03/13/20

  07:39:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 436 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Solar Economics, Residential Solar, Ranting

Stock Market Scary? Time to Invest in Solar!

The other day we had a potential client postpone a meeting to discuss our proposal for their home due to “market instability."  To say that the market has been unstable is a major understatement, but that got us wondering: in uncertain times, doesn’t investing in solar make sense?  We sure think so - hear me out…

Unstable Times

Market crashing

Instability? Oh yeah!

The worldwide pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has induced travel bans, the cancellation of sporting events (MLB, NBA, March Madness, even NASCAR!) and social events (for once the show isn’t going on on Broadway!), and possibly even postponing some Presidential primaries, combined with a sudden drop in oil prices due to feuding between Saudi Arabia and Russian, has done a serious number on the stock market.  In the past 30 days, the Dow Jones has lost 21% of its value (and it would have been far worse but for a close of the week rally).

Instability indeed!

It is certainly reasonable for any investor to be concerned by such numbers, especially when a wild card - like a global pandemic - is the driving factor.  Hard to plan for such an event, yet it can have enormous impact on the economy, at least in the short term.

The Stability of Solar

But now consider what makes installing solar on your home or business such an attractive investment.  Modern equipment, like Enphase microinverters and LG solar panels, come with 25-year warranties, providing peace of mind. And no matter what happens – short of the zombie apocalypse – you are going to continue to need electricity to power your life, and that need is likely to only increase over time (think of your electricity usage twenty years ago compared to today).  Electric utilities, especially the Investor-Owned Utilities like SCE, clearly do not have your personal best interests at heart, and their rates will continue to increase, even as service declines.

Which means that installing solar provides you with a reliable asset that will reduce your out-of-pocket costs for the next 20 years!  We typically see payback periods that range from 5 to 10 years, with a 20 year ROI of 150%+ and IRR of 12-20% (though our largest residential client in SCE territory is looking at an eye-popping ROI of 460% and an IRR of 28%!).

Of course, your mileage may vary.  But it is hard to imagine a scenario where the value of your solar investment drops 21% in a matter of days - but easy to do so for your 401k - because it just did!

If you would like to diversify your portfolio into a less risky investment, give us a call.  We can help you trade up to solar!

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02/29/20

  03:14:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1167 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Commercial Solar, Residential Solar, Ranting

Run on Sun Enters the Drone Era!

Just about a year ago, we really started thinking seriously about what drone technology might add to our solar installation company. The folks over at Scanifly – with their ability to take drone images and convert it into a 3-D model of a potential solar site, without needing to climb onto a roof, was really appealing. And that got us thinking of other ways a drone might be helpful - as with finished project photography, or inspecting existing systems. All of that seemed possible, but certainly there were obstacles in the path.

Well now, a year later, those obstacles have been surmounted, and Run on Sun has officially enter the Drone Era!  Here’s how we did it…

Research

We started by doing some homework.  Lots of it.  Watching videos to see what it would take to make this happen.  The list was fairly long: what drone to purchase (there are a lot of drones out there!), how do you learn to fly one (safely!), what does it take to do this legally?  And on and on.

Choosing a drone…

Drones come in all shapes and sizes - to say nothing of costs.  Last year LG sent out a professional crew to photograph one of our installations (you can see one of those photos here), and they used a $20,000 drone for the task.  Clearly that was going to be too rich for our blood!  A number of years ago, my good buddy Josh - who is always on the bleeding edge of fun tools - had let us use his drone for shooting some video of our reservoir project. Josh did all the real flying, but I did get to take the controls and found it pretty straightforward to fly.  So we had some exposure to some of the different drones out there.

Our Mavic Air, aka Oscar

Our Mavic Air, FAA # FA3NMEK4RF - aka Oscar!

In looking around, it seemed like DJI was the market leader in the types of drones that we might consider.  Ultimately, we settled on the DJI Mavic Air (in Flame Red, thank you very much!), and we purchased the “More Fly Combo” which included two extra batteries, spare props, prop guards and a carrying case.  We also shelled out for a hardshell carrying case, a landing pad, and some neutral density filters.  Total outlay was just over $1,000, and for that we bring you our Mavic Air (nicknamed Oscar by Victoria who insists that it is the only robot she loves), FAA #FA3NMEK4RF. Which brings us to the next point - flying legally!

