Insights Sweating the Details - Why Quality Matters
By Chris Doyle, Senior Manager
During the installation of a residential solar photovoltaic (PV) system, there are hundreds of little details that need to come together to deliver a quality product to customers and ultimately manage risk. While it is easy to get fixated on the big issues, each of the steps from design through installation need to go according to plan if you want to have a reliable product and manageable long term risk.
As an organization performing national quality assurance services on residential solar photovoltaic systems, one such detail we consistently see is related to electrical system labeling required by the National Electric Code (NEC). Labels are the most common deficiency IBTS sees in the field and is an area most installers shrug off as a technicality because it doesn’t affect system production or cause an immediate safety concern.
Our responsibility when identifying system deficiency is not only measured by the impact at any given moment, but also by how defects can impact performance and risk overtime. What this means is, you cannot rate the severity of a deficiency by the current impact only. Just because it may seem safe and unimportant now doesn’t mean it’s not a significant safety concern.
Labeling is a perfect example of the type of system deficiency that can seem implausible on a sunny day on a fully functional system. Why would IBTS highlight this as an important defect and even something worthy of rolling a truck to correct?
A few examples where labeling will inevitably be an important issue, when these unlikely, but inevitable, situations occur include:
- First Responders: When (and it is a WHEN, not an IF) there is a fire on a house with a PV system, Fire fighters are trained on an exact protocol if Solar Photovoltaics are installed on a rooftop. Fire fighters’ first actions are to determine the type of solar power system installed.[i] Additionally, Fire fighters may decide to shut the system down at AC or DC disconnects. Identifying or shutting down the system relies heavily not only on labeling being correct, but for the labeling to be familiar to how they were trained. Non-reflective, handwritten, non-permanent labels are not easily identified and what seemed to be a minor deficiency when the system was first installed and inspected has suddenly become a severe safety concern.
- Maintenance: Solar systems require maintenance and 10 to 15 years down the road may even require wiring repairs. More than likely, the installer will not be the one who originally installed the system. The contractor performing maintenance or repair on the existing system is entrusting the original installer followed the NEC and will make assumptions based on that labeling. Conduits, Disconnects, Voltage Identification, Breakers and Electrical Current are all critical system components the new contractor will need to know about through the existing system labeling.
The moral of the story is simple. Quality installation is not just about the big obvious and near-term problems that are easy to identify and clearly need remedy. Instead, it is a system to enforce quality across the entire process and to make sure all the thousands of important details are managed properly to deliver a low-risk, high-quality product that will deliver safe, clean energy today, and for the next 25 years across many hundreds of thousands of installations.
As the solar industry matures, it is time Quality Management is taken seriously. This means sweating all the details to ensure products perform without putting homeowners, first responders, or investors at risk.
The Institute for Building Technology and Safety (IBTS) has been a leading provider of Investment Grade Quality Assurance services to public and private sector clients for the past 35 years. As a non-profit organization, it is our goal to provide Quality Assurance services to our private and government partners to ensure reliability, production and safety of installed systems, increase local jurisdiction and utility responsiveness, and provide overall support to enhance the renewable energy industry growth. Christopher Doyle is a Senior Manager, and lives and works in Austin, TX.
[i] “Fire Fighter Safety and Emergency Response for Solar Power Systems”, The Fire Protection Research Foundation