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Thomas Myers, SolarSno

Episode 23 | October 23, 2018

A natural entrepreneur from a young age, Thomas Myers and a partner started a Hawaiian shaved ice food truck business in college. He honed his logistics expertise and developed an interest in solar energy while serving in Afghanistan with the U.S. Marines. Those diverse interests and experiences came together in Tom’s latest venture. He and two partners own SolarSno, a business comprised of four sustainably built, off grid solar-powered food trailers serving New Orleans style shaved ice in Austin.

The Human Cost of Energy

While in the Marines, Tom was a logistics officer who oversaw the maintenance of 120 diesel generators at 56 locations, where he saw a direct and tangible connection between fuel and safety. “Coordinating vehicle convoys, the maintenance personnel, the parts, the training to maintain this very sensitive grid of power was very labor-intensive,” says Tom. “My natural inclination is: ‘There’s got to be a better way of doing this.’”

The pressure to improve the efficiency of their logistical supply chains was not just about money. Reducing the need for fuel had a direct and measurable benefit in terms of saving lives and avoiding injuries. Tom notes that for every 40 convoys of Marine and trucks leaving a safe place, there was on average one casualty (killed or wounded), and half of all convoys were for fuel. The 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines had the highest casualty rate in Afghanistan with hundreds wounded. They were able to reduce their fuel footprint by 26 percent, which correlates to dozens of lives protected.

Tom thought, “I want to do something in energy. I want to do something that’s going to make a difference on a large scale. A lot of my reading and research of the ExFOB program and about solar and about cleaner energy led me to the benefits.”

Starting SolarSno

After leaving the Marine Corps, Tom worked for Tesla for a few years and then went back to graduate school with SolarSno in mind. “I had this crazy idea – I want to put solar on [the old shaved ice truck].” The benefits of solar power started with recognition that an off-grid solar power system could lower one of his two biggest cost components, rent and labor, by giving him access to land lease agreements that would not otherwise be available.

Food trucks are always trying to find the next amazing (high traffic, low competition) location as Hey Cupcake did on South Congress years ago. With SolarSno, Tom says, “I can invent an unbelievable spot.” A lot in South Austin declined 80 other food truck applicants but approved SolarSno because it didn’t require power infrastructure. “I pay less for that location than I did for locations back in 2008 within a mile and a half of that location,” says Tom.

Tom’s logistical experience has come in handy as he has built the SolarSno trailers with a do-it-yourself mentality. He has discovered several best practices through his team’s experience over the last few seasons:

  • Closed cell spray foam insulation provides structural integrity and improves the efficiency of the air conditioner, which is also helped by the white paint throughout
  • A pivot mount attached to the solar panels enables SolarSno to orient the truck optimally for both customer service and solar power production.
  • Employees monitor production during and after their shift through inverter photos to enable real-time adjustments to operations (such as minimizing air conditioning usage).
  • Opening later in the day enables 5-7 hours of charging the batteries before a shift begins, which avoids damage to the batteries resulting from an over-discharge.
  • Absorbent glass mat (AGM) batteries are lower-maintenance than lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries, which require monitoring and a cooling component.
  • Additional batteries to be installed before the 2019 season will provide more storage capacity to continue providing power even after a series of cloudy days.

What is Tom’s priority for the trailer design? “I want to have a business that has zero compromise for the employee and the customer.”

What the Future Holds

Tom’s immediate priority is continuing to improve SolarSno’s operations, including hiring great employees for the 2019 season. He hopes to grow the business into an iconic local Austin brand with sustainability at its core. “Sustainability has economic benefits,” Tom says. “It is my competitive advantage.”

He reflects that “oftentimes sustainability is viewed as a check in the box for corporate social responsibility,” but that people in Austin and elsewhere are beginning to realize that “it equates to dollars and cents. I think sustainability will become commonplace as a core function of any corporation or business.”

Be sure to try a SolarSno shaved ice for yourself when the season opens at the beginning of March, 2019!

A SolarSno Tour with Tom Myers

Tom Myers, founder and owner of SolarSno, gives us a tour of his off grid solar-powered shaved ice food trailer.

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