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Fire Inspection Passed

 

In my area, even after you’ve hauled all the panels up onto the roof and connected them to the system wiring, there’s still more work to be done before you can throw the big red switch to the “ON” position.  Before you connect your solar array to the grid the system it needs to be inspected (and approved) by three agencies:

 

  1. The city fire inspector The fire department wants to make sure that you’ve followed their  guidelines that allows safe access to the roof by emergency personnel if they need to respond to an emergency.
  2. The city building inspector The city needs to inspect and approve of the quality of the mechanical work (roof mounting points and racking system) as well to ensure that the electrical work is up to code.
  3. The utility company inspector The utility company also wants to look at the system’s electrical work and components to make sure there’s no potential of damaging the neighborhood’s grid.

Firefighters have a unique interest in the design and installation of a rooftop solar system.  In the event of a structure fire the first responders will usually climb onto the roof to assess the situation and often cut large holes into the roof directly over the blaze to vent the heat.  Solar installations that have wall-to-wall solar panels make access difficult or impossible.  One fire official told me “At some point we may look at a roof (with an out-of-code installation) and declare the structure a loss because we can’t fight the fire.  We’d hate if that happened”

Not only is physical access to the roof an issue but there’s also the matter of live wiring on or near the roof.  If the fire happens during the daytime those panels will be generating electricity and the circuitry on the roof will be energized with potentially harmful voltages.

As a result, CalFire (the state fire agency better known for fighting wildfires during our dry summers) came up with a set of guidelines for designing “firefighter safe” solar installations.  The city of Santa Rosa recently adopted those regulations and any new installation will need to conform to those rules.  You can look at the local adaptation of the CalFire rules here

As I mentioned in the first video, the rules for access are straightforward:  No panels within three feet from the ridge of the roof to allow ventilation and leave a three foot access pathway from the ground to the roof.  This means no more wall-to-wall coverage with PV panels but that’s pretty easy to incorporate into any layout.  Here’s my roof:

Leaving the three foot access path turned out to be pretty helpful during the installation; it gave us plenty of room to work when carrying those large panels.  I can imagine a firefighter in full gear on the roof needing just as much room to maneuver.   On the right is a picture of the ridge setback of the same array (click on the photo to see full size):

The electrical concerns are just as easily addressed.  Any current solar system design will include a disconnect switch to remove the rooftop array from the household wiring.  This is handy for keeping the system offline during installation and makes for easy disconnection for repairs or in an emergency.  The codes call for clear labeling on the disconnect switch and a warning label on the main meter panel:

The last piece of code calls for specific labeling for the conduit.  There are two reasons for this:

  • For single-inverter systems, even after the disconnect switch is thrown the DC wiring coming down off the roof is still energized.  It’s no longer connected to the inverter and no current is flowing but the wires in that conduit are charged to hundreds of volts and any breach of the conduit with a firefighter’s chainsaw or axe will cause a massive short-circuit.
  • Conduit on the roof makes for a tripping hazard.  For cooling purposes the standard construction technique calls for a standoff of an inch or more to keep the conduit up off of the surface of the roof.   The fire code calls for reflective warning labels to be put on the raised tubing to reduce the possibility of tripping.

So there you have it – the rules are simple to understand and have a very important purpose: to make it easier for emergency personnel to safely protect your house if a fire should break out.  Even if your local jurisdiction doesn’t have these setbacks and labeling requirements you may want to consider following them when designing your solar PV installation.

 

Video: Step 1 – Measuring and Planning

The first Solaricious video is now online!  The series will take you through the process of designing and installing a solar PV system on your roof.

The first installment looks at how to take a survey of your roof so you can find the best configuration for your panels.  It also looks at potential issues to keep an eye on and has some helpful tips on array placement.

More videos will follow to document every step of the process from buying the components to connecting to the utility grid!

 

Hire a contractor or D.I.Y.?

Today I went down to the city planning office to submit my application for a permit to install the solar system on our roof.  I was more than a little surprised when they commented “Gee, you’re the first person to get an owner/builder (D.I.Y. without a licensed contractor) permit for a solar installation.”   Really?  I live in a pretty large city (150,000 residents here in Santa Rosa) and I see plenty of solar panels on neighboring rooftops.  It seems like there are one or two houses on every block with a PV installation.  Since you can’t install a solar power system without a permit (if you hook it up to the grid it has to be inspected by both the city and the utility) that means the hundreds of nearby installations were all done by contractors.

Is it really that difficult?

Well, yes and no.  There are a number of skills required to install a rooftop solar system but we’re not talking about rocket science here.  The rewards can be high if you do the job on your own.  Besides the pride in doing the task yourself you’ll also save yourself quite a bit of money in the process.  Here are some factors that you need to consider:

Home repair skills – If you’ve done other improvement projects around the house, regularly watch the D.I.Y. channel or HGTV and if you know you way around a couple of basic power tools, you probably have the skills to do most of the work yourself.  While some of the wiring is best left to a licensed electrician, the bulk of the work requires nothing more sophisticated than a power drill and a ladder.

Project management skills - This job is going to require planning and paperwork.  Lots and lots (and lots) of paperwork.  Many cities are working to encourage renewable energy installations by cutting fees and permit requirements but you’re still going to need rudimentary drafting skills and you’re going to need to submit plenty of documentation about the installation to both the city and the utility.

Research skills – Unless you’re already a solar installer there’s a lot to learn about putting a bunch of panels up on your roof and plugging them into your power meter.  From product selection to building codes you’ll end up doing a lot of homework before you ever climb a ladder.  Fortunately there are plenty of helpful resources and I’ll be showing you where to find them.

Safety issues – More than likely you’ll be putting the solar panels on your roof.  How steeply sloped is the ‘pitch’ of your roof?  How high off the ground is the roof?  If you’re working on a one story building with a gentle slope then you’re in luck.  If you’re working on a multi-story building with a steeply sloped roof, unless you’re a mountain goat you may want to think about  leaving the job to professionals.

Financing the project – Many contractors can also arrange financing for the project.   If you can’t pay for the system out of pocket and if you don’t want to set up the financing yourself, hiring a contractor could still be an option.  Believe it or not, there are now some companies that will actually lease your rooftop and install a solar system for free  – the savings are much lower but there’s zero up front cost.

I’d describe a do it yourself solar setup as “straightforward but complicated.”  When you break things down into individual parts, each step of the project will be pretty easy.  When you put it all together there sure are a lot of individual pieces to figure out and keep track of.   Knowing what the steps are and learning how to do them correctly is the name of the game here.

If you’ve made it this far through the article you’re probably still thinking of doing the job by yourself – good for you!  This may be the most rewarding home improvement project you ever get involved in.   You’ll be feeling good when you see how you’re helping the environment by installing a renewable source of energy and you’ll really feel good when you open up that electric bill and the utility company says “Hey!  We owe you money this month!”