The variety of racking-and-mounting systems available to developers is never more obvious than at trade shows. From wall to wall, polymer to steel, the sheer selection can be overwhelming. But that may change soon. Industry leaders expect to see the racking-and-mounting market consolidate, following an industry-wide trend. Companies that have proven products, they say, will endure, while companies that bypass appropriate testing and certifications will fail. The exit of these companies largely will be the result of investment banks that have become more sophisticated, growing wise to fly-by-night manufacturing.
“Banks were planning on a 12% rate of return, but now they’re getting half that,” says Dan O’Brien, vice president of business development at SolarDock, a Delaware-based flat-roof mounting manufacturer. He says numerous systems on the East Coast are waiting on delayed commissions because of problems with the mounting. “The banks are going back to find out why they’re not getting their money,” he says.
Once the static has subsided, and the systems remaining are equally safe and functional for the 25-year term of a typical solar project, a developer’s selection will be guided by the requirements of a project. The first consideration will likely be whether a project requires multiple types of mounting – such as flat-roof mounts and trackers – or a single system.
That’s because the racking-and-mounting segment is following two divergent paths, leaders say. In one direction, companies are producing lines of systems for installation on ground, flat roofs and sloped roofs. They see themselves as one-stop shops for the engineering, procurement and construction company (EPC). On the contrary path, suppliers have positioned themselves to excel at one particular type of system — only a ballasted, flat-roof mount, for instance. Leaders say there is room for both types of companies in the solar space, but only the best will survive.
“We’re all trying to get to the same goal line,” says John Harvey, president of HatiCon Solar. “The market will decide.”
And the market is eyeing grid parity. Racking-and-mounting suppliers are taking it upon themselves to simplify systems and reduce cost. The move is a necessity. Although cost pressure bears down on the whole industry, the pressure is arguably greatest today in the racking-and-mounting market.
“When you think of systems, modules were always the bigger expense,” says Mark Gies, vice president of global applications engineering and services at PanelClaw. “But if you think about it, our racking system is what touches the roof, it’s what touches the modules. It defines the geometry of the system. The industry has migrated toward placing an increasingly important value on racking.”
Manufacturers are looking at the mechanical aspects of racks as well as how it goes together in the field to determine the best ways to simplify and reduce cost. In recent years, racking-and-mounting providers have looked at two important ways to reduce cost: simplify parts and installation.
Just 10 years ago, solar panels could be found affixed to ordinary 2x4s. More recently, mounting systems resembled complicated erector sets. These were two extremes that have evolved into today’s prized combination: a system that emphasizes “simplification through sophistication,” a phrase Harvey of HatiCon Solar used to describe the overarching industry trend. For its part, HatiCon uses aluminum because multiple features can be built into a single extruded rail. The features are important because nothing is perfect.
“You can design a beautiful system in the lab that, in the real world, fails to work as well,” Harvey says, noting undulating hills and uneven roofs as common complications. “In the field, when things aren’t exactly as they’re drawn up, people should still be able to make it work. You have to have flexibility in the design.”
HatiCon designs systems for ground, flat-roof and pitched-roof installations. To save installers time, the various systems use similar components. In California, Harvey says, it’s becoming more common for school districts to install solar. To achieve maximum productivity, it’s common for a district to build on a variety of surfaces, such as the school roof, over a parking lot and in a nearby field. “If I have the exact same system with one unique thing that makes it a ground mount versus flat-roof, it makes it easier from the installation standpoint,” Harvey says.
Another manufacturer aims to simplify its products for installers. SunLink‘s Precision RMS systems have a tilt-up feature, so workers can pivot sections of an array up for easier access to wire management, microinverters or other components. “That adds a part to our system,” says Chris Tilley, CEO of the California-based company. “But it also greatly simplifies electrical installation. You don’t have to crawl under the racks anymore.”
Tilley says his company has reduced its part count by about 50% since its first racking system, but it’s also made them more sophisticated. For instance, roof manufacturers have long-required solar developers to include a slip sheet between solar racking and a roof. SunLink developed rubber feet that are compatible with rooftops, removing this superfluous step from installation (although Tilley admits that roofing manufacturers will have the final say – no one wants to void a warranty).
Patriot Solar has simplified its systems’ mechanics and thereby brought cost down, too. The Michigan-based company previously had a ground-mount system that brought two rails together. A plate sat across them, and each rail was individually bolted to the plate, which was connected to a truss. Later designs used a swedged rail, in which one end of the rail slides into another. Now, only one bolt is necessary, and the plate has been removed from the construction. But Patriot Solar, which got its start in satellite technology, has looked beyond mechanics to simplify its systems.
As more EPCs look for one-stop shops, racking-and-mounting companies are following the money and offering turn-key services. Patriot Solar is among them, having built an in-house installation team.
“Manufacturing is our core competency, but installation is another service we offer,” says Adam Parr, an account manager with the company. “The racking companies are leading the way in the next push to lower cost. The more options such as installation, wire management, custom string sizing, grounding and pre-assembly a company can offer to lower cost, the better.”
Ohio-based Solar FlexRack is also providing turnkey service. The company has developed a certified installer program.
“People love that,” says Steve Daniel, vice president of sales and marketing. “We’re even going to the level of hiring field technicians with machinery to do pull-out tests of the soil to determine the type, strength and depth of posts. Three or four years ago, no one did this.”
PanelClaw’s Gies notes that simplicity in installation extends beyond what happens on the roof. It also applies to business transactions that happen on paper, over the telephone and in-person — it applies to customer service. The company espouses “simplicity” as a core value. It’s applied that ethos to its day-to-day customer service.
PanelClaw has worked to simplify every customer touch point, from purchase orders to quotes and proposals. The company will even make phone calls to manage regulatory hurdles and deal with local building inspectors. It has absorbed shipping costs. “We’re ultimately motivated by the accelerated adoption of PV, and that’s not just in the physical product itself, but also in the process,” Gies says.
There has been oversimplification, at least in mechanical systems, says SolarDock’s O’Brien.
“Someone might have a system that is a single bent piece of metal with a panel attached,” O’Brien says. “It looks simple, but in reality, that oversimplification misses out on a lot of other things a PV system should be.”
While the rack may be simple, he says, the complexity is amplified by another component — grounding, for instance. The long-term O&M costs may be greater as a result. With a background in commercial real estate, O’Brien has watched roofs change form over time. He asks, “How does the simplest system accommodate for that?”
“In any form of construction, over simplification occurs, and I don’t want to see this business get a black eye because groups are trying to make a quick buck and walk away,” O’Brien says.
It’s incumbent upon all in the industry, then, to be sure that, while simplification can ease the cost burden and promote increased interest in solar, companies practice simplification through sophistication. All should work to ensure no company compromises safety or quality for a penny savings per watt, industry leaders say. It’s for the best. SPW