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Its Not Just About How Much Electricity You Produce.

Learn to Read
an Electric Bill PVWatts + the Golden Ratio of
Solar Performance Identify Your Net-Metering Policy How Much Are
Solar Arrays Worth? Fitting the Array on the Roof Google Earth
+ Satellite Imagery Shade Analysis Developing a Rooftop
Sketch Solar Module Selection Reading a Module
Specification Sheet Array Layout Solar Inverters Point of
Interconnection Racking Design Interconnection Application Budget and
Payback Revisiting the Design with CIGS + DC Optimizers
Design Conclusions Design Resources

Its not just about how much electricity you produce.

Solar power is expensive. The average home in the United
States uses 11 megawatt hours of electricity per year,
roughly equivalent to an 8kW solar array. In 2015,
residential rooftop installations averaged $3.50/W (over twice as
expensive as utility-scale fixed arrays). At this price, the
average solar array needed to fully offset the energy
of a home in the USA would cost almost $30k and have
a 16 year payback. But overseas in Germany, a global
leader in the solar industry, a solar array only needs to be
4kW to offset the typical electric bill. Solar arrays
are less productive in German vs the United States, but
homes in German use less electricity. The price of
German electricity is over twice that of most homes
in the USA market. Additionally, residential solar installation
prices in Germany is significantly lower, at $2.40/W
in 2013. The solar array required to offset 100% of a
German home costs around $10,000 and has a seven-year
payback. Solar economics are not just about how much
energy is produced, but also how much that production is worth.
Based on what we know about international markets, cost
reductions can be achieved in residential solar in the United
States. Education is necessary to improve system payback.
A typical residential solar panel is roughly 5
1/3rd ft. tall and 3 1/3rd ft. wide. It weighs about
40 pounds, so it is about as large and heavy as what one
able-bodied worker can pick up and carry around. This
example is what is called a 60 cell panel. You
can count the cells, 6 cells across by 10 cells long.
In the utility-scale sector, a 72 cell panel would be
6 cells across by 12 cell long. Those extra two rows of cells
result in a module 6 tall and roughly 50 pounds
a bit hazardous for a slanted rooftop. Much like the
differences between a Honda and a Lamborghini, there
are value and top shelf solar panels. Solar pricing is
commonly measured as per watt and higher quality

modules often have a higher per watt pricing.

Module efficiencies can range between 15%-21%, which means
that 3x5 solar panel can range between 250-
350 Watts. To reduce project cost, its common to select
a module on the low end of efficiency. However, a more
efficient module can squeeze more watts onto the same module
frame. In markets with high real estate costs or
small roof space, a top shelf module may also make the
most economic sense. Likewise, its important to confirm cell
count when pricing solar modules. A 330W module might be either
a 60 cell or larger 72 cell module. While I dont
recommend 72 cell modules for slanted roofs, they can often
improve the economics of ground mount systems. A watt is
a measurement of power. In traditional solar
design, the first step would be to make a list of
every single electrical device you are attempting to power.
My floor lamp has 20W decorative incandescent bulb and a
separate 13W CFL bulb. However, the 13W CFL produces more
light than the 20W incandescent because the CFL produces
less heat.
My ceiling fan has a 100W incandescent bulb, producing a
light that brightens the entire living room. The fan itself
requires 75W to spin the blades. I had two 60W
incandescent bulbs in my bathroom, but I replaced them
with 8.5W LEDs. Even if I only use the lightbulb for one
hour per day, I should get a payback in under
three years. Non-dimmable LED bulbs are inexpensive nowadays.

Cost of Electricity Comparison 8.5W x 1 hr x 365 days x

$0.11/kwh = $0.34/yr 60W x 1 hr x 365 days x
$0.11/kwh = $2.41/yr Cost Savings = >$2/year for
moderate use

I pulled my refridgerator away from the wall, and grabbed

its power rating off the manual taped to the back.
Standard AC circuits within a home are often refered
to as 120V outlets. My refridgerator is a 115-volt
device, designed to accommodate a 5V voltage drop from
the outlet to my main electrical service panel. When on,
it pulls 6.5 amps of current. A volt times an amp is
a watt. 115V x 6.5A = 750W.

Heres a summary of what Ive counted so far:

Would 1000W of solar panels actually power
this load? Probably not. Temperature, sun angle, and other
environmental factors can reduce module performance.
Panels are rated under a standard test condition set that
is not often met in the field. But its not just about
how large the power requirements are. You also have to
consider energy.
Energy = Power x Time The refridgerator may require
a lot of power, but is it actually running 100% of
the time? Do you leave your ceiling fan on 24/7? Having enough
power will make sure your devices come on, but most residential
bills are based on energy. Energy is also important in
off-grid design. Will your solar array produce enough power
to refill your battery bank? How many kilowatt hours are
your devices burning? A common starting point is to
take your list of devices and estimate hours useage:

If I had four 250W solar panels, and they were on

under full sun for 8 hours, Id generate 8000 watt hours,
enough energy to equal the energy usage for these
products. But inefficiencies including heat loss and off-angle
incidence will reduce this process further. But assuming
a perfectly efficient process, how much would it cost in
solar photovoltaics to power this process? 1000W of Solar x
$3.50/W (USA)
= _________________ 1000W of Solar x
$2.40/W (Germany) = _________________ Conclusions: 1
typical 250W solar panel can power 1 ceiling fan and a
handful of lightbulbs Its not just about power, its also
about energy (power x time) To grow the USA solar
industry, we need to bring USA installation prices down!

Energy efficiency is not the same as power generation.
It may be obvious that switching from incandescent to LED
light bulbs results in a better payback than installation
a solar power generator to a home. But the
LED bulb will still require energy to run, and lighting is
only a portion of the entire homes energy use. It
may also be easier to install one solar array than estimate
and implement dozens of energy efficiency measures to reduce
a homes electric bill. Solar is often a costlier
investment with a lower payback than cherry-picked efficiency
improvements, but it also produces a more dramatic impact
on the electric bill than those efficiency-improvements.

Learn to Read an Electric Bill

Here is a copy of my most recent electric bill of
I used 1682 kilowatt hours of electricity over this
billing cycle, resulting in a charge of $175.40. I was
also charged a $14.50 fixed fee. If I wanted to
calculate the generation of my solar array, Id have to
be careful not to include this fixed fee. Assuming I
get full retail value for my electric generation, my solar array
would generate at $0.10/kwh.
1682 kwh / $175.40 ~= 9.6 cents per kwh
However, not all electric bills are so straight forward.
A small commercial company might have an electric bill that
looks like this:
In the above case, the cost of small commercial
electricity is higher than residential electricity. But most
commercial rate payers are forced onto demand based
billing structures which look like this:

This is where I might get into trouble with my solar

array. On residential and small commercial billing
structutres, the price of electricity hovers around 10
cents per kwh. But on demand-based billing structures, the
cost of energy has fallen to 6 cents per kwh, plus
a demand charge.
The Demand charge is typically based on the maximum
15 minutes of sustained demand over the billing cycle. Can
solar reduce these demand charges? I installed a monitor
to track an offices electric useage throughout the day.

Technically, peak demand occurred in the early

afternoon the hottest time of day when a solar array would
be at nearly full power. However, other mini peaks
occurred at the beginning and end of the day (when
employees are entering and exiting the building, wrecking havoc
on HVAC control circuits). Solar, absent any form of
storage or energy controls, will not significantly impact
building demand charges, despite producing energy at
peak times. So even if a commercial client were
averaging 10 cents per kilowatt hour for their electric
bill, the generation rate of the array would be closer
to 6 cents per kwh. This explains why so many large
commercial rooftops are devoid of solar power. These
customers solar projects are stymied by utility billing
policy. To be compensated for their peak energy
production, the commercial project may need to wait until cost-
effective storage comes to market. On my electric bill, theres
also a nice graphic on my bill where I can use to
determine my annual electricity usage:

I can this graph to estimate my monthly kilowatt

hours useage, but some utilities are providing this data in
greater detail through their online account portals.
Sometimes, you can find very detailed data, such as the
homes 15 minute interval data of their instantaneous power
draw from the grid. If I didnt make any changes
to my electric usage, Id need a solar array to
generate ~10,000 kwh per year to offset 100% of my electric
use. The next step is to see how large of an array that
might be.

PVWatts + the Golden Ratio of Solar Performance

PVWatts is a great tool for basic solar performance
estimation. More professional solar modeling software
exists, but PVWatts is free and good enough for
introductory rooftop solar array design.
In most of the United States, the tilt angle and
orientation of a solar array does not deviate by more than 25%
across a given rooftop surface, regardless if your
orient the modules north, south, east, or west.
Compared to a south-facing rooftop surface, deviations to
southeast or southwest result in deviations of less than 5%.
Its useful to determine a conservative estimate for the
annual energy production of a south-facing solar array
for developing rough estimates of solar production in
preliminary planning. The industry refers to this ratio as the
watt per kilowatt hour peak ratio. My term is the
Golden Ratio of solar performance a scalar you
can use to develop quick estimates of solar production for
your area. Lets use PVWatts to better understand how much
annual energy one watt of rooftop solar will produce in
your area. Activity: Use PVWatts to find the Golden
Ratio of rooftop solar in your area:
1 DC kW ~= __________ kwh/yr 1 DC Watt ~= _________ kwh/yr

1. Start by visiting and entering in

your zip code. In Starkville, Mississippi, Ill use 39759.
2. PVWatts will search for local weather stations for you
to choose from. If you live in an area with significant
geographic diversity (mountains, large bodies of
water, active
volcanoes), you may want to poke around and select a
weather station that is a close match to your jobsite.
Also, each weather monitoring station is different (and prone
to error). You may want to run a few PVWatts
simulations on multiple local weather stations, remove any
outliers, and average the outputs to result in a
conservative energy estimate in your area. My solar data
defaulted to Meridian, MS which is 80 miles away from my
location. I re-selected data gathered from a local Air Force
base, to bring the data closer to home.
The atmosphere is thinner at the top of a mountain
compared to the valley below. This impacts solar
performance. Thick air will diffuse the energy we get
from the sun, causing less of it to hit your solar
array at direct angles. Lake effect snowfall, coastal
weather patterns, El Nio, or even smoke from wildfires could
significantly change your array performance. PVWatts takes
these factors, and additional degradation factors, into
consideration when developing its output. It reflects array output
on a typical year, but that typical year is as likely
to change as the annual differences in weather.

