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The literally shocking truth about the quality of solar arrays

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Solar panels are supposed to be a set-and-forget technology. Mine have performed just as advertised. All the installer said I need to do is look them over a couple of times a year and rinse off any dirt buildup. The approval and installation process had its delays and gaffes, but all’s well that ends well, I figure. But lately I’ve been feeling less sanguine. Solar experts have regaled me with tales of poor workmanship they find when they do spot checks of installed systems. As improperly installed joints corrode, connections loosen, and wires fray, we may be looking forward to a wave of breakdowns in the coming years. “Not only is there a potential for an increase in system failures, but there is also a potential for a rise in unsafe and potentially lethal situations,” says Corey Asbill of New Mexico State University.

I brought up workmanship last week in the context of municipal codes, permits and inspections. Installers complain about the costly and seemingly arbitrary requirements that many cities, towns and counties impose. But the other side of the story is that local officials have the important responsibility of watching over installers. A couple of people slammed me in the comments field for letting bureaucrats off too easily and giving ammunition to solar’s detractors, but they neglected to address the reality of sloppy installations. A bad fire or lethal electrocution could zap public enthusiasm for photovoltaic power and jack up insurance premiums for all solar homeowners, even those whose installers did everything by the book.

Asbill is an electrical engineer, certified installer and member of a Department of Energy “Tiger Team” that goes around the country offering solar expertise. He tells me about a talk he gave in November 2009 to a meeting of installers and inspectors in Sonoma County, Calif. “It was a really nerve-racking talk, to be honest,” he says. His team had spent several days scrutinizing a sample of 15 nearby solar arrays and finding safety hazards in every one. “I was standing before this crowd and pointing out their mistakes,” he recalls. “I was nervous.”

In an electrician’s version of Where’s Waldo, he put up photos of incorrectly installed equipment and asked the audience to spot what’s wrong. In the photo at the top of this post, for example, the red wires should be white. As code violations go, this one is fairly minor. A skilled electrician never trusts the color-coding, but lots of DIYers are not so savvy and might be led to assume a wire is hot, or not, based on its color.

Circuit breaker without safety label This double circuit breaker should have a warning label on it, indicating that the electricity is flowing into the service panel (from the solar array) rather than out (to an appliance or lamp). Again, a skilled electrician takes the right precautions regardless of what labels do or don’t say, but not everyone is so diligent.

Not the right terminal strip Here, the installer used a nonstandard part. Asbill speculates that the installers got out to the site only to realize they didn’t bring the right part, so they scrounged around in their toolbox for a substitute. The system works, for now, but will probably wear out prematurely.

Missing chassis ground This one is more serious. The terminal at the upper right should have a ground wire in it. Grounding protects you if one of the live wires ever becomes frayed and makes contact with the metal box. Without it, someone touching the box could be electrocuted.

Indoor-rated screws and lugs used outsideLook at these. The installer used grounding connectors meant for indoor use and they’re already corroded.

Frayed electrical connectionIt doesn’t take an experienced inspector to see that a dangling conductor can’t be good, either.

Inverters missing shutoff switchesNow this is a real doozy. The installer never put in AC emergency cutoff switches! So there’s no easy way to shut off the equipment if someone needs to work on it.

Despite Asbill’s initial nervousness, he says the audience took his critiques to heart. Sue Kateley, the executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association, raves about his presentation to this day. She has her own litany of complaints, such as a cracked electrical conduit that lets water in or is overstuffed with wires, causing mechanical wear. Greg Sellers, president of Burnham Energy, adds that many installers fail to check whether the general household wiring is up to snuff.

Asbill says he understands why installers cut corners and inspectors miss them. Both are overworked and undertrained. The solar industry is expanding so rapidly that education hasn’t kept up. Some states don’t even require electricians or roofers to get specialized training before they enter the solar trade.

Most installers guarantee their work for 10 years, but they don’t do regular check-ups. So I see a huge potential for after-sales service companies to step into the breach. Just as I get my boiler cleaned and checked each fall, I should get my panels examined annually to make sure everything is tight and nothing is hot. Such companies might also offer to upgrade panels when the technology improves enough to warrant it. Solar arrays may be rated for 25 years or longer, they won’t make it that long without some TLC.

Photos courtesy of Corey Asbill

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  1. 1. JamesDavis 9:13 am 02/14/2011

    I can certainly see the seriousness of allowing your seven year old child install your solar panels. These problems they caused could take decades to figure out how to detect and fix them. Just like one magnet attracting another, ignorance and stupidity attracts more ignorance and stupidity. Just as you would check a policeman’s I.D. to make sure they are a policeman before you allow them to come into your home, you also should check an installer’s qualifications to make sure they are qualified to do the job. When did Americans turn themselves into trusting, stupid little lambs?

