The country’s strongest hurricane standards are, unsurprisingly, found in Florida. Miami-Dade County has some of the strictest building rules, which only intensify as a building grows taller or is located within a heavily populated area. When Miami’s new Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science wanted to go solar, the project was already going to be an engineering feat, as the 250,000-sq ft museum spans four buildings and has incredible exhibits underneath (including a suspended 100-ft-wide, 500,000-gallon fish tank). But add high wind speeds in a heavily populated downtown, and a floor below the solar roof area that has no walls, and suddenly the project becomes quite the puzzle.
But Sunshine Solar Services (No. 425 on the 2017 Top Solar Contractors list) was ready. President Edward Strobel described the company as doing “the weird and residential.” Most business for the Fort Lauderdale installer comes from its residential contracts, but the company’s strong engineering background allows it to take on custom solar designs in the Caribbean and other weird projects in the States. Sunshine Solar Services got involved with the new Frost Museum project after helping the museum through another odd project at its original building.
“Someone had installed a solar system [at the museum] kind of in the shade. It was only like a 3-kW system and it had an 8-kW inverter on it and it never worked,” Strobel said. “We took out that inverter and put in a 3-kW inverter. Turtles had eaten the wires—they had turtles underneath it as part of a museum exhibit. We got the wires out of the way of the turtles, and we did it all for basically free.”
Original plans for the $310 million new science museum called for solar glass used as skylights, but the glass wasn’t hurricane-resistant and was much more expensive than a traditional solar system. Florida Power & Light donated the solar panels, and Sunshine Solar Services got to work on engineering a system that could pass inspection in a high-velocity hurricane zone.
“The fact that there is no fourth floor made it interesting,” Strobel said of the museum. Part of the solar array was essentially built on the “roof” of an open-air fourth floor that showcased the museum’s aquarium centerpiece. “Because the wind blows underneath it, there is no stopping of the wind; it’s flying right through. Our solar acts like an airplane wing to the building, and with the weight loading, you can’t do a ballasted system.”
Two separate systems were completed on the “Solar Terrace at Frost Science,” totaling about 66 kW. The first system had few issues, as it was built on a sturdy section of one of the museum wings. Schletter’s Windsafe mounting system positioned the panels in landscape orientation, because portrait-oriented panels could not withstand windspeeds at that height.
The second system, overtop the open-air aquarium, was a little more difficult. Schletter’s aluminum system was too heavy, so Sunshine Solar Services had to design one from scratch. Unirac’s SunFrame product was used with many more supports to keep the panels secure and positioned at a 3° tilt.
“They wanted a larger system,” Strobel said. “We had to stay about 5 ft from all edges, and the living seas fish bowl took up a big chunk of space. There’s also a green roof with grass taking up space. So basically what was left, we maximized out.”
The Frost Museum of Science opened to the public in May 2017, and there are plans to eventually add a solar exhibit featuring monitoring data from its own system. The public can also interact with 6 kW of “solar trees” over walkways near the museum. Sunshine Solar Services hopes the project will show the company’s expertise in unique installations.
“It’s a small system, but again, it’s weird,” Strobel said. “We use normal residential [projects] to keep the guys busy and keep the wheels running, but the most fun projects are these strange ones.”