O&M traditionally has been thought of as a way to ensure solar projects meet promised energy production levels. O&M professionals strive to keep projects working at acceptable levels that typically ramp down as years pass.
But what if O&M was viewed as a way to increase production levels throughout the lifespan of a project? Teams would instead be responsible for ramping up production over the years. It’s a simple concept, said Eric Daniels, CEO of Suncycle USA, an American division of the European O&M and testing company.
“By nature, [the industry] suggests that the output of a field is supposed to decline over time, usually in sync with the declining modules based on the warranty,” he said. “I’m trying to shift the paradigm, where as an owner of a system, I want to see the power of the field go up over time, not down. As modules break and as they’re serviced, you can increase the output of the system as you bring in new technology.”
Suncycle USA’s diagnostic tests can find areas of improvement for performance optimization after a project is completed. But it will be impossible to increase long-term production if contractors don’t follow a few simple, yet important, PV-project rules.
The following refreshers, call it “Solar Installation 101,” can make a load of difference in long-term O&M.
The first tip: Try not to manhandle those panels. Treat solar modules as the fragile glass products they are in order to prevent mini, invisible cracks that can affect the whole system for years to come.
“There are really two primary causes of failures at the module level,” Daniels said, including solar cell material failure as the first issue. “The other primary cause of damage, in some cases more significant, is caused by handling after the modules are received at the job, through construction, assembly or long-term O&M.”
It’s common for microfractures to exist in solar modules shipped from the manufacturer. Companies try to avoid this, but sometimes it’s inevitable. These small cracks are invisible to the naked eye and don’t cause immediate issues, often going unnoticed until cell performance slumps. Cell damage and breakage can (and does) also happen in the field.
The following should go without saying, but this is “101”: Don’t walk on top of panels. Be careful how you stack them. Use proper tension on module clamps. You might not see any cracks, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. You’ll save the system owner and O&M provider hassle just by being careful when handling the beating heart of every solar system.
A second tip: Slow down. Time is money, but the system is going to cost more down the line if you don’t take a few extra minutes to correctly clip those wires in place.
“During the field install, the tendency is to try and do it fast,” Daniels said. “It accomplished the task, you connect the wires where they need to be connected, but you don’t necessarily want to have wires coming out of the sides of boxes where rain over time can leak in and have other problems.
“One of my basic pet peeves is wire and cable management,” he continued. “Some EPCs do a fantastic job. They spend the money to get it right in the first place. Over time, 20 years of a cable on the back of a module that is exposed to an environment, swinging in the free air, chaffing or yanking on the junction box, is just not a good idea. For the sake of a fraction of a penny … There are easy, low-cost things to do to make sure the system works well over time.”
Another freebee: Design a project with maintenance in mind. And we’re not talking just solar-specific maintenance—you never know what kind of maintenance will be necessary on the site. It might not be raining now, but what happens during a flood? Or, that HVAC system might need to be accessed on the roof amidst all those solar panels.
“I’m often looking at systems where the design of a system has inherently made servicing it a problem,” Daniels said. “A lot of design seeks to maximize the watts in a field or rooftop, and as a result, there is little attention being given to design for service. Systems do need to be repaired. People need to be on the rooftop for other reasons besides the solar array. People will walk across the solar array or take the shortest path to clear roof drains. It’s not the [solar] installers fault per se, but when you’re designing the system, design for maintenance, whether that’s building maintenance, site maintenance. Things outside the immediate array can ultimately affect the array.”
Designed plans always have the best intentions, but once out in the real world, things change. Daniels said he understands this, but it doesn’t hurt to think twice before sticking an inverter pad where water is going to collect just because that’s the easiest option at the time.
“[Installers] install a system, optimize it and get off the jobsite quickly,” he said. “I see changes to design that are not necessarily recommended by the inverter manufacturer or others that have provided components. Cables coming into areas of the inverters that they shouldn’t be. You need to tuck things out of the rain, you need to tuck things out of the sun.”
Quick changes to properly designed plans might lead to more time spent on maintenance.
And finally: Take training and education seriously. If you aren’t sure how to connect something, don’t take shortcuts to get it done. There are plenty of solar training courses for your benefit.
“A lot of installers might be more familiar with AC than DC, so you see a lot of AC-designed componentry making its way into fusing,” Daniels said. “That’s not something that I see typically on the bigger utility jobs [with] more experienced EPCs involved. Smaller systems have a much broader base of people doing them.”
Groups like Solar Energy International and the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP), along with many solar component manufacturers, offer training courses throughout the country and often on traveling roadshow-type schedules. It might be difficult to see how what you do today affects the bigger picture in 25+ years, but it’s necessary to be at your best so solar systems can perform at their best.
Daniels said installers not directly associated with O&M can help out a lot by just doing the absolute best job they can at the very start.
“If you look at the beginning of a project, you have ever increasing opportunities now to ensure that what goes into your site and project is of first-grade quality,” he said. “There is an opportunity to try and reduce the glide path down of watts or energy out of the site and reverse that to use maintenance as an opportunity to increase output.”
When O&M providers get to spend less time fixing problems that started during construction, they’re able to find ways to increase system output and make solar even more attractive to the masses.