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  2. 2. candide 9:37 am 02/14/2011

    The panels themselves are only part of the system.
    The inverter and requisite connections to the house electrical system are just as critical and important.

    Much work and development is taking place on inverter efficiency.

    As you found out "improperly" attached connections can be problematic. While not meaning to be pedantic this is not a problem of the array itself.

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  3. 3. solar1 9:58 am 02/14/2011

    These are serious problems usually caused by unskilled, untrained installers. However, there are thousands of installations done by qualified installers that have another problem. Poor quality components chosen so that the installer can claim the lowest price.

    Just like any industry there are products made to a higher standard than others. But in the solar industry it is critical that the PV modules themselves last 30-40 years. And continue to put out significant energy during that life. The components selected and the workmanship of the modules is critical to this equation.

    Flimsy modules made with thin glass, thin aluminum frames, poor encapsulation of the cells among other things allow moisture into the cells and cause significant degradation of performance. Essentially making that low cost decision a poor investment.

    The problem is that the so called experts – the installers – aren’t always doing their homework. It is too easy to use the cheapest module they can find and say that PV is a commodity. It is not.

    The rest of the install may pass code. It may not have the mistakes described above. It may be a safe install, but if it does not produce energy for 30-40 years with minimal degradation in performance it was a bad investment.

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  4. 4. EnrgyMgmt 11:05 am 02/14/2011

    It’s unrealistic to believe electricians are going to change business practices just because it’s solar. Anybody in the trades knows that electricians always use bare minimum to satisfy building codes. After all, did you or did you not take the cheapest bid?

    There is no such thing as an electro-mechanical system that doesn’t deserve servicing on an annual basis. Additionally, there are numerous hazards to a system beyond the control of the installer or manufacturer. It’s what keeps repairmen in business. Speaking from 20+ years of experience, the most negligent mistakes are found in commercial, not residential installations.

    Did you give the installer a chance to correct his mistakes?

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  5. 5. SKATELEY 11:22 am 02/14/2011

    Thanks George for writing about this important topic. One of the reasons why I `rave’ about the meeting where Corey presented the photos of the code violations is because the code officials and licensed solar contractors participated in a healthy and open exchange about how to make meaningful improvements to ensure quality and safety of PV installations. There was no blaming or finger pointing and folks at the meeting really focused on solutions. Some of the suggestions were as simple as making sure that permit applications were submitted with complete information. We suggested that contractors’ do spot checks of their installation crews and share the photos with their crew leads because the kinds of problems we saw were clearly preventable. We should also call out the best in the community for their efforts. In California, customers also need to be more actively engaged in their purchase decisions. Too many times I talk to customers doing business with either unlicensed or inexperienced companies when they could have slowed down and checked to make sure they were dealing with a quality company. California’s licensing laws are also a challenge. While California has a solar contractors’ license (the C-46), California also allows other license classifications to install solar even though there is no knowledge or experience test for solar for those other license holders. And one of the most important messages for customers is to make sure that regular maintenance and inspection occurs so that if there are problems they can be detected and fixed. CALSEIA values the work done every day by countless building inspectors. Yes, there are challenges with reducing the costs of permitting and inspections. The solution is to work together. Safety first.

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  6. 6. Realworldxxx 1:58 pm 02/14/2011

    These problems are just another result of the general degradation of our culture. When everybody’s a rebel and rules and regulations are looked upon as voluntary guidelines, Causing the loss of life or serious injury becomes just another part of doing business. Why should Joe-the electrician take regulations seriously when there’s a steady drumbeat of propaganda being put out by a major political party that all regulations are unnecessary government interference in commercial affairs. When you consider the enormity of the financial mess and the sustained opposition to finreg, why should Joe, or any other tradesman, take regulations seriously. Perhaps when the aircraft maintenance workers follow suit, with the inevitable results, people will start to sober up from this ideological binge these morons are taking us on.

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  7. 7. eauerbach 10:03 pm 02/14/2011

    That was a great piece and the comments are spot on. Quality assurance starts with qualified workers. In the solar electric field this means tradespersons with specialized multi craft skills and knowledge. NABCEP, the organization that Mr. Asbill earned his Certification from, is dedicated to providing meaningful credentials that consumers can count on. In a study commissioned in 2008 by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) the authors found that systems installed by NABCEP Certificants had fewer problems on inspection than those installed by non certified individuals.
    To become NABCEP Certified all individuals must demonstrate extensive experience and specialized training along with passing a rigorous and comprehensive examination.
    All potential consumers should check the qualifications of their potential solar electric or solar thermal installers. The most important questions are pretty consistent to all other contractor decisions:
    1) Do you have all the necessary licences and trade qualifications that are required in my jurisdiction?
    2) Do you have specific qualifications such as certifications for the work you propose to do on my home or business?
    3) Can you provide me with references I can call or visit?
    4) Can I find you on the NABCEP Certified Installer data base?
    Asking these questions and verifying that the answers are truthful doesn’t guarantee a perfect installation but it does go a long way to ensure the likelihood of one.

