Rooftop Solar Installations

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, solar energy is the fastest growing source of renewable energy, expected to increase by 7.5 percent per year from 2012 to 2040. This growth includes rooftop solar installations on commercial buildings1. This trend is driven in part by savings to the building owner by way of state and federal tax deductions or subsidies, potentially significant savings in energy costs and a general desire to develop greener sources of energy. Despite their advantages, rooftop photovoltaic (PV) systems can pose certain risks. To help reduce some of the risks associated with these systems, consideration should be given to elements such as system design, contractor selection, monitoring, periodic inspection, maintenance, safe access to the panels, emergency response, as well as legal liability.

Comprehensive Design and Planning

  • Contact your local building department and inquire about any licensing requirements and their experience with solar installations. Ask about any specific code and zoning requirements that are needed for design and installation. Because this is a relatively new industry, only a few states have licensing requirements for PV installations. The system should be designed and installed to the most current national electrical code and, at minimum, meet local code requirements.
  • Have a licensed structural engineer evaluate the building and roof framing to determine if it can safely support the new load, whether it is a ballasted or attached system.
  • It is important to understand that the building’s fire detection and suppression system does not extend to the rooftop; therefore, a fire on the roof could go undetected. Installing components that can be monitored can help signal if a fire is imminent or has even started, e.g., an electric arc.
  • Determine the remaining service life of the existing roof. For example, the solar energy system could be on the roof for 20 years, so the roof membrane needs to be able to maintain its physical properties until then. Otherwise, there could be a considerable expense to remove the solar array to replace the roof membrane.
  • Verify that the roofing warranty/guarantee will not be voided/or impacted in any way by the installation of the system.
  • If you will be using the electricity generated and selling the excess to the utility company, you will need to work with an electrical contractor to ensure that the existing electrical system will accommodate this installation.
  • Ensure that access to the roof is safe and won’t present a potential liability exposure during construction and maintenance.
  • It is important to install Rapid Shutdown so that in a fire or other emergency scenario, responders can quickly de-energize the system to the extent possible. Refer to the National Electrical Code regarding rapid disconnect guidelines.

Contractor Selection

  • When selecting a solar provider or contractor, not only is it important to consider licensing, certificates of insurance, certification and work experience, but also their day-to-day business regarding safety and quality control. The amount of revenue generated from the system is important to know, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of worker or employee safety, or the integrity of your building. You should have a formal selection process that includes a review of their safety policies, as well as their quality control program. Roof work presents a greater fall hazard and a poorly installed system could present a potential fire hazard.
  • All contract documents relating to a job should be retained.  This includes copies of contracts and certificates of insurance.
  • You may wish to select companies/contractors that are certified by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP). Visit the NABCEP website to find a contractor in your area.

Fire Department Considerations

Contact your local fire department to seek their input into the system design and to ensure they can safely and effectively respond to a fire in the building.

Operations and Maintenance

Once the system is installed and producing revenue, your maintenance plan will likely include more than washing dirt off the modules. These systems are exposed to constantly changing environmental conditions, whether it is ultraviolet light from the sun, additional heat load from direct sunlight, cold weather, high winds, heavy rain or blowing snow – they all can impact the maintenance and useful life of the system. PV systems require regular annual inspections. If the operations and maintenance is performed by a third party, request copies of the reports to ensure the system is being maintained and doesn’t present any additional risk to your business’s normal operations. An additional consideration with a PV system is that maintenance will often involve you or a third party gaining access to your roof, which can create a fall hazard. You will want to make sure that appropriate precautions are taken by you or the third party to ensure fall protection is integrated when maintaining the PV system.

A rooftop solar installation is not just a passive “install it and forget it” type of system. If not designed, installed and maintained properly, the system could have a substantial negative impact to the building or the business.


1 Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration Market Trends: Electricity demand 2014

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