Category: "Safety"

03/22/18

  01:24:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 985 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Residential Solar, Safety, Ranting

Sweet Relief - LA County Signs-off on Solar for Center-Fed Service Panels

Due to a misreading of the electrical code, many jurisdictions in the Run on Sun service area - and yeah, we are talking about you, LA County - balked at allowing homeowners to install solar if they were connecting to a center-fed panel.  This has resulted in costly, and unnecessary service panel upgrades, and even prevented some homeowners from adding solar at all!

Well good news - LA County has finally gotten with the program and agreed to interpret the code consistent with the intent of the code’s authors.  Here’s the scoop….

Portion of a center-fed service panel

We have written about this problem at some length before - you can see those articles about solar and center-fed panels here.  The confusion arose because the code calls for connecting the solar breaker to the opposite side of the bus from the main breaker.  Since on a center-fed panel the main breaker is in the middle of the bus, there was no “opposite side” to mount the solar breaker, according to that tortured interpretation.  (In the photo on the right, you can see the large, main breaker in the center, with load breakers above and below it.)

To get around this problem in jurisdictions that held to that view of the code’s intent, various approaches were brought forward, all of them more dangerous and/or complicated than simply putting a solar breaker at one end of the bus.  For example, a couple of years ago, San Diego Gas & Electric introduced an adapter ring to fit between the meter socket and the service meter.   Soon thereafter, SCE adopted a similar solution, and that became our “go-to approach” for center-fed panels in LA County.

While County would sign-off on the SCE ring (or Generation Meter Adapter, as SCE called it), it was really an awful solution to the problem  For one thing, SCE charged the homeowner just under $500 for the install, and their technician had to do the work in full arc-flash protection gear - a testament to the hazard involved.  Beyond that temporary risk, the connection now left a pair of terminals in the solar disconnect with no over-current protection between them and the power pole transformer.  Short that connection out, and nothing would stop that current from flowing until the wires melted!

A better solution was recently brought to market in the form of the B3-Bypass breaker which we wrote about last Fall.  The B3 fits into center-fed panels and provides a much safer way to interconnect solar than the GMA ring.  But guess what?  Despite it having passed UL certification, LA County will not accept it, as we learned when we attempted to submit plans calling for the installation of the B3!

So, back to square one?  Well not quite.  While on the phone with County’s plan checker, I remembered that a code amendment had been passed effective a year ago January, that clarified the intent of the code when it comes to center-fed panels.  We had cited this amendment to county last year, only to be told that County had not yet approved the amendment - hence we installed multiple GMA rings with center-fed panels last year.

Here’s the language of the amendment:

A connection at either end, but not both ends, of a center-fed panelboard in dwellings shall be permitted where the sum of 125 percent of the power source(s) output circuit current and the rating of the overcurrent device protecting the busbar does not exceed 120 percent of the current rating of the busbar.

This is what we had been saying all along, and the code amendment makes it clear that this is an acceptable thing to do - as well as being cheaper and safer than any of the alternatives.

So, I asked the plan checker, had County gotten any closer to adopting this amendment?  “Oh,” said the plan checker, “we’ve been accepting it since January, 2017!”

Sigh.  So not true.  At least none of the plan checkers that we encountered in 2017 were accepting the amendment.  And for that matter, this plan checker did not volunteer the information.  Instead, he was about to sign-off on the GMA ring without ever bothering to mention that there was a safer and cheaper way for us to meet the needs of our client!  Is it too much to ask that a plan checker point out policy changes of which s/he is aware when discussing plans with a contractor?

Here’s the bottom line:  If your solar project meets the interconnection requirements set forth in the quoted language above, you do not need to upgrade your panel, and you don’t need a GMA ring to attach solar to your center-fed panel in LA County territory.  (And if it satisfies LA County, presumably every other jurisdiction should go along as well.)

If you need documentation - either as a homeowner to provide to your solar contractor who is trying to sell you an unwanted service panel upgrade - or as a solar contractor trying to convince a recalcitrant AHJ - here’s the link to the California Building Standards Bulletin that approves the amendment, and here is Bill Brooks’ write-up explaining the need and justification for the amendment
Here’s the money quote from the latter:

The fact that several thousand center-fed panels in good repair have required replacement over the past two years when, in fact these upgrades are unnecessary, presents a real and unnecessary hazard to the field workers required to perform these replacements. Any time a service equipment replacement is performed on a dwelling, utility service must be interrupted and significant electrical work must be performed to replace the equipment. This exposes the electrical worker to hazards of potentially live conductors and inadvertent errors that could even be fatal. The hazards of these upgrades is appropriate when the existing service equipment is damaged or has outlived its useful safe operating life. Performing these upgrades on perfectly good equipment that is not a safety hazard to the dwelling is an unnecessary risk.

