His first inspection is in the battery barn at the inverter panels where a flashing warning light indicates a problem. Leonard says it’s best to identify problems in the winter before the inverters go into full load.
“The inverters were at minimal load of 2,000 watts and the battery bank was at its lowest seasonal load,” he says. “We thought we would need to replace some of the cells in the spring because the client experienced a drop in energy-storage levels. I thought we might have a problem and the inspection confirmed that.”
The same building that houses the inverter panels also houses the battery room. Leonard says this is the most dangerous part of the system, and great care must be taken when servicing it. He uses a highly sensitive and expensive high-tech laser thermometer to make sure all the batteries are within acceptable heat parameters. Using a very low-tech, but indispensable box wrench, Leonard checks for loose connections and for anything that might cause a problem such as heat buildup in the batteries.
“This is the most dangerous place in regards to the power source system,” he says. “You have to use caution when working on the batteries because if the wrench touches two poles, the battery will explode. Extreme caution must be used at all times. It’s not for the weak, faint of heart or inexperienced.”
Leonard’s next order of business is to check the backup generator to a make sure it is working properly by turning it on and off and running it through a complete charging cycle.
The Straws That Stir the Drink
The number of solar panels needed is directly related to the maximum power level required by the client. Often, as is the case with Silver Creek, the level of power is seasonal. Leonard says most of his systems are designed to be expanded.
“Since our original installation, we’ve added more panels to the system and the availability of more electricity has allowed Silver Creek to grow even larger and provide more service for their customers.”
The location of the panels was chosen to have the least amount of aesthetic and environmental impact while making the most efficient use of the panels. The height is determined by maximum snow depth. For a client like Silver Creek, the location also needs to take into consideration areas where patrons will be walking, riding and moving about.
The mounting structure was chosen because the ground underneath this solar farm is basically a swamp and can’t support the system with some of the normal support structures designed for solid-ground or above-ground structures.
After checking the general condition of the site Leonard then checks the individual strengths of the solar arrays. He uses an amp meter, laser thermometer and screwdriver to make sure they are capable of running at full production.
The solar farm at Silver Creek is composed of five individual solar arrays containing four to six subgroups. Each subgroup includes six photovoltaic panels. This means that there are five separate solar systems providing power via 138 solar panels and five charge controllers. Each array provides power at varying levels because different brands of panels have been combined, so output varies from one array to the next.
The first box he inspects is the combiner, which brings all the different arrays together and feeds the energy generated by the panels through the solar-charge controller and on to the batteries for storage.
The combiner box contains the breakers for each array. The temperature of each is tested to see if there are any hot spots. He uses the laser thermometer and voltmeter with an amp clamp to measure the amperage and voltage of each panel to make sure they are at full production.
After conducting all the service test and procedures, Leonard gets back on his sled and heads down the mountain.
More Than Just a Fling
Leonard says the relationship between the solar contractor and customer is critical and the ability to perform periodic, professional maintenance is important. The client must know that the company that designs and builds the solar system will be available when service needs arise.
“Unlike an engineer or architect whose work is finished once the building or facility is designed, with alternative energy, whether solar, wind or hydropower systems, the client often requires upgrades, expansion or maintenance as needs change and the system ages,” he says. “Customers need to know that the alternative-energy contractor will still be around when the time to maintain or expand the system arises.
“In this industry, the relationship with customers is ongoing. I might not do work for a client for 10 years, but he knows I am there when needed.” Leonard says. “It’s a long-term relationship.”