MidNite Solar’s product launch in September to January is set to shake up the U.S. alternative energy industry. Even better, the Barcelona and Hawke’s Bay charge controllers, the Rosie inverter, and the unique B17 modular inverter are made right here by Americans, in Arlington, WA.
For the uninitiated, solar energy is all about large, south-facing solar panels. But there’s a lot more to it.
It’s about controlling the charge and converting it into usable electricity for building owners, whether they’re off- or on-grid, and doing it reliably and efficiently, through an expertly designed system.
This is where MidNite Solar with its extraordinary range of ground-breaking products comes in.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Robin Gudgel, President of MidNite Solar, the company he founded in 2005, about all this. The company name, he admits, is an oxymoron but a good conversation starter at trade shows. And no, the company does not generate solar energy at night nor is it located high in the Arctic for the sake of midnight sun.
A cat called MidNite
Instead, MidNite Solar is based in Arlington, WA, and is named for the stray black kitten who adopted Gudgel and his late wife, Mary Rintoul, on the night they first inspected the building that would become home to their company – and which has now expanded into a campus of eight, and soon to be nine, buildings.
The ninth building, instead of being a production or sales facility, will offer daycare services for children of employees.
Gudgel had noted that, during the height of the pandemic lockdown, parents were finding they could survive on one salary and that it benefited the entire family to have a parent at home all the time. It’s a sentiment that he sympathizes with – and says that his mother was a stay-at-home mom – however not one that is helpful to his business. With a company-run daycare, where parents can visit their children on breaks and at lunch time, he believes he has the solution to both family and staffing issues.
Gudgel says he’ll need to hire 50 to 60 people when he returns from a major trade show in New Orleans in September to fill anticipated orders for the state-of-the-art products in which he’s invested 17 years and millions of dollars.
Behind the scenes
Although the official start-up date of MidNite Solar was 2005, the expertise in electronics that supports the ground-breaking products dates back to 1971, when Gudgel was a young mechanical engineer working for Phase Linear (later the Carver Corporation), building massively powered stereo amplifiers.
“I learned a lot about power electronics from Bob Carver,” Gudgel says. “He was the godfather of stereo amplifiers and every rock band in the world used them.”
Then Gudgel started his own company, Spectro Acoustics, building amplifiers, tuners, and equalizers. For a while in the ‘70s, he says, it was the largest equalizer manufacturer in the world. He later did a stint designing nuclear bomb launchers and aircraft, and says he “learned how to make things reliable,” which led to his third career, in the solar industry this time, and the formation of his second company, Outback, which he has since sold.
When Gudgel’s business partner Ken Cox became president of Trace Engineering (now Schneider Electric) he began designing products for them, with some of his designs from the 1990s still in use today.
What he designs and produces he says is “really a combination of physics with the look and feel of hi-fi gear and the ruggedness and reliability of military aircraft. The stuff I designed and produced still works after 30 years. You can take a 30-year-old inverter that I helped produce and it is still running whereas competitors’ products have failed,” he says.
“I’m not a business genius, and my late wife would force me to look at a P and L statement once a year,” he admits, “but I do come up with some products that work quite well, because that’s what I enjoy doing – designing products,” he shares.
“My goal has always been to produce the best equipment out there, to pay attention to what the competition is doing, and figure out how to do it better. My brother Bob (who is also part of MidNite) and I have been doing this all our lives. This is what we do.”
The big reveal
When distributors arrive at MidNite Solar’s booth at the Solar Power International trade show in September in New Orleans, and at other large trade shows later in the year, they will be introduced to some outstanding products.
First, there are two new charge controllers, the Hawke’s Bay MPPT Solar Charge Controller, and the Barcelona, an MPPT battery charger, both of which are named in fond memory of vacation spots enjoyed by Gudgel and his late wife in New Zealand and Spain.
Product literature describes the Hawke’s Bay model, which can be paired with a HB Breaker Box, as the least expensive large 600VDC MPPT, either by itself or when outfitted with options, and has three auxiliary inputs/outputs, the most in the industry, and comes as a 90 amp or 120 amp model.
