Safety Guidance When Installing Solar PV Systems

Table of Contents

Introduction

When installing solar PV systems, there are a lot of installation practices that need to be considered. Safety issues are one of the most important aspects that must be considered during installation due to the nature of the hazard it’s capable of. Installers should be wary of the building standards, electrical and fire standards that pertain to the particular solar PV installation.

However, if building, fire and electric requirements vary across regions, it can be quite difficult for solar installers to keep track. Therefore, utilities and government bodies have implemented state and local level building, fire and electric codes that must be uniformly taken into consideration during the design and construction of a building. If improper and ineffective enforcement of regulations is carried out, it may affect the safety of both the installer and the user due to the electrical and fire hazards.

Therefore, Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) and utilities delegate the permits, codes and other regulations for a standardized, cost-effective and smooth installation experience. This is done through special training, licenses and certifications that are granted to the respective individuals in the field. Hence, this article will cover the significance of the various codes enforced during installation, the licenses and certifications appropriate for installation while also talking about the difference between them. This article will also cover the significance of standards and warranties of equipment used in the installation.

Installation

1] Building codes: These codes enable AHJs to follow a standard and uniform format for permits, inspections and commissioning procedures which are undertaken to ensure the safety and stability of any building. This is crucial when installing a solar PV system because the installation should not pose as a hazard for the building structure or its tenants. Building codes require information related to materials used, installation practices, fire classifications and load testing for the safe installation, operation and maintenance of solar PV systems equipped in such buildings. These codes also help to reduce costs and improve time management during inspection and commissioning. Building codes are subject to varying degrees of similarity but for this article, we will be considering the building code policies adopted by the U.S for an understanding because U.S building codes are considered to be as standard codes. Depending on the type of building, the building codes can be divided into 2 types: The International Residential Code and the International Building Code. International Residential Codes are for detached houses with 1 or 2 families or for building with 3 floors or less. International Building Code is for buildings which are more large scale and those which are not covered in the Residential Code. These codes align with instructions and standards developed by the National Electric Code (NEC) and the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) which provide product design and safety standards for solar PV installations. These codes are updated every 3 years and the latest update is in the year of 2020. Some of the broad requirements of The International Residential Code are:

  • Solar PV modules and its racking should be non-combustible;
  • The roof must be structurally capable of supporting the module and racking loads;
  • Wall and/or roof penetrations, like attaching a racking to the roof, must undergo flashing and sealing to prevent water from seeping into the structure and to prevent vermin and insects from entry.

       The International Building Code’s broad requirements are:

  • Rooftop solar PV systems must have the same fire classification as that of the roof assembly;
  • The code proves the required criteria to conduct calculations for minimum design loads for rooftop solar systems. This criterion also guides how to calculate wind load engineering necessities.

Solar Ready Provision for Buildings: Local authorities should encourage builder and developers to design and construct buildings that are ‘solar ready’. This means that buildings and home should be constructed with a provision to install solar PV systems on the rooftops and some of the requirements that can be taken into consideration are:

  • Designate a section on the roof to reserve space for future installation of solar PV systems;
  • Minimize rooftop equipment so that enough space can be designated for solar rooftop applications. Rooftop equipment can be grouped or installed on the north side of the building;
  • A building can be ideally oriented in a manner that can avoid shading. The orientation varies according to the geographic location. For the U.S, the orientation of building should be in a north-south manner to avoid shading;
  • Document and designate space for inter-connection pathways for conduit placements if solar rooftop systems are to ever be installed in the future;
  • Include detailed building plans and roof specifications so that solar installers can determine whether the roof can structurally support a whole solar PV system on the rooftop of the building [1-3].
Building permit and code regulations
Permits are obtained when a building fulfils the building code regulations of that region [3].

2] Fire Codes: These codes are developed to maximize one’s solar PV potential while ensuring firefighters to safely perform their jobs effectively. Codes are placed to minimize the risk of fire-related hazards to protect and safeguard the public. It’s also developed to ensure the safety of firefighters and other emergency responders. When installing solar PV systems on the rooftops, there are some potential hazards if systems are not installed correctly and safely. These hazards include the collapse of equipped structures due to excessive load, electric shocks, tripping, the spread of fire and exposure to toxic materials depending on the materials used. The fire codes are made up of the International Fire Code (IFC) and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) which are the standards in the U.S. Fire codes ideally consider the location of the rooftop solar PV system so that electric and tripping hazards could be minimized. Roofs should be equipped with ventilation systems such as a hole in the roof for smoke and heated gas to escape. The IFC generally requires a 3-foot wide access pathway stretching from the ridge to the eave of the roof to be present during building design so that firefighter s can access the roof. These codes also require solar PV systems to not exceed more than 33% of the total available roof area.

