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Types of Solar Panels
Jan09

Types of Solar Panels

We all know installing solar panels will save you money, that part is simple. But when it comes time to purchase your equipment, you will need to decide what type of solar panels you want. There are three basic types of solar panels available for residential systems – monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin film.   The monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels are the more popular and these are considered “First Generation” solar panels. Both of these types are made with silicon PV cells but the difference is how they are made.  Example of Monocrystalline Solar Panel Monocrystalline PV cells are super-thin slices of a silicon crystal called an ingot. The ingots are grown in the PV factories and their natural shape is round so the slices are also round. In the old days, they made the monocrystalline solar panels with the fully rounded cells but this created a lot of “dead” space in the solar panel because the area around the round cells did not produce anything. To make better use of the space in a rectangular solar panel, they started cutting of the rounded edges of the monocrystalline PV cells but they don’t make them completely square because they don’t want to waste too much of the expensive crystal slice. When you look at a monocrystalline solar panel, you can see all the solar cells have rounded corners which means there are small rectangles of the backsheet showing through. When the backsheet is white, these rectangles are very obvious. If the blacksheet is black, then you will have to look very close to see them. These little rectangles between the solar cells are how you can easily identify a monocrystalline solar panel. Example of Poly Solar Panel Polycrystalline PV cells are made by melting fragments of silicon crystals together. Because they are made in molds, they can be any shape, so they are square to avoid any wasted space in the rectangle of the whole solar panel. The square shape of the solar cell is how you identify a polycrystalline solar panel from the monocrystalline where the cells have the rounded corners. Thin film solar panels are considered “Second Generation”. There are different types of thin film solar panels but the most popular are amorphous silicon which are made with silicon that is not in crystalline form allowing for flexibility, and the non-silicon Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) and Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS) solar panels. Of these three types, the monocrystalline panels are the most efficient which means that you will get the most wattage per square foot with them. Polycrystalline modules come in as a close second on efficiency. When deciding...

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How to Pass a Solar Inspection
Jan07

How to Pass a Solar Inspection

If you are going to install your own solar, you are going to have to deal with the city or county inspector. This can be easy or it can create a lot of extra work after you thought you were done with your installation. Some of it depends on the inspector, but most of it depends on you. Let’s talk about the things you can do to make the solar inspection a breeze. First, do your installation correctly. You would think this goes without saying, but it often happens that corners are cut during the installation or substitutions are made for equipment that you don’t have on hand.  Also, there are times when you may not know what “correct” is. One of the more confusing parts of installing solar is grounding. To make this aspect even more difficult, different cities and counties often have different rules. You should read our previous article that gives an overview of grounding for solar but just to cover some basics, make sure your solar racking is grounded per the racking manufacturer’s instructions and make any splices in your grounding conductor with permanent crimps instead of using wire nuts.  You will also want to know ahead of time what the city or county is expecting for your existing house grounding. The rules have changed over time and the older your home is, the more likely it is that you will have to upgrade or modify the existing grounding system. For example, you may have to add a second grounding rod that wasn’t required when your house was built, but now the inspector wants to see it. Your best bet is to ask questions about this at your local building department before you schedule your inspection so that you can have any necessary modifications completed before the inspector arrives. The other thing you should do before the inspection is document any “as built” changes to your installation. For example, the plans that were approved by the building department show the solar panel layout but you had to make a change to the layout when installing because there was a roof vent in the way. Sometimes inspectors can approve these “as built” changes on the fly, but more often than not, the inspector will want these changes submitted to the building department and approved so that the system they are inspecting matches the approved plans exactly. On the day of inspection, make sure you are there to walk through the system with the inspector. Before the inspection appointment, take the covers off all the equipment so the inspector can see the wiring inside. Set up a...

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DIY Solar Monitoring
Jan02

DIY Solar Monitoring

So you have all the solar panels installed on your roof, your wiring is completed and the system is powered on but are you done yet? No, there is one more important thing to do. You have to hook up the PV system monitoring.    You solar will work without monitoring but the monitoring is how you know it is still working. In general, solar doesn’t require a lot of maintenance, but once in a while, things go wrong. A breaker could trip, someone could turn off the solar disconnect by mistake, an inverter can have a fault that prevents it from working until it is reset, a squirrel could chew through a wire on the roof – you get the idea. Without a monitoring system, you may not realize you have a problem until you get an electric bill as high as they used to be before you installed the solar. With monitoring, you can catch a problem and fix it well before you rack up a high bill with the electric company. To install the monitoring, the first step is to get your solar hooked up to the internet. Fortunately, most solar monitoring is pretty easy to install these days so you don’t have to be an IT genius to accomplish this. When purchasing your inverter (or microinverter) equipment make sure the distributor knows you intend to install the monitoring so they can make sure they include all the parts you will need. These parts will also include instructions and if they don’t you can easily find them on the manufacturer’s website.  The one thing you will want to do during the installation process is capture the serial numbers of each microinverter or DC optimizer in your system before you install the solar panels over them. They usually have stickers that you can pull off and stick to the layout in your solar plans (or any piece of paper). This creates a map so that if one of these devices fails, you know right where it is. Without this map, you can spend a lot of time hunting through your system trying to find the optimizer or microinverter has failed. The rest of the magic happens after the system is installed. One of the biggest challenges can be that your wifi signal is too weak at the inverter or system monitor location. This can be easily solved by purchasing a wifi extender and installing it between the router and solar device. Many of these just plug into any outlet between the router and the solar monitoring device and boost the wifi signal so that it will be strong...