Making it Legal

Choosing a drone was fairly easy.  Figuring out how to fly it legally, that was more challenging.  Way back in the day, I was a private pilot, but I found that I either had the time, but no money, or the money, but no time.  And living in the greater LA area meant dealing with the most complicated airspace in the country, if not the world!  So I quit flying when my daughter was born and haven’t flown since.

But, that did give me a leg up in learning how to fly legally, since I was generally familiar with the rules and regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  One of the first things you learn is that any drone that weighs more than 0.55 pounds must be registered.  Our Mavic Air weighs in at just over 15 ounces, so registration was a must.  Turns out that is super easy, and can be done online for a nominal fee.  We had our local label maker create registration labels so our Mavic Air is legal everytime it flies!

Of course, getting me licensed was another matter!  I found a number of great resources online, including this great video created by Tony Northrup! Tony’s video is an hour and forty-three minutes long and I watched it multiple times.  He is clear, funny, and amazingly helpful.  I also found an online study guide (currently unavailable as they update it) here.

The test consists of 60 multiple choice questions and you need a 70% to pass.  While a significant number of the questions are really just common sense - like is the FAA going to ever suggest that having a drink of alcohol will improve your visual acuity??? - there are a number of questions that require you to parse a weather report that looks like this: KIAD 180005Z 19008KT 10SM TS SCT060CB BKN090 BKN200 31/21 A3002 RMK AO2 TSB04 FRQ LTGICCCCG SW TS SW MOV NE T03060211 (seriously!), or puzzle through a sectional chart that is one of the densest data presentations ever invented. (Don’t believe me?  You can download it here, but be patient, it will take a while!)

Suffice it to say, I took my test prep seriously, and the result was rewarding: 100%! 

Now all I needed was to start flying!

Flying for (fun) and Profit!

So now that I was a fully licensed drone pilot, it was time to start putting those skills to use.  Here are some recent drone shots and a description of their application.  (In each case, clicking on the image will give you a full-scale picture.

Completed residential solar installation   

Finished Project Photography

One of the really cool uses for the drone is to give homeowners a view of their new system that you just cannot get any other way!

This image shows a just completed tilt-up system on a flat - and very bright white roof!

Garage roof   

Residential Site Evaluation Photography

Another great reason to use the drone is to take imagery that our friends at Scanifly can turn into a 3-D model - all without actually going on the roof!  This is a 25 degree pitch garage roof - not really something you want to walk on if you don’t have to!  Guess what, thanks to the drone, everyone stayed on the ground and we got a great model to use for our proposal!

Array inspection   

Inspection Photography

The other day, one of our clients reported that a neighbor’s tree had fallen on his carport, where our solar system was installed five years ago.  When we came out, the array was completely buried under the tree.  We advised the client to get the tree removed and we would return to survey the array for damage.

Once again, we were able to examine the array closely for signs of damage, without ever breaking out a ladder!

Commercial building   

Commercial Site Evaluation Photography

One of our most anticipated uses if for modeling larger commercial roofs.  Using Scanifly, we can get shading readings for any area on the roof, letting us have very accurate production models, thereby allowing us to provide our commercial and non-profit clients with better proposals than ever before.  And when you try to distinguish yourself by the quality of the information that you can provide, this is a great leap forward!

We really think that the drone brings us a new level of safety and competence.  So when you call us for that site evaluation, don’t be surprised if we never break out the ladder, but instead let Oscar - the newest member of the Run on Sun team - do the hard work for us!

02/28/20

  04:46:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 411 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, PWP, LADWP, BWP, GWP, Residential Solar, Ranting

SMUD Scheme Threatens New Solar Homes Mandate

With very little fanfare, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District ("SMUD") just convinced the California Energy Commission to allow it to offer a SMUD-owned alternative to installing solar power systems on new homes under California’s just instituted New Solar Homes mandate. As other municipal utilities lined up in support – including PWP, LADWP, BWP and GWP – it is clear that this is nothing short of a full-on assault against the New Solar Homes mandate. Here’s our take…

Solar installed on a new home

Solar added to a new home in Altadena

The intent of the New Solar Homes mandate was to install appropriately sized solar power systems on every new home in California.  There are many benefits to such a program, including providing distributed power across the grid, thereby increasing grid reliability, as well as generating jobs and raising public awareness as solar becomes commonplace. 

