Bob Kulp is co-owner of Kulps of Stratford, a roofing company he founded 25 years ago in the central Wisconsin town of Stratford. The company is now venturing into solar installation.

Replacement Contractor: Are you a residential or commercial roofer?

Bob Kulp: About 85% of our business is roofing and about a third of that is residential, a third is steep-slope commercial-churches and larger institutions-and a third is our flat-roofing division. We also have a spray foam division that accounts for 6% to 8% of our business and a specialty metal division that does finials, crosses, and intricate metal work that generates from 6% to 8% of our revenue.

Solar Launch

RC: When did you decide to get into solar?

BK: We first began hearing about it through the National Roofing Contractors Association in the fall of 2008. We let it simmer over the course of the winter. In March 2009, I put together a survey to our e-mail list of 3,500 with 10 quick questions relating to solar installation.

I was particularly interested in what people thought would be the payback and what kind of payback they felt would make solar worth their while. We had 200 people fill it out. Forty-nine indicated we should contact them. One of the surveys went to a person we'd never done a roof for but who had huge solar industry knowledge and experience. So we hired him as our solar specialist. We did our first installation in August 2009.

RC: How did you select the product?

BK: We basically turned it over to our solar specialist. We wanted to do something that fits well with what we've got. He suggested a flexible solar laminate product. It's 15 inches wide and comes in 9-foot or 18-foot sheets and has adhesive backer not unlike ice and water shield. You peal the backer off and adhere them.

RC: Where have you found the most interest?

BK: In the first six months we sold 12 systems. Ten were residential. That's the primary interest in our area. I think the reason for that initial start is that the buying cycle in residential is a lot shorter than in commercial. Unfortunately, on the residential side building owners are not able to depreciate a solar installation as they would if it was a business asset. The problem for churches is that, as nonprofits, they can't get that 30% tax credit, which makes for a longer payback time. But there's still some interest.

RC: What local incentives exist?

BK: There are places in the U.S. where you can put up a $30,000 solar array and by the time the incentives kick in it won't cost you a dime. I think that would take a lot of the fun out of selling. In Wisconsin incentives typically total about 45% of the solar array cost. We have a program called Focus on Energy that many utilities put money into. It's a clearinghouse of information that gives a list of incentives. There's also a USDA program for farms and small businesses that we're just starting to look into. That covers 25% of the cost to qualified applicants. It could knock three or four years off the payback period. So with that and Focus on Energy and utility incentives and some southern exposure, you're down to four or five years payback.