We spent some quality time on the exhibit floor, and at the social events, of last week’s Intersolar North America and here’s our take.
The show felt smaller, to be sure, and we didn’t see anything that created a real “Wow” moment. (Possible exception, the mini solar race cars which were very cool, but they didn’t really have much to do with anything.) With SPI looming in just a few short weeks in, wait for it… Las Vegas Man™… it was hard to shake the feeling that manufacturers were keeping their powder dry until October.
Of course, not everything was smaller.
The folks at Mechatron won the prize for the largest solar device at the show—an enormous solar tracker (which we were told took them a day and a half to assemble inside the hall!)—that has more than a bit of a Transformers feel to it.
Sadly it wasn’t moving during the show…
Given the show’s smaller feel you would expect some well known names to be missing and you would be right.
We are happiest to report that the number one no-show was last year’s Sexism Public Enemy Number One: RECOM. Although they had a significant presence at Intersolar in Europe a month ago, they were nowhere to be seen at this show, and the folks from Intersolar confirmed that RECOM had originally booked a booth but then cancelled without explanation. Did they back out due to the backlash over their nonsense last year? We can only hope…
Inverter manufacturers Enphase Energy, KACO and SMA were all missing from the floor—although that’s no surprise for Enphase who never shows at Intersolar, and who had a large presence elsewhere in co-hosting the Tweetup (thank you!) and the Solarfest.
SMA, although not on the floor did manage to take a swipe at its competition with this banner (that’s a really, really big banner!) and a van parked outside touting their market dominance—in the past.
We are all for made in the USA, but what percentage of the show attendees were walking around with smartphones that were made somewhere other than the USA? Uh, pretty much everybody.
Not clear that this is a winning argument, or even SMA’s best argument given that their TL inverters are a very cool product. If your only presence is going to be a banner, why not tout an actual benefit of your products?
Our stated goal for the show was to identify a new racking supplier to replace our now discontinued standard (Unirac’s late, great, Solarmount Evolution) and toward that end we spent a lot of time on the third floor where the racking suppliers hung out. Continuing the recent trend, there was a lot on display.
A study in contrast could be found between the displays at the Shoals and Schletter booths. Both supply racking gear. Both offered coffee in the morning and beer in the afternoon. And both had attractive women handing out the drinks. The difference? The women at the Schletter booth actually work for the company (in a wide variety of jobs, other than marketing) whereas Shoals insists, defiantly, on promoting the Booth Babe culture with models in black cocktail dresses. (Leading to scenes like this of guys standing around to photograph the models. Not sure how that promotes solar or Shoals’ products.)
Still we did see racking systems that we liked. Iron Ridge has an interesting rail shape which they insist is stronger than other products, and their CEO, William Kim, seemed very eager to connect with installers and learn from their experience—something that other companies need to do!
But our overall winner at the show was Everest Solar Systems. Talk about learning from installers, all of their components are pre-assembled so the installer doesn’t find herself on a roof missing a bolt. The parts work together in an intelligent fashion and seem designed to streamline the process on the roof where it matters.
For example, here is a picture showing their end clamp assembly (and attractive end-cap for the rail) and there are a number of features here to like.
To begin with, the clamp is extra wide giving you a firmer grip on the module. The clamp has a small spring inside which means that once inserted in the channel, the clip stands up at full height, making it easier to insert the modules under the clip. (The mid clamps also have this feature which we think is a great idea.) The black piece next to the rail is a plastic grip that the installer can use to position the clamp in the rail and turn to align it properly—another clever feature which should cut down on fumbling on the roof.
Equally well thought out are the splices (which do not use self-tapping screws, thank you) that provide structural strength while allowing for thermal expansion. Oh, and there’s no drilling required on the roof!
We are eager to give the Everest system a try on an install very soon.
As we have seen in previous years, enthusiasm for intelligent storage systems is high, while actual products are few. And even when a product is on display, it is not always clear that the folks talking about the product have really thought it through.