The SMUD scheme thwarts all of that.  Instead, a SMUD-owned solar farm would have it production allocated across participating new homes.  (Tellingly, the SMUD scheme does not permit privately built community solar farms to participate in the program!)  Worse yet, the SMUD scheme effectively prevents subsequent home owners from adding local solar, since the first 4,700 kWhs must come from the SMUD-owned facility.

So how did this get approved?  In addition to all of the municipal utilities in California lining up behind SMUD’s power grab, so did much of the building industry (as they can simply fill out paperwork for compliance instead of actually building solar systems), and the IBEW (whose members get employed when utility-scale solar farms are built).  On the short end of the stick are local solar contractors, and consumers who lose the power to choose their own, local solar system because the builder decided to opt-into SMUD’s scheme.

What say you, PWP?

Which brings this back home.  While Pasadena Water and Power did not submit their own letter of support (that we could find), their trade association, the California Municipal Utilities Association, did.  Now there aren’t that many new homes being built in Pasadena at this point, but can we expect to see a similar power grab from PWP?  LADWP did submit their own letter and there are plenty of new homes going up within the City’s boundaries - is a similar scheme in the works?

The utilities rely on consumers being largely uninformed as to these schemes to push them through.  We will be keeping an eye on what our local utilities bring forward in the coming months.  Watch this space.

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02/19/20

  06:56:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 742 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Residential Solar, Safety, Ranting

Watch Out - Shortcut Solar at Work!

I suspect that most of my NABCEP-Certified colleagues have had this happen - you are on your way to a jobsite when you pass a solar installation that is so painfully bad, that it stops you in your tracks and you just have to go and take a closer look at what happens when Shortcut Solar has botched another job. Follow me into a realm where you never want to find yourself, the horrifying reality of Shortcut Solar at work!

Uh-oh - Shortcut Solar at work!

I brake for Shortcut Solar!

Wow, there’s a lot going on there and none of it good.  The panels on the left are facing a variety of trees.  The panels on the right have a significant pitch-up to the south, with a lot of exposure to the wind out of the north.  The cable management there appears to be: let it just hang down.  That middle section is supposed to have 18″ of clearance at the hip given the panels on the adjacent face, but they are actually overlapping the hip!  And how exactly are these attached to the roof?  A closer investigation was in order!

Shortcut solar and wire management

How not to do cable management!

Seriously? Looks like old Shortcut was in a real hurry the day they did this job!  There is a rail there on the high end - surely you could have found some way to use that to get those cables in order - but clearly that wasn’t a priority!

But it was this last image that really got me going.  Checkout this attachment scheme:

Risky attachmentI apologize that the image isn’t too clear, but let’s try and break down what is going on here.  At the base in the foreground you can see what appears to be a 3″ or so piece of unistrut that has been cut to length and painted black.  There is no flashing of any sort visible here.  Instead, the strut has apparently been bolted directly onto the roof.  Perhaps those clever fellows from Shortcut Solar drilled pilot holes and squirted in some sealant?  Or maybe not - I mean why go to all that extra effort?

So that’s your attachment, now for the standoff - I know, how about a threaded piece of 3/8″ steel?  You can attach it at the bottom with a channel nut, and then just drill a hole in your aluminum rail and secure it with a nut above and below!  What could possibly go wrong?

Well let’s start with the wind.  When the Santa Ana winds blow out of the North, they will rock those panels, and that long, skinny bolt will flex with the wind.  It is steel and the rail is aluminum, which means that the steel, over time, will chew into the aluminum.  Enough flex over enough time, and that attachment scheme is going to fail - potentially in a catastrophic manner.

(Wanna see what happens when steel defeats aluminum on a roof in the wind?  Check this out!)

 It should come as no surprise that there is a better way to do this!  Here’s our preferred approach:

A better way to do this!The picture on the right shows one of the strongest possible combination of solar attachment components you could ask for.  The rail and L-foot comes from Everest.  The 3-inch standoff is from Unirac and the flashing is from Oatey.

Under the flashing is a rounded-rectangular base plate that accepts two, 5/16″ x 3 1/2″ lag bolts.  Two lag bolts gives you twice the strength, and hedges against hitting just the side of a rafter, or a possibly rotted/weak spot.  The 3-inch standoff screws down onto the base, and the Oatey flashing goes over it all, insuring that it will not leak.  The L-foot is bolted to the standoff and is in turn bolted into the rail - which was engineered to accept this configuration.  All components are torqued to the manufacturer’s specification, and marked to indicate that the torquing was performed.