3. The next step is to input your site-specific information.

Change the array size to 1kW. The default value is 4kW, but
I like modeling at 1kW levels for development of my self-
titled Golden Ratio figure.
Change the array type to roof mount. PVWatts will account
for less air flow under the modules, and higher rooftop
temperatures. Open Rack setting would be more appropriate for
ground mounts.
Leave everything else the same for the time being. A 20-degree
tilt is roughly equivalent to the standard 4:12 roof pitch.
PVWatts has advanced parameters, which allow you to explore
inverter efficiency and clipping losses, plus defaults the
following losses. The default loss values are conservative.
The array may not be shaded, module-level electronics might
eliminate mismatch. Systems are not typically offline for
3% of the year.

When comparing against online monitoring data, Ive seen

PVWatts system loss factors come in at as low as 5%
effectively. This number will vary by project. Only a
solar designer will know all the to calibrate the energy
estimate into the most correct guess. Even then, it will
only be a guess, and typically, it pays to be
conservative. Annual differences in solar performance can be as
great as 10%, with snowfall playing a large part in that
number. If youre going to be conservative with your
energy estimates, PVWatts is all the computing power
you need. A default loss factor of 14% is
conservative, and its been my experience that its okay to
adjust the loss factor to fit the specifications your system
design. 4. PVWatts will provide you with an energy
estimate for your array, based on local weather data
including temperature, rainfall, cloud coverage, etc. Due South
Starkville MS will produce roughly 1,370kwh per year. This
will obviously change based on annual changes in weather
patterns, shade conditions, array orientation, array tilt, and system
Moving the array to a southwest orientation (225-degree
orientation), barely reducing the energy production.

Due West
I went back and changed the orientation to due west (270
degrees orientation). This reduced my array performance by ~10%.

Heres where it gets interesting. Adjusting a

rooftop solar array at a 20-degree tilt from due south
to due west only reduces array performance by around 10%.
What about if the solar array were to face north? Due North
Due-north facing arrays produce only 25% less energy than
due-south facing arrays, when tilted 20 degrees. This
difference shrinks the closer the tilt angle gets to zero.

It might be that a west-facing, or even north-

facing, solar array is as valuable as the more
productive south-facing array. Winter arrays may have very
little production, because of the snow on top of them.
Daylight electricity might be more valuable in the
summertime, when the sun is more up than south. The utility
might not compensate the homeowner for excess electricity,
incentivizing the owner to maximize the system design
around summertime, rather than annual, electricity use.
Or, solar prices might simply get so cheap that north
facing roof surfaces become an option. There are
costsavings in economies of scale. North-facing roof surfaces
may be a bit extreme at this point in the industry,
but its perfectly reasonable to install a solar array on a
west-facing roof surface. Check with your utility to see if
they have a time-of-day metering rate available, which rewards
afternoon and evening solar production, and helps lower your
electric rate at night. Designing arrays based around
electric rate structure might be a competitive design
advantage that not all

solar installers are considering.

5. Rounding off the numbers, I can see that 1kW of

rooftop solar in North Mississippi will conservatively produce
1,300 per year for a wide variety of roof orientations.
Dividing by 1000, I get the Golden Ratio of
rooftop solar for my region:

My Regions Golden Ratio of Solar

1W = 1.3 kwh/yr

Determine this ratio for your local area, and memorize it. Now you
can perform offthe-cuff solar production estimates! For
instance, if a potential customer asks me how many kwh a
solar array produces in North Mississippi, I can respond
with A 10 kW array produces around 13,000 kwh. Or,
if another customer says their home uses 15,000 kwh a
year, I can tell them they need around a 11.5kW solar array.
If my turnkey installation rate is $2.50/W, Id tell
them to budget around $30,000.

In the previous section, we determined I needed about

10,000 kwh of array production to offset my annual
electricity use. Using my golden ratio, I know an 8kW
array would offset my electric use.
8kW x 1.3 kwh/yr = ~10,400 kwh/yr

Winter time production is often 1/3rd of summertime production, even

with brooming the snow off the solar array after
each snowstorm. PVWatts will estimate for overcast days, but will
also assume you are maintaining your array free and clear
of snowfall. In areas of heavy snowfall, one way to
mitigate against winter is to flatten your array, skewing
your production towards summer months. Certainly, on a
tilted roof, the most common practice is to adhere
to the roof plane. However, on a flat room, it is
common to stay will a shallow tilt of 5-10 degrees,
even in the Northern USA. Structural advantages are also gained
through shallow tilt angles.

Once you finish your PVWatts estimate, you get monthly

production in addition to an annual estimate. But tucked
away into the bottom of the page is perhaps the most
useful design feature of PVWatts the hourly production

This hourly data, exportable to a spreadsheet, contains

the raw weather station data which is converted into your
rooftop production estimate. Its useful for a variety of
reasons. For off-grid design, you can estimate
how many overcast days you will encounter in winter, such that
your battery bank is not undersized. Hourly production
estimates will help you model time-of-use metering, determine
your solar window for summer and winter shade
analysis, and right-sizing of inverter selection. Temperature
correction and insolation data can assist with module performance

Identify Your Net-Metering Policy

The Federal Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act of 1978
entitled 80MW microgenerators to wholesale value for their exported
electricity. Utilities could not obstruct grid expansion of
clean power generators, provided these generators did not
significantly impact electric rates. Net-metering applies to
a smaller class of generators, typically under 2MW or
smaller, whom are looking to generate up to 100% of their
onsite energy use. These generators, whom produce 100%
clean power, are compensated for their surplus electricity
at near retail rates, with any excess credit given
to the utility at wholesale pricing at the end of the

Net-metering has been mandated by Federal energy policy

since 2005, but is left to each State to manage their
own policies. Kansas City, KS has a different net-
metering policy than Kansas City, MO this impacts
system design within those different municipalities. States
with weak net-metering policies strangle the solar industry
in those areas. But with each drop in solar
installation prices, public support for clean electricity
increases. Policies which restrict solar industry growth
may prove untenable. In the meantime, solar policy remains

Not all public utility commissions are antagonistic

toward solar. A handful of states have developed
aggressive virtual net-metering policies where net-metered
credits can be applied against off-site electric accounts.
This allows for commercial rooftop and community solar
development, a useful tool in decongesting the electric
grid of major coastal cities. By in large, the Federal
government has been reluctant to set state electricity prices.
Until such time, solar designers must consider their state
and utility net-metering policies before approaching any grid-
connected project.

Net-metering policies must be evaluated in the following way:

Annual reconciliation can occur at the beginning of summer,
negating any surplus credits accumulated during the
Reconciliation can occur monthly, negating credit value at the
end of the month
System size can be restricted based on arbitrary numbers
determined by the state
Special grid-access fees can be levied on solar owners
Customers can be pushed onto demand-based billing structures
which reduce kwh credits
The utility can refuse new applicants based on total installed
capacity at the state-level

In the print edition of this book, we have a table with

various state net-metering policies. However, the table size
does not format well as an e-book. Please visit

to check your states net-metering policy.

Apply Net-Metering Policy to Your Design

At the end of a reconciliation period, excess energy
credits are typically given to the utility at little
compensation. Whatever the reconciliation period is, significant
excess generation is not cost-effective. Annual
reconciliations allow the owner to accumulate credits during
spring and fall months when solar production is high and
electricity usage is relatively low. These credits are then
claimed in summer or winter months. But if the
reconciliation occurs at the end of spring, then excess
credits generated at that time are cashed out at avoided cost
rates, rather than being credited during summer.
Netmetering policies which roll over credits indefinitely are best
for the solar array owner.

Likewise, if the reconciliation period occurs on a

month-to-month basis, it may be uneconomic to design an
array to produce 100% of the customers annual consumption.
It may be better to design the array to
produce no more than the customers total bill in March or
April. This might only equal 70% of owners annual

It gets worse if youre in a state without a

net-metering policy, or one which has cancelled its net-
metering policy. In these states, array owners may
only receive compensation per PURPA 1978 just a few cents per
kwh. Solar customers are subject to the whim of the
utility to receive net-metering policies in these
states. Even if net-metered investments are offered today,
long term investments are made at your peril.

If you are in a market with a discouraging net-metering

policy, check with your local utility. They may have a
program for you. Market constraints do create niche
market opportunity. At the residential level, you might
specialize in off-grid design. Energyefficient building design
or a ground mount array can get you the energy
you need. In some cases, grid connection fees may justify
the cost of an otherwise expensive battery bank. For the
commercial market, you might specialize in battery-based
storage design with smaller solar arrays, for demand
reduction or load-leveling. Youll also have less competition in
these markets, giving you an easier path to market

Heres a monthly print out of my electric usage,

combined with different array scenarios:

If I had an unlimited net-metering policy, the 8kW south-

facing solar array would likely be the most economic option for
the customer. However, under a monthly net-metering policy,
my surplus credits would be cashed out at the net
excess generation rate (NEG) at end of the month about
1/3rd of the retail value of those kilowatt hours due to
PURPA. Even if I had an annual net-metering policy,
reconciled on March 31st, 12% of my total annual system
production would be cashed-out at the NEG rate also called
the avoided cost rate. This reconciliation process makes it
difficult to truly zero out your electric bill, despite what
the utility may claim about solar array owners free loading
off the electric grid. If I had zero net-metering
policy, perhaps 80% of my production would be cashed out
at the avoided cost rate.

Solar incentive programs have pushed solar design to

maximize total system production, but more recent trends
in incentivizing solar production have not looked favorably on
exported solar electricity. In markets where solar has become
a major energy resource, comprising a substantial market share
of the electric grid such as in Hawaii, new systems may
not be allowed to export energy onto the grid without
implementing some sort of utility-managed storage technology.
For many reasons, modern solar designers should consider a
comprehensive approach to solar design which considers
the price of exported electricity and how to more
closely align solar production with onsite consumption.