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The Decade of Solar
Dec27

The Decade of Solar

Raise a glass to a successful 2019 in solar, as the final Q3 of the calendar year has proven to be the most successful one of the decade. Heck, with a statement like that, it might be better to raise the entire bottle!  But first, a quick overview of how the story played out. After steady double-digit-percent increases in the early years of this past decade, U.S. residential solar experienced growing pains from 2016-17, as that nation’s presidential leaders changed from being more coal than solar-friendly, diverting subsidies towards fossil fuels over renewables. Tariffs on Photovoltaic hardware loomed ominously on the horizon and national installers pulled back in critical solar territories such as California and the Northeast. It seemed that the solar market was receding from its peak-installation crest, reaching its high-water-mark of annual installed capacity of 687 MWdc, set in Q1 2016. That all changed in Q3 2019, however, as the Federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) ticked out its final remaining months of a 30 percent payback, before beginning to phase out according to the following schedule: (CREDIT: Image provided by SEIA shows the gradual phase-out timeline of the Solar Investment Tax Credit.) Enacted in 2006 the ITC offsets the cost of solar for residential consumers by 30 percent. Experts estimate the subsidy has helped the solar industry grow more than 10,000% creating hundreds-of-thousands of jobs and generating billions in revenue. Next year’s phase-out of the ITC has inspired many home-owners on the fence about installing solar to seize upon the financial opportunity. The result was that in Q3 2019 consumers installed 712 MWdc of solar.  (CREDIT: Image from SEIA WoodMackenzie Power and Renewables Insights Report) Now, as the solar market readies to step into a new decade and matures out of its early product adopters in many North American states, a new report by Solar Energy Industries and WoodMackenzie Power and Renewables gives a glimpse into what the future of solar might look like.  California Love When it comes to being a national leader for residential solar installations, Tupac’s California Love lyrics are fitting: “Now let me welcome everybody to the Wild Wild West A state that’s untouchable like Eliot Ness…we in that Sunshine state….” Well, you get the idea.  The point is that California was and is projected to remain the state leading the residential solar market charge. In the big Q3 solar market performance of 2019, California accounted for approximately 41% of the nation’s installs which is roughly the equivalent of 300 MW.  Even though the ITC will begin phasing out in the subsequent years, the residential solar forecast for California is still promising. Fueled...

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Choosing Roof Attachments for Solar
Dec17

Choosing Roof Attachments for Solar

Choosing equipment is one of the bigger challenges for do it yourself solar installers. Roof attachments seem like a minor part of the system because they don’t cost much compared to the solar panels and inverters but choosing the right ones is very important. It all starts with what kind of roof you have. The type of roof you have determines the type of solar attachment you’ll need The most common residential roof material would be composition shingle, so we’ll start with that. The best options will have a flashing that is at least 12” long so that when you slide it up under the shingles, it reaches the third course above the hole that you are making. There are many brands out there, but one industry staple is the tried and true QuickMount PV. There are other options available for shingle roofs that don’t include that 12” long shingle flashing but it should be said that just because someone makes something and sells it as a solar roof attachment doesn’t automatically mean it is a good option. Tile roofs are common in places like southern California. There are many different styles of roof attachments that can be used on a tile roof. One of the more popular options is a tile roof hook. This is just want it sounds like, it is a hook-shaped pieces of metal that is lag screwed into the rafter and then hooks up around the edge of the tile so you can bolt your racking to it. What you have to keep in mind here is that the paper that is under the tile is the real waterproofing so that is where you need a flashing so many companies (but not all) include a low profile flashing that sits under the tile and provides flashing for the hole in the paper. If you don’t get the flashing with the tile hook, you can buy them separately. Another common option is the tile replacement mounts. There are made in different styles to match S-Tiles, W-Tiles or Flat tiles. The handy thing about these is that they do actually replace the tile so you end up with a few extra tiles that you can use in case you break some tiles during the solar installation process.  Finally, there are universal tile mount kits that include a small flashing for the paper and a large malleable flashing to flash the tile layer. The up side on these is that they will work with any style of tile and are especially useful if you have non-standard shaped, low profile tiles. The down side on them is that...

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Maintenance on Residential Solar
Dec13

Maintenance on Residential Solar

The good news is that residential solar power systems don’t need a lot of maintenance. The bad news is if you were using maintenance as an excuse to not install solar on your home, you are out of excuses.  What do you have to do to properly maintain your system?  It depends on the circumstances. No matter what, you should monitor your system. This is as simple as logging in and checking to make sure it is still producing the right amount of electricity at least every month. More often is better. Some monitoring systems can even be set up to send you an email with the solar production report so you don’t have to remember to check the website.  Many customers watch their monitoring at the beginning and then get lazy about it. If something goes wrong and you weren’t watching, your notification will come in the form of a really high electric bill.  Usually the failure is caused by something silly like someone switched off the PV disconnect not knowing what it was or the PV circuit breaker in your main service panel was tripped. Other times a piece of equipment like an inverter might have failed. Some errors are temporary and the device just needs to be reset, other times it might need to be repaired or replaced. Most inverters have at least a 10 year warranty and some have up to 25 year warranties so repairs will generally be covered under warranty. But you can’t get it fixed until you know it is broken, so monitor your system. Another thing you may have to do it clean your solar panels. This will depend on your climate and surroundings. If it rains regularly, you may not ever have to clean them. If it doesn’t rain much and you are in a high dust area (think desert) it would be a good idea to clean them a few times a year. If there are pine trees dropping needles and sap on your solar panels, you will have to clean them way more often. You can tell what you need to do by looking at them. If there is a layer of dirt, that will block the sun and lower your production so clean it off. If they look clean, leave them alone. Fortunately cleaning solar panels is easy. Most of the time all you need to do is give them a gentle hosing off. You should always turn the system off before you start just in case. You should never use cold water on hot solar panels, it may crack the glass. If you want to wash...

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