We have used Unirac’s products exclusively since we started in this business some seven years ago. We have worked with Unirac to supply donations to the owner of a wind-damaged array and for the USC team at the Solar Decathlon. We trust their products and believe in the company.
But what we have heard recently leaves us pleading, “say it ain’t so.” In response, here’s our Open Letter to Unirac Management:
To: The Decision-Makers Regarding Solarmount Evolution
From: Jim Jenal, Founder & CEO, Run on Sun
Subject: Say It Ain’t So
Dear Folks -
You may not know me, but many in your company do. I am the owner of a solar installation company in Pasadena, California, and I frequently blog about issues in the solar industry. Today my issue is your apparent decision to discontinue the Solarmount Evolution product. Folks, with all due respect, this is a terrible decision. Please let me explain.
We have always used your products on our projects - whether conventional Solarmount, tilt legs, Clicksys, Fastfoot, or Solarmount Evolution - Unirac has been or brand of choice. We appreciated our shared values - maximizing the durability of the systems that we were installing for our clients.
But one thing about conventional Solarmount always bothered us - the design of the end clamps that you featured.
That design has just never felt right - for a couple of reasons. For one, there’s the angle - no matter what you do, that clamp is never truly perpendicular to the rail. Over time, as things expand and contract in the sun, that nut is almost certain to loosen a bit and that clamp just looks like it longs to go “somewhere else".
But then we encountered a serious failure and that got us worrying about a second issue.
That T-bolt is stainless steel but it is sitting in an extruded aluminum channel. I had seen an overly enthusiastic installer torque that bolt right through the channel - clearly not following procedures, but then there’s lots of folks out there who don’t follow recommended torque settings! But when I saw what could happen when bad installation practices encountered a generational windstorm, I really became concerned.
Here that T-bolt has chewed its way completely through the aluminum channel resulting in a catastrophic failure of the array. When we came upon that failure, we turned to you to help us make it right - which we did, together.
The solution involved your Solarmount Evolution product and, having installed it once, I vowed I would never install conventional Solarmount again. Why? Because you had truly created a product that was superior in every sense: vastly stronger, clearly more secure over time, and even easier to work with on the roof!
Look at the difference between the end clamp on the left versus the one above and ask yourself - which of these would you want securing a solar array to your roof for the next twenty-five years? Not even a close call, is it?
You had done what every quality manufacture strives to do - you had built the better mousetrap. We told everyone we spoke to about the benefits of your new product and we used it exclusively on all of our projects thereafter.
We heard some people complain that it cost more than conventional Solarmount. Frankly, we didn’t notice and we didn’t care. The product was so demonstrably superior that what difference did it make if it cost a few cents/Watt more? We certainly didn’t ever lose any business because we specified it - but I can say with total knowledge that we closed some deals simply because of it.
So now we hear that you are going to discontinue the product altogether.
We would implore you to rethink this decision.
Some products, like some television shows, take a while to catch on with the public. After all, NBC nearly failed to pickup Seinfeld, a program that many critics ultimately considered one of the best ever aired. Solarmount Evolution is that good - but it needs a longer run to gain traction in the industry.
Here’s a suggestion - you are rolling out a new product for use with commercial flat roofs that greatly reduces your costs in providing that solution to the industry. Take some of that money that you are going to save thanks to that new product and plow it back into major marketing for Solarmount Evolution. (Maybe hire Solar Fred to handle the campaign - who better to kick start a product in this field?)
Solarmount Evolution deserves another season - it would be tragic if you were to cancel a hit before it gets a chance to find its audience and shine.
Jim Jenal, Founder & CEO, Run on Sun
We have previously reported on - and been critical of - the handling of defective solar tile systems installed in new “solar” homes built by Centex. Now we are happy to report that after much delay, Centex is stepping up to the plate and replacing defective solar tile systems with new, conventional solar arrays. Here’s our update.
Centex Solar Home in Pleasanton, CA
First some background - between 2006 and 2009, Centex built “solar” homes like the one at the right in Pleasanton, California. These homes featured solar roofing tiles that became the subject of a recall by the Consumer Products Safety Commission and were manufactured by Open Energy Corporation, which became Applied Solar, Inc., which became Applied Solar LLC - which then went bankrupt and ceased operations.
That left Centex to address these problems and as we previously noted, they were taking their time in doing so and were asking homeowners to sign an especially pernicious release of rights before agreeing to undertake repairs. Then this summer, Centex stopped making repairs altogether after a series of fires broke out in homes that had been “repaired". Clearly what was needed was for the old tiles to be completely removed, the roof restored and a new, conventional solar array installed.