At the end of the day, solar has a maximum cost-benefit

when installed at its pointof-use. Net-metering polices
may not be available to new home buyers. Exported electricity
rates might go negative, as they have in certain overcapacity
instances in the Texas wind market. At the very least,
we can expect future rate policies to value exported

electricity less than electricity consumed onsite. This does not mean
that a system design must avoid exporting electricity
to the grid at all cost. Nor does it necessarily mean
storage and load-shifting technologies will become cost-
effective to the point where solar customers disconnect from the grid
entirely. But solar designers should consider all sides of
a building when approaching solar design. Project economies-
of-scale, building power consumption, time-variable energy rate
structures, net-metering rates, and potential for future grid
disconnection can all impact which building surfaces are
best for the design. Heres how the net-excess generation
rate varies in my community, representing higher electric use
in the summer rather than the winter:
Because of the higher summer rates, the economics
of non-south-facing solar arrays improved. An increase in air
conditioning loads means more electricity is consumed onsite
rather than is exported. Shallower tilts, and even
north-facing arrays, will skew production towards the summer.
Based on total system production, a south-facing solar
array wins the race. But after economic assessment is applied, you
could determine that an array which covers the entire
rooftop may make the most economic sense. PVWatts
provides month-to-month and hourly energy estimates. Ive
run simulations for an 8kW array, which generates 100%
of my energy use for the year. But that doesnt paint
the whole economic story. A south-facing array is
the most cost-effective configuration in an unlimited net-metering
scenario. However, a west-facing or flat solar array may
be just as cost-effective under a month-to-month structure.
The optimal array might be a 6kW south-facing array,
which would only generate 25% less energy. Likewise, a
north-facing 8kW array, which produces 25% less
electricity, would only be 15% less valuable than its 8kW
south-facing counterpart, because of the time-value of
the generation. This value gap might further close if you have
no net-metering policy.

In short, your electric rate structure and net-metering policy

will determine if its best to orient your modules
south, west, or even north! Even if you have an
annual netmetering policy, you need to check where the
utility draws the cut-off line. Unsurprisingly, many utilities
draw the annual line at the end of March. Only with an
unlimited carryforward can you receive full retail value for
your net-metered array production.
Smart-grid technology can significantly boost the value of
solar, by allowing the consumer access to kwh-based time
of day metering rates. What is less clear is how
netmetering policies compensate under time-of-day structures.
Is the kwh credit given at its time-of-day retail
rate, or instead at its average retail rate?

How much are solar arrays worth?

Lets imagine you live in a state which does not have unlimited
net-metering. Do you need to install an array that
powers 100% of your home? National Electric Code allows you
to install a small array today, and expand with
another system in parallel later. If you can only
afford a small array, should you proceed?
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories has studied real
estate data consisting of nearly 23,000 California homes. The
results suggest a fixed cachet value for arrays of
any size the mental value a buyer makes when they see
the home being green. The value of the array decreases with
size, hovering around the present value of its lifetime
electric generation. The result is that smaller arrays
are worth more than large arrays. While larger arrays are less
expensive to install per watt, a smaller array might be
the best route to go if youre not invested in your
property for the long term.
Source: Selling Into The Sun: Price Premium Analysis of
a Multi-State Dataset of Solar Homes. Hoen, Adomatis,
Jackson, Graff-Zivin, Thayer, Klise, Wiser. Lawernce Berkeley
National Laboratory. 2015. Survey Size: 18,871 homes + 3951
solar homes.
If you have less than $5,000 to spend on a home solar array,
I suggest you select microinverters. An advantage of
micro-inverter systems is that small arrays are easy to
install. You might be able to install a 2kW system
on a single 20A branch circuit for that budget.

Fitting the Array on the Roof

Halfmoon Education Inc. is in Eau Claire, WI and uses 40,381
kilowatt hours per year in electricity. If you assume
Halfmoon will receive full retail value for all their
production, use PVWatts to estimate a system size to
offset 100% of their use:

40,381 kwh / _______ kwh/Wp/year / 1000W/kW = _____ DC


In the United States, 224 billion square feet of

residential real estate burn 1.4 trillion kilowatt hours of
electricity per year. In other words, the typical home
burns 6 kilowatt hours of electricity per square foot. A
typical solar module is 3.3 feet wide, by 5.3 feet tall,
about 17 square feet. On average across the United
States, a typical 260W solar module produces over 19
kilowatt hours per square foot per year. This means that
if even half the rooftop is available for solar power, it
is possible for one and two story buildings to generate
as much power as they consume by installing rooftop solar.
Halfmoons facility is a single-story building, and is
completely unshaded. Its very likely we can fit the 32kW array
required to offset 100% of its electric use onto its
rooftop. Using Google Earth, we can obtain an
overhead picture of the rooftop.

It might be that we must use the East-West roof surfaces to

fit the entire 31kW array. If we run a PVWatts
calculation, well realize that due east + west surfaces
produce about 14% less energy than due south surfaces.
Of course, wed want to use the southern mounting surface
first. But deviating from South to due west or due east
isnt as bad as you might think. After all, the sun is
mostly up. On flat commercial roofs, its common to give
modules a very shallow tilt, simply because the
performance loss is relatively insignificant, it optimizes summer
production (when electric rates are higher), results in
less empty space, and has structural benefits. For the time
being, lets just see how much solar we can fit on
the south facing roof surface, and see where we end up.
Roof Clearance Requirements
Many solar arrays look like this, riding nice and high along the
roof ridge, all the way to the roof edge:
or even like this array (under construction), covering every inch
of roof real estate:

But when your house is burning down, firemen want to do this:

Do you see the problem? The fireman needs three things: Roof
Access Ability to cut ventilation holes in the roof A
secondary escape route on the same roof plane
While your local jurisdiction may not have solar design
standards which accommodate fireman access, International
Building Code 2012 stipulates the following for residential rooftops:
3 clearance from the side of the roof. 3 clearance from the
top of the roof. There are additional rules, clearance
distances, and guidelines for especially long arrays, for commercial
arrays, and flat roof arrays. Here are some illustrative
examples from the

Solar Photovoltaic Installation Guide (2008) prepared for the

Office of the California State Fire Marshal:

Hip Roofs have more clearance flexibility as the fireman

can escape down the other side of the hip. Additionally,
there are well established roofing clearance guidance for flat
commercial rooftops, which generally require 6 clearance from roof
edges, walkways along structural beams every 150, and 4 path
access to HVAC, other roof-mounted equipment, skylights, access
hatches, etc.

Theres even a specified 10 clearance requirement for brush

surrounding ground-mount arrays!
There are additional fire code considerations, such as the ability
to de-energize the array at each module during a power
outage, so the fireman does not electrocute himself if
he cuts through a solar conduit (solar panels
during the day are hot even if the inverter is
offline). Then there is the conduit run itself, which could be
a trip hazard if external to the roof (and is
aesthetically unsightly). Well cover these topics in more detail
There is another reason to stay off the edges of the
roof, as illustrated by this Unirac Design Manual.

Wind speed is greater at the edges of a building, than in

the middle of the roof surface. So, you might want
to stay 3 off the bottom edge of the roof as well,
even though fire code may not require it. Itll be
easier on your roof structure during that once-a-decade wind
storm. Also, it will be easier to move around on the
roof when it comes time to service the array.
In short, your solar installer may want to fill up every
square inch of your rooftop with solar panels. Dont
let them! Only New Jersey has a good excuse for
ignoring rooftop access requirements the State Fire Marshall
has directed his firemen not to get up on the truss
of any burning building solar or otherwise! Solar
arrays are intended to last. There are too many reasons
not to install to the latest safety codes, even if
they arent yet required by your local jurisdiction.
This picture illustrates the final product, an
aesthetically pleasing array with appropriate fire code clearances
around the array edges, and no obstructive external
conduit runs.

Google Earth + Satellite Imagery

Google Earth is a great tool to dimension out your
rooftop. Not only does it provide decent overhead site photography
(useful for identifying potential shade structures), but it can
even help with building height and tree shading estimates.
Lets assume your client lacks building blueprints. Using the Google
Earth ruler tool, one can quickly develop a rooftop
sketch with adequate dimensions (keeping in mind we need those
rooftop clearances, so we cant get right up to the edge
of the roof anyway).

This graphic shows the Halfmoon roof is 23.5 long. Adjusting for a
4:12 roof pitch, we have almost 25 from the roof ridge
to the gutter. Subtracting the 3 from the top and
bottom of the roof line., were left with 19 from ridge to

If were utilizing solar modules roughly 5.3 tall,

then we can fit three rows of modules in portrait orientation
across the roof line. Which is fine, because I find 3
off the roof line to be not quite as much space as Id
prefer. Its much easier to navigate the roof a 4 offset
around the edges.

By no means is Google Earth the only overhead

imaging software to use. For example, Bing Maps (by Microsoft)
has a completely different image set, which is often more
clear than Google Earth. Its good to check out
different image sets because they may give you a seasonal
or time-of-day variance. Likewise, there are commercial
companies online that can give you over
head dimensional analysis of rooftops by you simply
sending them the site address. Sometimes, Google Earth can
smudge roof penetrations such as plumbing and attic vents.
Still, many of these obstacles can be identified by simply
asking your client to take a picture of the roof
from the road, to cross reference against your Google Earth

I prefer a portrait orientation, because it allows
underlying solar racking systems to run parallel with the
roof ridge and gutter. This gives me the ability to
run my racking attachment points evenly across the truss
chord - typically 4 offsets staggered every 2
between top and bottom rails. This arrangement is not
possible when the attachments run up the roof, rather than
across the roof. Some installers who mount in landscape will
still run the rails parallel to the ridge and gutter. This
increases racking budgets by ~30%, but is likely
cheaper than sistering rafters together underneath the roof

Often, racking manufacturers will provide aluminum solar

rails robust enough to support 6 spacing between
positive roof attachments. However, every so often, Ill
encounter a project where the structural engineer specifies a
2 spacing between attachment feet. The best practice is
to get every project reviewed by a structural engineer.

Shade Analysis
Shade analysis has had some major changes in the solar
industry. It used to be that extensive onsite analysis was
a prerequisite for solar design. A sun path and
reflective dome were used to visually determine how surrounding
objects cast their shadows, depending upon the month and time-
of-day. The Solar Pathfinder is one such example.

But partial shading issues can now be overcome

through module-level electronics such as AC micro-inverters or
DC voltage regulators. These devices, commonly installed behind
each solar panel, allow each module on the roof to
operate independently of each other. While such devices
add cost, they also meet increasingly demanding NEC requirements,
such as the rapid shutdown and de-energization of all array
conductor cables in the event of a power outage. Without
module-level electronics, you must avoid shade at all
cost. Solar panels are traditionally wired in series,
with each module plugging into its neighbor positive-tonegative.
This wiring is like Christmas tree lights, where if one
light burns out, the rest of the string goes down with it.
A single shaded solar module on a rooftop can
impact the production of its entire DC string circuit.

