Going green is nothing new for Solar Trek in Ocala. For nearly three decades, the popular local provider of top-quality renewable energy systems has been heating pools, cooling air conditioners, and powering whole homes by harnessing the sun's rays.
Lonnie Jerry never expected to see it, but early one February morning, the needles on his home’s electric meter were slowly spinning backward. As the first rays of the winter sun began to hit the panels of his new five-kilowatt photovoltaic system, the house began earning credit from the power company, and The Villages resident was thrilled.
“It felt great,” Jerry says with a chuckle. “I was generating more than I used. Your bill comes back with a negative on it, so the power company actually owes you money. When the hot season kicks in, they credit it to your bill.”
For Floridians, the notion of utilizing the sun’s intense rays to generate electricity for their homes sounds like a dream. Jerry made the notion a reality when he hired Solar Trek in Ocala to outfit his home with a solar electric system. After many months of research, Jerry settled on the 29-year-old company because of its solid reputation, unmatched expertise, and commitment to staying local. Solar Trek offers solar pool heating systems, Smartcool green technology to improve air conditioning/refrigeration systems’ energy efficiency, water-heating systems, and solar electric photovoltaic panels to power homes.
Though Jerry now has a digital meter without the proverbial needles, he’s still keenly aware of his savings. His air conditioner, for example, currently works 38 percent less than before he had Smartcool technology installed. He’s so pleased with Solar Trek, in fact, he’s having a pool heating system installed this month, which has the potential to increase the number of days he’ll be able to swim in his pool to over 290 per year.
Stories like Jerry’s are what drive Vince Biel after all these years. Walking through Solar Trek’s warehouse, the owner is surrounded by reminders of his long and gratifying career. A large photo of a young Biel working on one of the company’s first-ever solar systems hangs above a work station. A shadow-box frame in his office displays a solar panel repair tool he invented as well as a letter of commendation. A photo of Biel and other contractors atop the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center in Atlanta, where they installed 300 solar panels to heat the pools used during the 1996 Olympic Games, sits on a nearby shelf. In yet another photo, Biel is standing next to Governor Charlie Crist after helping install solar panels on the Governor’s Tallahassee mansion in 2007.
“Vince was green before green was cool,” says the company’s operations manager and Vince’s son-in-law, Patrick Altier. “We have patents on several products he’s developed. He recently invented a valve that we can retrofit onto existing hot water tanks to greatly reduce the cost of a solar hot water installation.”
Biel, however, is quick to gloss over his own personal accomplishments and cite customers’ satisfaction as the true indication of Solar Trek’s success. The company only works in solar and never subcontracts its work. Fully insured Solar Trek employees install each unit, and Biel and Altier are often on-site supervising the installation. Jerry was pleased when both men arrived at his home to supervise the one-day installation of his system.
“They’re first-class,” Jerry says, “and very, very knowledgeable. Any questions I had, they could answer them.”
To date, Solar Trek has installed some 7,000 systems in its four-county area of Marion, Sumter, Alachua, and Citrus. They have exclusive agreements on many of the products they sell, including Heliocol, Solene, Smartcool, and Kyocera.
“We only use what we consider to be the highest quality products at the best possible price,” says Altier, who adds that he and Biel also make a point to test every system on their own homes first. “If I won’t use it on my home, I won’t sell it to my customers.”
“Solar is for everyone, from retirees to large families to businesses,” Altier continues. The company is currently installing solar hot water systems at several Marion County Fire Rescue stations. “It used to be exclusive to those with the disposable income to afford it. Now we have so many vehicles to get people into solar, it really is for anyone who doesn’t want to rent their power.”
As for Biel, the thrill of harnessing the sun’s rays to power everyday life has yet to lose its appeal.
“It’s still the most amazing thing to put a panel in the sun, and without any moving parts, it creates electricity,” he says. “It’s still exciting after all these years.”
202 SW 33rd Avenue, Ocala