Monday, August 22, 2016

The solar saga - part 2: Getting the system online

In part one (March 2, 2016) I wrote about why I chose to use a series string inverter system.  (Hint:  It was to prevent radio-frequency interference.)  To read part one, click on the link here:  The Solar Saga - Part 1:  Avoiding Interference (Why I did not choose microinverters.)

Eventually, I was able to get the system "online" in late April even though everything solar-related had been in place for over 2 months.  Why the delay?

Figure 1:
Slip-sliding around, the work crew clearing ice and snow off
the metal garage roof.  Later, they wielded a propane
"weed burner" to loosen the remaining ice and snow and
dry the metal roof panels.
Click on the image for a larger version.
As is often the case in life, things don't always go exactly according to plan!

Installing the panels:

Going back a bit, the solar panels and inverter were actually installed in February.

In the winter.

In the snow.

Think about that for just a moment, particularly considering when the system was actually put online.

Figure 2:
The mounting rails for the solar panels, installed.  If you
look carefully in the background you can see where
someone fell hard on the ridge cap, slightly crushing it!
Click on the image for a larger version.
To be sure, there was a lot to do, but everything seemed to be going according to plan, with no obvious trouble (of which I was ever informed) with the city in pulling permits.

Part of the install actually began a few weeks before this when a survey crew came out to check out the "sun situation" where the panels were to be installed.  As soon as they arrived they placed a ladder against the garage roof and then I heard some muttering:  They'd just realized that they had left the device that analyzes the sun's path and potential shadows at the previous job some 15-20 miles north in another county.  Instead of being able to plop this device down in the locations of the solar arrays they squinted with expert eyes at the trees and sky and declared more or less "I don't think that shade will be a problem."  Who was I to argue - they were professionals!

Figure 3:
The installed eastern solar array  At the time that the picture
was taken the system was wired up, but without a net meter it
couldn't be "officially" used.
Click on the image for a larger version.
Aside from lots of slipping and sliding on the snow-covered metal roof, the installation seemed to go well with the rails having been installed the first day and the roof penetration - a set of rubber "Flasher" bushing type thing being used to seal about the electrical conduit that emerged from from within the garage itself, one for each array.

A few days later the panels were on the roof and the inverter wired up and connected to the new electrical sub-panel that I'd put in the garage a few weeks before.  While the system worked, I really couldn't use it as the "Net Meter" was not yet installed and any excess power that I produced would be charged to me just as if I'd actually used it!
Figure 4:
A screen shot of the system producing just under 1400 watts
in "Standalone" or "Island" mode - a configuration that allows
the solar electric system to produce useful energy even if the power
grid was down, unlike a microinverter system where the potential
electrical solar power from the panels is completely
inaccessible if the power is out!
Click on the image for a larger version.
While I could not do the "net meter" thing, one feature provided by the Sunny Boy inverters - but not with microinverter systems - is the "Secure Power System" or "SPS" (tm) that will allow power "islanding".  In other words, if the main breaker is shut off and a switch is flipped, the inverter will provide up to 1.5kW of power (12 amps, 125 volts) - even if the mains power is unavailable, provided that there is adequate sun, of course:  Just try that with a microinverter system!

Figure 5:
The installed Sunnyboy 5+kW inverter and the garage
sub-panel to which it is connected.   Below and
to the left of the inverter is the DC disconnect switch
for the two independent MPPT solar panel strings
(the "East" and "West") and just to the right
of it is the "SPS" or "Standalone" power outlet capable of
providing up to 12 amps at 125 volts (1.5kW) even
if the electrical grid is offline.
Click on the image for a larger version.

A problem with the electrical service entrance:

From the beginning I was informed that my main electrical panel - the place where the power from underground gets to the house - would have to be replaced.  Fortunately, this cost was "baked into" the cost of the system itself and since I'd replaced the sub-panel in my garage myself, the installers would cover it.  In asking around I determined that in my case, the typical cost for this would be in the $1000-$1500 range including all parts and labor.

The reason that the old panel had to be replaced was ostensibly due to the "20% rule", and in my case it went something like this:

My panel, originally installed when the house was new (early 1970s) was rated for 100 amps on the bus.  The "20% rule" said that it was permissible to have 20% above this value, or up to 120 amps.  The problem was that my photovoltaic system would, being capable of 5.3 kilowatts, could in theory of being capable of putting 22-24 amps (depending on voltage) on the bus and this, combined with a 100 amp main breaker, meant that I could put a total of 124 amps on the bus.

This would not pass muster - or inspection - so the panel was to be upgraded to a 125 amp unit with a 100 amp breaker which, according to the same rule, should allow a total of 150 amps on the bus.

A few days before the date in late February when the service upgrade was scheduled I got a call from the contractor saying that they couldn't do it:  The power company would not sign off because of the location of the gas line and meter with respect to the electrical panel itself.  After being informed of this I took a walk through my neighborhood and observed that about a third of the houses had their electrical panels "on top" of the gas meters.

