When it comes to driving down solar PV system balance of system (BOS) costs, a key focus is on cutting material, shipping and labor expenses. Innovative developments in panel edging and rack-mounting are doing just that.
Having started out as a system installation company, American firm Westinghouse Solar soon realised it was extremely challenging to source all the pieces and parts to maintain inventory for piece-part installation – and make a profit in the process. Gary Mull, the company's vice president of marketing, says a good analogy is like buying a car and the next day a bunch of boxes arrive in your driveway and you need to hire some mechanics to assemble it.
“We realised there was a need to optimise this, so we set out to design a new technology that totally integrated solar panels with racking, wiring and grounding directly into the solar panel itself,” Mull says.
Westinghouse claims to be the first to have introduces a groove around the solar frame that allows a panel to be mounted with integrated backing directly to the roof itself. Mull says the company's Instant Connect system eliminates the need for separate racking, grounding and wiring. “You simply mount, connect and you're done,” he says.
“Focusing on BOS, there are tangents beyond just the installation time. There is training and a level of knowledge and comfort and quality that installers want to maintain. So making the whole process simpler, reduces barriers. Quality levels are maintained, system reliability is enhanced because the less there is to install, the less can go wrong in the assembly process.”
Not ready for an all-in-one solution? Companies like SnapNrack offer alternative options (see Video). Its product is one of the more unique innovations in panel mounting. According to the company's Chris Oestreich, the SnapNrack product originated from a group of engineers previously working for one of the nations largest PV system integrators, specifically to drive down installation labor costs. Today the solution is open to all installers.
“We worked with a variety of installers very closely to see what they liked, what they didn't like. We had the installers right there with us during development and product iterations until we came up with exactly what they wanted,” Oestreich says. “It not only had to be easy and fast to use, it absolutely had to work with all types of solar panels, including new types with integrated micro-inverters.”
Almost all racking systems need clamps that are different sizes depending on what modules are being installed, Oestreich explains. “We developed universal clamps that work with any thickness of modules which immediately reduces the need to have multiple products in inventory. We have a solution for every type of roof, and every solar module. All that is needed for installation is SnapNrack, solar panels and the electrical equipment. To further ease installation, only one tool, a half inch socket, is needed for the entire SnapNrack system.”
Oestreich adds that SnapNrack's rail is an open channel design that gives opportunities for wire management as well as features in array that allow components to quickly snap into place. “The materials used are industry leading in terms of quality, and SnapNrack is able to remain very competitively priced. However, the real saving is in the reduction time spent in installation.”
Meantime, if focusing on flat commercial rooftops and ground mounts, PanelClaw North America, Inc. has an answer. Headquartered in North Andover, MA, the company specialises in one thing and one thing only; lowering installation and lifecycle cost for flat roof commercial and ground mount solar installations. It does this with a family of mounting solutions, carrying names derived from the Ursidae family (species of bear).
“When we entered the commercial flat roof space, we realised that to lower the lifecycle cost, we needed to work with the entire solar chain. We asked them what problems they had that could be solved with better racking,” says Constantino Nicolaou, the company's president and CEO.
Based on the feedback, the first thing the company did was develop a product with just three components and two nuts and bolts – the Polar Bear system for commercial rooftops. “Then we integrated concrete ballast into our system and launched the Grizzly Bear product,” Nicolaou says.
After looking closely into current codes and standards, the company realised there was no standard for racking, he continues. “We started talking to UL and helped develop codes and standards. We were the first company in North America to have every single one of our products, not only listed, but certified to UL2703,” he says. “The end result is that the entire industry now gets to save two to six cents per watt on grounding.” PanelClaw was also the first racking company in the world to open an Intertek certified (see box) satellite test laboratory for UL2703, he adds.
Moving from commercial rooftops, the company's Panda Bear system was developed specifically for ground mount in landfills and ground fills. “We will soon be launching a fixed-tilt penetrating system called the Sun Bear,” Nicolaou says. “This product has a design unlike any other fixed tilt product on the market.”
Part 2 out soon...