More is being demanded of solar inverters than ever before. Creating a brilliant, cutting-edge piece of equipment at a competitively mandated low price point is an incredible challenge. It’s not for the faint of heart, yet companies like APsystems are thriving in this complicated, demanding crucible of a niche. So how are they doing it? And how does APsystems continue to push the envelope on inverter advancements? Senior Director of Marketing Jason Higginson gives us a peek behind the curtain.
By Larry Busby, Technical Services Manager at APsystems USA
For a PV installer, there’s nothing worse than having to return to a jobsite. Except, of course, having to do it more than once. We’ve all heard the expression “work smarter, not harder,” but you would be surprised how often solar installers get in a truck and roll out to a jobsite to adjust or repair something that probably could have been fixed remotely back at HQ. Many software-savvy solar installers are boning up on best-practices to better utilize the systems and information already available to them—most of it right at their fingertips—to save both time and money.
For solar arrays, the most critical software typically lies within the power conversion devices, gateways and interconnected online monitoring platform provided by the inverter manufacturer. The online platform not only monitors the performance of the system, but also tracks a profusion of data points simultaneously and stores that information in the cloud. By checking certain performance specs, settings, activity and historical data, installers can quickly troubleshoot and fix common hitches or, at worst, narrow down the problem that’s plaguing a PV system.
Every inverter monitoring interface is a little different, but much of the information and tools available are typically the same. With an MLPE system like microinverters, you’re able to drill down to the PV panel level to see what each module is producing at any given time. When troubleshooting a system issue, or perhaps if you see a PV panel which is reporting low or zero watts, first try rebooting the system remotely if your monitoring platform offers that capability. With some systems, a reboot may help the interface identify the issue or it might reset the array to its default parameters in case an unusual grid event threw a monkey wrench at it. It could also spur the system to begin downloading recent updates which may have stalled when the system encountered the issue. You may even consider rebooting more than once.
If you’re still troubleshooting the issue, check the DC side of your system. For a microinverter system, you want to be sure each inverter is reporting at its minimal operating range (such as 16V) incoming DC from the panel. Next, check your AC output. If your system shows it registering 0V or 120V, the inverter may not be sensing the grid or enough volts from the grid to register as a 240V grid connection. Without an identified grid connection, the inverter will not convert energy, so if you see this as an issue with multiple sequential inverters, it could be a cable or connector problem. If it applies to the entire string or array, the problem could be a loose wire in the junction box, or a tripped or off breaker.
With a low wattage problem, you can drill down to the panel level online and check the voltage. If it’s registering under its minimal operating range, it’s likely a panel problem and not the inverter. You may still have to visit the site, but at least you know what you’re replacing and exactly where it is on the array which saves you time troubleshooting. When you hit the site, unplug the suspect panel from the inverter and take a live load DC voltage and current reading. If your panel is reading below its minimum startup voltage and 0 current, then the panel is the culprit and needs replacing.
Also, don’t underestimate the value of historical data. Looking back over a system’s history—especially that of a single panel—may allow you to identify recurring issues that seem to affect that particular panel. Perhaps a chimney shadow hits the panel at the same time each day. You can look back through the production history to see if it occurs often, or if you have multiple installations in a particular area, you can check each of those when you see unusual grid activity to see if and how it may be affecting your other sites.
Understanding what the site metrics are telling you will give you better insight into what’s happening at a job site. Learning what you can do to troubleshoot an issue online can not only save you a truck roll, but also significantly reduce your time identifying the problem if you do have to drive to the site. Most importantly, if you do need to hit the job site, remember that safety is paramount and to always turn off the AC before doing any work on the roof.
Real-time monitoring is an essential feature of today’s PV systems, but communication between system monitoring devices and the customer’s router is often overlooked.
Do you know best options and best practices? Christopher Barrett, Director of Techincal Services for APsystems, guides installers through the maze of options and issues for gateway connectivity in “The Installation Issue,” a special publication of Solar Power World on newsstands now.
