Solar Startup

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Solar InstalledMy SolarCity install was finally completed at the end of 2014, but we left off on the story with the system not yet turned on and inspections and other things left to do until I could start harnessing the power of the sun.

Timeline

After 9 months of planning, waiting, fighting and installing my SolarCity system install was completed in December of 2014. The next steps were to get through the various inspections and net metering changes. SolarCity drove all of these items with some nagging from me due to the extended timeline.

Snow LoadFor one of these installations you need to have an electrical inspection and a building inspection. The electrical inspection went quickly, but the building inspection was a pain.

The local building inspector wasn’t very responsive and scheduled inspections shortly after large snow storms then refused to do the inspection due to “snow covering the panels.” Inspectors generally fall below lawyers and tax collectors on my favorites list.

Fortunately one benefit of having the panels on my roof is that snow doesn’t stay long any more and, after a slide and good timing, we managed to get the install inspected in late March 2015 — yes, thats 3 months for the inspections.

Fortunately the system can be turned on after all the electrical aspects are complete. While we were waiting on the building inspection, National Grid turned up and installed a new Net Meter. These are meters that can track power going back into the grid as well as power coming out of the grid. The meter swap is quick but it requires a total power cut to your home during the swap.

Net Meter

Weathering the Storm

We had a brutal Winter here in the Northeast and this was my first year with panels. So I had concerns about the snow load, what to do about build up on the panels, etc. I asked SolarCity about proper handling and they told me not to worry about it:

We understand your concern with the snow and the load that it would cause. Please be advised that when your system was built, our engineers took into consideration, your roof structure as well as the amount of weight that it would be able to hold. We also have the system approved by the City for load bearings.The City and our engineers did take into consideration, the amount of largest amount of snow that your roof can withstand before we installed. I understand that there was a mass message out to all the people in the area advising them to make sure that they clear the roof. We advised that you allow the snow to melt/slide down on its own., If you are hiring someone to come out to clear the roof. make sure that they be careful and they only sweep the panels.

So I (somewhat) patiently waited for the snow to slide and it did with no issues. As I mentioned before the snow comes off quickly with the panels (black wet glass), you just don’t want to be anywhere near the place when it lets go!

Early Issues – Broken Gear

Solar InverterAfter National Grid swapped out the meter I was approved to turn on the system. This involves turning a big dial on each inverter from off to on.

I have a large system and so I have multiple (3) inverters. I turned each on and two came up green and immediately went to sleep (it was night time), and the third came up with a red fault light.

There were no instructions on what to do if this happened and no manuals, so I placed a call for help.

Getting help on the issue was a frustrating experience and SolarCity has a lot to learn in the area of customer service. I spoke to several customer support managers as I escalated things and relayed my experience. It took 5 weeks and many phone calls to get the broken inverter fixed. With the inverter broken my system was only working at 2/3 of its capacity. The good news is that with SolarCity you only pay for what you generate so it wasn’t costing me anything. But at the same time I wanted to get the maximum output out of all those panels on my roof and the cost savings on my electric bill.

A pro tip:

Since SolarCity doesnt bother to tell you: In the gap in middle of the inverter is a little black button which is hard to see. If you press it you’ll change the text on the display and one of the things you can get out of it is a fault code. You can then chase them with a fault code issue versus a red light issue and they can actually look up recommended actions based on the fault code. Nobody on my first 3 calls to them asked me to push that button or for a fault code. I found it on my own.

Early Issues – Snow Fall

As I said earlier snow doesnt stick to the panels for long, but it does build up before it lets go. When it lets go its an avalanche and comes down in force. Imagine 3 feet of heavy snow mixed with ice over your entire large roof all letting go at the same time — no slow melt, etc.

The result is all the bushes immediately in front of my house got pounded this Winter. Several were killed and broken, and the rest are trying to recover. It would have been really nice if someone had mentioned this possibility before it happened so I could have done something to fortify those bushes. Landscaping is not cheap.

Fortunately nobody was hurt although I think there’s an accident waiting to happen if they don’t start warning people.

Summary

Solar GenerationAfter many struggles, and 11 months since starting the project, my SolarCity system went live (partially) on February 23, 2015 and started generating power the next day when the sun rose. I finally got the third inverter and full system going on April 1, 2015.

This is the day when the transformer on my street blew up and the entire street lost power for several hours. I don’t believe much in coincidences and it seems fishy that the sunny day I added 33% more power from my large system going back into the network while using little (Winter time) was the same day the transformer blew. But then again, it was also April 1. Nobody made a fuss — National Grid replaced the transformer and all has been stable since. Best guess is the transformer was on the edge and my install tipped it over.

I’ll be writing about system monitoring, cost savings and billing errors in upcoming posts. This story isn’t over yet.

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