By Yury Reznikov, Vice President of Products and Strategy at SunLink
Over the past several years, as the solar industry transitions from start up to maturity, we’ve thoughtfully begun to develop the codes and standards needed to ensure a secure future for the sector. In 2013 alone, new standards and proposed standards emerged related to seismic, wind and fire safety. Each of these new developments have marked major transitions for the industry, with new testing and design requirements required of every module and mounting system manufacturer.
Regarding the fire safety arena, in October 2013 American National Standards/Underwriters Laboratories announced that a PV module manufacturer could no longer receive a fire classification rating based on tests of the module or panel alone. The new UL 1703 Standard for Safety for Flat-Plate Photovoltaic Modules and Panels would require modules to be tested together with the mounting system as well as the roof covering upon which the modules are installed. Mid-way through 2014, where do we stand?
California is often regarded as the leader in solar standard adoption, and fire testing is no exception. Though provisions for the fire classification of roof mounted PV modules have been updated to comply with UL 1703-2013 in the 2013 California Building Code, implementation has been temporarily deferred. Recognizing that there was an insufficient supply of UL 1703 compliant fire rated, tested and listed PV module+racking systems, the California Building Standards Commission filed an emergency rulemaking change delaying the effective date for fire classification requirements until January 1, 2015. Now however, with only six months remaining in the grace period, permitting officials and other AHJs are poised to begin requiring UL 1703-2013 compliance. The same is true in other parts of the country.
With the deadline looming, module manufacturers are busy classifying their modules as Type 1 or 2 for framed modules or Type 3 for glass-on-glass to allow testing to proceed. Racking manufacturers are in turn heading testing laboratories to assess the performance of their mounting systems with each module type.
For those mounting systems that have been developed in the last 18 months, such as SunLink’s new Precision-Modular RMS, 1703-2013 guidelines were available to guide new product development. Precision-Modular was specifically designed with UL 1703-2013 in mind and is currently undergoing fire testing. The system is among the first to have passed with Type 1 modules, and testing of Type 2 modules is underway.
However, for the vast number of mounting systems in the industry designed prior to 2013, much more work remains. To pass the fire safety tests, legacy systems will likely require fire shields, components to change the geometry of the system, or other modifications that may require additional costs over the short term until new products take their place. Given the pricing pressures already faced by the mounting system segment, any additional material- or installation time-related costs imposed by fire safety won’t be sustainable over the long term. The upside is that pricing pressures will likely drive a faster pace of product innovation.
Though the path to alignment with 1703-2013 is costly and time consuming for both module and racking manufacturers, the positive outcomes for the industry far outweigh the difficulties posed by the process. With greater fire safety and more advanced product designs, the industry will be one step closer to maturity and the future of solar power adoption more secure.