Read “Address Connectivity Issues to Reduce Trips to Solar Sites” online here.
You’re a solar installer, not “the IT guy,” so why spend time dealing with connectivity issues, rebooting customers’ Wi-Fi networks?
While real-time monitoring is an essential feature of today’s PV systems, communication between system monitoring devices and the customer’s router is often overlooked. Understanding the options for today’s connectivity—and making smart choices for your customers—can save you costly return visits to jobsites.
Relaying performance data from the solar system to the customer’s computer or smart device and the manufacturer’s database involves constant, reliable communication between specialized components. The typical signal chain for communication links the solar array to the data collector, which is typically called a gateway—such as the APsystems ECU or the Enphase Envoy. The signals travel to the home internet router and onto various monitoring stations.
It sounds straightforward, but differences in home size and layout can mean the gateway and router are separated, likely by walls and floors.
Bridging the gap
Today’s solar customers have an almost bewildering array of choices (and acronyms) for linking the gateway to their router. There are Wi-Fi extenders or Ethernet cables, such as Ethernet-over-powerline (EoP), where wires used to distribute power inside homes also transmit digital data based on time division multiple access (TDMA) technology. You can even use old-school CAT-5 or CAT-6 Ethernet cables. Each option has its particular strengths and weaknesses, and the right answer for one installation may not work for another.
Making the right choice
Solar customers want reliability, from the solar modules to inverters to production. Connectivity should have the same level of reliability.
Match your hardware choices to the size and layout of the house with proven technologies and products to ensure uninterrupted, around-the-clock monitoring. Keep in mind that the best choice will invariably be a hardline connection whenever possible. With potential signal disruption, a wireless connection will only ever be as reliable as wireless allows. Today’s wireless technology is incredible, but critical connectivity requires highly reliable communication devices. You simply can’t beat a direct, uninterrupted connection. Test each solution to find your ideal answer for each installation scenario, and remember the best solution is the one that requires the least follow-up once you’ve left the jobsite.
This installation tip was provided by Chris Barrett, director of engineering and technical services, APsystems
See full article on Solar Power World
APsystems, the global leader in advanced microinverter technology for the solar PV industry, today announced its commitment to Extend the Day, a charity organization which gives solar reading lights to school children in disadvantaged countries with no access to electricity.
APsystems will donate $1 to the nonprofit for every microinverter purchased up to the amount of the charity’s 2017 administrative expenses for its Lights for Learning program.
“APsystems is proud to partner with Extend the Day to bring light to these children’s lives.” said Dr. Zhi-min Ling, APsystems Global President & CEO. “We firmly believe in what Extend the Day is doing around the world and are committed to helping them continue to achieve measurable results with their Lights for Learning program.
“This foundation commitment by APsystems is extraordinary,” said Extend the Day Executive Director Jo Lonseth. “It allows us to focus on expanding our reach and building on the successful projects we already have in Kenya, Nepal and Myanmar. Success in life for children living in disadvantaged communities often comes down to whether or not they can continue their middle school education. These solar powered lights cost nothing to operate and make it possible for school children to do homework after dark, improve their grades, and stay in school.”
APsystems first learned about the impressive work that Extend the Day is doing when the non-profit asked APsystems for help in designing a more reliable, lightweight, and inexpensive solar powered light. As a world leader in the development of innovative solar power electronic solutions, APsystems was the right choice and eagerly worked with Extend the Day to develop the ideal solution.
For more information on Extend the Day: extendtheday.org
Solar Builder Magazine’s special Inverter Issue is out now, and APsystems is featured throughout.
Always follow best practices to head off gateway communication issues, says Christopher Barrett, APsystems Director of Technical Services, in the “Ask An Expert” feature compiled by Solar Builder editors. Even in a “wireless” world, hard-wired CAT-5 connections can be the best and most reliable option, Christopher says – and save you the time and trouble of returning to the jobsite to sort out Wi-Fi problems.
Remember to compare warranties when doing your calculations – there’s real value in that certificate, should a system component ever need to be replaced. That’s one of the insights APsystems contributes to an informative story on Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE), the formula that determines a solar array’s investment value over its lifetime.