    In the spirit of full disclosure this comment was posted by the executive director of NABCEP

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  8. 8. jimfromcanada 6:22 pm 02/15/2011

    Certified electrical tradespersons,the electrical code, and electrical inspectors should be what is required for any installation. With UL certified equipment good installations should be straightforward. Contractors who skimp on material quality, unqualified staff, and who avoid inspections are liable for material damages from insurers.

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  9. 9. Elderlybloke 8:48 pm 02/15/2011

    Regarding taking the lowest price for installing the Solar Panels , this is what happens in many fields.

    I used to supervise contracts for a City Council, who would take the lowest bid regardless of any advice about the suitability of the contractor.
    You cannot make a good one out of a poor one , no matter how much supervision he has.

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  10. 10. NTV92 10:51 pm 02/15/2011

    More like the title should read:
    The not so shocking truth about the quality of solar array installations. Snore…

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  11. 11. jreynolds8541 1:56 pm 02/16/2011

    I have to agree with the fact that contractors/installers may skirt regulations in order to get the job done, and in no way should it be condoned. However some the these pictures and descriptions of the problems are rather misleading. The second picture showing the breaker not having a warning label, well it should, however if you know circuit boxes they have information sheets on the inside of the door to the panel where it lists each slot corresponding to its number. On the that sheet is where you write in what each circuit is used for in the box ie, 31 33 would be marked "solar panel input". The picture does not reflect an accurate view of the box. Picture 3 is an improper install of the ground wires, however that alone will not cause the system to fail prematurely. Picture 5, the "grounding connectors" more commonly known as screws may have been indoor or outdoor screws. There is no way for a contrator to know if his outdoor screws will corrode or not, however eventually they all do, and using this picture as evidence of the wrong screw is impossible to tell. I find it is always good to reflect on my own work and as a hands on general contrator it is expected from my performance as well as my employees. There is always room for improvement, and in a relatively new field of construction there are going to be missteps.

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  12. 12. Jonathan Cole 2:08 pm 02/16/2011

    This article is somewhat unfair as it ascribes these problems to solar. These issues are electrical issues and I have seen even worse work done in normal residential electrical installations.

    These systems and especially grid-tied systems or any systems that use DC voltage greater than 12 volts need to be hooked up by people with an electrician’s license who have been trained in the electrical code.

    Actually the worse problem in solar is unscrupulous installers who install systems that are impossible to access economically because that is what will result in the greatest profit to the installer. These systems have to be periodically cleaned and as in any technology things can get damaged by wind, weather and critters.

    Components must be accessible and not mounted in large contiguous arrays with no easy access to panels and/or batteries in the center of the array. When I see photos of arrays on very steep rooftops with no space or method to access panels, for troubleshooting, replacement or repair, I feel sorry for the owner. In a system that has 25 years of life or more, it is imperative that access be built in to the design. Otherwise they can become a nightmare of unanticipated expense 10 to 15 years into the future.

    To get factual information about how to do solar visit my website at LightOnTheEarth.Org
    I am trying to assist 10 million households to install solar in the next 10 years.

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  13. 13. Daniel35 10:18 pm 02/16/2011

    As a handyman (now retired) I’ve wished that houses had schematic diagrams of the house and circuit breaker boxes, including any changes, probably kept in the circuit breaker boxes, along with pictures of the box’s original hookups. PV arrays and such would add a bit more. Places to check for continuity without taking outlet boxes apart would also be nice. But the days of making such things public and easy seem to have passed.

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  14. 14. Daniel35 10:31 pm 02/16/2011

    As a handyman (now retired) I’ve wished that houses had schematic diagrams of the house and circuit breaker boxes, including any changes, probably kept in the circuit breaker boxes, along with pictures of the original hookups. Adding PV arrays and such would complicate this a bit. It would also be nice to have places to check for continuity without taking outlet boxes apart. But the days of making such things public and easy seem to have passed.

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  15. 15. AverageJoeSixPac 2:00 am 02/17/2011

    Any one know what the output in available amperage, (OK Ill settle for wattage) of these systems is? I notice they don’t ever discuss how much power were dealing with. Looking at some of the photos it would make one think that the power is something like that delivered to a residence from a power company, looks like some serious wiring. Is this output from an inverter or from the panels themselves. And where are the batteries that Ive heard you have to have. What guage wire do they use?
    Just curious…..