Logo of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)
Logo of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) [4]

3] Electrical Codes: These codes are developed to ensure the safe design, installation, maintenance and inspection of electrical equipment and raceways of a solar PV system. These codes are part of the National Electric Code classified as NFPA 70. There are 2 articles in the NEC that are completely devoted to solar PV systems. These are Article 690 which deals with Solar Electric Systems and Article 705 which deals with Interconnected Electrical Power Production Sources. These articles combined to ensure the electrical safety for installation, operation and maintenance of solar PV systems. One of the key requirements that are covered in electrical codes is Labelling and Signage. Clearly labelled markings on the equipment and main service panel enable emergency responders to be aware of the solar PV systems and take necessary actions. It also alerts the firefighters to identify the source of the hazards. The NEC requires a standard for labelling so that it is easy to form a uniform structure and enable clear instructions. All electrical equipment such as inverters, conduits, circuit breakers, etc. should be clearly labelled. 

When firefighters are responding to a hazard, the first step taken by them is to open the AC service disconnects to shut off power flow between the building and the grid to avoid electrical and electrocution hazards during maintenance. However, rooftop solar PV systems pose a challenge to this AC disconnect opening because rooftops don’t address the direct current flowing from the solar modules to the inverter. Therefore, the NEC has updated the codes to require rooftop PV system to swiftly reduce to non-lethal voltages in case of an emergency. The rapid shutdown procedures enable firefighters to work safely when responding to emergencies. Hence, from these codes, we can understand how codes and safety procedures adopted universally can help in aiding rapid technological change whilst keeping up the safety standards. Following these codes will not only enable the local authorities and AHJs to provide permits faster and more efficiently, but it will also enable installers, firefighters, and users to minimize risk and follow utmost safety [1, 2, 5].

All equipment must be clearly labelled especially during safety operations
All equipment must be clearly labelled especially during safety operations [5].

Planning and Zoning Guidance for Solar PV Systems

The solar development of a community is affected by the zoning guidelines and regulations of that region. These regulations take into consideration height considerations and restrictions and permits in alignment with the building, fire and electrical codes. Sometimes these zoning regulations can be burdensome during the planning, design, and installation of solar PV systems due to unnecessary ordinances which hinder solar development. Therefore, in such conditions, officials con consider implementing waivers for height restrictions, yard requirements and setbacks ordained explicitly for solar PV systems. Through these waivers, installers can avoid costly and time-consuming processes to obtain zoning permits for solar PV developments. Policymakers can also amend existing zonal requirements by enabling the type of solar energy systems such as whether it’s is rooftop, BIPV or ground-mounted; grid-tied, standalone or hybrid; physical capacity, energy capacity and shape. These solar PV systems can also be classified for principle use or accessory use depending on where it’s installed. For example, if solar PV systems are installed on rooftops, then it’s an accessory because it’s used principally for that building/house. Also, defining the system into the appropriate zones such as residential, commercial, industrial, missed-use, agricultural, etc. can help structuring the zonal guidelines to aid solar installers as well as local authorities or AHJs [1, 2].

Licensing and Certification-Their Difference

Licenses and Certification enable installers to be classified as ‘qualified’ based on a set of credentials. These tools decide whether a solar installer can be trusted to perform the installation effectively and safely. Licenses are granted by the state but sometimes the municipality body can also grant them. A license gives legal authority to engage in the profession after being assured of their knowledge, skill and quality. Licenses are mandatory to perform any installation in a location. Certifications, on the other hand, are granted by 3rd party, non-governmental organizations which are often implemented along with program rules. 

Licenses and certifications can vary quite considerably and some of the key areas in which they differ are:

  • Type and level of license required for PV installations;
  • Administration of licenses at the state or local level;
  • PV installation components that classify as electrical work which would then require a licensed electrician for performance and supervision;
  • The number of licensed electrical workers required to supervise over non-licensed electrical workers.

These licenses and certifications are important because they affect labour costs, employment and implementation of solar PV goals at local or state level investments.

Usually, those are licensed will be given a general electric license but there are also provisions for individuals to be granted with a limited electric license which will be discussed further in this article.

