Commercial PV System Data Monitoring, Part One: Page 3 of 11

Public kiosks, wall-mounted displays and open-access web-based interfaces—common monitoring system features for educational institutions and brand-conscious businesses— also have value for system owners. These features add a visual or interactive component to an otherwise invisible electrical process. If a company or institution wants to showcase the fact that it has made an investment in solar for PR purposes, it can do so via a kiosk or wall-mounted display in a building lobby, online via its website, or both.

Educational displays are especially important when local or federal government entities are involved, either as customers or underwriters. “Many projects funded by the recent Federal ARRA program actually require public education displays,” notes Reaugh of Draker Laboratories.

Value to installers and O&M providers. Although there are few moving parts, PV systems do require maintenance, and monitoring systems can allow integrators to efficiently allocate resources and quickly identify essential tasks.

“The role of the PV integrator no longer stops at the commissioning of the system,” notes David Boynton of Southern Energy Management. “With 25-year equipment warranties, the expectation is that the system will be up and running for decades,” he continues. “Performance guarantees, operations and maintenance contracts and limited installation warranties are now commonly included in a project’s scope of work to ensure that the system continues to perform as expected.”

While monitoring can bring some new challenges during installation, most integrators attest to the long-term benefits in terms of time and money savings for O&M services. According to J.R. Whitley, Southern Energy Management’s O&M manager, “Accurate and reliable monitoring is quite possibly the most important tool in the operations and maintenance tool kit, allowing immediate notification of system issues that without monitoring would not be discovered until a scheduled maintenance trip or an angry call from a system owner.”

Commercial monitoring systems are Internet-based, providing installers remote access through web portals. This enables centralized operations to manage maintenance and service activities for systems that are physically spread out. These portals can provide quick verification of system performance based on actual environmental conditions and also allow for in-depth analysis of actual system performance versus predicted performance.

Alerts signaling low system performance or equipment alarms appear on the portal to direct attention to potential issues. These alerts and alarms can also be sent directly to the service department or project manager via email, text message or both, as specified by the in-house monitoring system administrator.

The efficiency of O&M activities can also be increased with effective system monitoring. For example, the additional level of detail that inverter-direct, string-level or module-level monitoring affords can enable a system integrator or O&M provider to remotely troubleshoot the type of failure or to identify the general vicinity or even the exact location of a failed component.

“Maintenance costs are reduced if maintenance crews no longer have to spend significant time troubleshooting problems,” notes Jeff Krisa, senior VP of sales and marketing at Tigo Energy, a provider of module-level hardware and software solutions for monitoring and optimizing PV plant performance. “Armed with the right information, crews can go straight to the source of the problem,” he continues, “and they can bring exactly what they need to fix it.”

Monitoring systems are also useful for reducing unnecessary truck rolls due to false alarms. Whitley observes: “Everyone has gotten that phone call: ‘Why didn’t my system produce as much energy this June as it did June of last year?’ Having analytic tools at your fingertips allows you to deliver a logical explanation, backed up with tables and graphs of timestamped data. This is preferable to the alternate response, ‘I think it has been cloudier this June than it was last year,’ which never leaves anyone satisfied.”

In addition to the many specific uses that system integrators and O&M providers have for PV data monitoring over the service life of an operational PV system, there is a potential value to the installer at the point of sale. In his SolarPro article, “Making the Case for Residential PV System Monitoring,” Brian Farhi, VP of business development at SolarNexus, a provider of solar business management software, observes that “[PV system monitoring] presents a great opportunity to differentiate yourself from your competitors, which can give you a competitive advantage in a tough market.”

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