Take, for example, this potential offering from LG.
We say potential because this is really a concept vehicle, not something you can order now. Indeed, the decal on the box proclaims that the product will debut in Europe the second half of next year. Roll-out in the US is not slated until sometime in 2016.
More troubling though was, in our view, a misunderstanding of the nuance in this market. The box shown has a storage capacity of only 2 kWh—less than a tenth of the daily energy output of a 5 kW solar power system. How and when will that energy be deployed to assist the homeowner in reducing their bills? In talking with the LG rep, we started to explain the differences between how you might use that energy under a tiered rate structure versus a time-of-use structure. Instead of being told that their software was designed to handle those differences, we got a mostly blank stare. Now that could simply be that the rep wasn’t fully up-to-speed on how the box is designed to operate, but it was not encouraging.
What is encouraging is that electronics giants like LG are starting to get serious about this opportunity and from what we have seen from LG in the solar module space, we are confident that they can develop a compelling product offering—just not yet.
Meanwhile, last year’s show standout for really grokking this space, Stem, was nowhere to be seen. Nor was their SoCal competitor, CODA. Perhaps both are keeping their chips in reserve, hoping to make a big play in Vegas at SPI. Watch this space.
Finally, we have two things to report under this topic—one cautionary, the other celebratory. Caution first.
Creeping up on the entire California solar market is the issue of Fire Code regulations that have the potential to bring things to a screeching halt come next January. We are still trying to get up to speed ourselves on this issue, but there were fire code regulations that were supposed to go into effect last January but were postponed because no one had a technical solution for meeting them. That postponement was for only a year, however, which means that come 1/1/15 we are subject to these regs.
As we presently understand the issue (and feel free to offer clarifications in the comments), roof systems are rated under classes A-C based on how resistant they are to an outside source of combustion (think of a burning tree limb resting on the roof), with class A being the most resistant. Solar modules on the market today generally have a class C fire rating. The new regs would say that where a roof system is required to be class A (as in high fire threat areas), all components on the roof must also be class A—but if there are no class A rated solar modules, such buildings would be unable to add solar. Moreover, even if a module were designated class A, it would still have to be tested with the roofing system to ensure that the combined system were class A.
If that weren’t bad enough, there is an additional categorization pertaining to fire spread, and because roof arrays more than a few inches above the roof act like conduits for spreading flame, such arrays cannot pass the flame spread requirements. Yikes!
Both module manufacturers and racking reps that we brought this up with gave us a deer-in-the-headlights response initially (with the exception of Barry Cinnamon’s Spice product offering), with some subsequently saying that they were working on the issue.
As noted above, we are still getting up to speed on this issue and we will have much more to say about it in the coming weeks. Watch this space.
Finally, our Battle of the Bands karma continued to rock at Intersolar.
For those not in the know, the annual Battle of the Bands has two, parallel sets of competitors. On the one hand are the house bands from various solar companies who go head-to-head to see who will be crowned the best of the best. But just as fierce is the competition to get a ticket to the closed event!
Two years ago we got in on sheer force of personality (not ours, but that of Solar Fred) and last year Jeff (Solar) Spies’ crew at QuickMount PV provided the ducket. But alas, not this year.
We were directed to another booth where there was a raffle we could join, but no luck.
Yet then, we turned the corner and found ourselves at the NABCEP booth where Sue Pratt was about to raffle off two tickets. We tossed our biz card into the bowl (complete with NABCEP Certified logo, thank you very much) and then crossed our fingers. When the first card pulled turned out to be a no-show, Sue dug deep—and pulled out our card! How cool was that? (We gave the second ticket to another installer who had just had his hopes dashed by our good fortune—gotta pay that Battle of the Bands karma forward!)
Lots of photos from the party (though oddly, many are strangely blurry—sorry about that Kathie & Jessica) but we will leave you with our favorite—may your karma be so good next year!