Power and versatility are the hallmarks of the new APsystems YC500i with EnergyMax, a microinverter designed and built for today’s high-output modules, profiled in Solar Builder’s 2017 Inverter Buyers Guide.
Find out more about APsystems microinverters, “The Installers’ Choice,” on the inside front cover of the edition, on newsstands now.
Download the digital edition of Solar Builder’s Inverter Issue here.
Bainbridge Island Museum of Art near Seattle has earned the vaunted LEED Gold environmental certification, making it the first new art museum in Washington state to achieve the Gold rating.
The certification is thanks to a newly expanded solar array using APsystems YC500 dual-module microinverters.
This past fall the museum nearly doubled its array to 100 modules. The 28kW system caps a host of advanced sustainability features that extend from the roof down into the earth beneath the museum itself.
“What’s thrilling about this achievement is that it affirms how deeply Bainbridge Island and the museum itself care about all aspects of community vitality and wellbeing,” said Sheila Hughes, BIMA Executive Director. “We live, work, visit and raise families in a place that invests equally and deeply in cultural enrichment and in sustainability.
“It’s wonderful to see BIMA’s LEED Gold status, made possible through the generosity of its local donors, as a leading example of both.”
The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification – for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – is a progressive code that rates new buildings for sustainability and promotes eco-friendly construction techniques.
Designed by Bainbridge architect Matthew Coates, of Coates Design Architects, BIMA earned high marks for innovation in design, indoor environmental quality, water efficiency, and site sustainability.
“Art museums are inherently energy-intensive, making LEED Gold designation an extremely challenging goal,” Coates said. “We’re proud to demonstrate that architects, builders and clients can work together to create beautiful buildings for our environment and for our planet.”
General contractor PHC Construction worked with the museum staff to secure LEED Gold certification. The expanded PV array provided the final “points” required under the LEED scoring system.
The array uses APsystems YC500 microinverters provided by Blue Frog Solar, and iTek Energy 240W and 280W modules.
The inverters were provided free of charge by Blue Frog Solar, Northwest distributor for APsytems USA.
“When the art museum came to us with their solar proposal a few years ago, we could tell it would be a special building in every way,” said Tim Bailey, Blue Frog Solar co-founder. “It’s been an honor to contribute to both phases of their solar project, and support such a great institution.”
Several other private donors stepped in so that the solar project had no effect on the non-profit art museum’s budget.
Installer was Puget Sound Solar of Seattle.
BIMA opened in June 2013 to showcase contemporary Northwest art and has been an unqualified success, recently welcoming its 250,000th visitor.
Building a sustainable museum
Architect Matthew Coates designed the museum to embody forward thinking in both aesthetics and sustainable materials and systems in a facility-scale building.
That commitment started below ground. A geo-exchange system uses 14 bores beneath the foundation to reduce the energy used for heating and cooling the building.
Drilled 400 feet, the bores act as a heat sink and source at a constant ground temperature of approximately 50 degrees. The system is designed to reduce heating and cooling energy by 90 percent, and to cut peak heating and cooling loads in half.
Thanks to the musuem’s sunny southern exposure, nearly all of the publicly occupied spaces enjoy generous natural light to further reduce energy usage for lighting.
A sophisticated louver system across the two-story glass façade tracks solar angles to reduce heat gain and glare inside.
Low-flow water fixtures inside and Northwest climate-appropriate landscaping reduce water demand.
During construction, 95 percent of construction waste was recycled, while more than 20 percent of new materials came from recycled sources. All paints, sealants and materials were selected to be non-toxic.
The site itself, on a prominent corner near the ferry terminal that connects the island with downtown Seattle, was reclaimed from a former automotive business.
During site preparation, numerous scrap automobiles and many hundreds of spent tires were excavated from the property and recycled.
BIMA now is an educational institution whose mission is “to engage a diverse population with the art and craft of our region and our time.”
