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The Ugly Side of Solar, Part II

 

If you read the first part of this series, you were exposed to the aesthetically ugly side of solar – literally solar that looks unattractive up on the roof and detracts from a home’s curb appeal. Such solar installations can have a negative impact on a community’s perception of solar technology. After all, who wants to live in an ugly house? Not many folks as far as I can tell. Yet there is an uglier side; a side you can’t see. It is an improperly installed system.

Improperly installed systems can often look great up on the roof. They may even encourage neighbors to not only go solar, but to use the very same company that performed the first shoddy install. These badly installed systems may perform well for years before exposing their dark underbelly in the form of galvanic action (think rusting panel frames, rails, bolts, etc); leaky roofs, deck rot, short circuits, and even fires.

In this article, I will cover many of the things that can happen if you choose an inexperienced contractor to install your solar project, how you can avoid signing up with the wrong company and online resources to allow you to gauge a company’s experience in the field.

First, let’s delve into the nitty-gritty of shoddy solar installations. There are hundreds of little details that go into any solar installation. These need to be well understood by the procurement manager buying the equipment, the warehouseman loading the truck, the project manager and finally the installation team. For example, if the procurement manager decides to save money and buys substandard equipment (think non galvanized steel, cheap mastic, etc), then there will be repercussions down the road regardless of how well the installation team does its job. On the other hand, the best materials in world won’t spare a roof from the ravages of an inexperienced installation crew.

This photo shows a lag bolt (that thing that holds the solar foot and thus the panel on one’s roof), from the underside – the attic/crawlspace.

This lag bolt very obviously misses the roof truss. It was one of seven I found on a recent botched installation my company rebid and fixed for a distressed customer left high and dry by an unscrupulous contractor. You may be asking yourself why this matters. Few people understand the harsh conditions their roofs endure day in and day out, season to season, year after year. Extreme heat, cold, wind, rain, sleet, snow, and other elements beat on your roof, and consequently, your solar system. Solar racking systems, like those offered by ProSolar, are engineered to withstand wind gusts up to 120 mph. That’s some serious live load!! But the racking systems only work if they are properly installed.

The installation sitting above this attic will be in serious jeopardy over time. Wind (whether gusty or not) causes lift when it’s funneled under a solar array. In most cases, this is a good thing. The wind can help keep the solar array cool on a hot day, and thus result in higher energy yield. However, if roof trusses are missed, the aggregate effect of this lift over time (especially from intensely gusty wind) is a gradual loosening of the feet holding the rails to the roof. In some cases, the feet could detach from the roof altogether. The most common result is roof leakage. If cheap components were used the result will often be rusty leakage (think of orange stains on your living room ceiling).

In this next example, roof leaks are inevitable. This inexperienced crew was exceptionally bad at locating studs. They left the roof littered with these unsightly holes as they poked around trying to locate rafters. When we took the job over and removed the old feet, our crew discovered up to four penetrations per foot! The roof damage was so acute that we had to bring in a licensed roofer to repair it all.

Where the installers eventually decided to set their feet, they left the penetrations unflashed (we double flash everything) and messy. Also notice the rusty bolt in the center of the rail. While it may seem harmless enough now, galvanic action of dissimilar metals ensures that the corrosion will spread to the nut, the rail, and eventually the frames of your solar panels. If the roof truss was missed underneath the attachment, you have the perfect recipe for rusty roof leaks.Insist that your contractor uses only stainless, galvanized and extruded aluminum components for all roof attachments.

While avoiding roof leaks is of paramount concern, so is proper electrical etiquette. Rather than use proper galvanized steel conduit for his electrical runs, the contractor used cheap flexible plastic and fastened it to a rusty lag bolt with a cheap indoor rated plastic tie wrap (which the sun will turn to dust in a matter of months).

Obviously satisfied with the cheap tie wraps’ ability to hold things together on the roof, the inexperienced crew then used the same tie wraps to affix the electric conduit to the customer’s thermal pool system. Notice also the exposed green ground wire running across the roof in clear violation of electrical code. Exposure and corrosion virtually guarantee a future of annoying and system crippling ground faults.

While I could show you photos ad nauseum, I’ll wrap Part II with the scariest photo of all:

The system pictured here was so badly put together (from an electrical standpoint), that the fuse terminals continued to burn AFTER the fuse blew. Fortunately, this problem was discovered before it caused a house fire, but it underscores the importance of choosing a qualified installer.

So, how can you check up on those clamoring for your solar business? First, start with the standard protocol:

Check your state’s state licensing board and the Better Business Bureau for suspension and complaints

If you live in California visit: http://www.californiasolarstatistics.ca.gov/application/search/
Select the solar contractor(s) you’re considering from the list and see how many and what types of systems they’ve installed. If a contractor is not listed, precede NO FURTHER. Cross them off of your list. If a contractor has less than 10 installations, they may still be learning. Ask yourself if you want them learning on your house.

Ask for their solar certification credentials. NABCEP is the gold standard in the industry. A NABCEP certified installer has years of experience and several difficult tests under his belt.

Look at the other businesses they may be involved in. Today scores of companies and individuals are flooding into the solar marketplace. These include window companies, flooring companies and even food companies (it’s scary, but true). Your best bet for a quality installation is to go with a company that specializes in solar (specifically photovoltaics, PV) and is dedicated industry specialist. They will be the most knowledgeable and best overall value.

Ask for references and to see local installations in your area

Well, that’s it for Part II. Stay tuned for Part III where I’ll explore the final frontier of ugly solar, the true ‘dark side’: Shade.

2 Comments

  1. Jeff on September 2, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    Your Ugly Side Of Solar posts are extremely informative (and worrisome for someone like me looking to install a PV system on my house). While Part I made me queasy, Part II makes me nauseous…I’m afraid what Part III will make me feel like! But seriously, there are many takeaways from these posts that will help me find the right solar installer!



  2. Scott Gordon on September 2, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Thanks for your kind words. Unfortunately, a solar gold rush of sorts has crowded the playing field with newbies and con artists. While the vast majority of solar companies are credible and do good work, knowing how to separate the good from the bad can be challenging. Hopefully the information I present here will help folks like yourself find a reputable contractor with solid credentials while making entry into the solar industry more difficult for those who seek to make a quick buck. I’m working on Part III now. I hope you will find it as informative as the first two installments!