By Sylvia Minton
As with all innovation becoming mainstream, PV-systems are constantly evolving, being improved, streamlined, and perfected. PV-module efficiency has increased continuously at a rate of 5% every year for the last couple of years while module prices have fallen as much as 50%. The end user is able to take advantage of premium grade modules that are currently on the market bringing energy independence to their homes, communities or businesses for many, many years to come. The trend for mounting systems is becoming equally exciting and can basically be reduced to four letters: E-A-S-E.
Why Easier Is Also Better
Still, most of the time, the discussions installers have simply center around the best module to get the job done right. Module efficiency, product warranty and power guarantees are the three ¡®biggies¡¯ of course, and installers rightfully are choosing the product that will yield the highest power per watt for the longest time possible to maximize their customers¡¯ Return on Investment (ROI).
While modules are technically the prime focus of any PV system, an integral supporting role is often overlooked that has almost as much to do with the success of a module than the module itself: the racking or mounting system. Of course, by definition, mounting solutions are largely doing their work behind the scenes¦¡their sole purpose being to support or affix the modules so they can be secured in an optimum angle for maximum yield. What many don¡¯t realize though is the kind of all-round talent a mounting system has to be in the¦¡let¡¯s face it¦¡very delicate, heavily regulated environment of a roof. Racking systems are the only point of contact the modules have with the roof or ground (in a ground mount application) and their role as an intermediary is not an easy one. In short, mounting systems need to be strong enough to withstand heavy winds and harsh climates but also light enough to leave the roof structure intact.
The Art and Science of the Right Racking System
Pitched roofs, flat roofs, and ground or pole mounts all have vastly different requirements for mounting systems. Yet, there is one mantra they all have in common: Racking systems should be easy to install because saving on installation time will reduce overall system costs for the end user. Racking systems need to be extremely durable and strong, lasting for a minimum of 30, as at least one leading manufacturer guarantees an 80% power output of its modules for that length of time.
As we know, the amount of sophisticated engineering and aerodynamic design that goes into the layout of a system is rather astonishing. Flat roofs have different wind zones and structural capabilities: Avoiding leakage of course is always something that needs to be addressed. Pitched roofs may have asphalt shingles, roof tiles or may be made of metal and mounting solutions may vary with each one. Ground mounts come with their own challenges: A good integrator will take soil samples to determine appropriate mounting fixtures and ensure its longest possible life time. That¡¯s why a good integrator is truly an ¡®integrator¡¯: All these factors need to be integrated into the best solution for the customer¦¡the most perfect install on one roof might not yield much in another situation with different zoning codes, fire regulations, and wind or seismic conditions. Setting up the most optimal PV system is as much an art as a science and the part of the racking system is no exception. The mounting system needs to be tended to with the utmost care and attention so PV-modules can shine in their role as clean energy producers and maximize their power output as intended by its manufacturers.
Trend: Simple Solutions for Complex Cases
Many manufacturers have picked up on the trend and are now developing simple, time saving ¡®click and slide¡¯ systems that work with a minimal amount of tools and parts whether it be for roof applications or ground mounts. Any good manufacturer knows that when it comes to racking systems, this is where the rubber hits the road for integrators. Most of their time is spent installing the system, working under a multitude of different conditions, environments, and with many different materials. Deciding on the most efficient, long-lasting module, an appropriate inverter, BOS, and DC-components is on the other hand part of laying the crucial foundation for a well-designed, maximum yield system that gives end user the highest, longest ¡®bang for the watt¡¯. But being high up on a roof is not exactly the situation installers need to be struggling with difficult, hard to handle technology¦¡instead work swiftly, efficiently, and safely to ensure a good quality install and keep the time spent on the roof down so you can move on to the next job.
Several of this trend-setting, time saving systems can even be combined with helical piles made of galvanized steel. Unlike concrete, these ¡®wonder workers¡¯ can be drilled into the ground with almost zero preparation and require no time to set. Engineered to last at least 100 years, these smart foundation piles can be removed if need be and leave no environmental impact behind.
The importance of a reliable, sturdy mounting product that delivers the same quality as many of the traditional mounting solutions is clearly very much a game-changer in PV¡¯s competitive market. One of the most impressive and sensible trends as of late is the adaptation of a highly successful slide-and-snap system for pitched roofs that many integrators are finding extremely uncomplicated to work with for ground mount solutions. Once you are familiar and comfortable with handling the stainless steel fasteners that just slide and click into place on the extruded aluminum rails, switching from roof applications to ground mounts requires hardly any adjustment. The system is straightforward, solid and complies with the International Building Code, plus has a long material warranty. Cutting-edge innovations like this make PV not only a very clean renewable energy solution but also one of the most cost-competitive and versatile ones.
Sylvia Minton heads the Public Policy Chair of the Georgia Solar Energy Association. A long time journalist & communications specialist, Sr. VP of Corporate Affairs for MAGE SOLAR (www.magesolar.com), a complete solar PV systems & components provider, is a member of the board of directors of the MAGE SOLAR ACADEMY in Dublin, GA, the U.S.A. MAGE SOLAR ACADEMY is a premier educational arena for professionals of all levels and occupations in the expanding PV-market.
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