Shadows cast from telephone poles, distant trees in

the morning and evening, chimneys, roof-mounted electrical
equipment, and neighboring buildings can all impact system
design. But the impact of these objects is severely
reduced with the use of modulelevel electronics. In that
sense, module-level electronics lessen the importance of
a thorough on-site shade analysis. There are also problems with
on-site shade analysis. Even the most advanced on-site analysis
fails to account for tree growth. An unshaded system today
might be a shaded system tomorrow. What might the
shade look like in the years to come? Generous height
assumptions, plus regional sun altitude charts and
trigonometry, may be sufficient for shade analysis. If your roof
is shaded, you could consider ground mounting the array
nearby. Arrays can be installed hundreds, if not thousands,
of feet away from the point of interconnection you simply
will pay a little bit more for larger wire and trenching
equipment rental. In general, a good jobsite has a six-
hour solar window, held constant throughout the year without

In addition to shade benefits, module-level electronics

increase installation safety. Solar panels are hot
during installation, and system voltages on an individual
circuit commonly exceed 400V. Module-level electronics
ensure that an inexperienced installation crew wont shock themselves
through accidental contact with solar leads (such as found in
a roof-mounted DC combiner box).

National Renewable Energy Laboratories recently determined

3-D modeling of the jobsite to be within 4% accurate
of the most rigorous on-site analysis, which can further
improve with the use of topographical LIDAR data. Beyond that,
shadows change with the season and time-of-day, as do
electric rate structures. A shaded array in the winter
may not be as significant as having those same
panels productive in the summer. Computer software is now
essential in providing the most cost-effective solar preliminary
assessment, and can often be performed from the comfort of your
home! Solar power production is a function of
shadows, rooftop temperature, location of the sun,
material specifications, wire size, air flow, intensity of
sunlight, and even air thickness. PVWatts accounts for these
variables, except for shading. Theoretically, you

could extract the hourly performance data within PVWatts

and manually carve out the production from when the array
is shaded. But a shaded module still produces some
energy. The assumptions become wilder when using
micro-inverters to mitigate shade impact. A computer, able to
perform repetitive calculations quickly, can perform this
estimation down to the individual performance of each module on
the roof under a variety of shade conditions, and then
calculate the value of every electron produces throughout
the year under a variety of economic conditions. The
whole process can be quickly replicated with a variety of
designs to determine the optimal configuration and
the solar design software companies are working on those
optimization algorithms!

Developing a Rooftop Sketch

Using the ruler tool in Google Earth, I sketched the
south-facing roof of Halfmoon Seminars building. We previously
determined Halfmoon could use a ~31kW array to offset
their electric bill. Now we want to determine how large of
an array could fit on their roof.

Our jobsite is unique: A commercial array under 150 long with

a 4:12 roof pitch. But because its like a residential
roof (i.e. tilted roof, less than 120 across), we can
ask the AHJ to allow us to design per residential
clearance requirements instead of more robust commercial

As such, our constraints are:

3 clearance off the building rakes (the side edges of the
3 clearance from the ridge of the building.
Access to skylights.
No building code constraint required along the gutter, but lets
keep 3 offset to reduce wind load. In areas of
heavy snow, you might also consider how snow might avalanche
off the roof. It might be best to install a snow guard
along the bottom edge of the roof to prevent such

Before and after accounting for fire code clearance requirements:

Solar Module Selection

Now that you have determined your useable roof area, its time
to choose a solar module for your layout! Take a minute
to scan the $/W pricing of this solar distributor. The price
range on solar modules can vary between $0.60/W
- $1.50/W, depending on efficiency and manufacturer.

And if you want to go bargain bin hunting, the price

differential can get even greater! You can find markets
for lesser known manufacturers, bankrupted manufacturers, used
modules, blemished modules, etc.
The solar panel is only one part of the system.
I dont think its the most important part of the
system. Ive installed thousands of solar panels in the
field and have only seen a handful of panels fail right
out of the box. My tendency is to go with a
recognized manufacturer basically a solar manufacturer whom has
3rd party insurance on its product warranty or otherwise a
name brand manufacturer. Ill price out a quality Made in
option such as Stion. Some installers dont find it
worthwhile to price out the most premium module options
such as SunPower, but others do. In addition to luxury
customers, high efficiency modules can be compelling in areas of
limited real estate space.
In my opinion, top-shelf modules are Ferraris,
whereas most customers prefer to buy Hondas. But not all
solar installers nor customers would agree with me. I tend
to advocate more involvement with existing contractors to perform the
solar installation, but specialty solar installers might
differentiate themselves by participating in top-shelf dealer
Audience members often ask how I research the material supply
chain. When you are ready to begin your project, I
suggest going online to multiple online distributor
websites, to sign up for their emailed newsletters. The
price listed on the internet is retail, so get on the
email marketing list for monthly specials. Some distributors
have contractor programs, but even so, not too many distributors
have hard and fast prequalification requirements to join their
networks. Patience and the ability to be module
agnostic can net you a good enough module for around
70 cents per watt.
In my case, I found a manufacturer willing
to sell direct. I went with 83 modules at 255W each,
for a total of 21 kW of solar on the south
side of the building. To generate 100% of Halfmoons building,
Ill have to look beyond the south side of the building.
Halfmoon has higher than typical electric use for a
commercial building, largely due to their printing machines and
computer workstations.
To illustrate the variety of solar modules available
within the same price class, Ive picked between two
similarly priced modules. One is a traditional foreign-
made silicon module, and the other USA-made module doesnt
contain any silicon at all! Before we begin, I will not
cover CdTe modules made by FirstSolar, because they are not
generally available to the new-to-solar installers. I will also
not cover flexible thin-film modules, nor solar shingles. These
products are viable within certain niche market
applications. My selection was driven by choosing a
typical entry-level module, and the nearest-priced,

substantially different alternative.

Note: Solar panels are commonly bought by the

pallet. You can save money on your project if you design
the system based on a pallet of solar panels, a
quantity which can be found on the module specification

Reading a Module Specification Sheet

Compare these two near-equivalent priced solar modules
of different technology types:
Module Wattage/Dimensions/Efficiency: At the end of the
day, module efficiency is what counts. A 15.3% module
takes up 10% less space than a 14% efficient module to
produce the same amount of power under the same standard test
conditions. Cell Material: Different materials absorb light
along different bandwidths. Ultimately, this material is responsible
for differences in voltage, amperage, and PID/LID degradation.
PID/LID degradation: Beyond normal cell degradation
(typically modeled at 0.5% per year), additional degradation
can result from current leaking from the modules due to
humidity, module frames, heat, inverter control circuits,
and initial exposure to the sun. Ive measured combined
PID/LID degradation to be as much as 5% in year one
(at which point it tends to stabilize). It doesnt
uniformly affect all modules, but module-level electronics tend
to mitigate this effect such that weaker modules do not
drag down stronger modules.

Frame/Frameless: Frameless modules are a relatively new trend.

They tend to have higher aesthetic value and less PID
issues, and require specific frameless racking systems.
Frameless modules are desirable to reduce cost, and their
strength may be improved as frameless racking systems
evolve. But you should handle them with care!

Warranty: Typical modules have a 25-year performance

warranty at 80%. Some warranties are step-down with separate
performance levels for year 10 and year 25. Other warranties are
linear, with uniform step-down from year 1 to year 25.
Workmanship warranties cover manufacturing issues such as frames
and seals.

Country of Manufacturer: Some owners prefer American-made

modules for grant purposes, national pride, or environmental
concerns. However, not all American Made modules are 100%
American made.

Appearance: Some customers prefer a black sheen appearance

to a blueish, metallic grid-line appearance. Pictured is
a Stion Frameless CIGS panel.

Open Circuit Voltage + Short Circuit Current: These

values are typically used in electrical design, but the module
is more likely to operate below these values.

Wind Load: You might desire a module with a

higher wind load if you live along a coastline prone
to hurricanes, such as Florida. Frameless modules may gain
additional strength through specific racking systems.

Modules Per Pallet: Often you get price breaks if

you order by the pallet, so you might want to incorporate
that into your design.

Hail Impact Speed: The IEC requires hail impact testing,

but certain modules might be optionally rated at above-standard
ratings to showcase their robustness.

Temperature Coefficient of Power: Modules are rated under a

standard test condition of ambient temperature of 25C (77F).
However, rooftop temperatures can be much higher

than ambient. The temperature coefficient of power is

a percentage degradation for each degree Celsius the cell
temperature is above STC temperature. Modules might
also be rated at NOCT under a separate set of
Performance Test Conditions. PTC conditions better simulates
rooftop conditions on a typical sunny day in the 70s
F, and commonly reflect an 8% performance drop at these
temperatures. Less efficient modules with smaller temperature
coefficients of power will outperform more efficient modules
at high temperatures.

Standard Test Condition is performed at 25C (77F) and

1000W/m^2, and an allowance for some air flow. To complicate
things, another benchmark called NOCT is taken at Performance
Test Conditions, performed at 20C and 800W/m^2. Increasing
the ambient and solar insolation to Standard test conditions, and given
that both modules have NOCTs of 45, the cell temperature
on the roof could climb to climbs to above 60C
on a 25C day.

How do our two modules stack up on that 25C day at a

high insolation level? Heres how our two modules stack up,
regarding power loss due to temperature degradation:

Silicon 255W = 15.33% @ STC x 85% derate = 13.0%

255W x -0.429%/C x (60-25) = 216W /255W = 85% STC Power,

CIGS 150W = 14% efficient STC x 90% derate = 12.6%

150W x -0.26%/C x (60-25) = 135W /150 W = 90%, STC

The efficiency gap between CIGS and Silicon technologies

shrinks when considering field test conditions, as compared
to the standard test conditions listed on the module
specification sheet. In climates that reach 120F throughout
the summer, the efficiency of CIGS technology and other thin
films can surpass that of value-priced silicon. In other
words, a CIGS module with a lower efficiency might
be as a silicon module rated at a higher efficiency,
if the operating conditions are typically hotter and
sunnier than Standard Test Conditions. The use of CIGS
modules might be more cost-effective in the southwest United
States vs. Canada.

