CANDLER – Loaded onto trucks and shipped off to the highest bidders, most of the old manufacturing equipment at Ball’s Machine and Manufacturing Co. has left the building in preparation for the next phase of the 38-year-old company.
“We’ve still got about four machines left to go, but they’ll be gone in the next few weeks,” Gary Ball said as he walked toward more than 1,000 solar panels and solar arrays in the mostly empty 40,000-square-foot facility. “We’re definitely evolving.”
The change began six years ago when brothers Gary Ball and Gordon Ball created Solarnomics as a division of the manufacturing company.
Until that time, the company had been focused largely on what their father, Joe Ball, envisioned when he started the business in 1976 inside of a two-door garage no bigger than 1,200-square-feet.
When a company would have a machine part break down, they would sent it to Ball’s Machine to be fixed or replaced. During those times, the company completed work for more than 200 clients and business was steady. However, when the manufacturing industry began to decline in 2001 and again in 2008, there was little left for the local company to repair.
“It’s become a throwaway world of parts for us,” Gordon Ball said. “It decreased our volume of work and we’ve had to find other stuff to venture into.”
Inspired by their father’s dedication to build his one-man operation into a manufacturing facility that employed 20 people, the Ball brothers began looking for the next big thing.
“Everything we were hearing was green this and green that,” Gary Ball recalled. “We knew at some point we’d transition to solar, but we didn’t know how or when.”
Three months ago, the duo decided now was the time for the company to turn its attention to Solarnomics and close up the old machine shop.
Like the Ball family, Chris Wilson and his father, Mike Wilson, started in manufacturing.
Chris Wilson worked at the Square-D plant in Weaverville, where he started repairing broken machines around the factory during third-shift and eventually became the director of the UL test lab. For about 30 years, his father served as the maintenance manager for Albany International Manufacturing.
Then, they lost their jobs.
“After our jobs went away, I actually got my electrical contractor’s licenses. Then we got into doing housing, and we did that for three or four years,” Chris Wilson said. “But, I could see that something was fixing to happen. We got together and wanted to try to figure out what the next step was going to be. That’s where we kind of stumbled into solar.”
In 2003, the father-son team in Madison County founded C.M. Wilson, Inc., where the business focuses on the electrical components of solar design and installation throughout Western North Carolina.
Initially, they ordered parts from California. However, when the Wilsons did not like the parts they received from across the country, they reached out to Gary and Gordon Ball.
“We’ve done all kinds of projects with them. They could do the mechanical side of things, and everyone calls us electronic gurus,” Chris Wilson said. “It was a pretty good fit.”
Solarnomics builds the solar arrays, which are the framing, racking and modular systems used to hold the solar panels in place, while the guys at C.M. Wilson, Inc. complete the electrical components.
To date, the solar arrays manufactured by Solarnomics can be found in 15 states.
Though most of their business has been done in Southeastern states like North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia, the arrays are in states as far north as Vermont and as far west as Nebraska.
The company sells solar products for a range of customers and needs, from companies looking for industrial scale installations to a single homeowner who wants two panels installed on their roof.
For residential customers, Solarnomics offers a do-it-yourself kit that allows an individual to install the solar arrays and panels themselves after an electrical contractor sets up the wiring.
“As far as putting one up, it’s like a big tinker toy set,” Gary Ball said.
However, each DIY system is customized to a customer’s needs as well as state and county permitting requirements.
Each system uses an Enphase microinverter — a technology that the Ball brothers said makes their installations unique.
With solar technology, each panel is made up of a series of photovoltalic, or PV, cells. Throughout the day, those cells convert sunlight into direct current. An inverter converts the direct current electricity into alternating current electricity.
“With your microinverter, all of your panels are working independently of each another. You could have panels side-by-side and one could be pulling 100 watts, one could be pulling 125 watts, one could be pulling 150 watts,” Gary Ball said. “With old technology, whatever the lowest common denominator is, that’s what they’re all pulling. So if you’ve got 100 and 125 side-by-side, then they’re both pulling 100 watts. With the microinverter, you’re going to get about 20 percent more electricity than you would from the old system.”
In addition to harnessing the power of the sun and converting it into electricity, homeowners and commercial enterprises can turn solar into green.
In North Carolina, the personal renewable energy tax credit is 35 percent. Businesses and homeowners then also receive a 30 percent federal tax credit, too.
“If you’re paying taxes, it’s a no-brainer,” Gary Ball said, noting that this is a busy time of year for the company with the Dec. 31 tax credit deadline approaching.
However, the company does still hear some reluctance from residents and businesses alike about making the switch to solar.
“If you’ve been doing something for so long, you don’t want to do anything new,” he said. “We spend a lot of time just educating people about solar, what it can do, how it works, how much it costs and whether it’s right for them. Sometimes, folks just need another window and better insulation.”
For Ball’s Machine, though, the ability to adapt has always been the answer to staying afloat.
“Working in the repair industry, we were on call 24 hours a day. If something comes up, you’ve got to get it done. If somebody is broke down, you’ve got to work to get it fixed,” Gary Ball said. “As far as changing, it wasn’t a big deal.”
Though their father is retired now, both brothers said Joe Ball still wants to know what’s going on with the family business. When the company sold its machines on Oct. 28, Joe Ball watched the auction online; and when his sons called to find out whether he was alright with them closing the machine shop to focus on Solarnomics, he told them to “go for it.”
“When you’re younger age and you get a generation older, you think about your kids and the change that we’ve seen from when we were young until now,” Gordon Ball said. “To leave a footprint of something for our grandkids would be worth doing now.”