Well now we are happy to report that Centex has agreed to do exactly that.
Based on an independent review of the OE-34 panels, Centex is not confident in their long-term viability and safety. Because of this, we are pleased to inform you that we will replace all existing OE-34 solar panels with new solar panels at no cost to homeowners. This includes all homeowners who have previously had their systems repaired.
In short, we believe resuming repairs is simply not sufficient to address the issues with the original solar panel system. When repairs were suspended and investigations underway, all homeowners were instructed to turn off their systems. We remind you to continue to keep your solar system turned off until the new system is installed.
Our goal is to replace all existing solar panel systems by February 2014. This replacement schedule is aggressive, but we have retained several companies to conduct the necessary work that entails: removal of current solar system panels, installation of new roof tiles in their place, and installation of a new raised-panel solar system. We estimate that it will take approximately two days per home for the removal and installation process.
This is very good news indeed and we applaud the decision by Centex to take this step. Finally these homeowners will have the “benefit of their bargain” and once again have the opportunity to live in a solar home.
The letter identified the solar modules to be used as coming from either Hanwha or ET Solar and had links for more information about each of those. Unfortunately, those links appear to be broken so we have uploaded the datasheets for the identified solar modules. Here they are:
We will continue to monitor this story and we encourage affected homeowners to provide us with info about their experiences with this repair and replacement program in the comments below.
We saw a piece today about a fire on a distribution warehouse in New Jersey that was gutted in part because the local fire department was afraid to interact with the solar power system on the warehouse roof. As solar makes greater inroads on commercial buildings, what can we as an industry do to address this concern? (H/T SolarWakeup.com)
The distribution center, owned by Dietz & Watson, was a refrigerated warehouse that supported over 7,000 solar modules according to news reports. From Google we get this image of the center in happier days:
This is a very large commercial array by any measure - even if those are 200 Watt modules you are looking at a 1.4 MW install on the roof, to say nothing of the additional capacity installed in the carports to the west.
It is also a very nicely designed array with clear access paths throughout the roof and plenty of potential areas that could be broken open to allow for venting (although I’m sure from a fire fighter’s perspective, they would always want more).
Sadly, this is how it looked during the fire:
Here is the view of the blaze taken from the raw video recorded by local TV station NBC10:
This image makes clear that the NE quadrant of the building has been extensively damaged - the black area is where the solar panels have been completely destroyed.
The image also makes clear that the fire department chose to fight this fire from the ground, spraying water and foam onto the roof as opposed to going on to the roof itself. (There was no explanation given as to the cause of the fire.)
The local reporting indicated that the fire crews were concerned about possible collapse of the roof due to the amount of water being poured onto the fire. But they also mentioned the concern over possible electrocution:
Firefighters had to pull back at some points because the fully-charged solar panels posed the risk of electrocution.
“With all that power and energy up there, I can’t jeopardize a guy’s life for that,” said [Delanco Fire Chief Ron] Holt.
So what to make of all of this?
There can be no doubt that solar installations have the potential to make the already dangerous business of fighting a fire more hazardous. Strings of solar panels can produce as much as 600 Volts DC and as a general rule, there is no way to shut them off from the ground. While a DC disconnect on the ground could isolate the array from a ground mounted inverter, there is still potential in the conductors leading from the roof to the inverter. If those conductors are shorted together - due to either a fireman’s actions or the fire itself - there is the potential for significant arcing and possibly even electrocution.
Of course, one way to reduce that risk is through the use of microinverters or AC modules. With a microinverter, the only conductor runs are AC which can be safely switched off from the ground meaning that any conductors coming from the roof to the ground will be safe. The individual solar modules can still produce power, but there are no strings to slice into or suddenly short to create a dangerous condition on the roof. While microinverter systems are not generally considered on systems of this size, Enphase recently announced the use of their products on a 2.3 MW commercial array - possibly larger than this one.
Which begs the question - would that have mattered here? Maybe, maybe not. The question really is a function of how well would the local fire department understand the difference? When we talk with local fire inspectors, they are always appreciative of the added safety to be found with microinverter systems but how well does the inspector’s understanding extend to the fire crews reporting to that fire? Would they have trusted that the claimed safety was real and moved more aggressively to fight the fire on the roof? Or would they have elected to play it safe?