Other hidden specification sheet items might hint that

at other advantages of less efficient CIGS technology. The
higher voltages of CIGS modules cause the array to
wake up slightly earlier in the morning and stay on
slightly later in the evening. A manufacturer might pre-
soak the modules in sunlight before labeling to reduce
LID degradation effects. PID degradation can be reduced through
frameless module utilization, removing a path for an errant
electron to leech out to ground.

Aesthetics can vary with module technology. CIGS modules

emulate the aesthetic quality of the highest priced
silicon modules, a black sheen appearance without silver
grid lines, aluminum frame, or empty white spaces.
CIGS are also fully manufactured in the USA, and adhere
to cleaner manufacturer processes. These points might
be valued by certain clients. I mention this because CIGS
modules are typically a few pennies per watt more than
their silicon counterparts, but may initially appear to
be the worse economic deal. Depending on your client
and jobsite, that assumption might be a mistake!

However, due to its voltage and amperage differences, CIGS

modules are not compatible with most micro-inverters. DC optimizers
combined with string inverter systems are often a good solution
when using CIGS technology. Theyre also heavier at least
per square foot. They also require significantly greater
care on a jobsite. Without an aluminum frame, the
modules can easily shatter before being clamped to
the racking truss. In short, CIGS modules may require
experience in solar design skill + installation
labor. While I recommend new-to-market installers to start
with micro-inverters + traditional modules, there is certainly
room in the market for an experienced installer to
competitively offer Made-In-America product at a
competitive price point. This certainly is an exciting time
to be in the solar industry!

Array Layout
Lets perform two rooftop sketches, one for silicon and then
one for CIGS, on Halfmoons south-facing roof surface, to
determine our south-facing array wattage. Afterwards, well repeat
the design exercise with the CIGS module.

First, lets start with the silicon module. Use

portrait orientation for silicon modules, so that the
racking runs across, rather than up the rooftop.
Having the rack run perpendicular to the underlying rafters
allows you to best distribute the load along all rafters.

Module Dimensions:

Length: 65.55 inches + inch gap between rows = 66

inches = 5.5 feet. The 1/2 gap allows for module
expansion due to heat.

Width: 39.33 + inch gap between columns =

39.58 = 3.3 feet. The gap allows for spacing for
module attachment points, known as clips. Clip dimensions
can vary between -1, so you should check this before
heading into final design.

Ive blocked out the appropriate areas for roof clearance (see
previous exercise), and given you extra charts in case
you want to make revisions. You should be able to fit around
83 modules on the roof.

Use the roof sketches below to fit the 255W silicon solar module
onto the roof:

______ modules x 255 Watts = ______ DC Watts

If we repeated the same exercise as above, but using

CIGS module, the racking system may require landscape orientation
for our frameless modules. Be careful with running the
rails up the roof, rather than across it. Common solar
racks attach to rafters, rather than just the decking.
When the solar rail runs up the rooftop, it becomes hard
to locate those attachments. Traditional modules have a
cantilever tolerance, regarding the location of the module
attachment clips. But with frameless glass-on-glass modules,
the clips must be more closely located.

For the Halfmoon rooftop, we have horizontal pine 2x4

purlins laid flat, on top of the rafters, running
horizontal to the roof, 2 on center. Anchoring to these
purlins makes locating the L-foot attachment points a
bit easier than if we were to land on the narrower
rafters running up the roof.
No matter how we cut it, the fixed locations of the
attachment points will result in any dynamic loads being
unevenly spread throughout the truss. The best course
of action is to distribute the attachment points evenly
across the inner load bearing members of the truss,
keeping the array from the roof edges. But our modules,
when laid in landscape, are roughly 5 5. So,each grouping
of support rails will be spaced a little more than
55 apart. This means the attachments will skip over a truss, which
will significantly increase the point load applied onto
its neighbors. One solution would be to sister the
trusses together east-to-west underneath the roof deck. Another
solution would be to select a racking system with
portrait orientation where the 2 or 4 spaced
support footings could be more evenly distributed. Ultimately,
we went with the latter solution, installing silicon modules
with micro-inverters instead of CIGS modules with DC
optimizers. Note: Solar design software can help
automate array layouts, shade analysis, and electrical
design. Aurora Solar is pictured.

Solar Inverters
I feel comfortable installing almost any listed solar module
in the field. Foreign-made solar modules have lower
failure rates than US-made inverters. Id much rather use
a cheap module, if it meant I had the budget to boost
inverter quality. It doesnt have to be an either-or
decision, but we do have to be budget conscious for
solar to grow as an energy resource.
The inverter is the work horse of the system. The
inverters job is to take the direct current generated by
the solar module, and convert it into alternating current
which can be used by our buildings and electric grid. In
a sense, its likeyour cell phone charger, which plugs into
your homes AC power yet charges your phones DC
battery. Except its larger, has greater safety provisions,
and works in the opposite direction.

When sizing an inverter, its important to keep in mind

temperature coefficient of power. Typically, our traditional
silicon modules are losing over >18% of their power
during field performance: due to temperature losses,
long-term performance degradation, or because the modules are
not directly facing the sun at the time. Therefore, you
dont need a 1-for-1 match of DC array wattage and AC
inverter wattage.

Its common to undersize the inverter by 15-20% (or in

hotter-than-average climates). I might not undersize so
much if I were using CIGS modules, which experience less
temperature degradation. Under-sizing the inverter too much can
cause clipping. But erring on the side of caution with a
larger inverter isnt all bad, as you wont be
pushing the inverter to its extreme each day.

But a small amount of inverter clipping a few hours a

year isnt a bad thing either. If a solar array
produces more power than what an inverter can output, the
inverter simply clips off the surplus power. That untapped
power remains up in the module as voltage, with the
inverter taking all the load it can.

An emerging trend is to place a micro-inverter

behind every single solar module. Buying and installing
a bunch of smaller inverters is costlier than installing
a larger inverter. But there are significant advantages.
Because of how solar arrays are wired, weaker modules
can drag down the performance of their neighbors. Not only
do microinverters mitigate the performance disadvantages of
cheaper solar modules, they also provide benefits for
intermittent shading conditions (such as a shadow cast
by a chimney, tree, or utility power pole).

Every solar installer is going to have a different

opinion on which modules and equipment to use. Client
considerations, import tariffs, building code, installer
preference, setting, and environmental impact are just a
few factors that drive material selection.

One common inverter size on the market is 215W AC.

This fits in well with a 255W DC value silicon
module, with the module being roughly 20% oversized.
Alternately, another common micro-inverter size is a 250W AC.
You could pair such an inverter with a higher efficiency 295W
module. DC optimizers are like micro-inverters, except that
the module-level electronics are still plugged into a
string inverter down the line. Rather than perform a
DC-to-AC conversion, optimizers perform a DC-to-DC conversion,
stepping up the output voltage of the module while
dropping the amperage. The benefit is that the power is
controlled at the module-level, which mitigates partial shade like
micro-inverter. But because the power is passed onto one
inverter for the entire system, there is less inverter
cost and reduced inverter clipping. There are also more options
for future battery-bank additions, as most battery-banks are
designed with string inverters in mind.
The challenge in DC optimizer systems is simply that
you add another step to the

installation process. Theres a lot more wiring than with

micro-inverter systems. The commissioning of these arrays
is slightly more complex. But largely because of the cost
benefit compared to micro-inverters, many solar contractors are
becoming huge supporters of DC optimizers.
Basic string inverters are the lowest cost option for
installing solar onto unshaded surfaces. However, updates to
National Electric Code have raised concerns about traditional
string inverter designs for rooftop application. The issue
regards long, high voltage cable runs which fail to de-
energize during emergency power shutdowns (because solar is
always on when the sun is out). Failing, energized wires
can become a major safety hazard if the building
is on fire, for instance. However, string inverters are
a common solution for ground-mount application. Also, many
string inverters now have multiple power point tracking,
making them more shade resistance than what their reputation may
suggest. Often, string inverters want every module on
the array to be free of shade, the same module type,
face the same direction, and have the same number of modules
per circuit. Inverter manufacturer want to make it as
easy as possible for you to design a solar array
using their product. You can almost always find design
software on their websites to help you adjust the circuit
sizes to your location.
The reason I dont recommend string inverters for
rooftop use is that they fail to adhere to modern National
Electric Code rapid-shutdown requirements, which requires the
de-energization of any solar conductors which stick out
from underneath the array during times of grid failure. Whereas
micro-inverters and DC optimizers can regulate and kill the
array production at the module level, string inverters are
typically located away from the array on the side of the
building. Proposals for NEC 2017 are stricter than NEC 2014,
creating a 1 zone around each array subsection, outside
of which will be subject to rapid shut down compliant
combiner boxes (such as the SolaDeck flashed string
comber pictured). But spending an extra $0.10/W to install a
DC-optimizer system isnt that much more of a stretch
and comes with some performance advantages. Spending an
additional $0.10/W on top of that for a micro-inverter
system isnt such a bad trade-off either. Making the right
component selection depends on your project owner and
installation strategy.

Note: String inverters commonly providing online monitoring graph

of the entire system production. The use of DC
optimizers or AC micro-inverters allows for the online
monitoring of every single solar module on the rooftop.

Micro-Inverter Circuit Configurations

For this design, were choosing a 215W micro-inverter with a
255W solar module.
Looking at the micro-inverter specification sheet +
wiring diagram, I can see the manufacturer has limited us
to 17 micro-inverters per 20-amp circuit. Lets review
our 83module array layout and considering how it
impacts our 17-module max circuit configuration.
The cable that connects the micro-inverters to each other doesnt
have much wiggle room, and its expensive to cut.
My goal is to snake the array circuitry through the
array in a manner which minimizes cable cutting. With
micro-inverters, I can have circuits with an uneven number
or modules.
I might locate smaller circuits further away from the
array, to mitigate voltage drop. I might arbitrarily stop
a circuit, if its at a logical point which will make
installation easier. I might have more circuits than necessary
if it makes installation easier

Its possible (albeit expensive) to build jumper cables to

span between array subsections.
Each micro-inverter is mounted along the solar rail,
located behind the module. There is enough stretch in
the solar module wire leads to give you some flexibility
on the microinverter placement.

