How Apex Solar Power streamlined its PE letter process with Vector Structural Engineers

Apex Solar

Overview of Vector solar lab; this is new space (and people) devoted to solar.

Apex Solar Power is headquartered in tranquil Queensbury, N.Y., which is upstate close to Lake George and not too far from the Vermont line. Over the past two years alone, Apex has installed more than 3,000 home and business solar systems throughout the Northeast. Along the way it has learned some important lessons, among them the need to take quick action when a customer says yes.

“Speed is everything,” says Apex Chief Operating Officer Chris Hall. “An additional day to process a project is another opportunity for the customer to cancel.”

One potential delay point in the process, Hall notes, is the requirement for a letter stating that a professional engineer, licensed in the state where the installation is to take place, has reviewed the engineering drawings for the project, and certifies that it meets the requirements for that particular state. Before installation can take place, this letter must be submitted to the appropriate housing authority, along with the building permit application and the plans.

For the past three years, Apex has relied on Vector Structural Engineers of Draper, Utah to provide these letters.

“For one thing, they’re fast,” Hall says. “They give us a 24-hour turnaround time, which is awesome. They’re also competent. We operate in 900 cities and towns in seven states, and all the jurisdictions appreciate their verbiage, layout and calculations. We never have issues with anybody questioning their work.”

Waste-free model

The system Vector uses to accomplish this task was developed in the course of work for another booming industry, telecommunications.

“From the beginning we developed this around the customer’s needs, and what the customer practically always needs is speed,” says Joe Sharp, Vector’s senior project manager. “Our client has been tasked by their client to put up a structurally engineered four-legged telecom tower. They’re behind schedule, and they need a structural design tomorrow.”

As Sharp describes it, the process works like this:

•The client starts by dragging and dropping all their drawings, photographs, and information onto their Vector Engineers landing page.

•Vector responds to the client as quickly as possible with questions, requests for additional information, and value engineering ideas. (Value engineering, Sharp explains, is essentially a matter of having engineers look at somebody else’s plans with a fresh pair of eyes and say, ‘As we see it, if you change this or that, you can save a lot of money.’)

•Once those decisions are made, the project engineer assigned to that client starts putting the plans and drawings together. Internally, the process links the project information to the CAD department, who create drawing templates and detail sheets.

•When that’s done, the project engineer meets with the engineer with responsible charge (i.e., who’s licensed in the state where the tower is being built) to review the structural design.

“We complete the necessary engineering and drawings and the engineer that has responsible charge reviews and stamps them,” Sharp says. “The package is sent electronically to the client with a digital certified stamp on it. While all this is going on, the client’s accounting department and our accounting department sign off on the pre-agreed fees and coordinate with our payables department. The job is typically turned around in twelve to twenty-four hours.”

Ready for the sunrise

Apex-Vector 2

Perez house project, Delmar, N.Y.; Dr. Richard Perez, [left] and Chris Hall, COO, Apex Solar Power.

The cell phone boom started more than a decade before the solar power boom, so Vector had some fifteen years to fine-tune this approach before it started hearing from solar installers that needed the above-mentioned certification letters.

What Vector was hearing from these installers were not just requests for engineering services, but stories about wait times for certification letters dragging into weeks. This, as Chris Hall noted, resulted in projects being canceled because the paperwork took too long. Another problem was that the documents, whether they came quickly or slowly, often didn’t meet the jurisdiction’s criteria. Meanwhile, structural engineers’ fees for doing all this were edging up toward four figures.

Vector formed a solar group in 2015 that has rapidly emerged as one of the nation’s leading residential and commercial solar engineering firms. Over the past two years, the company has hired 32 new full-time and part-time engineers to support the solar practice.

Meanwhile, up in the Northeast, Chris Hall and his colleagues at Apex Solar Power are doing what they can to keep the Vector team busy. “Over the course of my ten years in the industry,” says Hall, “I’ve used probably 30 different PE firms, and Vector has just out-performed them in every way. Speed. Quality. Price. And they’re also—engineers are not always the most friendly people, but at Vector, they’re personable. They’re easy to deal with.”

Apex Solar and Vector Structural Engineers have integrated their workflow processes to rapidly and professional service their respective client’s needs. Both companies see the demand for rapid turnaround as an important factor to drive solar power growth.

— Solar Builder magazine

How Apex Solar Power streamlined its PE letter process with Vector Structural Engineers

Apex Solar

Overview of Vector solar lab; this is new space (and people) devoted to solar.

