In Part 1 of this series about Installing Solar at Westridge School, we looked at the process of putting our materials together for the rebate application. With the rebate safely reserved, it was time to turn to pulling the permits for the job. A solar project of this size involves two separate permits - building and electrical - but four points of inspection - fire, electrical, building, and utility. We had already provided the utility, PWP, with the materials they needed but now we needed to load up for the permit center.
The permit process addresses an entirely different need than does the rebate application. The permit process is intended to guarantee that the proposed system, as designed, satifsfies all applicable codes and standards. In theory, once you have successfully pulled the permit, the inspection process should simply be a matter of showing the inspector that you built the system as it was approved when you pulled the permit.
This project presented one signficant challenge - the actual attachment of the system supports to the roof. While the roof looked conventional enough, that was not a wooden truss underneath those shingles. To the contrary, our roof was built from a 20 gauge “Type B” steel deck with two layers of 5/8″ plywood, followed by 3″ of solid foam insulation, followed by 3/4″ of plywood to which the roofing materials themselves - membrane, felt and shingles - were attached. So the question arose: what would be a sufficient way to attach our standoffs to this roof to provide the requisite resistance to wind loads - the effect of which had recently been demonstrated in Pasadena in such a disastrous fashion?
To help answer that question we turned to the structural engineer (SE) who had originally done the load calcuations for our building. Could we use a “FastFoot” and simply put multiple screws into the wooden decking materials? Surely with enough screws - the FastFoot will allow for up to eight - we could reach the required pull-out resistance. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t work since the engineer could not guarantee the manner by which the plywood materials were secured to the underlying steel deck. In other words, while we could be sure that our array would remain attached to the plywood, we couldn’t be sure that the plywood would remain attached to the building! Images of Wizard of Oz roofs flying through the air filled my mind - clearly we would need another way!
The engineer suggested that we could use carriage bolts that ran all the way through the steel roof and were bolted together on the back side. Certainly such an approach would guarantee that our array and the roofing materials stayed connected, and indeed, you would have to separate the steel deck from the steel framework of the building for that method to fail. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t work either since there was no way to access the back side of the roof in order to complete the connection.
There was one other approach - a company by the name of Triangle Fasteners sells some very strong, very long, self-tapping screws (called “Concealor screws“) that could drill their way into the steel deck and provide us with the required pull-out resistance. The bad news - our distributors only sold screws up to 7″ long - and that would not be long enough to guarantee that our screws made it through the decking. A call to the manufacturer revealed that in fact, they did make 8″ screws, they even made 9″ screws! Excellent! We now had a solution that our SE could bless. It was time to go pull our permits.
Anyone who has ever pulled a permit knows the combination of emotions that you encounter upon entering the building: fear that something you haven’t considered will suddenly become A Really Big Deal, loathing for the interminable waiting, and of course, the pain of paying for it all. Dentists’ waiting rooms tend to be cheerier places.
Pasadena’s permit center is certainly better than most: it is a comfortable old building across the street from the beautiful City Hall. They have a clever scheduling system that routes you among the different windows: Building and Safety, Zoning, Historical Preservation (very big in Pasadena but not a factor for solar projects), Fire, Permit Processing and, last but certainly not least, the Cashier. A solar project applicant must navigate their paperwork through every one of those windows before exiting with your Grail - a stamped set of plans and a bright Yellow permit folder where inspection sign-offs will be recorded.
First stop - Building and Safety.
The building and safety folks are responsible for reviewing your plans for conformity with state and local codes and standards - a really important task. First, however, you have to speak with someone who knows what you are showing them and on our first trip to the permit center, no such person could be found! The gentleman behind the B&S desk was very polite, and you could tell that it pained him to inform us that after our thirty minute wait, he couldn’t help us. Moreover, none of the people who “understood solar” were available - we would have to come back tomorrow.
Tomorrow dawned cloudy but we were determined to press forward. This time our 35 minute wait was rewarded with an appearance before someone who was prepared to pass judgment on our plans! We walked him through each of our sixteen 24″ x 36″ pages, explaining as we went exactly what we were doing and where the answers to his questions could be found.
All seemed fine, but then he started throwing us some curves.
Our SE had done his calculations for a basic wind speed of 85 mph - the same wind speed we had always used for load calculations in Pasadena.
“No,” said the man behind the desk, “You have to use 100 mph.”
“Really? Since when?”