However, the cable that the micro-inverter plugs into is not

flexible. You need to specify portrait or landscape
configuration, and you only get a fraction of an inch
of wiggle room which is necessary to keep the somewhat
bulky wire tight up on the roof.

Each micro-inverter plugs into a drop in the specialty

cable -> which is priced by the drop and is fairly
pricey at ~$22/ft. The cable is also pricey to cut.
While you can buy the right kind of TC-ER cable to make
jumpers between cuts, splices need to be performed inside
a listed box. The micro-inverter manufacturer will sell
you a listed box that makes the splice relatively easy,
but the box costs $20 and you need one for each end! So
you want to keep your cuts to a minimum.

Here is the micro-inverter system circuit #1 and #2. Note

the placement of the middle section of inverters, which
allows us to jump between rows of modules in
circuit #1 without the need for additional cable lengths. You might
also notice the solar rail hangs over the final roof
attachment L-foot. This allows us to keep the racking
underneath the array, which has an aesthetically pleasing result.

The cable really isnt that special. Its #12AWG

Tray Cable with a special TC-ER rating, meaning that its
sunlight resistant. You need to specify either a 240V
service or 208V three-phase service, so that you have the
right number of conductors inside the cable.
When you approach the end of a circuit, you
install a termination cap to weatherproof the wire termination.
The other end of the circuit returns to your electric
service panel. We went into a pull box into the
attic, such that we could convert to ROMEX to make
our retro-fitted internal wire runs easy. DC cabling is required
to go into metal conduit, which would have been extremely
difficult to retrofit. We hid our pull box underneath the
array, which your local inspector may not like. Pull-boxes
need to be accessible, and there is some debate as to
whether the solar module is a removable or permanent
part of the building faade, which would impact pull
box accessibility. I think the aesthetics of a hidden
pull box are too great to not attempt. However, since array
is only inches above the roof surface, we had to pay
special attention to the height of the junction box,
as well as the size of the penetration and weather-

proofing boot.

boxes hidden underneath the array. Not bad for retrofits!

Heres how the finished product looks, with all racking, inverters, and

I usedthe same technique on this residential system: After

going into the attic, its a simple task to get back
to an electric service panel, an additional local
jurisdictionally required AC-knife switch disconnect, and our
point of interconnection with the utility electric service. Time to
run ROMEX back to the service AC panel.

Point of Interconnection
If we visit our micro-inverter manufacturer website, we
find the wiring diagram for their micro-inverter system. We
see the array interconnected to the grid at the bottom
of the electric service panel. This is a common, but
not absolutely required, practice based on NEC 2014
705.12.D.2.3.b which states:
Where two sources, one a utility and the other
an inverter, are located on opposite ends of a busbar
that contains loads, the sum of 125% of the inverter(s)
output circuit current and the rating of the overcurrent
protection device protecting the busbar shall not exceed 120%
of the busbar.
If you fail to locate the solar array at the
bottom of the busbar, you can still connect the array
to your existing service panel. However, you lose the
extra 20% busbar space allowance. NEC 2014 705.12.D.2.3.a would cover
this configuration, stating, The sum of 125% of the
inverter(s) output circuit current and the rating of
the overcurrent protection device protecting the busbar shall not
exceed the ampacity of the busbar.
In other words, if you connect the solar array
to the bottom of the busbar, you can install ~40
amps on a typical 200-amp electric service. This is
roughly an 8kW solar array. But you would have to limit the
main service breaker to 160 amps. You can use the same
philosophy with the 120% rule, connecting the array at
the bottom of the busbar while downsizing the main breaker.
Perhaps this could allow you to interconnect up to
an 80amp array on a 200-ampresidential service. Rather
than downside the main breaker, it might pay to have your
electrician check the busbar rating of the service panel.
Sometimes the busbars on 200A residential panels are rated
for 225A. You could swap out the service panel with
a 400 Amp panel, interconnecting a large solar array while maintaining
your utility 200A service.

But what about older homes with 100A service panels

or homes which require significantly large arrays to
fully offset their electrical usage? Some contractors would
prefer not to touch your service panel. Many commercial
buildings require significantly larger arrays to offset their
usage. What are the options? To connect our solar array
to the grid, were going to use a line side connection, which
intercepts the cables between the utility meter and the
electric service panel. This will require powering down
the building. Were going to minimize that shutdown time using
an insulated piercing tap connector, but terminal blocks
or other tap connectors could also be used.
In almost all circumstances, line-side connections will allow
you to connect an array which can offset 100% of your
electric use, regardless of the status of your existing electric
service panel. You will likely have to install
an AC knife-switch disconnect on your building wall, even
though it is not required by National Electric Code.

This allows an array owner to connect

significantly larger arrays to their electric service.
If you have a 200A utility service, you can connect
as large as a 200A solar array to your home (i.e. ~50kW)
without any major modification to your electric service
panel. The only inconvenience to line-side connections
is that your building needs to lose power for a few
minutes to make this connection. However, you may need to
lose power anyway -> many installers will not work with hot
service panels. So, its not much of an additional
inconvenience to perform a line-side connection and
most of the work can be performed ahead of the array
installation. In short, line side connections will allow
you to arrays to your building which are large enough
to offset your entire buildings electric use. Their major
downside is that they are more difficult to retrofit with
battery-banks vs. load-side arrays. If youre not
considering batteries in the future, a line side connection may
be the simplest way to go.

I encountered a logistical challenge when connecting our array

to Halfmoon Education Inc.s building. Halfmoon runs
continuing education seminars daily. Their building contains a
large support staff who coordinate the daily programs
across the country. Its difficult for them to lose power
during the week. Halting business operation can be
costly. Theyd lose phone connectivity as well, due to
their VoiP system. We dont want their support staff
out of touch with their off-site business operations.
Recommending a power shut-down is something we must do, but
we dont want it to last for hours in the middle of
the week.

Another problem is evident when entering the electrical

closet. Even if I had the space on their existing
service panels to land the array, I wasnt thrilled
about the prospect of bringing the room up to code, something
an electrical inspector might insist on if working with
those service panels. I would prefer their electrician manage
that scope. I also had a logistical problem. I was
traveling up from Mississippi to assist the electrical
contractor with onsite quality control. I wanted
to power down the building on a Saturday to avoid skipping
business operation. I didnt know exactly when wed finish
up the installation, and I didnt want to burn
schedule to wait a few days for a weekend commissioning. What
if it rained? Im not looking for a long, drawn out
schedule. Might it be possible to perform most of the
interconnection work ahead of array commissioning? Ultimately,
our solar array was 140 Amps, which was too large to interconnect
on the load side of the two 200A service panels. But
140A is small enough to line-side connect between the
utility meter and one 200A panel. All I had to
do was replace the entry pull box where the service
panel conductors entered the building with a larger junction
box, where I could perform my tap the day of commission in
a matter of minutes, using pierced insulating conductors.
I sent this scope to the electrical contractor,
performed on a Saturday well ahead of

the project:

You can see two LB pull boxes going into the wall of the
building. The conduit run connects the electric service
panel to the two 200A panels inside the building (pictured
above). On Saturday, the electrical contractor swapped out one
of the LBs with a larger junction box, which involved de-
energizing the building, pulling the 200A feeders, swapping the
box, and reinstalling the feeders into the main. All
the contractor did that Saturday was swap out the LB box
with a larger junction box. However, this was all that
needed to be done. We installed the array, and then
made the connection in the middle of the week,
crimping the array feeder conductors onto the

utility service entrance conductors, by de-energizing the

building and cranking down the piercing insulated tap connectors.
The whole process took less than 15 minutes, making the power
loss a manageable, planned event.

The final wire diagram looked like the one line

pictured, except that instead of a string inverter + fused
disconnect, we used an unfused disconnect, service panel with
main breaker, and a multi-branch micro-inverter array
plugged into the service panel.
I had a great experience with the line-side tap
connection. Commissioning was painless. The utility popped the
meter out of the meter base, disconnecting the building
from the grid. Next, the pierced insulation tap connectors
were cranked down (pictured inside the new junction box). The
connection was made, the lid put back on the junction box,
the disconnect switch thrown. At the end of the day, it
should be an uneventful process. I recommend line-side
connections for ease of design and installation, and load-side
connections for clients whom want to add batteries to their system
at some point. Lastly, take special note of the micro-
inverter wiring diagram, once again. Notice how there is
no AC knife switch in the one line diagram on the
right. National Electric Code

requires solar arrays to have a disconnecting means. The

breaker on your electric service panel meets the
requirements of NEC. However, many utilities go beyond NEC,
citing OSHA guidelines for power sources which require a knife-
switch style AC disconnect.
Usually, it is the experienced solar jurisdictions such as
Florida and California which exempt the knife-switch
disconnect. In under-developed markets, utilities typically
require this redundancy, so beware that manufacturer
provided specifications may not be consistent with your local
jurisdictional requirements.
W ire Sizing Considerations
Your electrical designer should have little issue with
wire sizing micro-inverters.
Theyre AC electrical devices. Aside from finding a
distributor of TC-ER cable, theres not much special about
the remaining electrical system design. Based on our
specification sheet, each micro-inverter on a 240V circuit
outputs .9A. Weve pretty much filled up each circuit
with 16 or 17 modules.
Every AC cable needs to be sized to meet 125% of its
load (amperage), with no more than a 5% voltage drop per
code. This result in wire sizes such as #14 AWG, #12AWG,
etc. We see in the roof-mounted micro-inverter tray cable is

However, many solar designers aim for a 2% voltage drop

from array to point-ofinterconnection. Its not uncommon to
upsize residential cable to #12 or #10AWG. Ill upsize
it even further for small commercial. Spending an
extra $100 on thicker cable is worthwhile product upgrade.
However, you should be cognizant of the limits of
your terminal blocks. For instance, we used #8AWG ROMEX for
the wire run from the roof to the electric service panel.
But for jumper cables, we cant use #8 cable. This
micro-inverter manufacturers jumper cable connector box takes
a maximum of #10AWGW cable. Bur even if youve
never used TC-ER cable before, it can still be
passed through strain relief, like any other exposed cable
being fed directly into a junction box. You simply need
to check the cable diameter meets your NPT strain relief
You need to check the temperature ratings of your
conductors and terminals. While solar cables are often rated
at 90C, its difficult to find 90C rated terminals.,
so its common to design around 75C temperature
ratings when correcting for ambient temperature in NEC Tables
310.15(B). For example, THHN wiring may have a 90C rating,
but if its landed on a 75C terminal in a junction
box, youll fail a rigorous electrical review if you sized
the value off the 90C rating. If you have more than three
conductors in a raceway or Cable (as we do, in
our conduit run out of the attic into the electric service
panel), you need to adjust ampacity per

NEC 310.15.B(3)(a). Its also a common error omit additional

temperature correction factors to run your solar cables into
roof-mounted conduit, if you need an exposed run across the
roof. NEC 310.15.B(3)(c). Conduit fill is still governed by
Table C in the back of NEC. Still, keep in mind we
have upsized to at least #10-gauge wire for voltage drop,
which starts the design out with 35A of capacity to play
with, on a circuit regulated by a 20A breaker. We have
a decent amount of amperage to play with.
Section 690 is the part of NEC dedicated to solar
circuits, but the rest of NEC still applies and should be
relied upon heavily by your electrical designer. Likewise,
electrical designers should feel confident following the
provisions of the entire NEC after all, solar is an
electrical device governed by an electrical permit!
Racking and Grounding
Since were on the subject, lets explore the components that
connect the modules and racking to ground. Modules are
connected to solar rail through special clips. These
clips may be listed for grounding (having teeth which bite into
the module frame). Alternately, grounding washers are used
between the clip and module frame (the clip itself is
usually part of the racking system, and is listed as
ground path to the underlying rails).