Apex Solar Power is headquartered in tranquil Queensbury, N.Y., which is upstate close to Lake George and not too far from the Vermont line. Over the past two years alone, Apex has installed more than 3,000 home and business solar systems throughout the Northeast. Along the way it has learned some important lessons, among them the need to take quick action when a customer says yes.

“Speed is everything,” says Apex Chief Operating Officer Chris Hall. “An additional day to process a project is another opportunity for the customer to cancel.”

One potential delay point in the process, Hall notes, is the requirement for a letter stating that a professional engineer, licensed in the state where the installation is to take place, has reviewed the engineering drawings for the project, and certifies that it meets the requirements for that particular state. Before installation can take place, this letter must be submitted to the appropriate housing authority, along with the building permit application and the plans.

For the past three years, Apex has relied on Vector Structural Engineers of Draper, Utah to provide these letters.

“For one thing, they’re fast,” Hall says. “They give us a 24-hour turnaround time, which is awesome. They’re also competent. We operate in 900 cities and towns in seven states, and all the jurisdictions appreciate their verbiage, layout and calculations. We never have issues with anybody questioning their work.”

Waste-free model

The system Vector uses to accomplish this task was developed in the course of work for another booming industry, telecommunications.

“From the beginning we developed this around the customer’s needs, and what the customer practically always needs is speed,” says Joe Sharp, Vector’s senior project manager. “Our client has been tasked by their client to put up a structurally engineered four-legged telecom tower. They’re behind schedule, and they need a structural design tomorrow.”

As Sharp describes it, the process works like this:

•The client starts by dragging and dropping all their drawings, photographs, and information onto their Vector Engineers landing page.

•Vector responds to the client as quickly as possible with questions, requests for additional information, and value engineering ideas. (Value engineering, Sharp explains, is essentially a matter of having engineers look at somebody else’s plans with a fresh pair of eyes and say, ‘As we see it, if you change this or that, you can save a lot of money.’)

•Once those decisions are made, the project engineer assigned to that client starts putting the plans and drawings together. Internally, the process links the project information to the CAD department, who create drawing templates and detail sheets.

•When that’s done, the project engineer meets with the engineer with responsible charge (i.e., who’s licensed in the state where the tower is being built) to review the structural design.

“We complete the necessary engineering and drawings and the engineer that has responsible charge reviews and stamps them,” Sharp says. “The package is sent electronically to the client with a digital certified stamp on it. While all this is going on, the client’s accounting department and our accounting department sign off on the pre-agreed fees and coordinate with our payables department. The job is typically turned around in twelve to twenty-four hours.”

Ready for the sunrise

Apex-Vector 2

Perez house project, Delmar, N.Y.; Dr. Richard Perez, [left] and Chris Hall, COO, Apex Solar Power.

The cell phone boom started more than a decade before the solar power boom, so Vector had some fifteen years to fine-tune this approach before it started hearing from solar installers that needed the above-mentioned certification letters.

What Vector was hearing from these installers were not just requests for engineering services, but stories about wait times for certification letters dragging into weeks. This, as Chris Hall noted, resulted in projects being canceled because the paperwork took too long. Another problem was that the documents, whether they came quickly or slowly, often didn’t meet the jurisdiction’s criteria. Meanwhile, structural engineers’ fees for doing all this were edging up toward four figures.

Vector formed a solar group in 2015 that has rapidly emerged as one of the nation’s leading residential and commercial solar engineering firms. Over the past two years, the company has hired 32 new full-time and part-time engineers to support the solar practice.

Meanwhile, up in the Northeast, Chris Hall and his colleagues at Apex Solar Power are doing what they can to keep the Vector team busy. “Over the course of my ten years in the industry,” says Hall, “I’ve used probably 30 different PE firms, and Vector has just out-performed them in every way. Speed. Quality. Price. And they’re also—engineers are not always the most friendly people, but at Vector, they’re personable. They’re easy to deal with.”

Apex Solar and Vector Structural Engineers have integrated their workflow processes to rapidly and professional service their respective client’s needs. Both companies see the demand for rapid turnaround as an important factor to drive solar power growth.

— Solar Builder magazine

Wire you doing that? Top four solar installation wire management issues

solar panel wires

1. Cross-mating

Cross-mating, which refers to the plugging of connectors from different manufacturers (between modules to optimizers/microinverters, modules to field-connectors, optimizers to field connectors or field connectors to the BOS system) is one of the most common PV wiring mistakes. In fact, the EU-funded Solar Bankability Project’s Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA), which sourced data from over 1 million documented insurance claims, showed that “different kinds of connectors” (cross-mating) had the highest risk potential in PV installations, and it wasn’t even close.