The solar industry can work to develop safer products - which microinverters surely are - but that won’t matter if local fire crews aren’t educated as to how best to fight these fires. Interestingly, while local codes require solar installers to provide all sorts of largely useless signage on our arrays - for example, specifying the nominal AC voltage and current as if that would make the least difference to anyone - there is no requirement to indicate whether the type of inverter being used. Absent such signage, how would a local fire crew know what they were facing?
Maybe our friends at Enphase can design a placard to attach to our AC disconnect switches that advises the local fire department that throwing that one switch renders the conductors coming down from the roof safe.
So much of what we must do in the solar industry is education - this is perhaps one area where we need to improve our efforts.
We've written before about the problems with solar roofing tiles on homes built by Centex, one of the nation's largest home builders. Now we have heard that they are suspending their repair program, leaving homeowners with no recourse but to shut down their systems. Here's our update.
Last December we wrote about how Centex was dragging its feet on repairing faulty solar roof tile systems in "solar homes" that they built. Despite a mandated recall from the Consumer Products Safety Commission, Centex was demanding that homeowners sign an overreaching release form before they would begin repairs. In the meantime, homeowners had been advised to turn their systems off to avoid a possible risk of fire. Here was the release language that concerned us:
Release. In consideration of completion of the CPSC Repair [i.e., repair of the solar tiles] owner releases and fully discharges Centex Homes from any and all liabilities, claims, causes of action, or damages of whatever nature, character, type or description, which Owner may have or may incur in the future, arising out of, or in any way connected with component parts, being replaced/added under the CPSC Repair.
We wrote then that it seemed unfair to make an innocent homeowner either release all of their rights regarding future problems or be denied the "benefit of their bargain" regarding owning a solar powered home.
Now we are getting word from affected homeowners that Centex has completely suspended its repair program in light of new fires that have occurred in allegedly repaired homes. Here is a copy of an email that Centex sent out to homeowners in July:
Dear Centex Homeowner:
Thank you for taking the time to read this update regarding your solar panels.
As you are aware, after months of working with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Suntech, Eagle Solar, and Sonoran Roofing, recall protocol repairs involving OE-34 solar panels began November of 2012. Once repairs are completed by Sonoran Roofing on a home pursuant to the Consumer Product Safety Commission protocol, and required testing has occurred, homeowners have been turning their systems back on. The vast majority of homes repaired have had no issue after the recall repair was performed. Recently, however, two homeowners have experienced fires at some point after turning their systems on.
In late March of this year we were contacted by a homeowner who had a fire start at one of their solar panels. Upon completion of expert investigation by independent inspectors it was determined the fire originated at a single defective panel. The fire was not linked to the recall repair performed earlier on that home; rather, it was due to a defective tile manufactured by the solar panel company.
We were recently contacted by another homeowner who had a fire start at their solar panels earlier this month. We are currently working with independent inspectors from multiple companies to determine the cause of this recent fire. It is imperative that we know whether the cause was another defective panel or some other issue.
Until such time as we determine the cause of this fire and are confident that repairs can safely continue we are suspending all repairs. We expect to have the results of the investigation in the next 4-6 weeks. Once we have those results we will contact you again to advise you of the findings and the status of future repairs.
It is our direction, based on that fact that there have now been two reported fires involving these particular solar panels, that you shut your solar power system down immediately until further notice if your system is currently running. We advise you to keep your system off until notified otherwise.
Again, please make sure your solar power system is completely shut off until further notice.
If you have an urgent issue, please contact our office at Norcal@Centex.com. Otherwise, we will update you as soon as we have any new information. Please be assured that we want these repairs completed as quickly as possible, but we will not sacrifice safety for speed. Thank you for your patience and understanding.
Centex Homes Northern California Division
(Underlining in the original; other emphasis added.)
Now we have no complaint with not wanting to "sacrifice safety for speed", but it seem that at least so far, Centex has provided neither. One of the homeowners who contacted us indicated that a neighbor's house had also suffered a fire in their roof as well - bringing the total to at least three fires associated with these systems, since the Centex repair program began.
The existence of these fires makes the pernicious release that Centex was trying to extract from homeowners even more disturbing. Based on the language above, if a Centex customer had signed that release, allowed Centex to send in its repair team, and then suffered a fire caused by the solar roofing tile system, Centex would have no liability or obligation toward that customer at all.
We contacted Centex at the email above last week seeking comment but aside from an automated reply we have not received any response from the company.
As always, we welcome any comments from affected readers and if we hear back from Centex we will update this post.