Figure 6:
 The old meter and below it, the gas meter for the
house:  Since the solar was now connected, it was
required that the red warning tag be attached even
before the net meter was installed.
The power company ultimately determined that the
electrical panel and its underground conduit had to be
relocated to a minimum of 36" (about 92cm) distant from
the gas meter and any of its piping.  I couldn't be sure,
but it looked as though the gas meter was installed
after the electrical with the original riser pipe for the
electrical being wedged between the
house and the gas meter!
Click on the image for a larger version.
As it turns out, current code in this area requires at least a 36 inch separation between the closest part of the gas line and meter and any part of the electrical entrance.  What was surprising is that none of the contractors that had visited my place to assess the scope of work had caught this, let alone planned for it!

In my case the gas meter was literally touching the conduit from the underground power feed and the panel itself was about 3 feet above the gas meter.  Since the panel was to be upgraded, it had to meet current code so it would have to be moved.  This also meant that the underground power feed, which was a length of "direct burial" wire would also have to be redone, placed in 4" conduit and run to the location of the new meter.

All of this meant a delay - about 4 weeks, as it turned out - as the plans had to be revised and arrangements had to be made to coordinate the schedule of the electrical contractor with the schedule of the city inspector along with having "Blue Stakes" come out and mark the utilities so that yet another contractor could dig a trench in my front yard from the power junction to the location of the new meter.  While this meant that it would be another 4 weeks or so before the work would be done - and likely another 2-3 weeks after that before my "Net Meter" would be installed - it also meant that the company in charge of all of the work would end up "eating" the difference in cost which was probably something in the area of an extra $1000-$1500 on top of the already-allocated cost for panel replacement.


There is a device called a "Connect DER" (tm) that may be used in many locales to bypass the need to upgrade or replace the house's electrical service when solar power is installed.  This device plugs into the original meter base and is sandwiched between the original panel and the power company's electrical meter so that the additional current of the solar power system does not appear on the house's electrical bus since the connections to the solar is made on the Connect DER itself with a built-in circuit breaker for electrical protection and to allow it to be disconnected.

For various reasons this sort of device was apparently not an option in my case - possibly because of the fact that the gas and electrical piping were co-located. 

Figure 7:
The narrow trench that magically appeared in my yard,
running between the underground junction from the
electrical utility to the approximate location of
the new panel.
Click on the image for a larger version.
Finally, the day arrived where there appeared a trench in my front yard (figure 7).  A few days later the electricians arrived and installed the new panel and a conduit in the trench - but I couldn't help but notice that it was only about 23" from the gas lines, a fact that I mentioned to them when they arrived the next morning (figure 8).  After a bit of digging and drilling, the new panel and conduit was suddenly another 18" or so farther away from gas meter than it had been.  At about this time the power company and city inspector showed up to disconnect the power from the mains and pull new conductors into the conduit under the watchful eye of the inspector who gave preliminary approval to the work plan.

Off came the old panel to be replaced with a weatherproof junction box, connected to the new panel with a run of conduit.  In the new junction box - at the location of the original panel - a "horse tail" of wires appeared representing the individual circuits in the house, each of which had to be spliced with a new set of conductors wired to the new panel.  After about 4 hours of work everything was turned back on and I was back in business.

Figure 8:
Oops!  That ain't no 36" separation between the gas
and electrical!  The vertical pipe on the left, against the
brick was the conduit conveying the electrical to
the old meter.
Click on the image for a larger version.
A day or two later the city inspector came back to meet with me and a representative of the contractor to survey the work done both with the installation of the new panel and the photovoltaic system.  Finding everything to his satisfaction he gave his approval which also meant that the power company was notified so that the "Net Meter" would be installed.  A couple days after this a small work crew from a landscaping company appeared, filling in the trench in the front yard and replanting the sod that had been removed.

About two and a half weeks later I came home from work to find a notice from the power company stuck to my front door indicating that the net meter had, in fact, been installed so I happily closed the necessary breakers to put the system online.  Since it was already the evening, not much power was produced that day, but it was now ready for the next days' sun!

* * *

Figure 9:
In mid-job, the "horse tail" wires from the original
breaker panel emerging from the junction box that
had been installed in the approximate location of the
original breaker panel.  New wires were run
between it and the new service entrance/breaker panel.
I have since painted the new junction box and conduit a
red color to somewhat match the brickwork.
Click on the image for a larger version.
A minor shading problem:

As of this posting it has now been about four months since the system was put online and it has been working quite well.  One minor complication - something that I would have addressed earlier had I been aware of it - has to do with the fact that some of the eastern panels were located where they get shade until a bit after noon, reducing the output of the east array by 15-20% during that time.

