Step-By-Step Guide to Going Solar

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2. Review building, electrical, fire and other codes that apply to your PV installation

Since regulatory codes enjoy nearly the force of law, reading them is not something to put off until the night before construction begins. For example, fire safety rules stipulate that a set amount of space on the roof of any dwelling must be kept clear to allow fire fighters room to navigate. That might limit the number of modules you can install, and therefore the size of your PV system. Fortunately, the forms, applications and worksheets used by permitting agencies can actually help you with system design. So be sure to download or pick them up early in the process.

An exerpt from the the permit application form prepared by the Redwood Empire Association of Code Officials. Reviewing these worksheets in advance will help you perform a thorough site survey. The "cut sheets" mentioned at the bottom refer to product specification sheets. These can often be downloaded from a supplier or manufacturer's website.

You can keep all the paperwork together using a three-ring binder and three-hole punch. This will serve as your construction bible. As you collect forms, product literature, drawings, contact information, submission checklists, contractor quotes and other useful data, simply insert them into your bible for ready reference.

Local Permitting Agencies

Aside from calling a local solar company, probably the easiest way to learn about the codes is to contact each authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) directly. Most often, your county or municipal building inspection department is the first place to start, followed by your homeowners association (HOA) if you belong to one, and of course your utility provider if you're on the grid. Each AHJ should have literature and forms at their office, or can tell you on the phone where to look up all the relevant forms and instructions on the internet. Here's a detailed packet of instructions and forms published by the city of Roseville, California.

The Solar America Board for Codes and Standards (aka Solar ABCs) provides a model set of permit forms to expedite the approval process for home PV systems. Your AHJ's may or may not allow you to submit these forms as a substitute for their own materials, but since they ask for the same type of data, you can start with them. Later, you can transfer the information over to the forms you'll be submitting to the various agencies.

While most electrical requirements for home PV installations are specified in the National Electrical Code (NEC), an AHJ may have additional rules of their own. This is typically the case for grounding an array or system circuit. In rural areas, when wildfire safety is a major concern you may have to comply with an additional set of rules.

It's also highly recommended that you speak to a live person at the office of any AHJ. Published diagrams and instructions tend to lag far behind rule changes, so they may not reflect current regulations. In addition, you'll often find cheaper ways to be in compliance with the rules than the instructions suggest. Therefore, it literally pays to ask. If you propose an alternative solution to complying with the rule, the AHJ representative may give you the green light, saving time and money.

Needless to say, in order to protect inspectors, utility workers, firefighters, family members and future owners of your home, it's essential to:

Utility Interconnection

You'll also need to contact your utility company very early in the process to find out its specific requirements and procedures. Like county/municipal authorities, the utility will ask you to fill out an application, called an interconnection agreement. And it will have to be filled out correctly, as utilities tend to have a short leach when it comes to their solar customers. You'll also need to provide proof of insurance. Here's the interconnection application form for PG&E.

Electrical Code

For any construction involving electricity, contractors and homeowners must follow "NFPA 70: National Electrical Code". Most people refer to these regulations simply as the NEC. Generally speaking, Article 690 of the NEC, entitled "Solar Photovoltaic Systems", is the main language you'll be dealing with, but several other sections of the code also apply to home solar installations.

You can buy the NEC code book and related products from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) website. Since the books are expensive, you might want to purchase an alternative publication that's not only cheaper, but easier to understand and follow. It's also important to check with your building inspector to see which version of the NEC they are using. The code is revised every couple years, but most inspectors can't keep pace and may be still working off an older version.

If you're wondering about common code mistakes made in wiring PV installations, has an article covering numerous issues, recent changes and nuances in the NEC. In particular, an electrical circuit placed on top of a roof has to accommodate a wider range of ambient temperatures than is provided by non-solar electrical components (like junction boxes and disconnects.) Besides that, your inverter(s), cables and other electrical devices must be sized to withstand the worst-case scenario, which means some extra math to perform in your system calculations.

Fire Code

In California, like other states, fire regulations for home PV systems must be observed when installating a home PV system. The rules are contained in the document Solar Photovoltaic Installation guidelines. A principal concern for fire fighters is having room to move around the roof of any inhabited dwelling. For this reason, the rules stipulate three feet of open space near the ridge of rooftops (on either side), as well as 1.5 feet in any crook or valley of the structure. Other states and local fire districts have their own rules, so don't forget to ask about them when you contact your local building permit office.

OSHA/Safety Regulations

When contractors work on a site, they're required to follow regulations enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, otherwise known as OSHA. Even if you're working on your own home, following the rules and recommendations will help you avoid workplace injuries, especially falls. Check the solar PV page on the OSHA website for a rundown of safety issues and recommended personal protective equipment (PPE).

Contractors or homeowners employing laborers may be required to show proof of a Workers' Compensation policy, and/or post a document on the worksite indicating it has purchased a construction bond to cover accidents resulting in property damage, injuries or deaths.

In any PV system that involves batteries, there are regulations concerning the potential release of toxic and/or explosive gases. Most battery banks use lead-acid batteries, so be sure to read the safety precautions outlined on product literature and check with your building inspector about the applicable rules.

Several states have enacted legislation requiring the installation of carbon monoxide alarms or detectors at any home where remodeling or construction is taking place. Be sure to include the cost of this additional task in your solar budget and cost/payback/benefit analysis.

Rebate, Tax Credit and Loan Rules

In order to qualify for incentive reimbursements, loans, tax credits or cash rebates, you'll likely have to meet eligibility requirements and submit documentation to prove compliance. Some rebate programs can be really nitpicky, too, setting limits on the maximum allowable shade or minimum sun hours for an array placement. Furthermore, a Solar Pathfinder or Solmetric Sun-Eye report must be generated in order to qualify for many incentives.

Some programs restrict the component brands and models you can you use, often those endorsed by the California Energy Commission (CEC). You can usually find an updated list of these products online.

To qualifiy for a low-interest loan, you may also need to get a professional energy audit. Other incentives require a less formal energy audit. This is discussed in the next step.

For more on financing a PV system and applying for incentives, read Solar Tax Credits, Rebates, Loans, Leasing & PPA's.

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Continued on Page 3... Perform an energy audit and load analysis.

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