Module rails are commonly made from extruded aluminum.

They contain top channels for the module clips to clamp
into. Racking is uniform amongst manufacturers. Systems
typically consist of mid clips and end clips which
press the solar array down onto the underlying racking structure.
The racking is then secured to the roof deck with flashed
and sealed L-feet or positive roof attachments. Rails
are not infinite in length, and can be spliced
together. But often, the splice is not listed as a
ground path. Either the module (whose grounded frames
serve as a ground path) needs to bridge the spliced
rails, or the rails need to be spliced with a
bonding jumped. Of course, you might want to splice the
rails anyway, as the goal is to get any short circuit
current away from the array and into ground!

The rails are finally bonded to either the DC

GEC or the AC EGC through a grounding lug. This is
commonly accomplished through running bare #6 copper
wire up to the rooftop.
Note: Solar design software can assist
the electrical design process, providing valuable one line
diagrams and National Electric Code reviews. SolarDesignTool is

Racking Design
It used to be that youd need to thumb your way
through a racking design manual about as thick as
this program to determine all the racking components and
engineering calculations. Instead, we can use manufacturer design
software to tabulate this data for us. Like inverter
manufacturers, racking manufacturers want to make their
system design as easy as possible. Almost all have
design software available on their websites. Some manufacturer
software provides preliminary engineering analysis. Ironridge has
integrated some of its commercial racking into Helioscopes
PV design software, resulting in even more automated solar
racking design.

Lets revisit our solar layout to convert it into a

racking bill of material. I see the following breakout:
1 Row of 13 modules, 1 Row of 14 modules. 1
Row of 30 modules, 1 Row of 17 modules, 1 Row of
4 modules, 1 Row of 5 modules.

Jumping onto one racking manufacturers website (in this

case, I selected IronRidge), I found racking design
software which asked for module dimensions, array data, and site
location, to generate a racking balance of system
material list + engineering data. By entering the row
values above, I generated this report in a matter
of minutes:
The racking design software also asks for site data:
The racking design software completed its analysis, providing
us a selection of products to choose from, with varying
degrees of span between L-foot attachment points. Ive
selected the racking with the shortest span, for reasons
explained below.
After making a racking selection with 2 on
center attachments, the following engineering data is provided.
By staying away from the edges of the roof, our array
is squarely within Roof Zone 1, weighing 2.7 lbs per
sq ft with an uplift of 44 lbs per

During the projects remote site assessment, Halfmoon provided
photos of their attic space and technical drawings where
I noticed 2x4 horizontal purlins running above support
rafters. We also tracked down some building documents, which
helped me assemble some information for the structural review:

Even though the design software recommended a 4

spacing between attachment points, our engineering review
recommended 2 spacing to evenly distribute the load amongst
all rafters (which were located 2 on center). Its
possible to purchase the Lfoot attachments with flashing
integrated into it. However, our roof is a metal corrugated
roof, so we need another mounting option.

The S-5 VersaBracket is an example of a solar

metal roof mounting bracket, in this case made for corrugated metal
roofs. This nifty bracket has butyl tape to seal
the penetration, using a standard roofing screw. It peels and
sticks onto the roof surface. I found even found engineering
data for my 2x4 purlins, laid flat, on the manufacturer
website. After all this, we have the engineering data
we need! Time to prepare the scope document for engineering

I tracked down the structural engineer responsible for

the original building construction. He provided roofing cut
sheets, stamped the project, and wrote the following snippet:

Many jurisdictions do not require an engineering stamp for flush

mount residential solar arrays. Remember, the racking
manufacture recommended 4 on center spacing for our
attachment points. Racking manufacturers do not validate
site engineering, but only
the engineering of the racking system itself! If I had
taken the manufacturers calculations at face value, I might
have installed my L-feet 4 or 6 on center, as
is the
standard practice. If I hadnt gone through the engineering
process, this design assumption would and
then would never have been corrected. This is why it is important
to have a qualified team build the project, representing
structural, electrical, and roofing expertise.

Like all niche market services, solar structural

engineering is an in-demand skill required by all commercial
projects. However, its a good practice to get residential
projects stamped some jurisdictions require it. One
such example,, provides structural analysis and
engineering stamps for residential projects at

under $500. At those budgets, its irresponsible not to

get your project structurally validated by an engineering
professional, even if your jurisdiction doesnt require
Many solar installers shy away from roof penetrations
because they dont want to poke unnecessary holes in
the roof. That is a concern, but if I had to
choose, Id prefer catastrophic building failure vs. water
damage. Solar installers are not roofers. On commercial
buildings, we often utilize manufacturer approved roofing
contractors to perform roof penetrations and sealing. This process
does not need to increase your project budget roofing
labor is often cheaper than solar specialty labor. In
fact, it may be that multiple penetrations are better for
water-proofing, as less uplift force is being placed
on each lag screw + associated flashing and sealant.
Selecting the 2 attachment point spacing also meant we could
go with a cheaper rail system, as our spans were not
particularly long.

This particular manufacturer provided custom cut rails,

module clips with integrated grounding, and a variety of
other hardware options to make procurement easy. After
the bill of material is complete, I strongly recommend
increasing the number of midclamps, end-clamps, and T-
bolts. These are racking-specific specialty hardward pieces that
are not designed for frequenty removal. Keep some spares in
storage in case you need to remove panels for maintenance
and strip some of these specialty screws.

Interconnection Application
Before we order the material, we want to make sure the
utility will approve our application. Some utilities, particularly
in solar-heavy markets, might deny an application if too many
solar arrays have been installed on a circuit of the
distribution grid.

Our final interconnection packet consisted of the following:

Public Service Commission of Wisconsin Utility Distributed
Generation Application Form One Line Electrical Diagram Structural
Engineering Stamp and Calculations Inverter Manufacturer Certificate
of Compliance (UL 1741) Site Plan with Array Layout Certificate
of Liability Insurance for Array Owner per state interconnection
requirements Module, Inverter, Racking, Roofing Material
Specifications Electrical Calculations 12-month electric usage
I went ahead and added east + west arrays to the back of
the roof, increasing the total system size to 29kW.

Here are my final electrical diagram and calculations:

Budget and Payback

Here are the budget actuals from the 29.6kW Halfmoon solar
project in 2014:

If we were to repeat the same project in 2017, wed

likely see a 10 cent per watt drop in module pricing
and 15 cents per watt price drop in micro-inverters.
Its not impossible to achieve a professional, turnkey
project budget of $2.63/W or less using the most
expensive inverter system available. However, this project did
enjoy some economies of scale, as a 30kW project will have
a lower per watt install budget than, say, a 6kW
project. At the residential level, solar project costs can
swing wildly between contractors. Price differences do not
necessarily reflect a difference in installation quality.
Solar is a volatile market the best solar installers
can be the lowest cost or the highest bidder. Companies with
longer track records may command a higher price
than newer start-ups. It may be cost effective to go with
the lowest bid, or the highest cost bid from the best-
established installation company.
My preference is to use well-established electrical contractors
with whom the client already has a pre-existing
relationship. In these cases, I might spend more
money on micro-inverter system, to achieved a reduced labor
budget from a new-to-solar installer. Just because a
contractor may be new-to-solar does not mean they are new-
toconstruction. Id much prefer an experienced roofer and
experienced electrician to a newto-construction solar
installer for my system. Another personal preference is a
lower installation price, paying for maintenance issues as
they arise. A higher priced solar startup may
include a more comprehensive warranty but how long has
the installer been in business? Its important to understand the
payback requirements and risk tolerance of your client before
getting too far into the project development process.
Micro-inverters are the most expensive inverter system on the
market and face

increased competition from DC optimizers, as well as

rapid-shutdown compliant string inverters. If you approach the
project as a DIY, it may be possible to subcontract
out the entire project for under $2/W.

Simple Payback
Halfmoon pays an average of 13 cents per kwh for their
electricity, has a suitable netmetering policy, and has
a state sales tax exempt, resulting in a project budget
of $2.67/W.

$2.67/W / $0.169W/yr = 15 year payback.

$0.13/kwh x 1.3 kwh/yr/W x 1W = $0.169 W/yr.

With the Federal Tax Credit of 30%, this payback shrinks

to 11 years.

$2.67/W x 70% / $0.169/W/yr = 11 year payback

The system has a 25 year performance warranty and 25

year inverter warranty. The expected life of the array is over
30 years.
Moving Forward We plan to sell Halfmoons renewable energy
credits for $0.02/kwh through our
voluntary REC sales website: www.Community.Solar If successful,
this will reduce Halfmoons payback to under 10
years. We are also analyzing Halfmoons time-of-day energy usage,
as compared to their solar production, to determine if their
uti lity time-ofday metering rate could further increase their

Despite being covered in snow for most of January and

February, Halfmoons array is producing 97% of its default
PVWatts estimate to date.

Yet again, solar design software can assist your

project by connecting solar production data with your project costs
and utility rate structures. EnergyToolBase is pictured.

