Solar mounting manufacturers amplifying concerns by combining voices

Illustration courtesy of Mounting Systems

Illustration courtesy of Mounting Systems

Last August, a roomful of representatives from solar mounting manufacturers expressed concerns about superfluous UL standards and overbearing AHJs at the Solar Mounting Training Conference, or SOMO, in Las Vegas. An event dedicated to the training of solar installers, SOMO also brought many of the major mounting manufacturers into range for an impactful conversation about the industry.

S-5! marketing director Keith Lipps and Mounting Systems product manager Don Massa were among those who discussed troubles facing manufacturers—the high costs associated with testing to UL 2703 standards chief among them—and floated the idea of creating an association for mounting manufacturers. The organization would unify disparate voices in the solar mounting industry.

On March 3, such an organization was born, as SEIA announced the formation of the PV Mounting System Manufacturers Committee (MSMC). The MSMC has already had an impact on the solar industry, said Massa, and it has big plans for the future.

“For the first time, PV mounting system manufacturers can band together in the development of practical, cost-effective codes and standards that directly impact the PV industry, especially racking and mounting,” Massa said.

The MSMC formed as a committee under SEIA to avoid costs associated with creating a new trade association and provide access to SEIA’s resources. As part of an agreement, only mounting manufacturers that are members of SEIA can participate in the committee. It is possible the committee could become its own trade organization in the future, Massa said.

Influencing AHJs

It’s often said that solar mounting is 10% of the system cost and 90% of the challenge, as it’s the part of the project that varies the most from location to location.

“Modules don’t change. Inverters don’t change. Mounting systems are the one element of a PV array that is totally variable depending on the site where the array is being installed,” Massa said. “And trying to adapt equipment to the site and still meet all the codes and standards is a complex and difficult thing to do.”

Because of the ambiguous nature of many standards and codes, mounting manufacturers find themselves working with AHJs daily, said Jeff Spies, senior director of policy at Quick Mount PV, one of the manufacturers on the committee. He said common issues include the proper way to ground PV modules and how fire setbacks work.

“The codes and standards were written in confusing language and they’re open to interpretation,” Spies said. “The hope is we can have more clarity on the intent of these codes. Education is a big part of it.”

With dozens of mounting manufacturers and each one interacting with AHJs individually, facts and opinions can become muddled, causing confusion among AHJs. Sometimes that prompts them to create their own standards, which can be unreasonable. Forming a committee lets major mounting companies interact with AHJs with one voice in agreement, said Spies.

“If we approach as a committee, they’ll pay attention,” Spies said.

This approach has worked in Los Angeles County, where the department of building safety once imposed extraordinary requirements on mounting manufacturers. It was the main impetus of the MSMC, Massa said.

“LA County had its own requirements above what would be required in the code that would be more impractical than some of the bad stuff in the standard,” Massa said. “And no individual manufacturer had the clout or the ability to stand up to LA County. In essence, you either did what they wanted or you didn’t do business in LA County. So that’s what put us over the edge.”

After meeting with the department, Massa was able to convince the county to limit its requirements.

“Both sides gave a little and took a little, and now we have an agreement with the county on how manufacturers can meet requirements without it being a totally different thing than UL standards and codes,” Massa said. “We showed LA County why some of this stuff is impractical, and they showed us why some things were important, and we came to a fairly practical middle ground that satisfies both parties.”

While the committee presently does not have any other AHJs in its sights, the Los Angeles County experience serves as a model for the type of impact it could have.

Influencing standards

UL standards governing mounting include UL 1703, UL 2703 and UL 3703. Standards are written by a standard technical panel within UL. Various task groups make recommendations to standards and seek to clarify them when necessary. Task groups are comprised of industry stakeholders, including mounting systems manufacturers.

The MSMC will be active in these task groups and, according to interviews, is now particularly interested in labeling requirements placed on mounting manufacturers.

“The standard says the system will have a label. Well, none of the manufacturers make systems. We make components that an installer turns into a system in the field,” Massa said. “It’s very easy to say we should put labels on all the parts, but that would add enormous cost, and there is no practical way to do it.”

The committee also hopes to influence mechanical load testing. According to UL 2703, manufacturers must test their systems with every module they intend to put on it.

“The way it’s written is a ridiculous requirement and totally impractical,” Massa said. “The standard makes no mention or indication that you could use a category of module frames; it says you must test with every module. That’s a huge expense.”

Standards and codes like this can be changed and have been through previous committees within SEIA, said Justin Baca, vice president of markets and research at the trade organization. In one example, there was discussion about requiring every solar system in the U.S. to have module-level shut down. Different sectors of the industry had different opinions on the requirement, Baca said. The problem, however, is that the bulk of manufacturers wouldn’t have been able to provide a product within strict time constraints, damaging the solar market. It needed to be implemented in a thoughtful way, he said.

“Some products like a microinverter could have delivered, but the market is more than micro-inverters,” Baca said. “So that’s something where that requirement wasn’t put in place in this cycle.”

Baca, too, stressed the importance of going to stakeholders with a unified voice.

“If you don’t have an association doing that sort of thing, you go to a venue and you have differing opinions between solar companies being laid out and presented to people who are not experts in solar,” Baca said. “You go in there with five different messages and get none of the requests.

“Here we work it out. We come in and we speak with a voice that’s thought out.”

In the coming weeks, committee organizers will send information about it to companies that have expressed interest. Founding members of the MSMC represent the largestmounting and racking suppliers in the industry and include: S-5, Roof Tech, Pegasus Solar, Anchor Products, Unirac, PanelClaw, Quick Mount PV, SnapNrack, Everest, and more.