The sun could become the world's largest source of electricity by 2050, and solar photovoltaic systems could generate up to 16% of the world's electricity, the International Energy Agency recently reported. This could prevent the emission of more than 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually – that's more than all of the current annual energy-related emissions in the U.S.
Businesses are finding that solar benefits are good not only for the environment, but also for the bottom line in the form of reduced electrical operating costs. But, with the many benefits solar offers, there are also specific risks that adding a solar installation can place on a structure and its electrical system. Close attention must be paid to commercial safety standards and installation practices for businesses to make the most of solar power and help stay safe.
When considering solar power, it's important to ask the right questions of roofers, structural engineers, fire officials and licensed electricians. For instance, can the roof hold the additional weight of panels? How will the existing electrical system interface with the new photovoltaic system? Can the local fire department handle a problem if there's a fire?
Weather is also something important to consider when planning. Local wind speeds, previous hail damage, lightning and snow amounts should all be reviewed in the planning stages. For example, pitched roofs may need to be designed in smaller sections with a landing base for snow, which may slide off the panels.
After you've answered all of the major questions and have decided to move forward with a solar installation, the local building department must be contacted about any specific code and zoning requirements that should be part of the design. In all cases, the design and installation of PV systems should be in accordance with current editions of all recognized building codes applicable to PV system installations and, at a minimum, meet local code requirements. Not every jurisdiction adopts current standards immediately following publication, so find out which edition of the National Fire Protection Association 70: National Electrical Code your area is currently enforcing.
Local building codes may require roofing systems to meet or exceed a specific fire rating. The installed solar array system, module, racking, mounting and array configuration on the roof are all part of determining the fire classification. This rating needs to meet or exceed the local building code requirements for fire safety of the roof.
Contractors who do their jobs well may help lessen the chances of unnecessary risk during both the installation and operation of your new system. This is vital, as an improperly installed solar system can damage the roof, create leakage or cause electrical fires – costing your business time and money. Take the time to check contractors' references and make sure their licenses and certifications are up to date.
Also, be sure to closely review the contract, ensure there is agreement on all of the terms of your deal and confirm that all of the details of the installation are put in writing. A signed contract can identify risks and assign liability for potential damage from work performed. Contracts should be reviewed by an attorney to ensure they contain the appropriate terms and conditions to help protect the business.
To function efficiently and safely, it is essential that PV systems are installed as designed. Bringing in a third-party engineer to witness the commissioning, inspecting and testing of the system can be money well spent.
Regular inspections must take place after your system is up and running. Solar panels are exposed to many potentially damaging elements, such as ultraviolet light, extreme temperatures, high winds, hail, heavy rain and snow.
Some things to look out for in routine inspections include loose or hanging wires, loose or missing bolting and connectors on panel frames, movement of panel framework in ballasted systems, and wear or deterioration of conduit and wire bundles. Hire a professional annually to inspect the system with the following considerations, based on age and condition: thermography to detect hot spots in panels' electrical fittings and terminal connections, including combiner boxes and inverters; tests for electric continuity and insulation resistance; and ground-system integrity.
If solar makes good business sense for your company, you can make it an even better investment by planning the installations carefully, hiring contractors mindfully, taking small but important risk precautions and maintaining the system to help ensure its long life.
Pete Wilcox is the technical director of risk control for Travelers in Hartford, Conn.