The reason for the risk here is connectors from different manufacturers have different dimensions, materials and engineering tolerance. The slight variation between different manufacturers can result in higher contact resistance (heat), water intrusion or unexpected deterioration of contact or plastic parts.

“Each connector has different critical dimensions and even using the most precise calipers to copy connectors still doesn’t guarantee a secure connection,” says Dean Solon, CEO and founder of Shoals. “Secondly, these connector manufacturers do not always utilize the same metals or procure their contact terminals from the same vendor. As a result, mixing dissimilar metals will unquestionably lead to thermal events [read: fires]. Pre-fabricators or field installers should use the opposite polarity from the same connector manufacturer used on the module datasheet. If it is not explicitly stated what type of connectors are being used on the module datasheet, reach out to the module manufacturer to identify.”

UL1703/6703, IEC 62548 and IEC 62852 (EN50521) testing does not allow for cross-mating. The good news is this is an easy problem to avoid during project planning. When designing or purchasing modules, field-connectors, inverter and optimizers and BOS systems, one needs to make sure that all connectors are coming from the same manufacturer. If you are using connectors labeled “MC4 compatible,” be sure to obtain a written statement from both manufacturers.

We have more on this topic right here.

2. Skimping

One of the most common issues in solar installations occurs when wire management is seen as an optional expense or somewhere to save on installation costs.

“The long-term system and maintenance costs that result from poor wire management practices far outweigh the effort required to implement a proper solution,” notes Sarah Parsons, Wiley product manager at Burndy. “Supporting PV wires at required intervals with listed solutions made from environmentally rated materials [such as stainless steel or UV-rated polymer] is the only way to align the lifetime of the wires with the intended system lifespan.”

This goes for the cables too. Jeff Wang, business development alternative energies – North America for Stäubli Electrical Connectors, recommends using only black XLPE cables and tin-plated copper cables.

“Color cables don’t survive the UV for the lifetime of PV system,” he says. “Incorporating carbon black in polyolefines greatly increases the UV resistance, and carbon black acts as UV absorbent and screens the polyolefine from the damage of UV lights. Bare copper starts to react violently with oxygen when temperatures reache 90 degrees. It forms copper oxide and greatly reduces the current carrying capacity of the wire. In outdoor environments where there is humidity and high temperature, tin-plated wire is the sure choice.”

3. Misapplication of components

Similar to No. 1, but more specifically: Understand the details of securing wire safely or choose a fastener that is tolerant of a wide variety of installation methods. For example, when putting metal-coated or plastic ties through sharp module mounting holes. With low-cost plastic ties, you should know exactly what you are getting as a system designer, which is a solution that could last as little as a few months. A metal coated product can lead to far greater damage than just product failure, like wire damage.

“In choosing a particular material or type of wire management component, metal tends to be more forgiving to install but less forgiving to the cable if installed improperly,” says Nick Korth with HellermannTyton. “Plastic wire management runs the opposite, requiring more care to design and install but is ultimately kinder on cable insulation. These considerations are an important part of your wire management strategy to ensure a long-term solar installation.”

Heyco sees a lot of installations where side-to-side cable retention cannot be achieved simply because of the mechanics of the part being used. For example, a standard cable tie is only going to provide so much side-to-side cable retention before it begins to sag throughout the array. Most PV module clips come with a unique spring retention tab that accommodates a variety of wire diameters while still providing side-to-side retention on the cable.

In large-scale applications, trends of higher voltages and the use of more string inverters out in the field call for a complementary update in wire management.

“Solar installations are now carrying energy as high as 1,500 volts with current approaching 1,000 amps, and it is critical for life safety issues to properly house the power cables to ensure a safe working environment for the solar technicians,” says Roger Jette, president of Snake Tray. “With more inverters in use, AC and DC cables need to be carried through a cable management infrastructure versus using hooks.”

4. Not planning for landscape

Module manufacturers are designing positive and negative leads anticipating they will be installed in portrait, though most rooftop installations are in landscape. Some 72-cell modules are manufactured with leads that do not reach adjacent modules in landscape, making it impossible to string a row together.

“These short leads force installers to wire in columns on a landscape rooftop system,” says Jonah Coles, product solutions manager with Ecolibrium Solar. “In this situation, choose a racking system with built-in features to secure wires across the inter-row space. This will make stringing columns as easy as stringing rows.”

Another challenge is that dual junction boxes with a short lead on each side of the module are becoming more prevalent. This makes wiring especially challenging when using optimizers and microinverters because both leads need to be brought to the optimizer or microinverter, which also makes wiring in landscape more difficult.

