Kurt Streicher has been designing and installing solar systems for more than two decades and insists the technology has evolved to the point that many people around Our Lakes are starting to switch on to the sun for all their energy needs.
His experience in the industry actual began a world away. “Back in Australia in my hometown of Armidale I had my own small electrical contracting company, which after a couple of years we transitioned into the solar power industry concentrating mainly on off-grid solar power solutions,” he said. “There were many remote areas in Northern New South Wales that did not have access to the power grid, so building off-grid solar power systems for peoples’ remote homes became our core business.”
He did that for just over eight years before immigrating to Kingston. “My wife is originally from Ottawa and we wanted our kids to experience the Canadian lifestyle. We decided Kingston would be a great place to start our new life in Canada. I came from a town of 23,000 people, so moving to a big city just wasn’t something I wanted to do. Kingston has been a great place to live and we enjoy the surrounding lakes district on weekends.”
Initially spending 18 months working for Renewable Energy of Plum Hollow as a solar installer, Streicher launched Downunder Solar in 2007. “Not much different to Australia, just had to point the solar panels to the south instead of the north like back home.” Today most of his installations are in and around Frontenac County.
Technology has improved since he’s been at it – especially the batteries required to power an off-grid home. “We have been using a lot of lithium batteries for our off-grid homes in the last couple of years. These batteries have a much longer lifespan than the lead-based batteries we (mainly used previously) and also charge much faster. Lithium battery up front costs are higher but when you take into consideration the longer lifespan and faster charging they end up being a better bang for your buck over the years.”
There are really two types of systems Downunder supplies for the off-grid market: Three season cottages and year-round homes.
“The three season cottage systems can be less expensive and have fewer components in them, because of the time of the year a cottage is used is mostly in the better sun months,” he said. “A cottage system can cost from $10,000 up to $30,000 depending on your electrical needs and battery technology you choose.” He insists operating a three-season cottage is fairly easy as your system will look after itself providing the sun shines at least a few days a week. “We try to design two to three days autonomy into the battery banks so that your system will operate without any solar input for this period of time.”
A full year-round off-grid solar power home can be a bit more involved. “We need to take into account the winter months where we may have weeks without sun,” he said. So for many home systems we incorporate an automatic start propane or diesel generator. These generators are started automatically by the inverter system which incorporates a battery charger. We program the inverter to start the generator when the battery voltage gets down to a pre-set value and then it charges the batteries back up and then automatically turns the generator off.”
Full off-grid home systems including a generator can cost from $35,000 to $55,000 depending on power consumption of the residents as well as the battery type and generator type.
While solar solutions form the backbone of his business, Streicher explained he has also been able to incorporate propane-power auto start generators, incinerating toilets, woodstoves, propane and off-grid appliances into his business. “Over the years doing off-grid solar business I have always looked for other products that would complement the solar we provide. We are a dealer for Unique Off Grid propane ranges and fridges and also their DC high efficiency fridges. These products are a perfect add on for our cottage customers. We are a dealer of Canadian made Blaze King woodstoves, Cinderella Incinerating Toilets … I think we are the one stop shop for Off Grid products in Eastern Ontario.”
Previously located in Godfrey for the past five years, the time had come for more space.
“We were within LD Powersports, it was a great location and the two businesses complemented each other,” he said. “Unfortunately for me LD continues to expand and they needed my space to make their business work more efficiently. My new location will be good for us as we have a bigger warehouse area which will make our business more efficient and we should be able to stock more equipment. The larger warehouse will also allow me to build some of our prefab off-grid cabinet systems in the winter months. All our business will now be operated out of our new Dalton Avenue location.”
Downunder’s process for a new customer walking in the door at its new office, showroom and warehouse facility at 244 Dalton Ave., is pretty standard. “We first talk with the customer to figure out their power requirements for their cottage or home and then design a solar system to suit their particular electricity usage. This is a very important step in the design process as a kit system might not work for everyone,” he said.
Going solar needs to make sense for you on its own, Streicher explained. NET metering, allowing you to sort of sell power back to the grid (in exchange for credits that only last 12 months) and government subsidies have fueled excitement for the sun as a power source.
“At the moment there is a government grant available up to $5,000 for solar systems. There is an application process that needs to be done by an energy auditing company. This grant has prompted some people to carry out a solar system at their home,” he said, adding governments and their relative support can change fast so your system should be designed to be efficient enough to exist without any public subsidies.
New installations are challenging physically. “Jobs for us are always hard work and sometimes a challenge to get the equipment onto the island and then up to the cottage position, always up… But in the end we always seem to find a way to get it done and it’s a great feeling for us and the customer when we turn on the off-grid solar system for the first time and power up their new home or cottage.”