By Sean Silvey, product application specialist, Fluke
Operations and maintenance technicians love tools. They’re known for nerding out over the latest and greatest — but more importantly, they look to the reliability of their tools to help ensure they are reliable themselves.
So, what do solar O&M techs have in their toolboxes? Everything they need to troubleshoot, diagnose and confirm fixes for the many components that make up a solar power system.
1. Infrared camera
The combination of electricity and the sun make temperature measurement a must. Infrared cameras are perfect when inspecting PV modules, electrical panels and breaker panels to detect hotspots. They’re also good tools to use when monitoring cooling fluid levels, such as dielectric oils for transformers.
When looking for the right infrared camera, consider the following features:
- High sensitivity to visual temperature differences
- Ability to easily visualize and diagnose issues
- Intuitive user interface
The greater the resolution detail, the better O&M techs will be able to isolate even the smallest temperature anomalies. A rugged, pistol grip design allows technicians to focus on their surroundings rather than the camera. It should have the ability to clip to a person’s body when climbing ladders and getting into tricky spots.
2. Digital multimeter
Solar plant electrical measurement requires a tool that can measure both AC and DC voltage. A digital multimeter is the right tool for quick voltage detection as well as installation and troubleshooting at the combiner box and inverter.
Look for the following features in a digital multimeter:
- Withstands drops (up to 4 m or 13 ft)
- Waterproof, dustproof IP67 case
- Premium test leads
Also look for a broad operating temperature range: -40°C (for up to 20 minutes) to +55°C. If available, get a holster that doubles as a test probe holder for one-handed operation. An industrial-strength digital multimeter with true root mean square (RMS) is the O&M tech’s best friend in virtually all environments.
3. Clamp meter
A reliable clamp meter can be used for verifying the presence of AC/DC load current. Clamp meters can also measure voltage and continuity. It should be able to measure 1,000 A AC/DC (2,500 A AC with iFlex) in combiner boxes, inverters, breakers and disconnects. A good clamp meter can also measure loads and line frequency in circuits.
Features of a reliable clamp meter include:
- Remote capability for logging, trending and monitoring measurements
- Inrush measurement for capturing starting current
- Integrated VFD low-pass filter to filter out noise
A clamp meter is likely the most advanced troubleshooting tool in an industrial and commercial solar O&M technician’s toolbox. For safety, a good clamp meter should have Bluetooth technology to let the user log, trend and monitor measurements while remaining safely distanced from the arc flash zone.
4. Insulation tester
Insulation testers have a wide range of tests they can perform, including simple spot checks, timed tests and breakdown tests. They can also help identify power quality failures. For solar O&M technicians, an insulation tester should be able to perform insulation resistance tests up to 10 kV. They can be used on switchgear, conductors and cables.
The most desired features of an insulation tester include:
- Remote test configurations, starts and stops
- Real-time trending
- Strong reporting tool
Insulation testers are ideal for testing high-voltage equipment, including switchgear, motors, generators and cables. Data collection using Bluetooth technology is preferable as it eliminates the need for handwritten notes, making the measurement process more efficient and accurate.
5. Battery analyzer
One of the key components that needs to be checked on a solar + storage system is the battery. A battery analyzer can perform troubleshooting and performance testing on stationary batteries and battery banks. Most battery analyzers are designed for measurement on stationary batteries of all types.
The most notable features of a good battery analyzer include:
- Takes key measurements, such as internal battery resistance, DC voltage and temperature
- Sequence measurement mode
- Comprehensive trend analysis
An intuitive user interface, compact design and rugged construction are must-haves for solar + storage O&M techs.
Rounding out the toolbox with safety
While these five tools are virtually all that’s needed to troubleshoot, diagnose and confirm repairs on solar components, they also need to be used safely. Ensure proper personal protective equipment is always used when working on or near electrically powered equipment. Select tools that meet the CAT safety ratings for specific working environments. And O&M techs should always make sure their tools are genuine to the brand they’ve selected to guarantee quality and safety.
Sean Silvey has been a product application specialist at Fluke for the past five years. Prior to that, he was a residential/commercial HVAC technician, and most recently a field service manager. Sean’s focus is on application awareness and product education.