10/23/19

  08:50:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 464 words  
Categories: Commercial Solar, Residential Solar, Safety, Non-profit solar

The Solar Fire that Wasn't!

Solar fire!

Fire damage at a Walmart store.

We recently wrote about a spate of fires that occurred at Walmart stores due to problems with solar power systems on their roofs.  The damage, in some cases, was extensive and overall, painted a pretty bleak picture of commercial solar.  But it doesn’t have to be that way - read on to learn about the solar fire that wasn’t!

One of the problems with the systems that were installed at Walmart is that they were tied to string inverters.  That means that multiple solar panels are wired together into a series string.  When solar panels are wired together that way, the voltage in that string adds with each additional panel.  So if you have twenty panels wired together, and each panel produces 40 volts, the total voltage for the string is 800 volts!  (Indeed, commercial systems can be as high as 1000 volts!)  If there is a gap - say from a loose wire, or a damaged panel - you can get an electric arc that can easily start a fire.

Yikes!

But the other day we were doing a maintenance check on a small commercial system that we installed a few years ago.  While we were installing a software update we did a visual inspection of the array and came across this - a totally shattered panel!

Shattered panel

Totally shattered panel - but no fire here!

So what happened here?  Turns out that the company that owns the system had a mishap, and a brass valve fell on the panel from about 100′ in the air - yep, that will do it!

But more importantly was what didn’t happen - there was no fire.  This was during the middle of the day, and the system was operating at full capacity, yet despite being entirely shattered by the blow, there was no fire because this was not part of a high voltage string.  Rather, this was part of an Enphase microinverter system, so the total DC voltage was only 40 volts.  At that low a voltage there is no arc, and with no arc, there is no fire!

We have heard people say that string inverters are the way to go with commercial systems because they are so much cheaper.  To which we reply - really?  How much does it cost to repair the damage from a fire like those that Walmart has experienced?  Moreover, with a string inverter system, finding faults before they become a hazard is much harder than it is with an Enphase microinverter system.  The Enphase monitoring tells you where the problem is so you can fix it with minimal impact on your operations.

Bottom line: beware of false economies.  Spending a little more to have a safer system is just smart business.  That’s one of the many reasons that we are exclusively an Enphase shop - simply safer solar!

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08/28/19

  10:29:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 174 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Commercial Solar, Residential Solar, Non-profit solar

Say Hello to Jenni O'Neil

Jenni O'Neil

We are excited to introduce the latest member of the Run on Sun team, our new Office Manager and Social Media Guru, Jenni O’Neil.

Jenni joins the Run on Sun team with ten years of customer service experience, four of which were spent as a social media coordinator for a Strategic Solutions company. In her early work experience, Jenni spent time on Capitol Hill working for a Representative from the great state of South Carolina. 

A woman of many skills, Jenni’s work experience encompasses many areas with a focus in politics, social-media marketing, sales and management - all of which will be put to use here!

In her spare time, Jenni is a singer-songwriter who composes music and enjoys singing both Jazz and Blues.  She also enjoys the written-word, and when not working on music, is pen-deep in the historical-fiction novel she is writing.

We are looking forward to Jenni spicing up our social media content, particularly on Twitter!  Expect things there to be far more lively going forward!

Please join us in welcoming Jenni aboard!

08/26/19

  01:14:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 414 words  
Categories: Commercial Solar, Safety, Shortcut Solar

FIRE! Walmart Sues SolarCity/Tesla Over Rash of Solar Fires

On August 20th, Walmart sued Tesla Inc, alleging “widespread negligence” in the installation and maintenance of systems on something like 240 Walmart stores across the country, resulting in 7 fires!  Is this a uniquely SolarCity/Tesla problem?  Are rooftop solar installations invariably unsafe?  Or is there a design difference that can make systems safer, particularly for residential solar clients?  Here’s our take…

Fire at Walmart store allegedly caused by Tesla solar installation

Fire damage at Walmart store allegedly caused by Tesla solar installation.

The 114-page complaint is a pretty damning set of accusations, saying that the installations were rushed, that faulty materials were used during the installation, and that the maintenance provided by Tesla did not meet “Prudent Industry Practices."  For example, after one Tesla maintenance team left a Walmart site, a DC combiner box, which could involve DC voltages of as much as 1,000 volts, was found left with the cover off!

Other problems involved multiple solar modules with “hot spots” possibly caused by micro-fractures of the cells, as well as mismatching cabling connectors (connecting MC4 connectors to Amphenol connectors) such that excessive resistance in the connections could occur, resulting in overheating, and potentially fires.

While the lawsuit is specific to SolarCity, and its now parent, Tesla, the types of conditions described are going to be potentially present in any string inverter system - which all of these were.  Since you are dealing with strings of solar panels, you are dealing with higher string operating voltages, with more power running through those strings.  If you use mismatched connectors, or stand on solar modules (one of the best pictures in the complaint shows the foot of a Tesla maintenance inspector standing on a solar module!) you can have the potential for fires.

A Safer Way…

DC arcing at 240 volts

DC arc at 240 volts.
Video by John Ward
6:20 into the video.

Which leads us to yet another reason to prefer the Enphase microinverter approach - no high DC voltages involved!  When a DC circuit opens under load, it is possible to get significant arcing, like you see at the left - ouch! 

But since each solar module plugs directly into the Enphase microinverter, there is no additive effect leading to those crazy high DC voltages.  Open a DC circuit with a voltage of 40 volts or so and guess what? No arcing!

While human error is never going to be eliminated in the solar industry – those are human beings doing the work after all – the Enphase microinverter system is inherently safer.  And if you are going to put solar on your home, school or business, isn’t safer what you want?

07/23/19

  06:00:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 244 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power

Run on Sun - Top Solar Contractor for Six of the Past Seven Years!

