PV Commissioning Tips and Best Practices

Whether you measure your project size in kilowatts or megawatts, understanding the key concepts and processes for commissioning PV systems increases your bottom line and your clients’ satisfaction.

When done correctly, PV system-commissioning activities ensure customer satisfaction, project safety and longevity, while adding very little in terms of time and cost. Commissioning agents can prove that a system is working as promised, set performance baselines and verify that it is properly documented. In return, this modest investment greatly facilitates future operations and maintenance activities.

Here we provide an overview of key precommissioning activities based on our experiences as a certified commissioning agent. We then share some post-construction commissioning tips to help you avoid common issues. These concepts and procedures will leave you better prepared, regardless of whether your projects are subject to in-house acceptance and sign-off tests or independent inspections by third-party commissioning agents.

What Is Commissioning?

Many incentive programs, certification entities and installation manuals use the term commissioning generically to describe a set of start-up or closeout procedures. In this informal context, a system installer might verify field connections and ac and dc voltage levels before “commissioning” an inverter. Qualified persons adhere to similar start-up procedures before energizing any electrical component. While these steps are essential for electrical safety, they do not guarantee system performance or verify as-built conditions.

In this article, we define commissioning more formally as a standardized and unbiased process that not only guarantees the safe operation of a PV system, but also confirms, via independent verification activities, that its documentation is correct and that it is performing as expected. Commissioning agents use a variety of testing and inspection techniques to proactively identify and address issues that affect plant production, operations, maintenance or safety. These formal commissioning activities not only promote compliance with codes and engineered plans, but also help ensure that PV systems will meet energy production estimates.

In some cases, solar installation companies implement common commissioning tests as part of an in-house safety or quality control program. While this is an admirable best practice, an internal company review is not necessarily unbiased from the perspective of the system owner. This is why contract terms for some projects specify that project deliverables must include a third-party commissioning report. Every project pursuing LEED certification is subject to independent commissioning and verification requirements. Many financial backers of large PV systems require independent third-party commissioning to validate their investment.

The commissioning agents responsible for generating this third-party report represent the system owner rather than the installer. These agents build on the installer’s start-up procedures by performing spot checks and specialized operational tests, evaluating build quality as well as system efficiency and functionality. They document all their findings and recommendations and report these directly to the system owner.

PRECONSTRUCTION
The commissioning process begins during project planning, before construction has even started. Based on the project design documents, you want to prepare or customize a construction inspection checklist, analyze job hazards and develop a commissioning plan that reflects test priorities. All of these activities presume that you already have access to some basic yet flexible data forms and templates, as well as a library documenting common test procedures. These organizational resources are an important and often overlooked aspect of successful commissioning. To optimize workflow on-site and back in the office, companies need to have a process in place for identifying and recording abnormalities that is accurate and easy for others to follow, which requires some advanced planning.

Prepare checklists. Commissioning agents use construction inspection checklists to identify common defects and Code issues, to initiate and track the status of repairs, to meet compliance requirements, and to ensure and document that a project is ready for functional testing.

It helps to have the end user in mind when you prepare checklists. Try to organize them logically based on the workflow in the field. Strive to capture all relevant information. However, avoid making checklists and test forms so complicated that technicians spend more time filling out documents than inspecting and testing the system. Reserve room for personnel to make notes in the field. The goal is to create practical and usable documents.

Weigh the benefits of using digital versus paper forms. On the one hand, digital files and data are easy to share; on the other, printed checklists never run out of batteries. A paper checklist that gets left out in a rainstorm is also less expensive to replace than a tablet or laptop. Often the best solution to field documentation is a hybrid approach. Take a set of hard-copy forms into the field and enter data by hand. At the conclusion of each component test, photograph the completed forms so that you have a digital backup. If you use your cell phone as a camera, you can directly convert each page to a PDF with a scanner app.

A construction inspection checklist may include any of the following issues: unsupported or improperly bonded conduit; reversed conductor polarities; open homeruns; incorrectly torqued module clamps, attachments and terminals; improperly seated or terminated conductors; unsealed conduit or enclosure penetrations; grounding deficiencies; missing labels or system information; and discrepancies between the engineering drawings and the as-built conditions. Consider sharing these checklists with the project manager or site supervisor. The better they understand your pass-fail criteria, the fewer issues you should find.

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