By late March I was noticing that the northern-most panel was starting to be shaded by a nearby pine tree and by June and July, the angle of the sun had precessed to the point where at least three panels were being completely shaded in the morning, the shade finally clearing about an hour before "local noon" - or around 12:45.  Had I been aware of this I might have requested to have the east panels arranged somewhat differently to reduce this effect as there is plenty of room on the roof to do this

Would microinverters have improved this situation?  Perhaps by only 5% or so:  The real problem is that the panels get shadowed lengthwise, equally affecting each of the three sections of the panel isolated by the built-in "shade tolerance" diodes so these diodes don't have a useful effect when shading occurs in that aspect which means that it would be more difficult to extract power from it by any means.

A month or so after installation I was able to get them to come back out and do the formal shade analysis that they hadn't done before starting the job and it confirmed what was empirically observed - plus it gave a bit of information as to what problems could arise in the future in terms of tree growth.

* * *

No RF noise at all!

As far as my one of my original concerns - that of generated RF noise - I can detect absolutely nothing from the photovoltaic system at all at any frequency.

The "quiet-ness" of the system can be borne out by the fact that even if one brings a portable receiver right up to the panels or the inverter, nothing at all can be heard from it except when its antenna gets within a few inches of the inverter's LCD panel.

Where I do get some RF noise is from sources unrelated to the solar power - switching type "wall warts" scattered throughout my house, powering various things, but most of the "problem" devices have already been quieted as described in previous postings on this blog, see:

* * *
Generation of power - observations:

In the (over) four months of operation the cumulative amount of power has exceeded my actual usage by about 300 kWh so the recent power bills have been low - just the "minimum charge" of less than $10.  According to my calculations based on past and current usage I expect to use up that surplus in the winter when the "production" of the the photovoltaic system will be much lower due to the lower sun angle, shorter days, occasional snow cover and the tendency for there to be extended temperature inversions that can block sun for days at a time.

At the moment I do not have a "refrigeration" whole-house air conditioner - only an evaporative (a.k.a. "swamp") cooler and a wheel-around "room" air conditioner for those relatively rare days that it is both hot and humid, but I'm considering getting a whole-house A/C sometime in the future:  When I do that I may consider increasing the capacity of my photovoltaic system.

While the system has eighteen 285 watt panels which are theoretically capable of 5130 watts, the slant of the roof (north-south ridge line with panels mounted flat on the east and wet sides), the operating temperature of the panels (an output power reduction of 0.45% per degree C panel temperature) and the actual solar insolation (e.g. the actual amount of solar energy) has limited the peak power to around 3800 watts on hotter, crystal clear days and about 4300 watts on cooler days.

If one does the  numbers this should not be too surprising.  For example, the 285 watt panel rating assumes a cell temperature of 25C.  On a hot summer day where the ambient air temperature is around 38C and the panels themselves are around 50C (a fairly modest temperature as my roof is metal and very light-colored which keeps it quite cool) that means that assuming a temperature derating of about 0.5%/C that I have lost - from heat alone - 12.5% of power, or can expect only about 250 watts per panel, or 4500 watts from the system - and that would assume that the sun was illuminating the panel at optimal right-angles - which it really cannot at any time of year.

Since my panels are on a roof with a moderate east-west pitch, I lose another 15% or so of solar insolation on a typical summer day due to the angle, yielding a number that is actually pretty close to the 3800 watt peak.  What I have observed is that because of the east/west angle of the two strings that I have a slight "double" peak around "local" noon when, before noon the angle is nearly optimal for the east array and then similarly, after noon, for the west array.  To make matters worse, during many days of the summer in recent years the valley's air is a bit murky due to some smog and the frequent wildfires that seem to be a regular occurrence in the western U.S. these days, knocking off another 10-15% of production.

What this means is that, in theory, I could have used a 4kW inverter if I was willing to tolerate a bit of "clipping" (e.g. more available photovoltaic power than the inverter will produce) on optimal days (e.g. cool spring or fall days with clear air) and possibly have averted all of the hassle with the 20% rule and the replacement of the electrical panel, but considering the state of the older electrical distribution panel, its replacement was probably for the best! If I wished to do so, I could (in theory) add another 4 panels to my system which would just about bring it to clipping under optimal conditions and to around 4600 watts on a normal, summer day.

The other option - if I needed more capacity after, say, adding a house air conditioning unit - would be to simply install another set of panels - maybe 14-16 or so - and a separate inverter - a 3.6 kW unit, perhaps:  This would still stay within the 20% rule for the new electrical panel and add a degree added redundancy.  Since the "hard" work (e.g. update of the electrical, etc.) has already been done, such an addition would be comparatively easy.

As of the time of this writing (mid August, 2016) it would appear that the company that I used for the installation of my system (Auric Solar) will no longer consider the use of series-string photovoltaic systems, at least for residential customers - a statement based on a conversation a friend and fellow amateur radio operator had with a company representative.  The impression given - perhaps unintentionally - was that they had enough business that they didn't necessarily need to offer flexibility or other system options to their potential customers.

What this means is that for fellow amateur radio operators who wish to avoid an "RF noisy" installation, I've recently been suggesting another company.

To read part one of this article click on the link here:  The Solar Saga - Part 1:  Avoiding Interference (Why I did not choose microinverters.)


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