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  16. 16. Dawleylad 6:12 am 02/17/2011

    Of course fundementally solar installations are very good and most work as labelled, though as with anything you buy, especially if it is based on workmanship, you will have poor quality work.

    Really it’s not the solar panels and what they do which is the problem, it’s the people who fit them to the house, and they are the same type of people who fit anything in any trade. you get good ones and bad ones!


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  17. 17. Jan Steinman 3:23 pm 02/17/2011

    The problem is really one of personal responsibility. We live in a "nanny state," where we demand that government provides safety and regulation of "experts."

    Anyone contemplating doing anything vaguely "out of the ordinary" (such as solar panels) should do all that they can to educate themselves, and should also get a "second opinion" after installation from a knowledgeable friend or a professional.

    Our technology now rules us. Having solar energy is symbolic of a return to a localized, decentralized world, but it is merely symbolic if it is beyond the ability of ordinary people to understand and control it.

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  18. 18. Richard Blaine 3:41 pm 02/17/2011

    "When did Americans turn themselves into trusting, stupid little lambs?"

    When Americans began to believe it when media and Government told us that there were "Experts" who knew mystical secrets that we couldnt possibly comprehend, and us unwashed rabble need to just butt out! Nevermind that this week’s Installation "Professional" was last week’s Hamburger Specialist and is next weeks Lawn Pro or Dog Groomer.

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  19. 19. electric38 10:29 pm 02/17/2011

    Nice article. The new (2011) electrical code calls for Arc Fault protection to be installed witin the system. The majority of the above problems would be "caught" by this easily installed device (similar to the gound fault protector found in a bathroom or kitchen).

    Another nice thing about trainers within the solar industry. They are using the internet (using online training courses to reinforce the hands on training) to spread word about safely installing this new technology.

    Inter-trade safety training is a must with this new technology, as rooftop solar gains popularity. As the economy improves, and economically priced electric cars come to market, millions of these systems will be in operation.

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  20. 20. BertieFox 3:09 am 02/18/2011

    Almost all electrical installations will show these kinds of faults, and so I wonder why solar should be singled out as so ‘shocking’. It would be best to concentrate on the truly dangerous installations, as with the missing grounding, rather than criticisms of minor problems like using a non standard grounding strip as in one of the examples.
    An experienced and careful DIY’er can knock spots off the average so-called professional I’ve found. When we arrived at our house in France, we found the entire system ungrounded, a well pump connected directly to the electricity meter with no fuse system, wrongly rated wires bridging the fuses in the consumer unit, and metal staples used to secure wiring in place on beams! And this was the work of a so-called professional working for a local plumber.
    Now I do all my own electrical work and a ‘belt and braces’ approach when it comes to safety and circuit breakers.

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  21. 21. Carlyle 8:19 pm 02/19/2011

    In Australia there is a rush to install solar panels while government subsidies last. I fear that in this atmosphere we could be in for Australia’s ‘Pink Batts’ insulation scandal following government subsidies. Houses burned down & hundreds of millions of dollars was wasted. More will be spent on correcting faulty workmanship & poor product choices, than on the initial installation.

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  22. 22. aligatorhardt 8:03 am 09/15/2011

    None of these displayed problems are the fault of the solar array. This is poor workmanship and cost cutting by installers. It is inappropriate to blame these problems on solar power. I have many years in construction, commercial and residential, and these problems are found on many jobs. The low bid mentality is a big part of the problem. Those who do their best to provide quality work are underbid by shoddy workmanship and low quality materials constantly. I see untrained workers unsupervised and pressured to get the job done fast as possible, while encouraged to use the cheapest materials. The standard contractor’s warranty on a house is one year, and anything that will make it to that point is fine by them. The inspector should catch these obvious defects, but often they do not look at everything, and often established contractors have their inspections signed at the office, unchecked. This leads to a complacency where they know they can get away with cutting corners. I worked at a million dollar house where 7 ceiling fans burned out on the first day because the electrical contractor allowed all the ceiling power to be placed on one breaker, saving $8 in material costs, instead of using two circuits, with the excuse that most people just use fluorescent lights, even though they knew ceiling fans with lights were in the plan. As I recall there were 26 ceiling boxes on one circuit. This was a well established firm, but the helpers, all trainees, were left with the responsibility of the installation with no supervision. The customer was expected to pay for the extra time required to add another circuit as well as the loss of all the expensive fans.

    Again, to blame solar power for these kinds of problems is unfair and dishonest.

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  23. 23. anumakonda 8:48 pm 10/11/2013

    There is concern about the quality of PV Modules in some cases. When there are subsidies,some people aim to grab subsidies irrespective of the life and quality of the solar modules.The same was the case in the past with Wind Turbines. Unless subsidies are linked to production,quality won’t be ensured.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

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