We couldn’t agree more!

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09/19/17

  03:48:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 857 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Residential Solar, Safety, Ranting

The Biggest News at SPI 2017 - B3 Bypass

We just got back from Solar Power International 2017 and it featured all the usual players with lots of cool stuff on the (gigantic) floor of the Convention Center at Mandalay Bay.  But the biggest deal of the show, from our massively solar geek perspective, came from a tiny booth that no doubt many folks missed altogether.  But for many of the potential clients that we see, this was a really big deal!  Here’s our take…

The Sad State of Play

Here in SoCal, we find a great many center-fed service panels - that is, a service panel where the main breaker is located in the middle of the bus.  Now in a truly rational world, that wouldn’t matter, but around here, the prevailing view is that you cannot use the “120% Rule” on a center-fed panel.  (I know this is totally in the weeds, but the 120% Rule says that the sum of all breakers supplying a service panel cannot exceed 120% of the bus rating, and that the solar breaker has to be at the opposite end of the bus from the main breaker.)  So, on a 200 A bus, with a 200 A main, the PV breaker is limited to 40 A.  All fine and good, but it is that “opposite end of the bus” that causes some AHJs misery - like LA County - who insists that with a center-fed panel, there is no “opposite end of the bus"!  (Ignore for the moment that if I have a center fed panel with 10 slots above and below the main, I’m out of luck.  But I could have a main panel with a total of 10 slots below my 200 A main, and no one would have a problem with my putting my PV breaker in the bottom slot!)

So, we are presently stuck with an ignorant interpretation of the Code and it has meant that some folks needlessly were forced to upgrade a perfectly good center-fed service panel just to go solar.

GMA ring installedMore recently, SCE allowed the use of the so-called Generation Meter Adapter (GMA) ring, that consists of a spacer between the utility meter and the meter socket, that allowed for a whip connection to the PV system’s AC disconnect.  That got around the 120% Rule since there is no breaker landing on the bus.  BUT - you have an unprotected connection all the way from the pole to that disconnect - which creates a serious hazard, especially in a residential environment.

You can see the interconnection on the right - and the scary danger sticker that we added to provide a suitable warning.  (Interestingly, while we have to add all manner of stupid signage - like that directory plaque that provides no useful information whatsoever - there is no requirement for a warning about the hazard presented by that interconnection.)  To be extra cautious, we also install a lock on the disconnect door to discourage the curious.

Oh, and it costs just under $500 to have SCE install the ring (and their service tech has to suit up to reduce the risk that he gets lit up like a Christmas tree while doing the install).  Geez, all this because of a bad code interpretation!

To the Rescue - B3 Bypass!

Fortunately, there is now an alternative to this madness!  A California-based outfit that goes by the not-so-catchy name of QFE002, has come up with a revolutionary product - that is now UL listed!  (They have been coming to SPI for years, but they just got UL!)

B3 Bypass breakerSo what is this game changer?  It is the B3 Bypass breaker and it taps directly onto the main conductors going into the main breaker.  Because the PV does not go through the bus at all, the 120% rule does not apply.  This means that the amount of current that could be backfed by the PV array is only limited by the main conductors feeding that breaker.

In the picture on the left, the 200 A main breaker is on the bottom and the B3 Bypass breaker is above.  The B3 Bypass clamps down onto two of the four conductors feeding the main.  (They have a nifty tool that strips the insulation off without otherwise modifying the conductors, or unscrewing them from the main breaker.  Per UL, this does not constitute a modification of the panel, so its UL listing is unaffected - meaning that there is no need for a field certification.)

The B3 Bypass comes in various configurations - the dual, twin-pole 20’s shown here  can actually be as high as twin 60’s - meaning that you could install 120 A of solar - triple what could be normally connected to a 200 A service, and twice the 60 A rating of the GMA ring!  It is even 50% more than you could install on a 400 A service!  Yeah, this could be big!

They are taking order requests on their website, although we don’t yet have pricing or timing for potential deliveries.  (My guess is that they are just now trying to move into production mode, now that UL is behind them.)  We passed along their info to both BayWa and CED Greentech - hopefully they will get a distribution deal going so that they can make this available far and wide!

We are definitely fans!

07/22/15

  09:19:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 692 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Safety, Ranting

Will LA County Clean up its Act?

