Doug May used to watch with unease as solar builders assembling his firm's rooftop mounts raced up and down ladders to fish crumpled manuals from their trucks, or rummaged for instructions on clunky laptops.
And so, like others in the industry, he created an app for them.
Last week, Albuquerque-based began offering installers mobile apps for its aluminum and steel mounts for photovoltaic (PV) solar arrays. The free products are available for users of Apple's iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch but could be developed for Google's Android and other phones later this year.
"For us, it is all about how we can make the installation go smoother and how we can be easier to do business with for our customers," May, CEO of Unirac, told SolveClimate News.
"We've come to the conclusion that 'solar 2.0' is happening in terms of taking down the total cost of ownership and providing products and services that meet the engineering requirements of our customers," he said.
Unirac has a 30 percent share of the North American solar racking market and was recently acquired by Lichtenstein-based powertool giant Hilti Group. The solar firm's client list includes the Google Campus in Mountain View, Calif., and Universal Studios in Hollywood.
May said: "If we're going to be competitive in the years to come in this industry, we have to think of ourselves not just as a manufacturing company but really as a solutions provider."
The solar firm first developed a separate mobile platform for its website in 2008 as Unirac customers switched to smartphones. May said that some 800 installers signed up in the first year and a half, encouraging the company to take the next step.
Unirac then partnered with an unnamed software developer to create the first two apps. The turns a smartphone into an inclinometer, which measures the angle and tilt of a rooftop to determine the sunniest latitudes for panels and costs around $20 in its non-digital form.
The QR (Quick Response) app allows phone cameras to scan a product and download installation guidelines, blueprints and sales information.
The racking company also launched a of its website, though the original mobile platform will continue to run. By logging onto the new version, installers, contractors and project engineers can configure price quotes, locate distributors and access three-dimensional images of sites and products via Microsoft's Photosynth program.
Marcelo Gomez, Unirac's director of marketing, said: "Mobility increases the installation rate, and it helps reduce project cycle time.
"We want to do our job so our installers can do theirs."
The firm's "Digital Advantage" products so far have averaged 180 downloads per day since going live last week, he said.
Gomez noted that the mobile tools were created specifically for Apple products because nearly three-fourths of people who access Unirac's website via smartphone do so from an iPhone.
Solar Apps All the Rage
Like Unirac, a rising number of solar industry companies are taking advantage of rapidly advancing smartphone technologies to both speed up solar power installations and market their brand as cutting-edge.
, a German PV inverter manufacturer with a California-based subsidiary, offers a Solarchecker app for iPhones that calculates the size and capacity of a solar system based on available roof space. It then uses GPS information to determine costs based on local feed-in tariffs, loan interest rates and potential revenue generated by the system.