While the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc with the US economy, the RV industry has weathered the storm in surprising ways. Indeed, the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association just reported that 2020’s final wholesale RV shipment number was the third highest in history. Businesses supporting the RV industry, like AM Solar, have benefited from the pandemic as well. As a matter of fact, the Springfield, Oregon-based business, which specializes in off-grid electrical system installations, found it difficult to keep up with demand as customers looked for ways to make their “COVID campers” less dependent on campgrounds and on electrical hookups.
“AM Solar has been on a steady growth curve for the last five years,” explained Garret Towne, CEO of AM Solar, “but 2020 brought about a dramatic 40 percent increase in revenue. January and February were busy. Things blew up in March when people probably decided that they had time to work on a DIY project. April and May dipped down as people maybe realized COVID-19 was more serious than expected. In May, people were apparently going stir-crazy with the lockdown and wanting to get more serious about off-grid camping, and we’ve had record setting months ever since.”
AM Solar incorporated several changes in 2020 to cope with the big surge. The biggest change, according to Towne, was adding a second building to handle the increased volume for mail-in orders by do-it-yourself (DIY) customers. AM Solar takes great pride in its DIY kits. These specialized kits come with everything a DIY’er needs to make an RV electrically self-sufficient, including solar panels, charge controllers, batteries, and inverters. Better yet, AM Solar’s DIY kits are made for all types of RVs including motorhomes, fifth wheels, travel trailers, van conversions, and truck campers.
“I hate to make it sound like we benefited from something that caused so much misery,” Towne said, “but COVID definitely made us stronger, and I’m not referring to finances. We never imagined a situation where so much of our workforce would be working from home, and doing it so effectively. When life returns to normal, we now know we can operate with more flexibility and better communication. Different reactions to and perceptions of COVID created a lot of divisiveness in the country, but it brought our team closer together. We found a way to keep everyone friendly, happily employed and relatively safe, despite having a wide variety of health concerns, childcare complications, political views, etc.”
Like all companies and businesses, AM Solar implemented numerous protocols onsite to mitigate the spread of the virus. These protocols included sanitation stations, social distancing, and the wearing of masks to limit the spread.
So did anybody catch the virus at AM Solar?
“Surprisingly, I was the only person at the company to get COVID in 2020,” Towne said. “I had to stay out of the office to quarantine a little over two weeks, but fortunately my symptoms were mild enough that I could work from home and stay on top of things. Another employee got COVID while visiting family out state and had to miss a couple weeks of work in January, but was fortunately he was able to isolate himself and not spread it. We’ve been lucky.”
Of course, AM Solar does more than just sell DIY kits and install electrical systems in RVs. The company also been a long-time innovator in electrical product design supporting the RV industry. AM Solar’s rooftop combiner box is one such product. This watertight, low-profile combiner box has been used in countless RV solar power installations for nearly 20 years. According to Garret, more products to support the RV industry are forthcoming. One of the most anticipated is a Smart Phase Selector for motorhomes and fifth wheels. The device allows a single inverter to send power to both sides of a 50 amp main panel. Garret is hoping to have the unit ready by March 2021.
So what trends is Garret seeing with regard to the types of RVs visiting his shop and the systems being installed?
“We do get truck campers, but most of our volume has been with Airstream travel trailers and van conversions, he said. “Many people are getting three lithium batteries with a Victron Multiplus 3,000 watt inverter. Lithium sales are strong. They account for about 80 percent of our battery sales. BattleBorn has done a good job of keeping up with demand. LifeBlue has some great new low temp products and they are gaining market share. Victron is getting their ultra-compact 200 amp hour batteries back in stock. We will be selling a lot of lithium batteries in 2021.”
As one would expect, getting on AM Solar’s jam-packed schedule has been a challenge. In January 2020, AM Solar was discounting jobs to keep its calendar full. Now the business is working weekends to keep up with demand. As of now, the business is booked solid through May 2021 with a list of about 60 who have for estimates that Garret said he hasn’t even had a chance to get to.
So does Garret have any advice for those contemplating a trip to AM Solar to have some work done on their RV?
“With about 20 requests coming in each week and only enough real estate to handle maybe four jobs per week, it’s clear that we aren’t going to be able to get to everybody. We aren’t going to sacrifice our quality or take on risk by expanding too rapidly, so we have no choice but to turn down jobs. So if you want an AM Solar installation, be patient. Before filling out a quote request, spend some time on our website learning about options for your rig so you know what to ask for. Try to get an understanding of your daily amp-hour consumption. If you come at us knowing what you want and having a clear plan, you’re more likely to get bumped up to the top of the list, ahead of someone that just says they are ‘looking for a quote.’ A quote on what?,” he said.