  1. General Electric Licensing: This licensing is granted after fulfilling a certain amount of ‘credit hours’ and on the job training which usually lasts for around 4 years. This license is commonly known as the journeyman license and it gives the power to oversee electrical works being conducted by other non-licensed workers. A master license gives a firm the rights to hire and adopt journeymen who can oversee work.  All electrical work must be overseen by a journeyman and their supervision varies according to the installation. If a solar PV system installation has all electrical works pending, then the licensed parties must oversee the entire installation process. Also, the ratio between licensed to unlicensed workmen can affect the installation processes. If the ratio is 1:1, then more number of journeymen has to be employed for the project. Therefore, it is essential to define what is considered as electric work to regulate maintenance and labour costs.
  2. Limited Electric Licensing: This licensing provides license holders to have a narrow and distinct scope of work in specific electric fields like solar PV.  The. licenses are often provided by the government for sub-fields of the scope of the electric work such as installation, maintenance/servicing of fire alarms, electric sensors etc. These licenses reduce labour costs because the work filed is limited to only certain parts of the electric system installation.
  3. Third-Party Certifications: These certifications enable installers to leverage themselves higher by having solar PV specific qualifications and training which are independent of government-granted licenses. Oftentimes, installers use government licensing combined with 3rd party certifications to exclusively market their service and they’re more sought after because of the additional expertise received in the field of solar PV installation. 3rd part certifications enable organizations which aren’t licensed by authorities to have access to certain incentives upon receiving and achieving at least the minimum standards of solar PV training. As mentioned before, these certifications are provided by non-governmental, 3rd party organizations, professional associations or industry trade organizations. One of the most commonly known non-profit 3rd party organizations which provide licenses is the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) which offer certifications at the entry-level known as ‘Photovoltaic Associate’ or professional certification known as ‘PV Installation Professional’. Other 3rd party organizations are Underwriters Laboratory (UL), Electrical Training Alliance and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) [1,6].
This is the logo of the North American Board for Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP)
This is the logo of the North American Board for Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) [6].

Equipment Standards and Warranties

Equipment standards enable products to be partakers of innovations and confidence amongst investors because they set expectations and provide critical information on the quality assurance of the equipment. Equipment standards are often provided by 3rd party companies such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL). These standards are implemented keeping the latest safety standards and electric codes to ensure safety. The state also has the authority to mandate standards for equipment used in solar PV installations or any installations in general. However, state-mandated standards can pose as a restriction or create additional costs if the standards fail to guarantee the quality of equipment used.

Warranties ensure customers to claim solar incentive programs by establishing the installer and equipment validity. Warrantied ensure that installers can guarantee product quality without compromise. There are multiple facets to warranties:

  1. Manufacturer Warranties: These warranties ensure that consumers are protected from failure of the product itself due to material degradation, defects or any other issues that arise during the period of warranty. In this instance, the manufacturers will replace the equipment with a new, defect-free piece for free. As per the current trends, manufacturer warranties for the product are provided for 10-12 years and the performance warranties are usually around 25 years for solar PV modules. Inverters, depending on the type, also provide a warranty period ranging from 5-25 years.
  2. Workmanship Warranties: These warranties usually last for around 5-10 years although they can range from 0-25 years. This warranty ensures that the consumers are protected from any labour related defects. This warranty gives the satisfaction that a solar PV system has been designed and installed accurately without negatively impacting the output performance. In the event of an issue, these warranties enable contractors to rectify the issue for free.
  3. Production Guarantees: These guarantees comprise of distinct clauses which protect the consumer from performance-related issues. If an installer provides an estimation on the total power output performance of a solar PV system and if the PV system fails to deliver the expected output, the consumer will be compensated for the loss as per the clauses mentioned in the guaranty [1].

Conclusion

From this article, it is understood as to why legal safety practices are noteworthy to the installation of solar PV systems. This article has elaborated on the building, fire and electric codes that are substantial to the safety during design, construction and installation of buildings and solar PV systems. This article also elaborated on the planning and zoning guidance that are practised during installation, the licenses, certifications, standards and warranties that form a framework during installation.

Image References and Bibliography

[1] https://www.cesa.org/wp-content/uploads/Standards-and-Requirements-for-Solar.pdf

[2] https://solsmart.org/solar-energy-a-toolkit-for-local-governments/solar-pv-construction-codes-permitting-and-inspection/

[3] https://www.hollydennisinteriors.com/single-post/2018/06/07/The-Importance-of-Business-Codes

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Fire_Protection_Association

[5] https://www.hellermanntyton.us/products/596-00894/

[6] https://www.nabcep.org/

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