By Jeff Balch


Brandon Leavitt’s time has come –– again.

As he stands in his solar-heated workshop in Niles, eight men and women listen to him explain his life’s work: harnessing the sun’s energy. He’s been at it since 1976 and his career has risen, then almost set, then risen once more. For him the presentation is familiar and matter-of-fact; for his guests, members of an Evanston synagogue looking to renovate, it’s a prospective bold leap.

Leavitt is standing in front of a 4-by-10-foot solar panel and a 120-gallon storage tank. “We activate the system, and now you’re running your own utility company,” he says. “The system turns on when sunlight hits it, and turns off when it’s dark. We pump a liquid –– usually water, sometimes antifreeze –– to the glass panels on your roof. They heat up the same way your car does on a sunny day. We use the heated water to warm the building, and for showers and laundry and so forth.”

Questions follow. What are the maintenance problems? What’s the life of the tank? Does solar power reduce the need for air conditioning? What about generating electricity? How about the break-even point –– how long does it take to pay back the investment?

His systems are problem-free, he says. “The pump has the only moving parts, and the panels are tempered glass.” He bangs one, hard, with a fist. “And our tanks last longer than conventional hot water heaters because there’s no direct flame and no sediment.”

“For electricity, PV (photovoltaic) cells –– the kind you would need for air-conditioning –– require three times the equipment,” Leavitt says. “And they’re only about 12 to 15 percent efficient. Technological changes are hard to predict, but our units are 70 percent efficient right now in terms of converting sunlight to useable energy.”

Realistic Energy Alternatives

The group nods. Leavitt has seen it for years: the dawning appreciation for ecologically-sound alternatives to familiar, less-sustainable technologies. But he also knows he has to get to the bottom line.

“As for payback, that depends on what you spend and what you save
–– on what system you choose, your usage, the cost and efficiency of the fuel you’re displacing,” he says. “Generally we can cut costs by a third, and we can set up the financing so that the savings cover the monthly payments, with rebates and grant programs covering half the installation costs. And we can connect to an existing forced-air furnace,” Leavitt adds, describing the heat-assist coil “like a car radiator” that circulates hot water to warm the blown air.

It Started with Buckminster Fuller

Leavitt, 56, did not start out in the “future business.” A Chicago native with no college degree, he spent three years after high school in the music business. Then a friend with an engineering background talked him into attending a summer seminar in 1975 with noted inventor/futurist R. Buckminster Fuller. “He’s a big part of what got me into this,” Leavitt recalls. “He was all about solving a problem without creating another one for the next guy. That’s what his ‘Design Science’ is all about. He believed the only Design Science solution to an energy problem has to be renewable.

“One thing we know about fossil fuels is they’re finite,” Leavitt continues. “The more you deplete them, the higher the price –– they’ll get extremely expensive to recover –– so we should be conserving them for non-burning uses, like plastics and pharmaceuticals. Fuller said ‘a problem is a solution waiting to happen.’ On energy, he was right on target.”

Leavitt’s own first steps in renewable energy came in Florida in the mid-70’s. While continuing the informal studies he’d begun under Fuller, he worked with Florida companies developing solar hot water collector prototypes.

“Solar water heaters –– simple tanks on rooftops –– have been used in Florida since early in the last century,” he says. “There are people who have functional collectors that are seventy or eighty years old, and they don’t even know it.” For decades in the first half of the twentieth century, several companies serviced a South Florida solar thermal market of about 50,000 homes.

Florida was where the action was, but Leavitt always knew he would come back to Chicago someday. “There wasn’t much of a market for solar here yet. We had to create one,” he says. That’s what he began to do, writing his own ads, running tests in two leased buildings near the Edens expressway (“where drivers could see the panels on our roof”), and opening Solar Service, Inc. in 1978. His timing was fortuitous. That year, the federal government initiated tax credits supporting solar and other alternative sources.

Heating Mom & Dad

His first customers were his parents in Lincolnwood. Their system is still working. Then he sold systems to three of his former teachers from Niles West, and started giving talks at environmental seminars and other schools. He got on radio shows, and in the fall of 1983 he was interviewed by John Hultman on WBBM. Hultman wound up buying a system for his own house in Northbrook.

“Originally it was going to be two panels,” Hultman says. “But we talked about it and upgraded to four. The costs came to something like $13,000, minus about $4,000 that we got back with the tax credit. Brandon made it easy. We haven’t had him out here very often –– I think we had to replace a connector once and change some insulation to keep squirrels from chewing through, but otherwise it works fine.”

By 1985, he had installed about 300 systems and his business had grossed $3 million. He went from three employees to twenty, and conducted some 100 seminars a year.

Then in 1986 the Reagan administration finished canceling the tax credit for solar energy and the market collapsed. Leavitt had to discharge his staff and close his shop. Other solar companies did likewise, leaving customers unsupported. Leavitt soldiered on, taking over many of their contracts and running a solo solar service business from his home for the next thirteen years. “I did it as an obligation to the customers,” he says. “My lifestyle was such that I didn’t need a lot of income.”

“9/11 Was a Wake-Up Call”

In 1999 the tide turned back in Leavitt’s favor, when the Illinois legislature mandated that Commonwealth Edison provide renewable energy funding. Leavitt ramped up his sales force, leased new warehouse space, and started rebuilding his client base.

“We’re doing about one hundred systems a year again,” he says. “Residential is about 80% of the work, though commercial brings in about half the income.”

In 2003, Leavitt got one of his largest contracts, installing 24 rooftop solar panels on World’s Largest Laundromat & Cleaners in Berwyn. At the dedication ceremony, Lt. Governor Pat Quinn praised Leavitt’s foresight.

“9/11 was a wake-up call that we need more all-American energy,” Quinn said. “We don’t want to rely on some foreign potentate for our energy supply. And Brandon Leavitt: he’s the North Star that guides us. We’re going to make Illinois number one when it comes to solar energy. And in that Hall of Fame, that Solar Hall of Fame, Brandon Leavitt will be there, because he really is a pioneer, a trailblazer.”

Good Business, Good Guy

Tom Benson, owner of World’s Largest, says Leavitt’s solar panels are saving him more than $1,000 a month. His projected savings on gas bills were 20 percent, but in fact have approached 25 percent. The break-even point for his investment, originally projected at ten years, will be closer to six.

“I’m not a mechanical guy, but Brandon made it easy to understand,” Benson says. “You can save a lot of money going solar.”

David Fleming was an employee of Leavitt’s during the first hopeful period, from 1980 to 1986. “I had no idea there was anything like this in Illinois,” Fleming recalls. “It turned out it was the best job I ever had. Brandon was the best boss I ever had, even when everything went bust. More than anyone else I’ve ever known, he lives by the golden rule. Treating everyone fairly, asking for input, never dictating, helping out on jobs even when he’s busy selling.”

“The bust years put everything in perspective,” Leavitt says. “Last year a guy came up to us on a job and asked if he could do some work. He said he’d been unemployed for a while. I asked what kind of work he did, and he told me he was a plumber. He wound up doing good work for us.”

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