“Since the windstorm in Pasadena at the end of November,” we were told. (Never mind that the wind speed never reached 85 mph in Pasadena, let along 100 mph, during that terrible event.)
“Really? Where was that published?”
“It wasn’t,” he conceded, but simply told us that we needed to revise our calculations for 100 mph or he wouldn’t approve them. That meant another iteration with our SE and another trip back to the permit center.
Now the good news here is that we were certain that our system would easily handle 100 mph winds (or 120 mph, for that matter) so this change in policy did not pose a danger to the project going forward. But changing the basic wind speed for an area from 85 to 100 mph is something of a big deal and will add to the expense of many projects that need permitting. Shouldn’t there be a more public process before such a change is implemented?
The other curve sent our way was really just odd.
We did a detailed drawing showing our attachment method as it penetrated the various layers of roofing materials and made contact with the steel deck beneath. We drew that straight up on the page and included multiple elevations in our sixteen pages that showed the pitch of the roof and indicated that the array was installed on top of our attachment method, parallel to the roof.
“Not good enough,” we were told.
“Why? What’s missing?”
“You need to show the attachment at the slope of the roof.”
“Really? We show you the slope of the roof, we gave you the detail of how the attachment connects to the roof and we told you that the array is parallel to the roof. How is that not sufficient?”
“You need to add a drawing that shows the array attachment and which reflects the slope of the roof.”
“Really? So what you want is for me to rotate the image of our attachment 13° to reflect how it will be pitched on the roof?”
Sigh. Ok, back to the drawing board (or more accurately, the computer screen).
Fortunately, our SE was able to redo his calculations in short order. And not surprisingly, it was also pretty easy to take our attachment image and rotate it. We printed up the revised plans and headed back to the permit center.
Surprise - there was yet another person behind the counter this time. Whereas his predecessor seemed to be actively looking for little things to complain about, this fellow could not have been more helpful. He looked at our revised load calculations - veryifying that they had been done for 100 mph and that the SE had concluded that all was well - and then proceeded to stamp our plans. (I had pointed out our added, rotated drawing, but it was clear that he wasn’t interested in that at all.) After he stamped our plans, he then took them himself to the zoning and historical preservation desks and secured those sign-offs as well! Wow! He saved us an hour of waiting in those queues and he seemed genuinely helpful and concerned. What a pleasant contrast! We were well on our way with just one real substantive hurdle remaining - the Fire department.
The California State Fire Marshall developed a set of guidelines that provide guidance as to how fire departments should permit and inspect solar installations. The guidelines call for space to be set aside for pathways around the array and for venting of smoke in case of a fire. The guidelines call for different restrictions based on the size and shape of the roof and whether it is a residential or commercial building.
(While the document from the Fire Marshall is labeled “guidelines", most localities seem to treat it as gospel. Even more curious, the guidelines clearly say that they are just that, guidelines that do not have the force of law until a local jurisdiction passes an ordinance adopting the guidelines as regulations. We have yet to see such an ordinance.)
Our building plan included a three-foot set aside around both sides of the array and from the ridge, and was augmented by automatic smoke ventillation devices already built into the roof. But that was not sufficient - the fire official wanted us to provide a four-foot clearance on all three sides. Yet another trip to the computer.
We returned with our revised drawing, showing four feet of clearance as requested. But now there was another concern - the same fire official now wanted us to open a walkway in the middle of the array. (We already had access paths for potential maintenance, but they were not wide enough to be considered a walkway.) No matter that our roof was not at all like the flat roof with parapet shown in the guidelines, we still needed to provide a walkway. There was only one way to do that - take out a column of panels. Together we X-ed out seven panels and thereby created a walkway. The fire official was now satisfied - she signed off on our plans.
And just like that, we were done. Well, not quite - there was still the little matter of paying for all this. Here we made out surprisingly well. Unlike some cities that gouge solar applicants (and you know who you are!), Pasadena’s fees were quite reasonable. Total cost for our now 52.25kW solar project? $732. Sadly, we know of residential projects one tenth that size in other cities where the permit fees have exceeded $1,000! (But that’s a story for another day.)
Altogether, it took us four separate trips to the permit center, three plan revisions, and a little over $900 in expenses to secure our permit.
Now all we needed to do was get the materials to the job site on time, and complete the installation in the two week window that we had to mesh with the School’s schedule. The real work was about to begin…