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Selling The Power of the Sun

Article as it appeared on the Bradenton Herald
March 15, 2007
by Sarah Kennedy| Herald Staff Writer

MANATEE - A local company that designs and builds solar products is enjoying booming sales and high interest from consumers wanting to purchase renewable energy products.

Solar Direct sells and installs sun-powered pool heaters and accessories, heat pumps, hot water systems, photovoltaic cells that generate electricity as well as solar lighting and tubular skylights. The company saw a 20 percent leap in earnings during its first quarter, which ended December 2006, said Dale A. Gulden, chief executive officer and director of marketing.

He expects annual revenues for fiscal 2007 to hit $5 million.

"Everybody's wanting to be green," said Gulden, 58, of Bradenton, who co-founded the company in 1986.

A combination of forces such as high petroleum prices, new federal and state tax rebates and incentives and concern over global warming have jump-started interest in the company's products.

The company, which employs 22, designs, assembles and/or manufactures a variety of solar products at its modest facility at 5919 21st St. E.

Gulden has customers in Manatee and Sarasota counties but also sells to clients across the state and nation as well as in some foreign countries.

One of its current big projects is a solar pool heating system it is installing at Hardee County High School in Wauchula. Another project is the installation of solar water heaters at a large apartment complex in New Orleans.

Solar Direct's online presence has proven to be a potent marketing tool. Its two Internet sites account for 60 percent of the company's business, Gulden said. Internet business has "been growing exponentially," because state rebates have created a market for solar electricity produced by photovoltaic cells, he said.

"Psychologically, people would all like to own something that produces free electricity," he laughed Wednesday.

The company's residential "solar upgrades" have also been very popular. A typical home retrofitted with solar electricity, solar water heater and a pool heater can reduce electrical bills by 75 percent each month, Gulden said.

Homeowners approach the company for diverse reasons, including trying to beat higher home electricity costs, providing a backup system when the electricity fails during hurricanes, and more recently, as a means of increasing a home's value, Gulden said.

The company is proud that its products do not pollute. On the Web, it notes that those who switch to a solar water heater avoid carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and other air pollution and wastes. A family of four that currently heats 80 gallons of hot water per day with electricity would prevent 3,400 pounds of "greenhouse gas" emissions each year by switching to solar water heating, the company figures.

Those who buy solar equipment may also claim generous rebates and tax incentives that can reduce the cost of the equipment by thousands of dollars. In the last two years, both federal and state officials have passed new legislation allowing more incentives and rebates for solar products.

Under new proposed legislation, federal tax credits would be even more generous and would be extended to 2016 rather than allowing them to expire in 2008, he said.

The company's most popular product is still its solar pool heating equipment which sells in a kit the client may self-install from $1,000-$4,000, Gulden said. If the company installs it, the cost ranges from $2,500-$6,000, he said.

Gulden hopes to see contractors routinely incorporating solar equipment in new homes in the future and Florida taking the lead among other states in solar technology.

"It's a tremendous opportunity to do it," he said.

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