Does it take longer to do things that way?  To be sure.  Does that mean it costs more to do it this way?  Of course.  But ask yourself, which of these approaches would you want on your roof?

We take pride in doing things the right way for our clients so that they can sleep well at night, no matter how hard the wind blows!

And we will continue to brake for Shortcut Solar and call out his subpar work whenever we see it so that you, a solar homeowner, will know what to look out for when you choose a solar installer!

01/24/20

  05:45:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1640 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Residential Solar, Energy Storage

Hands-On with Ensemble - My Trip to Enphase!

I just returned from two days of hands-on training with the new Ensemble Storage System from Enphase Energy at their HQ in Fremont, California.  Here’s my take…

Ok, to say that I have been somewhat obsessed over the Enphase IQ8 and its incarnation in the Ensemble Storage System over the last year and a half would be an understatement, having written about it here, here, here, here and here!  I’ve attended webinars and conference sessions where Ensemble was discussed and the technology explained.  But like any good installer, what I really wanted to do was get my hands on these devices, wire them up, and get a real feel for what it takes to put these on a client’s wall.  This week I got my chance!

Ensemble lab

Ensemble Family Photo: Enpower, Encharge 10, Encharge 3, IQ Envoy Combiner.
(Click for larger image.)

Here is one view from the lab at Fremont.  On the far left is a main service panel and meter. To its right is the Enpower Smart Switch which acts as a Microgrid Interconnect Device (or MID). Next is the Encharge 10, alongside its smaller sibling, the Encharge 3. 

(As this image suggests, Encharge 10 and Encharge 3 can be combined as desired to achieve the combination of energy storage and power output required.) 

Next is the IQ Envoy Combiner (not new, although it now comes with a cellular modem standard).

Finally, there is the simulated array made up of IQ6’s and IQ7’s (both regular and Plus versions).  Out of the field of the picture is a PV array simulator that powers the microinverters.

Oh, and no demo would be complete without some loads, including a light, a microwave, and an electric stove - all of which were powered by this system with the grid disconnected.  (Some people have asked how fast was the switchover - so fast that the light doesn’t blink and the clock on the microwave did not reset.)

Over the course of the two days we spent a lot of time in the classroom - headed by Peter Lum, trainer extaordinaire - focusing on the nitty gritty.  How do you size an Ensemble system, how do you mount these things, how do you wire them up, how do you comply with the electrical code?

Our lab time on the first day was a demo of the system on the wall.  The second day, we were actually mounting these to the wall and wiring them up.

Getting Our Hands Dirty

I’ve already written a lot about the specs of these devices, so I won’t repeat that here.  The point of this post is to discuss the actual installation process.

Enpower and Encharge10

Enpower with deadfront removed alongside Encharge 10.
(Click for larger image.)

On the left is the Enpower with its deadfront removed, alongside the Encharge 10 with its cover removed.  (The whitle, L-shaped pieces on top of the Encharge 10 cover are the screw down covers for the Encharge’s wiring compartment.)

Encharge 10

Let’s start with the Encharge 10 - as the photo makes clear, Encharge 10 is actually three Encharge 3’s mounted on a common mounting bracket.  Each Encharge 3 includes four IQ8 microinverters, and they are individually replaceable, so should one ever fail, the others continue to operate and the monitoring will advise the installer of which unit has failed.  All the field technician needs to do is remove the cover, disconnect the failed microinverter, plug in the replacement, and put the cover back on. Moreover, because the micros are on a common bus inside the Encharge 3, if one should happen to fail, you still have 75% of your total power, but 100% of your stored energy!

An Encharge 10 constitutes a 20 Amp branch circuit, and up to two Encharge 10’s can be wired together in series (maximum wire size is #8).  If a larger storage system is required, then the Encharge units need to be landed in a dedicated subpanel.  (The Enpower is rated for up to 80 Amps of storage.)

To the left of the IQ8s is the battery management unit and the battery disconnect switch.  (Not really visible in this picture is a status LED that shows whether the battery is on or not, whether it is idle or charging, and the relative state of charge as it shifts from blue (discharged) to green (charged).

The finned area is the actual LFP batteries themselves.  All cooling is passive, no fans are involved.  The unit needs to be mounted a minimum of one foot from the ground, and if you have more than one row, at least six inches (vertically) between rows.