The art museum exhibits, interprets, preserves, collects and promotes works of proven cultural value as well as new those by emerging artists and craftspeople.
When it comes to solar growth, it doesn’t get much hotter than San Antonio.
The market ranked no. 6 nationally for metropolitan growth in 2015, and no. 7 for the spread of solar, setting the pace for the Lone Star State.
Those trends converge at 330 Clay Street, a 32-home planned-solar neighborhood by PSW Real Estate now underway in the San Antonio’s arts and culture district, at the south edge of downtown.
Billed as “an oasis in the heart of the city,” the New Urbanism-inspired project features geometrically distinct homes clustered around a winding pedestrian path and drought-friendly, native vegetation. The modern designs are stylish, with acute angles, dramatic roof slopes, and accents of corrugated metal and cedar.
Efficiency features abound, from eco-friendly siding to high-performance windows, tankless water systems with “smart” fixtures, and the latest heat-pump systems for indoor climate control. Sustainable, low-impact materials are used throughout.
Topping it off is solar, with a compact array designed onto every single roof.
Austin-based installer Lighthouse Solar is pairing APsystems YC500 dual-module microinverters with Phono Sun 310W modules. Capacity across the whole neighborhood will be about 73kW from 234 modules at buildout.
Lighthouse chose APsystems equipment on the recommendation of regional distributor The Power Store, said Burke Ruder, procurement manager.
The Lighthouse installation team found the dual-module microinverters made for a quick install, and less time on the roof under the punishing Texas sun.
“Pretty easy wire management – just plug n’ play, man,” said Josh Bernard, one of the three-man crew at Clay Street.
Elijah Zane Echeveste, PSW Real Estate sales consultant for San Antonio, said PSW has been including a solar component on its homes for about three years.
Individual arrays at 330 Clay Street are modest – seven or eight modules per roof – putting solar onto every home while keeping price points attractive to a range of buyers. Home start at $295,000 for 1,250-sf, two-bedroom unit.
The energy package is paying off in early interest from buyers.
“Solar was important, and green-built was important,” said David McDonald, 330 Clay Street’s very first resident. On a recent afternoon, the expatriate Briton was taking delivery of appliances even as the half-finished neighborhood around him thrummed with the sounds of construction.
“We do a lot of green builds back in the Britain,” McDonald said, “and this might be one of the first ones in San Antonio with the option of solar and all of the sort of ‘green’ things around the house.”
Several other projects are also planned or underway in the corridor, including a sprawling former Lone Star brewery complex slated for mixed-use redevelopment on the banks of the San Antonio River.
The influx of stylish new residential and commercial development amplifies Southtown’s reputation as the city’s hot “bohemian” center for galleries, nightlife and culture.
“The area was important – we didn’t want to go outside of downtown,” McDonald said. “You can walk to all the restaurants and bars, even walk into downtown. We were the first to sign up, and it’ll be a good investment for us.”
The 330 Clay Street project reflects a fast-growing local solar market.
San Antonio is the top-ranked market in Texas, according to a recent report by Environment America. Solar capacity within the city limits jumped 23 percent year over year, from 88 megawatts to 108 megawatts – with significantly more capacity coming online in surrounding areas thanks to utility-scale solar farms.
About 207 megawatts were installed statewide in 2015, according to Environment Texas. Solar advocates credit a successful incentive program, which has fed consumer interest despite the state not having a net-metering law.
“Solar is an attractive feature for our buyers,” said Echeveste of PSW. “One of the largest reasons is that the solar panels reduce cost in energy bills and also increase the value of the homes. There is an environmental responsibility aspect with buyers wanting to be a part of this.”
Time is money. We’ve all heard the age-old adage, but if you’re a solar installation company, it absolutely rings true: time is your worst enemy. Labor is expensive, so the longer a project takes, the more it costs an installer to put in a solar system, and it comes right out of their bottom line. Non-hardware costs such as installation labor, permitting fees and interconnection costs are referred to as “soft costs.” According to the U.S. Department of Energy, these soft or “plug-in” costs of solar account for as much as 64% of the total cost of a new solar system, and labor is one of the largest culprits. It’s no surprise that solar installers are looking for ways to reduce these costs, and any tool or trick they can employ to speed a project along may just give them the edge they need to not only survive in this highly competitive industry, but to thrive.
