Derecho disaster forces Iowa installer to change plans in 2020

ECG installers spent the end of 2020 working on solar project tear-offs and reinstalls. Energy Consultants Group

In August 2020, Iowa solar installation outfit Energy Consultants Group (No. 330 on the 2021 Top Solar Contractors list) was just finishing a long list of repair orders after two major hail storms moved through the area. Although a few solar panels did see hail damage, ECG was busier removing and reinstalling solar systems so homeowners could replace damaged roofing structures. 

“We were just barely getting caught up with that when the derecho hit,” said Jason Gideon, CEO of ECG.

A derecho is a widespread, long-lived wind storm that can bring hurricane-strength winds to an area sometimes unfamiliar with those conditions, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Gideon and his colleagues were in the ECG office about 15 miles west of Cedar Rapids when their phones buzzed with a local news notification telling them to seek shelter. 

 “We went up to the second level of the office and from the west it was just this dark green. It was just totally wicked quiet, and then all of a sudden just — bam. It was crazy,” he said. “You could feel the whole structure moving.” 

Although ECG’s office building didn’t suffer any damage, most of eastern Iowa wasn’t as lucky. Cedar Rapids saw wind gusts as high as 140 mph, and the storm knocked out power for half a million Iowans, according to the Des Moines Register. The Washington Post reported that the derecho was the most costly thunderstorm in U.S. history. 

After the storm passed, Gideon and his team braced for the second impact — more O&M calls than they could handle. Although he said none of ECG’s solar systems were damaged since the company designs them to withstand 120 mph winds, scores of people had portions of their roofs ripped off or damaged in some way. They needed ECG to remove panels and reinstall them once the roofs were repaired. 

The derecho winds caused this Iowa grain bin to collapse. Phil Roeder

The calls came in droves. Not just from ECG customers, either — other solar homeowners who were sent to voicemail by their original installers were asking if ECG would help. Gideon was determined to do all he could.

“This is my state, man, I was born and raised here; I was one of the founding fathers of the Iowa state tax credit,” he said. “I’ve just been so instrumental in everything solar-related here, I was like, ‘I’m not going to let my community down.’”

ECG charged customers for the tear-offs and reinstalls based on the complexity of the system, the location and other factors, but typically insurance covered the cost. That meant the company had to coordinate with multiple parties, from insurance adjusters to roofers, which added time and hassle to an already massive undertaking.

Adding to the struggle, there were no other available contractors to hire to help complete the maintenance jobs and also keep up with new jobs in the pipeline. Almost every skilled laborer was doing some work to rebuild the state after the devastation.

“It was impossible to find anyone. I had to pull on my family; I had to pull on myself; I had to get back out in the field. My fiancé, even my mother, was out in the field working on these projects,” Gideon said. “We pulled every resource that we could possibly do, because we did not want to let our existing customers down that had committed to new systems prior to the derecho.”

Iowa National Guard Soldiers with the 224th Brigade Engineer Battalion help clean up eastern Iowa after the derecho. The National Guard

The hours were long, the weather was hot and humid and COVID-19 was making logistics even more complicated. Gideon said every person on staff was working at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

“I remember my own feet literally bleeding, rubbed raw, because you’re on these roofs day-in, day-out. But you’ve got to keep going the next day. It was absolute physical exhaustion, it was mental exhaustion and, believe me, there were some fights,” he said.

Almost one year later, the ECG team is finally starting to reach the end of its tear-off and re-install list and get back to a feeling of normalcy. Gideon said the trying time actually helped improve the company for the future. They’ve reworked racking designs to make systems even stronger in case of other natural disasters, and they’re now well-versed in dealing with insurance companies. But Gideon would not want to re-live that year.

“I was glad to see 2020 go,” he said.

This story was featured exclusively in our 2021 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here. 

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