Our friends over at Solar Power World are once again out with their Top Solar Contractors list, and for the sixth time in the past seven years, Run on Sun has made the cut!

Of course, Run on Sun is a very small operation, so to consistently make the list is a testament to the hard work of our team, particularly Projects Coordinator, Victoria Villalobos.  

Here’s how Solar Power World describes the significance of this list:

The Top Solar Contractors list is developed by Solar Power World to recognize the work completed by solar contractors across the United States. Produced annually, the Top Solar Contractors list celebrates the achievements of U.S. solar developers, subcontractors and installers within the utility, commercial and residential markets, and ranks contractors by kilowatts installed in the previous year.

Solar Power World enjoys assembling the Top Solar Contractors list each year, and our 2019 edition features hundreds of companies making big impacts in local energy markets,” said Kelly Pickerel, editor in chief of Solar Power World. "Solar power is becoming competitive with traditional electricity sources in more markets, and cities and states are demanding more renewable energy options. It’s a great time to be a solar installer, and we’re happy to highlight the best installation companies in the country on our list.”

To all the hardworking folks who join us on the list, congratulations and we will look forward to seeing you at the Gala in Salt Lake City come SPI in September.

07/17/19

  01:01:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 926 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Residential Solar, Ranting, Shortcut Solar

California Solar Consumer Protection Guide Hits the Streets

CPUC Solar Consumer Protection Guide

For the longest time we have been talking about the need for the solar industry to do a better job of policing itself, because the manner in which too many solar companies were doing business was simply unsustainable.  We argued that if we didn’t do a better job, others would step in and do it for us. 

Well guess what, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has just published a 23-page tome titled, California Solar Consumer Protection Guide.  Now that is quite a mouthful, but come September 30th, every contract in California that is entered into for solar with one of the investor-owned utilities (IOUs) – that is, SCE, PG&E, and SDG&E – requires that the first four pages be initialed, the last page signed, and the whole thing uploaded to the IOU’s web portal!  Moreover, homeowners need to be given adequate time (and patience?) to read the entire document and only wet signatures (i.e., no E-sign) are allowed.  Here’s our take…

Who Will this Deter?

First and foremost, the more information consumers have, the less likely they will be taken in by shady contractors.  Ultimately, that is good for both consumers and the legitimate players in the solar industry.  Frankly it’s too bad that the trade associations didn’t create something like this and require their members to disseminate it to potential clients – I’m confident that they would have produced a better guide.

For Run on Sun, this really doesn’t change anything that we will be doing since we have always covered this type of information with our clients.  (You know, we are “tellers, not sellers.")    But it will be really interesting to see how the bad players respond.  My guess is that they will simple forge signatures – if you are willing to deceive your customer, you will have no qualms about deceiving a bunch of regulators.

Meanwhile, for the Non-Shady Solar Installers…

As to the rest of us, while this will mostly be business as usual, there are some disturbing things.

For example, on page 8, where the CPUC is trying to explain the installation process, they have this bullet point under the heading, After You Sign a Contract: “Installer… performs a home site visit to confirm assumptions and check roof, ground, and electric conditions."  Hold the phone.  If the installer doesn’t know the condition of your roof and electrical service when you sign the contract, that contract is invalid! 

Key terms that are left to a later time means that there was no agreement between the parties, no “meeting of the minds,” and hence the contract is not binding.  So why is the CPUC publishing such nonsense?  Because many of the larger solar companies operate this way and they were no doubt insisting that this language be included. 

But no - before you sign a contract, those assumptions have to be nailed down if you are to avoid costly change orders down the road.  (Oh, and why aren’t change orders discussed here?  Sigh.)

Under Step 3: Find a Qualified Solar Provider they suggest going to the Contractors State License Board and the California DGStats website.  But that’s a lousy way to identify a qualified provider.  For one thing, being listed with the CSLB just means you have a license - but lots of companies play all kinds of tricks to have a license number and you wouldn’t want them anywhere near your home.  And the DGStats site is interesting, but it only shows projects installed in the IOUs territory - locally that means SCE.  But installs done in Pasadena or Los Angeles, Burbank, Glendale, Azusa, or Anaheim (for example) will not show up there at all, since the municipal utilities do not report their projects to that site.

Only under the area of narrowing down your list to they suggest checking the website of certified PV installation professionals provided by the North American Board of Certified Energy Professionals (NABCEP) – which is the only resource listed that actually does anything to qualify installers!  (Check out the NABCEP list here.)  Oddly, the directory of companies belonging to the California Solar and Storage association (calssa.org) was not referenced as a resource at all!

 Under Step 5: Learn About Electricity Bill Savings they have this interesting statement: “Before you sign a contract, ask yourself: if the savings end up being lower than the estimated monthly or yearly savings, does getting rooftop solar still make sense to me?"  Wow - how much did the IOUs have to pay to get that language inserted?  How about adding this in rebuttal: “Before you sign a contract, ask yourself: How much would it mean to me to be able to really stick it to my utility?"  Because we have certainly had many a client tell us that all they really want to do is make SCE feel the pain!

Wouldn’t more useful questions to ask before you sign the contract be: How did your installer calculate your potential savings?  What assumptions did they make, for example,about the rate of growth for future electric bills, or the degradation of the output of your PV system?  What software did they use and how does it work?  Or did they just pull a number out of the ether?

Under Step 8: Sign this Guide we get to explain to our new client why they have to initial 4 pages, check three boxes, and then sign the Guide - in addition to the installer’s contract and the interconnection agreement.  (To say nothing of financing documents if they are foolish enough to buy into a Lease/PPA).  Yet more hoops to jump through before Going Solar.

But you know what, folks?  We have only ourselves to blame.

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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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