The mounting bracket is secured to the wall with sufficient hardware and into sufficient structure to support the total weight of 346 pounds.  (Enphase will be releasing a white paper on best mounting practices - a must read to be sure!)  Each individual Encharge 3 is then lifted onto the bracket.  Given that these are over 100 pounds, this is a two-person lift to be sure!  My colleague Greg and I struggled a bit with the lift, mostly because I wasn’t really pulling my weight - so to speak.  (My value add isn’t really in lift strength!)  But the younger guys that were in the training with us managed the task with ease - ah youth!

Wiring compartment of Enphase Encharge 3

Encharge wiring compartment.
(Click for larger image.)

The Encharge 3’s are then daisy-chained together in a wiring compartment at the top of the units, as you can see in the picture on the left.  Each terminal block can hold two wires, one coming in, one going out.  The last unit just has the incoming connection and no other termination is required.

Note the black piece connecting to the two units.  That is a plastic, snap in conduit section that is added after the units are mounted.  The last unit in the chain has a rubber plug in that opening to keep the wiring compartment watertight. 

(Note, the section with the microinverters is not watertight as the IQ8’s are NEMA 6x, which means that they can - and are tested to prove it - operate under water!)

Once the wiring between the Encharge units is complete, the unit closest to the Enpower is then wired to it, and then the tops can be screwed on, and the cover added.

Enpower

Which brings us to the Enpower - which is both a MID and an interconnection center.  Note, however, that Enpower is not a general purpose panelboard, but rather, a specially listed UL device and as such, the 120% rule does not apply.  As a result, the Enpower will accommodate up to 80 Amps of PV input (i.e., a fully populated IQ Combiner) and 80 Amps of storage input (i.e., four Encharge 10’s.)

In the picture above, the input from the meter (if serving as a whole-home backup system) or the the main service panel (in a partial-home backup) comes in on the right hand side.  In the picture there is an Eaton main service, bolt-down breaker installed.  If this were intended for a partial-home backup with a breaker in the main service panel, the Eaton breaker could be omitted and the input conductors would land on the existing lugs.

Directly above that main breaker is the isolation relay, which trips when the grid fails and isolates the system for creating a microgrid.  Above and to the center is the neutral forming transformer that allows the system to power 120 VAC loads.  Below that on the left is the common bus that holds (going counterclockwise from the top left) the breaker for the PV, the breaker for Encharge, a breaker for a generator (but not yet), and the breaker for the neutral forming transformer.  

You can see the conductors for all of those connections pre-wired in the photo, waiting to be attached to the appropriately sized breaker.  The actual connections for both the PV and Encharge are made on lugs at the very bottom.

The output to the loads is at the base of the common bus where an appropriate Eaton breaker is added.  Fun fact - the Eaton service rated breakers actually swap L1 and L2 from one side of the breaker to the other!  This means that installers need to pay attention to their phasing so that the consumption and production CTs are reading the proper values - a topic we discussed in some detail in the classroom, and then verified in the lab - damn, isn’t hands-on training the best!

The Enpower switch, the Encharge units, and the IQ Envoy Combiner all communicate directly via Zigbee.  In fact, each unit has two radios, one at 2.4 GHz and the other at 900 MHz and the units switch automatically between channels and frequencies as necessary to provide the clearest signal.  Moreover, if the Combiner box is remote from the Enpower but closer to Encharge, the Encharge unit (or vice versa) can serve as a repeater to get signals to the other devices.  Pretty clever.

Providing Feedback…

Of course, there are two purposes to a training like this during a beta period: to get the initial installers up to speed with the product, and for the installers to provide Enphase with feedback.  Along the way we discovered a diagram that was wrong (nice pickup, Greg!), and a couple of places where esthetics got in the way of utility.  Those are easy things to correct, and Enphase’s CEO himself came into our classroom to hear our feedback directly!  That is a level of dedication to hearing what the long tail has to say that just isn’t happening with other solar companies.

Finally, a point of personal privilege: some years ago we did a video about our installation at Westridge School for Girls here in Pasadena (you can find it here.)  Well what do you know but that video is part of a loop that is playing in the Enphase lobby!  One of the engineers actually came up to me and exclaimed, “You’re the guy in the video!"  Fun way to end our two days at Enphase HQ. 

Bring on the Beta!

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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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