PV Commissioning Tips and Best Practices: Page 5 of 5

Employ I-V curve tracers. I-V curve tracers effectively capture all the current- and voltage-operating points for a PV source in a single test, measuring Isc, Voc and enough intermediary operating points for software to identify Vmp, the knee of the curve. The same software can automatically compare the actual I-V curve to the expected one based on module STC ratings and instantaneous temperature and irradiance measurements. As a diagnostic tool, curve tracers can verify proper performance and identify common issues such as bypass diode failures, bad connections, soiling or module degradation.

Different curve tracers on the market suit different project needs. Commissioning technicians frequently use the Seaward PV210 and the Solmetric PV Analyser (PVA) models in the field. Seaward’s curve tracer is a handheld device that can do all the commissioning tests to meet IEC 62446 standards with a single button push. Running the test suite takes about 30–40 seconds, and the device stores 999 tests. While the display screen provides only basic information, the accompanying Android app can show the full trace. The small form factor of the Seaward PV210 is very useful for running tests on a pitched rooftop, as is often the case in residential or small commercial applications.

In comparison, the Solmetric PVA requires a laptop to run tests. Depending on the situation, this can be advantageous or not. On the one hand, a laptop is one more thing to set up and manage on a rooftop. To capture an insulation resistance measurement as specified in the IEC 62446 standard, technicians need yet another tool. On the other, the Solmetric PVA software can create an inverter tree and save each curve trace to the proper location in real time. On systems over 500 kW, this greatly speeds documentation since you do not have to manually identify every string later. The Solmetric PVA can also do a curve trace in about 3 seconds and display it on the computer screen, allowing the user to immediately evaluate the curve. When you are working on systems with hundreds or thousands of strings, this can save hours or even days on-site.

Depending on project location and time of year, weather conditions may not be ideal to use curve tracers for formal performance verification activities. Consistent high-irradiance conditions are required to capture accurate data. For example, Solmetric recommends a minimum irradiance of 600 W/m2 and Seaward recommends at least 700 W/m2. In winter, there are few opportunities to meet these criteria in many parts of the country. Temperature can also be a consideration, as the Seaward curve tracer will not operate properly if the module temperature or ambient temperature drop below freezing.

When you are dealing with marginal weather conditions, it is important to consider your test goals. Some commissioning contracts specify that you conduct formal performance verification tests under optimal test conditions, so you may have to wait until the weather improves before capturing curve traces and IR images of the array. If requirements are less stringent, you can identify many of the most significant performance issues under suboptimal conditions. Just bear in mind that some issues will not show up without enough current flowing through the modules. In addition, the accuracy of your results suffers under suboptimal test conditions, meaning these data are not as useful for performance verification purposes.

Protect your data. When relying on electronic testing tools, it is important to consider worst-case scenarios and plan for every eventuality. For example, save data early and often; carry a spare set of fused test leads; bring chargers, backup batteries and data cards; take more photos than you think you need; and write down initiation times for each test.

Photos and electronic records are usually time-stamped, but these data are correct only if you properly initialized the device. Write down test initiation times and you can subsequently verify test sequence or correlate results to weather conditions and so forth. You can also use these data to measure productivity in the field, which will help you improve planning and budgeting activities for the next project.

Use remote performance monitoring. Technology trends provide an increasing number of  opportunities for remote performance verification. Consider a PV system deployed with module-level power electronics and monitoring. In this scenario, it is easy to tell if something is not working, or is working at a reduced capacity, by comparing the instantaneous power output and cumulative energy production for each device over a period of time. This trend toward granular monitoring is also evident in large-scale applications, where some multi-MPPT string inverters provide string-level performance data, including remote I-V curve traces.

Even basic production monitoring allows you to infer a lot about the operational performance of an array. By reviewing trend data or skimming large data sets, you may be able to identify small deviations indicative of a meaningful issue. It may not be possible to spot a single underperforming module, but you might spot the aggregated effects of two or three underperforming modules in the monitoring data under specific operating conditions. With a quality production estimate, you can see how close actual production matches predicted output and pinpoint deviations by comparing results to similar systems.

Track and resolve issues. As the owner’s agent, it is your job to ensure that responsible parties resolve any items that fail inspection prior to project closeout. You need to have a process in place to report issues to the appropriate parties and track the status of these issues. For larger systems, you may want to develop a quick reference system to expedite the process of reporting and following up. Depending on the system size and the type of issues, you may have to postpone performance verification tests until after the responsible parties have resolved all open items. Then you can use the performance verification test site visit as an opportunity to verify the completion of corrective actions and visually inspect the workmanship and quality of any rework.

CONTACT:

Nate Goodell, PE / Taitem Engineering / Ithaca, NY / taitem.com

Dave Tedeyan / Taitem Engineering / Ithaca, NY / taitem.com

Gordon Woodcock / Taitem Engineering / Ithaca, NY / taitem.com

RESOURCES

SunSpec Alliance, “Commissioning for PV Performance: Best Practice Guide,” October 2014

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