We couldn’t suppress an ironic smile when we read the headline, Los Angeles [County] Assembling Solar Action Committee to Address PV Challenges.  “Physician, heal thy self,” immediately popped into mind given the propensity of LA County to create those very challenges!  Here’s our take on what LA County is up to.

According to the article at Solar Industry magazine’s website:

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Works (DPW) has created a Solar Energy Action Committee (SEAC) to facilitate an expansion of residential and commercial solar photovoltaic power in the region.

According to the DPW, there are many challenges that are preventing the state and local governments in California from meeting aggressive renewable energy goals. Many of these challenges relate to the interpretation and application of codes and regulations in both the private and public sectors. Furthermore, solar technology is evolving so quickly and with such variety that jurisdictions are having problems determining how to apply codes and standards.

Oh heavens, don’t get me started!  Well, ok, too late. 

How about this for just one example (from many): we recently completed a commercial project in LA County.  When we submitted our single line drawing to DPW (prepared and stamped by a licensed electrical engineer), it came back with nine “corrections".  Ultimately we were able to demonstrate to DPW that seven of the nine did not even relate to our project since they all were focused on either the DC side of a PV system (and our Enphase-based system had no such components) or they related to the size of a non-existent load-side breaker.  It took three iterations to whittle those bogus objections away, until we got down to the final nut: bonding.

Now one of the two remaining concerns was legit - DPW wanted our plans to call out two grounding rods.  Fine, easy, done.  But the remaining sticking point was a killer.  We were using Everest Solar racking, which has UL 2703 listed splices for its rails that bond those splices together.

Redundant bonding thanks to DPW

DPW refused to accept the splices for bonding, requiring bonding jumpers (like you see in the picture) across each splice.  Which begs the question: what is the point of manufacturers building products to meet a national spec, if a local jurisdiction like DPW can simply say, “not in my backyard?”

Everest also had at the time an approved mid-clamp with WEEB solution for bonding between modules.  In Pasadena, just across the street, that combination would have been approved without comment.  But not DPW, which  rejected the WEEB solution, requiring us to run a continuous #6 wire from module to module - all 246 of them!

Now when you talk to the folks at DPW they insist that this is all about safety.  To which we respond - rubbish!  What is the failure scenario that we are actually protecting against?  In theory, you are trying to ensure that no metallic part becomes energized without a pathway to ground.  That way if there is a fault, and someone touches the affected metal surface, current will not flow through them to ground (causing injury) because it has a lower resistance path to ground via the system bonding.

That is certainly a noble goal, but did the changes DPW insisted upon improve safety in the real world?  This array is on a free standing structure, 14′ above the ground so it isn’t likely that someone would ever casually come in contact with a metal surface to begin with.  But even if they did, what would that failure mode have to be?  On the one panel that happens to develop a fault, a minimum of two, and in most cases four, WEEB clips would have to fail at the same time!  Call me cynical, but I find that a highly unlikely event.

In contrast, the economic consequence of what had to be done to placate DPW was very real, adding thousands of dollars in parts and labor to the cost of the project, for an at best marginal improvement in safety.

So we are all for DPW taking steps to eliminate “PV challenges", but we would suggest they look at cleaning up their own act as the proper place to start.

11/16/14

  11:01:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1247 words  
Categories: Residential Solar, Safety, Ranting

BP Solar Flames Out - Leaves Consumers at Risk

Solar module manufacturer BP Solar - the “green” branch of energy giant British Petroleum (the same folks who brought you the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico) - exited the solar market in 2011.  But now a class-action lawsuit is alleging that BP Solar knew as early as 2005 that some of its solar modules, including ones that were widely sold in California, pose a serious risk of failure and even fires.  Will BP step up and do the right thing?  (For the record, Run on Sun never used BP Solar modules.) 

BP does not deny that they have a potential problem.   In a carefully worded 2012 Product Advisory, BP acknowledged the following:

This product advisory is being issued to communicate a potential risk when using certain BP Solar modules in specific types of installations. Testing has shown there is a limited risk of cable to busbar disconnection in the junction box that, in rare cases, may lead to a thermal event in certain applications of the products referenced below. A thermal event, depending upon the severity, can cause secondary damage to surrounding materials that are not fire resistant.

While BP’s advisory uses the overly lawyered phrase, “thermal event” to describe what can happen, others use less measured language.  A report on Bay Area television station KTVU/Fox 2 speaks of consumer complaints about solar modules with a bevy of problems including “burning up, shattering and putting homes in danger.”