Is your solar power system safe? How can you be sure?
We are receiving more and more inquiries about fixing solar power systems from folks whose system has stopped working and the original installer can no longer be found. Sometimes a violent act of nature prompts the need for our services, but all too often we are seeing shoddy work that has failed far too soon.
Case in point, we received a call from a true “rocket scientist” the other day who had a solar power system installed about seven years ago, but now he was having a problem. We learned that the system had been installed by an air conditioning company (you’ve seen their ads), and it had two SMA Sunny Boy 2800 inverters—now well out of warranty—and one of them was displaying the dreaded, ground fault error. Ground faults occur when a normally ungrounded, current-carrying conductor makes contact with something that is grounded, such as the frame of a solar module, the system racking or even the conduit itself. Ground faults can be dangerous and are often difficult to locate.
When the solar system owner contacted his installation company, they offered to replace his offline inverter—for $5,000! Of course, simply replacing the inverter was unlikely to do anything about the ground fault, and it was possible that there was nothing wrong with the inverter at all, apart from being out of warranty. But in any event, charging $5,000 to simply do a one-for-one inverter replacement was highway robbery, and the system owner was pretty annoyed by the time he got around to calling us. Since there was no way to properly diagnose the situation over the phone, we agreed to come out and take a look.
Sure enough, one of the inverters was working fine, but the other displayed a ground fault message. The system owner told us that there was a combiner box on the roof, so we headed there to try and figure out where the fault might be. Here’s what we found in that “combiner box":
This is so NOT a combiner box!
This is a junction box into which the folks who threw this system together crammed the wires coming from the strings, joined them together (without any fusing to protect the array, to say nothing of the house) and then routed them downstairs to the inverters.
Another problem—the wires coming into this non-combiner box are all THHN, which is fine for a conductor running in conduit, but is no good at all for conductors coming from solar modules in the array. The insulation here is simply not designed to hold up under years of exposure to sunlight.
This is simply ignorant, shoddy work that has no place in the solar industry. Sadly, this particular company has not gone out of business, though the world would be a better place if they had.
People can get hurt this way. Property can be destroyed this way.
And the solar industry can get a very bad reputation this way.
We broke the bad news to the system owner and explained that what was needed was to replace the box on the roof with a proper combiner box, replace the improper wiring with USE-2 wiring that is designed to last on a roof, and bring the system back online. We also suggested that given that his existing inverters were out of warranty, he might want to consider upgrading to a single, transformerless inverter that would provide a ten-year warranty, the possibility of online monitoring, and much greater efficiency. That was the path he decided to take.
We installed an Outback combiner and upgraded the wiring. In so doing we managed to bring some order out of the previous chaos, take a look:
Now each of the four strings is properly protected by a dedicated, touch-safe fuse, and there is proper stress relief on the USE-2 conductors entering the box from the array.
We also installed ground lugs on each of the rails—something the air conditioning guys hadn’t bothered to do—and we installed two end clamps that had somehow been overlooked when the install was done.
The cool, new SMA 5000TL inverter allowed us to add monitoring to the system, as well as SMA’s emergency power outlet that provides a nominal amount of power from the array, even if the grid fails. In the process we were able to clean up the wiring on the ground, get rid of those air conditioning disconnect switches and install a proper disconnect. Oh, and while we were at it, we even arranged to donate the old inverters to Habitat for Humanity, providing the system owner with a charitable tax deduction!
Most importantly, we were able to restore his confidence in the solar array on his home. And maybe, even a bit of confidence in the solar industry itself.
There are a number of take aways from this experience that we would like to stress:
Ever since a fire chief in New Jersey let a warehouse burn for days because of his concerns about dealing with the solar power system on the roof, we are seeing a spate of these stories now migrated to concerns about residential solar as well. We think the risk is greatly overstated, but it turns out that allaying a firefighter’s fear of solar is one more argument for using Enphase microinverters.