One challenge in this effort to reduce labor costs, is the growth in utilization of module-level power electronics (MLPEs) such as microinverters and DC optimizers. Unlike string inverters which, for residential applications, typically mean a single string inverter is serving all the PV modules on the roof, each MLPE is typically serving a single module. Although an MLPE solar system is often more expensive in initial capital costs and more labor-intensive to install compared with string inverters, it also has a better levelized cost of energy (LCOE) over string inverters as MLPE systems produce more energy over the life of system. It makes sense, then, why MLPE systems comprised 62% of the U.S. residential solar market in 2015, according to GTM Research, and the market isn’t done there as MLPE is predicted to be the fastest-growing product segment over the next five years.
Installers are feeling the time crunch and the challenge today is even greater to take a high-demand yet labor-intensive product and still perform a profitable installation. Let’s take a look at a few ways to streamline the MLPE installation process with some serious solar hacks.
Microinverters which serve multiple modules exist today and with 2-to-1 and even 4-to-1 module to microinverter options available, homeowners can still get the benefits of an MLPE systems with independent MPPT per module, while installers cleverly reduce the amount of units they’re having to put on the roof by 50% to 75%.
Most MLPE systems utilize a trunk bus cable to which installers then attach every microinverter. Not only are trunk cables an expensive part of the system, but placing it on the roof and securing the cable to the racking takes time. Products, such as the APsystems YC500A, utilize a daisy-chain method of cabling and do away with the trunk cable. What’s more, the daisy chain is pre-integrated into the unit so it comes completely pre-cabled and ready to go.
Most solar equipment manufacturers offer free training webinars and videos on their products anymore so absolutely take advantage of this. Don’t miss out on the time (and money) saving tips you can pick up in a short training course or online video series.
The gateway communication unit for microinverter installations can be a breeze if installers follow a few simple tips for commissioning the system. Connect the gateway to the internet via a standard Ethernet cable so it can download the most current firmware before you begin to commission the system. Ideally, you’ll want to do this after the inverter installation but before module installation so the unit can update while your team puts panels on the roof so you don’t lose time. Be sure to connect cables in the right order as some gateways may take longer if power is applied before the network cable (unless the system will be connected via Wi-Fi). Obtaining the homeowner’s Wi-Fi network information and password before hitting the jobsite will also save you time in connecting the gateway.
There are some amazing apps out there for solar installers that can help installers streamline system setup. ArrayApp by APsystems, for example, allows installers to create the homeowner account for online monitoring, scan units directly without having to wait for up to 30 minutes for auto-detection of the inverters and create the array site map all from their mobile phone or tablet. Simply search for ArrayApp on your iPhone App Store or Google Play for Android devices.
Taking advantage of these time-saving measures can save an installer money but also help them get more installations completed in a single day. As the solar industry continues to lean heavily toward MLPE systems, finding ways to install faster and more effectively can mean the difference between a profitable operation and one that struggles to be competitive. Be sure to do your research, training, find out what other installers are doing and build your own list of valuable solar installation hacks.
Condos, apartments, townhomes – three flavors of multifamily construction, each with its own challenges for reaping the power, and financial benefits, of solar investment.
Asani development company is tackling all three at once at Grow Community on Bainbridge Island, across Puget Sound from Seattle.
On buildings dubbed the Salal, the Juniper and the Elan, now complete in the project’s expansive second phase, solar arrays will benefit both homebuyers and renters alike.
One roof apiece, with many beneficiaries beneath.
“Our investors said, ‘let’s go for it,’” said Greg Lotakis, Asani president and Grow Community project manager. “Without their desire to be the largest solar community in Washington, and wanting to plant the solar flag in the ground, we wouldn’t be doing this. Without their support, it wouldn’t be possible.”
