about 13 miles, but thankfully no one was killed or injured in the natural disaster. In a state known for annual super storms in the form of hurricanes, Solar Source is used to installing arrays to withstand them, but this was the strongest tornado to hit Florida in 28 years.

Solar Source’s Tampa headquarters was very much a museum of solar energy, chronicling the decades since the company was founded. Before the tornado, a canopy made of still-functioning 75-W modules wrapped around the building.

“We hear a lot of people say we’re dinosaurs,” Gilbert said. “We were founded in 1984. It’s been 37 years and it’s always been solar.”

Solar Source employees assess the damage after the tornado.

For the past 37 years, Solar Source has followed the US solar landscape, adapting to market demand, starting with solar hot water and later adding PV sales. The company again adapted in 2020, keeping trucks through the pandemic — and after a tornado.

The company lost a few days of work due to the tornado, “but we were back on track as quickly as possible,” Gilbert said. Some people at the Tampa site are working on construction trailers while the office is being remodeled.

With its other Orlando office, Solar Source has consolidated and relocated some roles until the Tampa building is back in shape. The roof has been replaced, so storage at the tornado-ravaged site has already resumed. Gilbert expects to work with trailers through December 2021.

“But the blessing is that when we get out of these trailers, we’ll be in a newly renovated location,” he said.

Despite the setback, solar installations continue at Solar Source. The company is completing its largest solar + storage project to date, a 1 MW array with 1.25 MW of storage, and has just built a 500 kW carport system on top of a parking garage.

“We’re still in the business of selling, we’re going to start making appointments at home again, and all things considered, we’re doing pretty well,” Gilbert 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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