Revisiting the Design with CIGS + DC Optimizers

CIGS modules have unique electro-chemical properties, operating
at significantly higher voltages and lower amperages than crystalline
silicon modules. Micro-inverters are not an option for
CIGS, because CIGS exceed typical micro-inverter voltage input
requirements. Remaining options for CIGS include traditional
inverters and traditional inverters with DC optimizers. For this
project, we will consider DC optimizers to meet NEC 2017rapid
shutdown requirements and IFC fire safety provisions.

First, we enter our location of Eau Claire, WI into the

inverter string sizing software. The inverter manufacturer
is also the manufacturer of the DC optimizers, which are
sized together in the same software-assisted sizing process.

Next, we select our solar module.

A list of compatible products is displayed.

A product configuration is recommended:

A report is generated.
The circuit configuration can be found here.
Three strings or circuits of 11 DC optimizers on two
modules each. 3 x 2 x 11 x 2 inverters =
132 modules. An energy estimate is given :

Electrical Considerations
The inverter sizing software for this south side of
the building calls for two 10kW string inverters with three
circuits each. The circuit layout will look like this:

One issue Ive had with DC optimizers is a significant

amount of surplus cable length coming out of the
optimizers cable leads. Its not a tight cable
system like the Enphase. To avoid surplus cable, wire
management becomes necessary. Metal clips which are pressed onto
the module frame can help tidy up any excess slack in
the cable.

In DC systems, it often becomes necessary to build

a jumper cable, to allow the installation to move from
one roof surface to the next. It is less costly to
build these jumper cables as compared to micro-inverter
systems, but it requires specialty MC4 crimping tools, which
are expensive.
Most solar installers will own an MC4 connector crimp tool and
a set of replacement blades, plus extra MC4 connector ends
to custom build any required jumper cables on site.
Theyll also purchase a spool of #10 PV Wire, which
is a single conductor cable like USE-2 cable, but
rated for higher voltages and better weather protection.
These tools cost around $750, but its a good investment for solar
MC4 is both a company and a connector standard. I
prefer the Weiland brand MC4 connector, so Ill need the
Weiland brand crimp tool for their slightly different

connectors. The Weiland connector is a bit higher quality

and in the same price range as the MC4 connector.

I prefer micro-inverter systems because I like going

in RPMEX in the attic. But you can do internal wire
runs with DC circuits. However, DC conduit needs to be
protected in a metal raceway or conduit. This is possible
to do, but its not quite so easy as ROMEX. Finally,
dont just follow the DC optimizer / Inverter installation
manual to the letter. The optimizer cable whips
should not be left exposed to the elements before
module installation. If you break for the day without installing
the modules, you need to plug the whips together. If it
rains, water can wick up the cable leads and short out the
optimizers. Removing modules to service module level
electronics is possible, but its certainly not enjoyable. CIGS
Frameless Racking Layout Planning the racking layout for
horizontal oriented CIGS modules is not as easy as with
traditional silicon modules, because its harder to find
a racking system for frameless modules. But once you
find the racking system, you can typically generate the
racking design in a similar fashion to traditional
framed modules. Glass-on-glass modules are typically considered
to be higher quality than framed modules but they
are also much easier to break! Well still use the S5-Versa
brackets to attach the racking L-feet to the roof.
Additional roof clearance never hurt a module, as hot air
can better escape from underneath an array. After
checking online with a variety of racking manufacturer
websites, I couldnt find a frameless rooftop racking
system with an online bill of material tabulator! I
called my frameless module distributor and he was able
to point me to Renusol, whom makes a frameless
racking for Stion CIGS modules with sizing software
available. Its not so much that racking components cant be
calculated with pen + paper they can! But Ive found the
more computer-assisted the solar design can become, the
less prone it is to human error. Its also much easier
to assemble the engineering scope if the software
provides some pre-engineering functionality.

1. Start by selecting your module: 2.

Continue inputting in project data:

This configure asks for additional site information. Remember our

support beams run East-West, which forces us into a
horizontal module orientation.
Grounding Bill of Material and DC optimizers mounting hardware
is also figured in.

Its quite easy to build this arrray layout. We dont need

to count the rows and
columns. Instead we put in a large, rectangular array and
then remove modules from the equation:
Our Bill of Material is complete. Thanks free design

I dont see any engineering calculations included in

the software, but it did produce some construction documents.
The next step would be to provide the mounting locations,
building, and site data to the structural engineer.. The 30
spacing between clips (running east-west) is larger than
his recommended 24 spacing from the micro-inverter design.
This means we might need to sister some of the support
rafters together (depending on the clip strength between
the north-south underlying rafters and the east-west purlins).
Just as before, you will need to order 1 corrogated metal roof
stand-off (i.e. S5 bracket) to support each L-foot
attachment coming off the metal roof deck. This program even
provides some details handy for construction documents:

Final 29kW CIGS Budget 2016 (Estimate)

This CIGS project, with premium aesthetics and made in USA

modules, can be delivered for a similar price as the
generic silicon modules and AC micro-inverters. Balance of
system material for DC systems is a bit less than
AC systems, because you do not need as many service
panels. The optimizer inverter system itself is less
expensive than AC micro-inverters. But the labor costs a
bit more to install those glass-on-glass CIGS modules. With
the smaller form factor, there are more modules to
install. Also, there is not as much bargain hunting
opportunity with CIGS modules.

I didnt model any additional engineer costs that might become

necessary to reinforce the rooftop with an unconventional
racking configuration. The system weighs a bit more with
the glass-on-glass modules, and the rail runs up the rooftop.
The racking manufacturer selected also did not provide any
engineering data local to the project site. So, engineering
costs may be higher than what is modeled. Its also harder
to find an installer with CIGS experience. You might need to use
a specialty contractor, for a greater increase in the
profit/OH budget than what is modeled. However, the larger
point is that these budgets are close enough to be
viable options for the client to consider whereas
upgrading to top shelf silicon modules might reflect
an additional $0.50/W price increase). In the long run, the
CIGS / DC optimizer approach might be the most cost-
effective design of the two systems. But its a closer race
that boils down to a choice between premium aesthetics
verses your ability to manage the project yourself. A
cheaper option might be to stick with low cost silicon
modules, use of a cheaper inverter combined with a
rapid shutdown compliant combiner. While it remains in
the same price range as the

micro-inverter system, the benefits of the higher quality

modules and near-equivalent inverter system become apparent,
in the annual degradation, higher temperature performance,
and reduced inverter clipping. However, such a design
requires an experienced installation team.

This is good news for everyone involved. Not only can new-to-
solar building professionals compete within the existing solar
installation market, but experienced installers can differentiate
themselves to remain competitive by adopting to new,
costeffective technologies.

Design Conclusions
Track A: Micro-Inverters with Traditional Modules
This track is recommended for:
Anyone new to the solar industry. Micro-inverter systems are
significantly easier to design and install. Project Managers
wanting to use their new-to-solar contractor and engineers.
For example, the Halfmoon Education Inc. project was
installed by the electrical contractor responsible for the
building, but they were new to solar. Small projects 4kW
or less. Micro-inverters allow you to easily install
systems with just a handful of modules -> even one
or two! Designers seeking to avoid external wire runs,
particularly on retrofits. AC wiring allows for ROMEX runs
through the attic. Designers unfamiliar with DC NEC provisions.
Certain DC equipment such as combiner boxes, DC disconnects,
and additional overcurrent NEC provisions will not be covered
in this program, so its best to avoid what you dont know.
Designers wanting to minimize wall-mounted equipment. Because
the inverter is on the roof, the only wall-mounted
equipment necessary is an AC knife-switch disconnect (which
might not be required by your jurisdiction).

Track B: DC Optimizers with Modern CIGS Modules

This track is recommended for:
Solar installers seeking something new. CIGS modules are surprisingly
inexpensive, frameless, and have similar aesthetics and performance
as costlier modules such as SunPower. Their performance degradation
curves are also surprisingly flat compared to traditional
modules, and cost-benefits are like valuemodules. Clients
wanting 100% American Made modules made with upmost
environmental responsibility. Other modules have less supply chain
responsibility. Job sites in very hot climates. Solar installers
seeking to compete on cost. DC optimizer/inverter
systems are significantly less expensive than AC micro-inverter
systems, in terms of hard cost. Owners looking to
install battery banks and electric vehicle charging
stations. Leading DC optimizer/inverter manufacturers have
embraced storage technologies more rapidly than micro-inverter

Both tracks accommodate for:

Robust safety provisions which require rapid shutdown + de-
energization of rooftop modules during power outages such as
inclement weather or building fires.

Mitigation of temporary shadows such as nearby trees,

chimneys, utility poles. Solar panels directly in the
shade will have their performance significantly reduced, but will
not impact the performance of neighboring modules. Performance
increases of ~5%, compared to arrays which lack module-level
electronics, due to mitigating the module-to-module mismatched
inherent to the manufacturing process + long-term field

These are just my current thoughts on competing design

philosophies. Even if simple payback was the sole factor in
your component selection, you would still have installers
embroiled in debate as to this decision process!

Visit for additional project planning resources,

educational content, solar production incentives, and renewable energy

Design Resources
Community.Solar Solar design resources, classes, incentives,
and energy DSIRE Database of
Federal, State, and Local energy incentives and policies Google Earth Software download for site
imagery and measurements. Photo date-stamp, ruler tool, and shadow
azimuth can be used to reverse calculate tree and object
heights. USA Naval Office Sun-Angle
Azimuth Chart Useful for determining angle of inclination
of the sun during summer/winter solstice + Google Earth
photo date-stamp. PVWatts
An easy-to-use, yet surprisingly robust solar
performance estimate tool.
System Advisor Model Another free to use software
published by National Renewable Energy Labs. Has more advanced
features than PVWatts with a steeper learning curve. Commercial Solar Design Software
Aurora Solar 3D modeling, LIDAR data, solar performance estimates, array
layouts, construction documentation.
Helioscope - 3D modeling, LIDAR data, solar performance estimates,
construction documentation. SolarDesignTool
Solar construction documentation and national electric
code reports. EnergyToolBase
Robust economic modeling, demand management modeling, and
battery bank sizing software.
Solar-Roof-Check A residential structural engineering software review
which offers engineering stamping in many states.

NABCEP North American Board of Certified Energy

Practitioners. Provides solar knowledge testing and experience

For comments, suggestions, corrections, plus content and

resource submission, email