The Salal condominiums, with 12 units spread over three stories, is effectively a “community solar” project on a rooftop. Solar was included in the purchase price – no buyer option – and incentives from the State of Washington will be apportioned equally among condominium owners. Each will own a one-twelfth interest in the array.
Asani worked with state officials and the local utility provider to craft a program that satisfies the complicated provisions of Washington law.
The opening was a provision allowing common use of single roof for solar in multifamily buildings. Asani banked on prospective buyers seeing shared solar as a good investment as they bought their condo units, one that promised annual paybacks while lowering operational costs of their building through solar harvest.
Solar was designed into the Salal building. A single production meter monitors total system output, while 12 sub-meters track consumption in individual units for utility billing.
Buyers are rolling the cost of solar, about $15,000 per unit, into their mortgages to take advantage of low interest rates at the time of purchase.
“We wanted it very clean and divisible by all the owners,” Lotakis said. “I think it would be pretty difficult for six, 10, 12 people to come together and agree upon how the system would work after the fact. This gave us a chance to just deliver it.”
Lotakis expects the 44kW array to produce about $1,500 in incentives per unit annually – cumulatively much higher than the state’s $5,000 cap on incentives for a single-family residence.
Next door at the 12-unit Juniper apartment building, the 44kW rooftop array is similar but the equation is different. Renters will enjoy the benefits of solar production through net-metering, but not the annual state solar rebate. That will go to the building’s single owner, and will max out at the state’s $5,000 cap. The Juniper building array includes APsystems YC1000 true 3-phase microinverters.
The two-story Elan townhomes presented the most straightforward challenge. Individual 6-9kW solar packages are offered for each section of the common roof. No modules will cross the “virtual lot lines,” making each system self-contained within the owner’s patch of rooftop. Three systems have been installed so far, including APsystems YC500A microinverters.
GROWING NEIGHBORHOOD SOLAR
From project inception, Asani set out to build the most environmentally friendly development possible.
Relentless sourcing of renewable materials and low-impact fixtures, and close connection to the island’s town center, have positioned Grow Community in the marketplace for healthy lifestyle-conscious buyers.
The project’s first phase is noted for its shared pea-patch gardens and winding footpaths through close-set homes. The second and third phases are oriented around a woodland grove and open greenway.
The project has earned recognition in national magazines and won awards from local and national homebuilder associations. It is only the second planned community in North America to be certified under the rigorous One Planet Living standards.
Grow’s first phase of 23 detached units sold out immediately, and every homeowner chose to add the solar package.
Asani has also showcased Made In Washington components to support the state’s solar industry.
Modules at the Salal are by Itek Energy of Bellingham, WA, while the Juniper and Elan arrays include APsystems microinverters manufactured and distributed by Blue Frog Solar of nearby Poulsbo.
Using a mix of in-state and out-of-state components allows Asani to achieve different price points for buyers while optimizing local incentives where possible.
Lotakis cautions that Grow Community’s multifamily solar program relies on particularities in Washington law. Multifamily programs elsewhere would face their own challenges, although he believes Grow offers a useful model for developers nationwide to consider.
With the Salal building only recently certified for occupancy, new residents have no comparative data on their energy savings. But the solar component was attractive, as it has been to buyers throughout the three-neighborhood, 142-home project due to be completed in late 2017.
“Solar was a factor,” one new resident said, “along with a development that encourages a sense of community.”
Between the federal tax credit and annual rebates from the state, Lotakis said, owners buying into the Salal condominiums could have their share of the common array paid off within five years.
“And because they’ve rolled the cost of solar into their mortgage, they don’t really see it,” he said. “Those production checks will be like a dividend.”
APsystems offers advanced, powerful solar microinverter technology for residential and commercial systems. The APsystems solar solution combines highly efficient power inversion with a user-friendly monitoring interface to bring you reliable, intelligent energy. Our proprietary system architecture increases solar harvest and ensures maximum output for solar arrays, and we continue to develop new technologies and products for the marketplace.
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