A coalition of major utilities is calling on the California Public Utilities Commission to develop regulations that would require the use of so-called “smart” inverter technology on a “fast track” to address “issues” arising from the growing adoption of solar. But that got us wondering - is this really a concern now and is a fast track response appropriate?
(H/t, Solar Industry Magazine.)
The utility group, which calls itself WEIL, for Western Electric Industry Leaders, issued a letter on August 7 urging regulators to require the adoption of smart inverter technology, citing an “immediate need for the new solar generators that residents are placing on the grid in ever increasing numbers to be fitted with ’smart inverters’ to provide the necessary voltage support for us to integrate these resources effectively and prevent costly future renovations and reliability impacts." Wow, that sounds dire - solar power systems that residents are adding to the grid could create “reliability impacts". Quick, do something!
The letter continues:
However, if smart inverters are not installed, these voltage swings [due to PV output variability] can potentially damage utility equipment and residents’ home appliances; increase overall cost of maintaining the grid; require continued installation of larger, more expensive alternatives; and could even contribute to distributed outages.
Is there a single, documented case of PV variability causing damage to home appliances? If there is, WEIL has certainly not identified it, although the prospect sure sounds scary.
To support all of this doom and gloom, the WEIL folks - headed by San Diego Gas & Electric - have produced a white paper that they claim provides “empirical support for smart inverters." But here’s the thing - it really doesn’t. First of all, where they set out to gather data in support of their contentions, the looked at systems far removed in size (and location for that matter) from what “residents” are installing on their homes. In talking about intermittency issues, the system that they looked at was a 1 MW (AC) PV farm on the end of a rural distribution circuit. Not clear how that is supposed to tell us about the impact of a 5kW system on an urban resident’s home. They then applied modeling analysis to a 2 MW PV system to show their improvement. Again, interesting - and possibly compelling for 2 MW systems - but irrelevant to the issue of what sort of inverters should we be installing on residential projects. Indeed, the smallest system that they even discuss is a 240 kVA inverter - still not relevant to the broader issue.
So they couch their scary letter calling for immediate action in terms of residential systems - but their “supporting” white paper says nothing at all about such systems. Nice.
Moreover, SDG&E touts the enormous penetration of solar onto their grid as a justification for the need for immediate action, noting that as of the end of January this year, they had 162.5 MW of customer owned PV capacity. They also cite how Germany - where solar is so popular - has recently had to adopt expensive retrofits and we should avoid that fate.
But let’s break this down.
According to the California Energy Commission’s February 2012 forecast for SDG&E electricity planning, 162.5 MW of capacity works out to roughly 3.6% of SDG&E’s current peak demand of approximately 4,500 MW. That same document predicts that by 2022, the highest estimate for PV from self-generation will be 350 MW out of a forecast peak demand of 5,500 MW - that is 6.4% under the most aggressive predictions for PV penetration (although I know our friends down in San Diego are hoping to beat those numbers). By comparison, renewables in Germany are around 23% of peak demand today - six times what they have in SDG&E territory and nearly four times what they expect to have by 2022! So where’s the fire?
“In circuits that have a decent amount of penetration – about 10 percent to 15 percent – you can start to see significant waveform changes, as you’ve got clouds coming over, systems switching in and out,” Niggli said.
Kinda makes you wonder how many circuits supporting residential solar customers are seeing penetration of 10 to 15%. Our guess is none, but in any event WEIL certainly doesn’t cite to any.
Moreover, inverters in this country have to satisfy a number of technical standards which in many cases are in direct conflict with what the utilities are now seeking. In particular, two features regarding expanded capacity to handle frequency variations and low voltage situations violate the anti-islanding requirements applicable to US inverter designs. Which is particularly ironic given that those requirements are there, not to protect household appliances, but to keep utility workers safe. Bottom line - until those requirements are changed, no inverter manufacturer can certify a product for sale with the “smart” features utilities are claiming they must have now.
So what is the real agenda here? Is there an “immediate need” for these new features to protect homeowners from scary PV? Not so much. Or, is there an immediate need on the part of the utilities to slow the march of solar until they can figure out Plan B? That seems far more likely.
By all means, let’s make solar as “smart” as we can, and if regulations should be modified to help make the transition to a clean energy economy smoother, then they should be modified. But spare us the scare tactics - it does nothing to improve the credibility of the utilities that signed on to WEIL’s Chicken Little letter.
«climate change» «commercial solar» cpuc «enphase energy» «feed-in tariff» fit fluxhome gwp ladwp «net metering» pg&e pwp «run on sun» sce seia «solar power» «solar rebates» solarcity usc «westridge school for girls»