Meanwhile, with a 200 amp, 48V output, the Barcelona “is the most powerful and versatile charge controller in its class and is ideal for medium-to-large size stand-alone and grid-tied renewable systems.”
The Barcelona contains “a built-in breaker box and built-in talking MNGP2 graphics which allow communication, monitoring and programming of all future MidNite products from a single unit,” meaning there is no planned obsolescence, something Gudgel says he hates.
The Barcelona is the ideal companion to the third new product, the 7000-watt Rosie inverter/charger (named for World War Two’s iconic female riveter, Rosie), with an alternative 2800 W, 12-Volt model available for marine, RV, and other mobile applications.
The fourth product is the MNB17 (named for a B17 bomber).
The MNB17’s unique modular construction with the inverter, charge controller, circuit breakers, and lighting system all in one is so advanced that eight patents have been granted. The product literature describes it “as one of the most advanced battery-based, inverter/charger systems ever devised.”
The ‘bomber’ is available in two sizes, the B17-3F and the more powerful B17-5F with a capacity of 15,000 watts, at 52 volts. Its talking graphics panel speaks in English, Spanish, and French and its optional communications module allows communications with other MidNite products as well as to the Internet.
In addition, the pleasing appearance of its artistically designed exterior led one distributor who saw the prototype to say to Gudgel, “I don’t know what this is, but I want it on my living room wall.”
A significant feature of its construction is that its individual components are separated into discrete modular elements, meaning there are no heavy parts to lift and manipulate, which makes installation and repair so much easier. “No matter how good you are, something can fail,” admits Gudgel, “but it’s different with the B17 because of its modular construction.”
The modular moment
He goes on to explain what happens when the lights fail (always on a Sunday afternoon) and the customer calls and asks, ‘What do I do?’
All the dealer can do is tell him to start the generator and throw the bypass switch, and he’ll come out the next day. On Monday, the dealer drives two or three hours to reach the customer, diagnoses the problem, takes it back to repair or replace, and maybe a week later returns to install it. All that time the generator has been running, filling the air with gas or diesel fumes.
But if something happens to one of the B17 inverter modules, the customer can read the meter and tell the dealer there’s a problem with a certain bay. The entire system doesn’t go down and simply operates with less capacity. Nor does the dealer have to spend precious time traveling, but instead, can send a replacement module that “a 10-year-old kid can install in 30 seconds.”
“And it’s safe because these are hot-swappable, meaning that you can pull a module in or out after waiting a tenth of a second to discharge all the voltages down to a safe level. We spent months perfecting that and it works incredibly well.”
“I think in the future the B17 is going to play a large role commercially, because you could have a 10,000-watt inverter if you kept stacking the modules. I can’t imagine all the uses and applications, but, for example, it could be used for a municipal sewer pumping station. I like producing the power where it is used – at residences, for instance.
“So you could have 10,000 or 20,000 watts of solar-panel power, and when you get home at night you could plug an electric car into the battery bank that has an inverter, and charge it with the power you generated during the day.”
Made in America
All of the products MidNite Solar is about to launch meet NEC, UL and CSA standards and have ETL, UL or TUV approval. They are die cast and extruded aluminum enclosures, as opposed to sheet metal; they can switch between 120 / 240 60Hz and 230VAC 50Hz voltage, which makes them suitable for offshore markets as well as the North American one. Circuit boards are coated with Conformal to protect them from contaminants and moisture. Every detail is carefully considered.
Perhaps most importantly, they are all made in the U.S., in contrast to so many electronic products now produced offshore, in China, India, Germany and the Philippines. “People ask me why I build here because no one else is,” Gudgel says, “and I tell them I do it because I’m stubborn, and I like to keep good guys working. That’s my only reason.”
And as for anyone who ever thought black cats were unlucky, the company’s namesake has proven them wrong. At age 16, “MidNite is the most spoiled cat in the world,” Gudgel says, “and sits up with Doug, one of our engineers, and looks at squirrels through the window,” while the company named for her is poised on the brink of huge success with its revolutionary new products.