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The rapid growth of our solar installation industry has created an interesting tension on the front of electrical codes and inspections. Technological and safety specifications that have faced only occasional disruption since the time of Edison and Westinghouse are now challenged by yearly innovations in PV modules, smart inverters, and now storage and charging. Contractors are eager to innovate ahead of existing code, while over-burdened inspectors might not be versed on alternative solutions that check the compliance box.

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Exploring how contractors can take a proactive approach in understanding safety code — including working with code-setting committees and inspectors — was the theme of this week’s #SolarTownHall.

Setting the scene was Rebekah Hren, longtime instructor with Solar Energy International and now a Solar Engineer at Airbnb. Hren said the intention of the National Electrical Code® (NEC) is to protect people and property — it’s a safety code first, not necessarily designed for building low-cost or efficient systems. “But I think that everyone who is involved in the code making process is very aware of that,” Hren said. “And while code changes are always going to be focused on increasing safety… I think that also it opens up a lot of room for new products and new installation methods that can do both things at once — increase safety and decrease costs.”

Rebekah Hren on how easy it is to get involved in code making and where/how you can provide input.

Add to these the unique hardware requirements of residential solar. “We’re doing some things that electrical contractors otherwise don’t do — you don’t see 600-volt, DC wiring anywhere else,” reminds Ryan Mayfield, Founder and CEO of Mayfield Renewables in Oregon and host of the “Ask Mayfield Anything” program. Solar contractors are given leeway and receive additional scrutiny as a result. Rapid shutdown features and fire safety is one example. Contractors must balance compliance of older PV systems not designed with RSS, while keeping upgrades and signage direct enough for firefighters to comprehend in an emergency. “You don’t want to create something that’s a small book for them to read, in order to know what’s going on when they’re on site,” said Mayfield.

Ryan Mayfield on what contractors can do to help educate code officials.

Matthew Paiss brings 20-plus years’ experience as a fire captain to his present role with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Paiss mentioned battery storage as one area where technology and design have had to account for safety objectives. “So when rapid shutdown was first developed, we had to clearly delineate where the boundary is for a PV system, versus an energy storage system, because the energy storage system that might be there for backup does not know if a firefighter has shut off the main breaker, or if the grid has dropped due to a tree down the line,” said Paiss. “And we wanted that backup system to continue to be able to operate. So, the original discussion was a separate initiation of a shutdown of the battery was acceptable.” Both code setters, manufacturers, and designers must work together towards common goals.

Vaughan Woodruff on “asking permission rather than begging forgiveness” with local code officials.

And so do contractors and designers. Vaughan Woodruff, Founder and CEO of Insource Renewables in Maine, has worked on the code-setting side as well. Woodruff says building relationships with inspectors is key, especially in rural markets where there isn’t a critical mass of solar projects and expertise. “We may have a project where there’s something that’s out of the ordinary and asking permission, versus begging forgiveness, is something that code officials like a lot. And I think that it it’s inherently in your best interest to do it,” said Woodruff. “Especially in markets that are aren’t mature, where you don’t have general code and official knowledge across the board — if you can become a contractor that those code officials lean on for interpretation, that’s the gauge of how well you formed those relationships.”

Vaughan Woodruff on cultivating relationships with officials and your community.

The August 26 Solar Town Hall was packed with even more audience questions and scenario discussions, so listen to the whole playback for every piece of advice and perspective we explored in our limited time. As a closing, Matthew Paiss encouraged contractors to not be frustrated by code tensions. “If you’re encountering an AHJ (authority-having jurisdiction) that’s incorrectly interpreting the code, bring that to the local SEIA chapter,” suggested Paiss. “Don’t let heels dig in. Get an intermediary.” Because no matter the challenge or innovation required, at the end of the day, as Rebekah Hren reminded all, the question is, “Is it safe?” Indeed, that is our duty as solar professionals — to our customers, our community, and our planet.

Featured guests:

  • Rebekah Hren, Solar Engineer at Air BnB
  • Ryan Mayfield Founder & CEO at Mayfield Renewables
  • Matt Paiss, Technical Advisor, Battery Materials & Systems at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
  • Vaughan Woodruff, Founder & CEO at Insource Renewables
  • Scroll down to watch, listen, and share the video and podcast with your colleagues. Thank you all again for participating in our Solar Town Hall events and being part of our solar community!

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    BayWa r.e. Solar Systems LLC supplies solar installers in the United States with best-in-class components, business planning advice, and a community of experts. Learn more at www.solar-distribution.com, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn, subscribe to our podcasts and YouTube, and bookmark our COVID-19 resource page. Part of the BayWa r.e. global family of renewable energy companies.