By Eric Peterson | Jan 12, 2021
Solar generators and backuppower systems
It all started in a campground in the California Redwoods. A diesel generator roared to life in the evening, and made for a restless night for Jakins and his family.
"It went on for hours," recalls Jakins. "The more it went on, the more upset I became. I said, 'This should be illegal.' But there really wasn't an alternative for people if they needed power."
A self-described lover of the outdoors, Jakins says he thought there had to be a better way and resolved to invent a "silent generator" in 2007. "Nobody had done anything with lithium at that level," he says.
After he found the right battery suppliers, Humless released its first solar-powered lithium generator, the Humless Sentinel, in 2009. A sales channel emerged in the form of televangelist Jim Bakker. "He sells end-of-the-world stuff," says Jakins. From 2010 to 2013, Humless sold $18 million worth of products through Bakker, but then his distributor replaced it with what Jakins describes as a copycat device.
"I lost that whole channel," says Jakins. "Rather than throw the towel in and give up, I decided to work on something I saw a bigger need for."
That was residential backup power systems. Three years of R&D later, the Humless Universal line hit the U.S. market in 2018, followed by a South Africa launch in 2019.
The systems can be used in on-grid and off-grid applications, and offer peace of mind in the event of outages as well manage and maximize solar power at most any residence, notes Jakins. "Our system will run for four or five days, then recharge as soon as the power comes back on."
In his native South Africa, Jakins experienced rolling blackouts as a way of life. "In South Africa, we have power outages every day," he says. "When the grid goes off, you want to have a very smooth transition."
In the U.S., the target has been solar-powered households and others looking for contingency plans. "There are a few problems with American systems," says Jakins. "Your solar panels create DC power, but the grid is AC. You've got to put in a microinverter or string inverter to switch that over to feed it back to the grid. My system can take AC and it can take DC power."
With Humless Universal, "You can feed the house or you can feed the grid," he adds. "With traditional systems, you've got one or the other."
Jakins says that helps make Humless Universal systems notably versatile. "Our system works with every single solar inverter in the world," he touts. "We can go to any home and give them battery backup. Our system is stackable and scalable."
Most components, including the inverters, are manufactured in the U.S., and batteries are made in China. "The battery is UL-listed, which is really important," says Jakins.
Assembly takes place at a pair of Utah facilities (12,000 square feet and 18,000 square feet). "We do everything in-house," says Jakins. That goes for software development as well, which Jakins calls the "magic sauce" of the products.
While the U.S. is the top market and South Africa is a distant second, Humless is seeing expansion in both sales and customer geographies. Jakins notes that a $6 million order recently came in from Puerto Rico and the company is also selling into South America as well.
"We have sold 6.5 megawatts of batteries this month [December 2020]," says Jakins, noting that total represents an 8X uptick over previous months. "The word just started getting out."
Challenges: COVID-19 battered Humless' supply chain, and made Jakins seek out more and new vendors for inverters and other components as orders spiked. "We've had to go to other supply houses to buy inverters to keep our supply chain going," he says. "Our supply chain is definitely not what it was."
Another issue: "The U.S.'s relationship with China. We're at China's mercy for the batteries. We just can't get them anywhere else. When we got all the presidential tariffs, that really affected us badly. We hope with the new presidency our relationship with China will stabilize a little, because we worry, frankly."
While Tesla might present another option, Jakins says he's not keen on sourcing from the EV giant. "I don't want to rely on my competition to get batteries," he explains. "That would be suicidal."
It follows Humless will continue to look to China for its batteries for the foreseeable future. "The Chinese have invested in batteries. They have invested billions into batteries, and I've been to all the biggest battery manufacturers in China. They are really good at making lithium batteries, and they're not going to go away."
Adds Jakins: "We bash them, but they've got a great supply chain and they produce a good product."
Opportunities: Solar companies are increasingly co-branding on Humless' products, and the residential market is also growing. "Battery backup is obviously taking off, which is wonderful news for the economy," says Jakins, noting that 2020 was a high-water mark for sales. "We've had our best year through the pandemic."
Needs: More employees. Jakins says he anticipates hiring 20 to 30 people in sales and manufacturing positions in 2021 in Utah and South Africa.
"Because it is a newer industry, there are not a lot of Americans who are trained when it comes to battery backup and installation," he says. "We've got a lot of guys who are trained in solar, but not battery backup. That's a challenge . . . but time will fix that."
Adds Jakins: "Capital's always a big deal for us. When we buy batteries, we've got to project three or four months in advance, and batteries are expensive. So we need working capital just to keep our supply chain going."