We wrote about the New Jersey issue back in September and the fire chief was quoted as saying, “with all that power and energy up there, I can’t jeopardize a guy’s life for that.” Now no one wants to see anyone injured because of a fire, and certainly not because solar was on the structure that was burning. (The cause of the fire has not yet been disclosed.) But was that really the only option—avoid the roof and let the fire burn for days?
Worse still, now we are starting to see a steady drumbeat of similar stories with a residential slant.
Take this story that aired on a local news outlet with the scary title: Firefighters Warn Solar Panels Could Prevent Homes from Being Saved in Blaze. While the homeowner is thrilled to be saving money, he is unaware of the danger he is facing until it is presented to him—by the reporter. But how great is that danger, and what can be done to minimize it?
For one thing, here in California there are already State Fire Marshall guidelines that require set-asides on the roof to allow firefighters access and space to vent the roof as needed, without having to cut into areas covered by solar.
As for the concern about turning the system off so that dangerous amounts of power aren’t present on the roof, well, that is where the benefit of microinverters, such as those that we use from Enphase Energy, comes into play. When you shut off the power at the ground-based AC disconnect switch, the entire array is powered down. The solar conduits coming down from the roof are rendered inert, harmless, with no power present at all. This is the safest possible environment for firefighters with solar and the fire inspectors that we have dealt with readily understand, and appreciate, the difference.
So, should a homeowner pick a solar power system based on avoiding fire danger? Perhaps not; but if you are the sort that worries about such things, you should know that microinverters give you one more benefit—firefighter safety—over older designs. To maximize that benefit, we just need a generally accepted sign to mount on our systems that will let firefighters know what sort of solar system they are facing.
Our friends over at Enphase Energy had a significant announcement a week or so ago, touting how their tried-and-true M215 microinverter had just been improved by redesigning it to feature integrated grounding, just like its bigger sibling, the new M250’s. We wrote about the value of integrated grounding last year when the M250’s were introduced, and it is a really great development, cutting install time, reducing hazards on the roof, and making the installed system safer for everyone. Enphase has even created a dedicated webpage to explain the benefits of integrated grounding. What’s not to love?
Unless, that is, you are the City of Los Angeles. You see, the Building and Safety department of Los Angeles is a universe unto itself, a universe where good news goes to die. To LA, it doesn’t matter that the M250 and the new M215 have been independently tested and found compliant with all of the relevant standards for inverters. No, LA doesn’t care—they insist that these products be submitted to LA for its own testing.
Now just who does this help? Well, presumably the folks who work in LA’s lab get to stay employed but somehow the permitting process shouldn’t be a jobs program. No, all this does is add cost (directly to Enphase who has to jump through these hoops, indirectly to everyone else) and delay into the process. We have sold projects that are delayed in LA while we wait for this nonsense to get resolved. Indeed, it is just this sort of abuse of the process that causes us to have a 7 kW threshold for projects in LA—anything smaller is just not worth the agitation.
To be clear, it doesn’t have to be this way. We have already installed projects in Pasadena and surrounding cities without difficulty using integrated grounding. No one else has had a problem—the units are appropriately listed so you are good to go. But not so in LA.
Everyone talks about how reducing “soft costs” is the key to making solar viable in a post-subsidy world. If so, here’s a prime example of a soft cost that offers zero value to the process and needs to be eliminated—but it is far from an isolated example.
We suspect that the Garcetti Administration could make this go away tomorrow—so why don’t they? Given the Mayor’s claim to green cred, why not call a meeting with appropriate stakeholders: installers (including small installers), manufacturers, and department heads and lets cut through this unnecessary nonsense and make it easier to install rooftop solar in the biggest city in the biggest solar market in the country. It’s about time.
UPDATE (4/7/2014) – We just heard from the Product Manager for SM-E and he tells us that Unirac expects to have an announcement about the fate of SM-E by the end of April. Of course as soon as we know more, you’ll know more—watch this space.
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
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