David Rodriguez wasn’t looking for a business opportunity when he went to check on his property and visit relatives in Puerto Rico last December following Hurricane Maria.
Rodriguez, a native of Puerto Rico who grew up in Buffalo, is president and CEO of Council Rock Enterprises, a Rochester company that designs solar-powered remote operating systems for utility fixtures such as oil wells or substations. With his electrical engineering experience, though, he couldn’t help coming up with a solution for what he saw as a dangerous situation during his visit to the devastated island.
An octogenarian uncle of Rodriguez’s was using a gas-powered generator inside his house to keep lights and his refrigerator on during the lengthy power outages after the mega-storm. Running a gas-powered generator indoors can cause deadly carbon-monoxide poisoning, but the older man felt he had no choice. Leaving the device in his driveway might have allowed it to be stolen, and the only other available location for the generator outside was difficult for him to reach.
“The dangers of carbon monoxide are enormous,” said Bill Platt, a disaster specialist for the American Red Cross who works with the Greater Rochester Area Chapter. Virtually every disaster he works on, he said, someone is sickened or dies because of carbon monoxide poisoning related to a generator that runs on fossil fuels.
While still in Puerto Rico, Rodriguez called a staffer at Council Rock and asked for a price list of the elements needed to build a generator large enough to operate the basics in an emergency situation. “The wheels started turning,” Rodriguez said. He promised to stop his quest if he ran into roadblocks, but none have arisen yet.
“Instead of running into red flags, I got tremendous support,” he said.
The solar generators already available weren’t satisfactory — some produce only enough electricity to run a radio or charge phones — and Rodriguez felt he could build something better and easier to operate.
He and his staff first did market research by buying every solar-powered generator on the market and testing them. Some are easy to wreck by connecting them incorrectly or drawing too much power, he said. The new company, named inverSOL, wanted to see what happened if they made the typical mistakes on purpose.
“We were successful in destroying all of them,” Rodriguez said. He wanted something safer. “My direction to the inverSOL team is that no matter what, we must think about our kids or grandparents using the generators, and no one can ever be harmed.”
During the research phase, Rodriguez said he realized building the generators in Upstate New York wasn’t going to work. The cost of shipping a 200-pound device to Puerto Rico would be $1,000, and it would cost another $200 to deliver the generator from the docks to the consumer’s home. That’s more than half the cost of the basic model, which sells for about $2,000.
InverSOL is pretty much a Puerto Rican company now, even though it operates under the Venture Creations umbrella at Rochester Institute of Technology, Rodriguez’s alma mater. Council Rock, a majority owner of inverSOL, is a graduate of the same incubator. An InverSOL manufacturing plant and retail store opened in Puerto Rico last month, employing 15 people.
“There’s a deep manufacturing ecosystem on the island,” Rodriguez said. Despite news of major devastation that continues today, a year after Hurricane Maria, he said the people and materials to make the company go are there.
For now, Rodriguez said, “We’re providing executive support and engineering support from Rochester.”
InverSol’s sales force provides training for consumers to use the generators. Each sale comes with 30 minutes of customer training so the buyers will understand how to operate the systems when they need them. They may also need to understand that they need to run some household appliances at one time and others at another time in order to avoid tripping a circuit breaker.
Rodriguez said the setup in not difficult: “an on-off button and that’s it.” Technical help is available online and in person. Units sell for $2,000 to $5,000 depending on their features, and there’s no additional cost for fuel.
That training is key, Platt said, as operating generators currently available can be complicated and even dangerous at times. Hooked up to an outside line incorrectly, an emergency generator can cause a power line worker to be electrocuted, he said.
But Platt raved about having a generator that operates on solar power. Finding fuel, having the money to pay for fuel, and finding fuel that hasn’t been compromised by flooding conditions can be insurmountable barriers during a disaster, he said.
“That’s kind of cool that we have a local entrepreneur considering this kind of thing. The fact that he’s creating jobs down in Puerto Rico is even more amazing,” Platt said.
“Whoever this person is, he’s a really smart guy who saw this need and made something of it. I know nothing of the company but I think it’s a really neat idea.”
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