 

BP is not the only entity to “lawyer-up."  The two-person law firm of Birka-White is challenging BP in a class action lawsuit (see the complaint here) that harkens back to David taking on Goliath.  Birka-White, which had previously sued Suntech over problems with solar roofing tiles, a problem we have documented in this blog, alleges in their suit that a defect in the junction box on the affected BP solar modules causes them to fail, “resulting in a loss of electric current and serious safety risks, including the risk of fire."  Despite that risk, the complaint alleges that BP continued to sell the defective modules until 2010, even though BP knew of the defects “since at least 2005." 

More specifically, the complaint alleges that:

Burn damage to BP solar modules17. The connection between Solar Panels is made at a junction box attached to each Solar Panel.  A defect in the junction box and the solder joints between the connecting cables causes the solder joint to overheat.

18. When the solder joint overheats, the connection between the Solar Panels breaks. This break in the circuit results in an arc of an electrical current which generates heat between 2000-3000 degrees Fahrenheit.

19. The heat caused by this failure melts the junction box, burns the cables and the Solar Panel and shatters the glass cover of the Solar Panel. Attached hereto as Exhibit D are photographs of BP Solar Panel junction box failures. If there is flammable material near the heat source, such a [sic] dry leaves, the junction box failure creates a high risk of fire. Fires caused by junction box failures have already occurred and there is a substantial risk that they will occur in the future.

20. Because of the defect in the junction box, all Solar Panels relevant to this litigation have failed or will fail before the end of their expected useful life.

The photos above are taken from Exhibit D and show the sort of “thermal event” that the affected homeowners (the potential members of the class to be certified as part of the litigation) could experience.

Faced with such compelling evidence of product defects, what has BP’s response been?  You guessed it - to hide behind their limited warranty and to offer consumers a financial remedy that falls far short of making them whole.

To be sure, any product can have a defect, and it is by no means uncommon for a corporation to seek shelter from liability for such defects by pointing to limiting language in its product warranties.  Yet BP, which had a net profit in 2013 of $13.4 billion, would certainly seem to be in a position to compensate the innocent victims of its product defects more fully.  Of course, having halted solar operations altogether, BP has no ongoing vested interest in avoiding the black eye that its stonewalling will inevitably create for the entire solar industry.  Indeed, how will other solar module manufacturers respond to BP’s failure and the ensuing litigation?  Strong statements from industry leaders affirming their commitment to address promptly, and beyond the fine print of their limited warranties, problems arising from product defects could go a long way to restoring consumer confidence damaged by these BP revelations.

Scope of the Problem in California

We decided to take a look into the CSI data to get a sense of how big an issue this might be in California.  BP’s product advisory asserts that only certain module models, and only those manufactured from March 1, 2005 to October 31, 2006 have the defect that can lead to “thermal events.” The complaint, however, disputes that limitation, alleging that, “the risk of junction box failure exists for all Solar Panels - not just the limited number listed in the Product Advisory - manufactured at any time - not just the limited time frame covered by the Product Advisory.”

Regardless of which position is determined to be accurate, the CSI data provides no visibility into installations prior to 2007.  And while the problem may or may not affect module models beyond those listed in the Product Advisory, as far as the data is concerned, the vast number of residential installations made use of only two BP models: BP175B and BP4175B - both of which are listed on the Product Advisory.  Both products appear in the data as of 2007 (which could easily include modules manufactured during the Product Advisory period) and continue into this year.  The peak year for installations of the 175B module was 2010, whereas the 4175B peaked the year later, in 2011.  Here is the distribution:

BP module distribution

At a minimum, those 135 installation in 2007 would likely have used modules from the Product Advisory period, and if plaintiffs are correct, there could be as many as 1,300+ installations based on these two modules alone.

While there is no doubt that individual homeowners are at greatest risk, there are more than 100 companies that installed these BP modules, potentially exposing them to liability for failures.  Affected companies include major players like SolarCity, Verengo, and Sungevity, as well as dozens of much smaller companies, many of which are no longer in business.  Those companies relied upon BP’s representations and are also victims here.

While larger companies might have the resources (if not necessarily the inclination) to help out their customers in this situation, smaller companies with more limited resources are not in a position to foot the bill for replacement systems (the remedy being sought in the litigation).  Never-the-less, they can and should offer free inspections to their affected customers.  It will be far better for the solar industry if a customer learns of a potential problem from the company that installed their system than if they hear about it in the media, or worse, suffer a “thermal event” on their own roof.