“Consider these factors when choosing modules. Make a string map to organize the wiring path based on the module you are using,” Coles says. “Then choose a racking system with flexible wiring options and have your racking solution quoted to include wire clips. These planning tips will avoid delays by providing installers with a solid plan and the appropriate material to get the job done.”

— Solar Builder magazine

Vision Solar opens two new locations on the East Coast as part of expansion plan

Vision Solar

One of America’s fastest growing solar companies, Vision Solar, has launched two new locations in Reading, PA and Edison, NJ as part of its expansion plan. The company has invested about half a million dollars in capital towards growth and has hired more than 30 employees in the two new locations as part of its expansion effort.

Vision Solar aims to grow its operations with a more local footprint to serve the residents and communities of Pennsylvania and New Jersey better.

“Vision Solar is proud to announce two new locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey,” states Mike Eden, the CSO of Vision Solar. “Vision Solar has always shown deep commitment to local communities and this expansion effort will provide us with additional opportunities to serve the residents of these areas even better than before. What’s a better way to give back to the community than serving the people and protecting the environment?”

The company offers a zero money down financing program, making the move to solar energy extremely affordable. What makes the transition convenient and smooth is that it takes only 24 hours for Vision Solar’s installation process to complete after receiving all the necessary permits.

Vision also prides itself on its customer care. Since the entire process is taken care of in-house, customers can rest assured that they have to deal with only one point of contact rather than a number of different contractors. Vision Solar manages everything starting from the design of the project all the way to the installation and activation to make sure that their customers receive the very best service possible.

— Solar Builder magazine

The Carolinas’ big solar day: 14 utility-scale projects selected for construction by Duke Energy

Halifax Solar Large

Employee Shawn Dwyer (371846) standing next to truck in front of solar panels at Halifax Solar Facility. Roanoke Rapids, NC. North Carolina.

Bringing more cost-effective solar energy to the Carolinas, 14 utility-scale projects have been selected during an independently judged bidding process – part of a 2017 comprehensive renewable energy law. Based on an independent evaluation process, Duke Energy will produce or purchase a total of 602 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy from projects under the North Carolina’s Competitive Procurement of Renewable Energy (CPRE) program.

According to independent administrator Accion Group, customers will see savings of around $375 million over the 20-year contract period versus the company’s Avoided Cost – the price at which many solar contracts had been set prior to the CPRE program.

“There was robust interest in the CPRE program, and the selected projects will provide 20 years of cost-effective energy to the Duke Energy system. Given the response, we are expecting the next phase of the program to also bring cost savings to customers,” said Harry Judd of the Accion Group, which independently administered the solicitation process.

With the winning projects selected, Duke Energy and the winning bidders will execute contracts for the projects over the next few months. Once the contracting process is complete, Duke Energy and Accion Group will finalize a report of all projects to be filed with the NCUC around June 2019.

Most projects are targeted to be online around the end of 2020. However, the dates may vary depending upon local approvals and any construction delays.

Selection process

The 14 projects represent the most competitive of the 78 that were submitted when bidding opened last July. The process used was approved by the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) to select projects that would deliver the greatest cost and system benefits to customers.

There were 10 projects selected from North Carolina and four projects from South Carolina. Two projects selected included battery storage with the solar facility. They were not Duke Energy projects.

Duke Energy was awarded six projects totaling about 270 MW – representing almost 45 percent of the total awarded. With 40 solar projects already in North Carolina, the final results showcase Duke Energy’s competitiveness at building solar power plants.

Duke Energy self-developed projects selected:

  • Duke Energy Carolinas: 69-MW – Catawba County, N.C.
  • Duke Energy Carolinas: 25-MW – Gaston County, N.C.
  • Duke Energy Renewables: 50-MW – Cleveland County, N.C.
  • Duke Energy Renewables: 22.6-MW – Surry County, N.C.
  • Duke Energy Renewables: 22.6-MW – Cabarrus/Stanly counties, N.C.

Winning utility acquisition project selected:

  • Duke Energy Progress: 80-MW – Onslow County, N.C.

More about CPRE program

One of the provisions of 2017’s “Competitive Energy Solutions for North Carolina” law was a process that would create a competitive bidding structure for solar energy.

Projects can be built anywhere on the Duke Energy system in North Carolina or South Carolina. The bids can come from any company, including Duke Energy, and can be in the form of power purchase agreements (PPA), utility self-developed facilities or utility asset acquisitions.

“Duke Energy companies will complete six of the 14 winning projects – a strong reflection of how competitive we are in the open market at building renewable energy projects,” added Caldwell.

— Solar Builder magazine