As solar installers, we depend upon manufactures to produce products that are safe and reliable, and to stand behind those products when there is an issue.  We cannot, sadly, control the outcome when a supposedly competent manufacturer introduces defective products and then refuses to act responsibly.  We can, and must, however, take all reasonable steps available to us to mitigate the harm - to our clients and to the industry - when such unpleasant circumstances arise.

08/21/14

  02:05:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 751 words  
Categories: Safety

SolarWorld Announces Major Recall

We have just learned that solar panel manufacturer SolarWorld has announced a recall involving 1.3 million solar panels sold in the U.S. since June 2011.  According to the Notice filed with the Consumer Products Safety Commission:

SolarWorld solar panels installed with bare-copper grounding lugs can corrode which could result in a faulty ground circuit, posing an electric shock, electrocution or fire hazard.

Behind the Headline

So what exactly is the issue here?  All metal components of a solar power system—such as the frames of the solar panels and the rails to which they are attached—are supposed to be grounded.  There are many ways that can be done, but one common method is to attach a copper lug to the panel frame and run a copper grounding wire from lug to lug and ultimately to ground.  The problem arises from the fact that copper grounding lugs come in two varieties: bare copper and “tinned” copper, that is copper with a coating of tin. 

Bare copper lugs Tinned lugs
Bare copper grounding lugs “Tinned” copper grounding lugs

If the installer used a bare copper lug, it could cause corrosion to form between the panel frame and the lug.  That corrosion could prevent the ground from being effective, which could result in the potential problems highlighted in the CPSC notice.

In other words, while this is a potential problem and systems should be inspected to insure that the proper, “tinned” lug was used, the recall does not involve the safety of the solar panels themselves.  Moreover, the fix, if required, is straightforward (even if potentially time consuming): simply replace the improper lugs with proper ones.

Who Used the Panels?

While the recall notice refers to 1.3 million panels in the U.S., we wanted to get a sense of how many of these panels have been installed in California, and, more specifically, in the Run on Sun service area.  To get a handle on that we turned to two familiar data sources: CSI data (showing installs in SCE, PG&E and SDG&E territories) and LADWP data.  Given that LADWP requires the use of grounding lugs (as opposed to WEEBs), there is an even higher probability that SolarWorld systems in LADWP territory used a grounding lug.

CSI Data

The CSI data shows just how widespread this issue could be.  More than half a million SolarWorld panels have been installed in CSI territories, accounting for over 6,500 different installations, installed by more than 500 different companies!  How many of those companies are still in business is anybody’s guess.  In SCE territory alone, 186,000 SolarWorld panels were installed at 3,125 different projects, by nearly 300 different companies.

The installers with by far the greatest number of SolarWorld panels installed are Shorebreak Energy Developers (43,242 panels installed at 46 different projects) and Chevron Energy Solutions (20,464 panels at 15 projects).  In terms of having the greatest number of projects, six companies have 100 or more projects, and the winners there are: A1 Solar Power, Inc. (217 projects), Titan Construction and Solar (202), Natural Energy (186), Contact Electric (174), Future Energy Corporation (124) and TLP Electric Integrations (103).

LADWP Data

The LADWP data is, not surprisingly, somewhat more opaque.  For example, they do not track how many solar panels are installed on a given project so we cannot determine the total number of SolarWorld panels that have been installed.  We do know that there are some 759 projects overall where SolarWorld panels were used, and more than 100 different installers were involved.  Three of those installers were responsible for fifty or more projects, they are: A1 Solar Power, Inc. (120 projects), Sungate Energy Solutions (76) and American Solar Solutions (67).  Looks like the folks at A1 Solar Power are going to be busy!

What to Do?

If you are the owner of a SolarWorld installation, you will want to contact your installer and see what they are willing to do.  At a minimum, they should be willing to come out to your site, free of cost, and verify that the proper lugs were used.  Even if it were the company’s policy to always use “tinned” lugs, a system owner should not rely on those assurances since install crews have been known to substitute whatever is available at the local hardware store in order to complete the project and move on to the next.

If your installer is no longer in business, or is unwilling to come out and verify that your system is safe, you should contact SolarWorld themselves directly.  They have established a toll-free number to call: 877-360-1787, M-F from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

If you own one of these systems, please let us know in the comments about your experience.

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Jim Jenal is the Founder & CEO of Run on Sun, Pasadena's premier installer and integrator of top-of-the-line solar power installations.
Run on Sun also offers solar consulting services, working with consumers, utilities, and municipalities to help them make solar power affordable and reliable.

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