A Day (or Three) in the Life of: a Solar Installer

I was asked to write about my job, or in other words, a day in the life of a solar-installer. I'll try and keep this as non-cheesy as possible — its hard writing about yourself without sounding dorky. To begin, I'm an average-sized girl — 5'7", 1-cough, ahem, sputter-rty something. Everyone else I work with is at least 5'11" and, for lack of a better word, "has a pair." This means that there are some things that I just can't do, where the guys, simply because they are taller and stronger, can. For example, standing on tip-toes and pulling a 28 foot ladder overhead off the truck, or hanging a 170 pound inverter. So I've learned that I'm going to have to work smarter at this job because I clearly can't do the work with brute force.

So a typical day, hmmm, well I get up before the sun is up (about 5 am) and head out to the warehouse where everyone meets up to load trucks and compare who had the better weekend. A typical job is 3-4 days (a week or less), so we pretty much fill up the truck with everything it can hold for the day and then head out to the job. Once we get to the site, job activities range from corralling dogs into their cages so we can get to the breaker-box, to chatting with homeowners or locating the nearest Home Depot to pickup anything we left at the warehouse.


Day One: The first day of a job, we want to lay the groundwork for the system. Most houses in southern California are multiple stories, so you load what you can carry and scale the ladder making sure to place items near a chimney or some other location to keep your entire bag of tools from upending over the edge of the roof. (Headache!). Most houses in southern California also have tile roofs, which means these tiles have to be pulled before you can reach the roof level to find rafters. Try and remember not to kick that tile off the edge of the roof once you pulled it — that concrete will shatter into smithereens from 30 feet up. The "feet" must be drilled into rafters in order to ensure that the panels stay on the roof, and we locate rafters in a roof simply by the sound your hammer makes when it hits the comp. You get used to it.

Next we drill the lags and feet into the roof, and then attach "sliders" on the feet, which will hold the rails. We then line each of the sliders into a row using a stringline, and then mark the tiles where the all-threads will go and drill a hole in each tile. Then we have to put the all-threads through the hole and into the slider. This is trickier than you might think, as you cant see the slider and the all-thread fits through a ½" hole several inches above where you hope the slider is. Sometimes you have to realign the slider, sometimes you can move it without having to pull the tile and realign it. Then we drill holes in rails and attach them onto the all threads. After that we make sure each of the rails are level with each other.

After that, MC wire is run through the rails connecting each of the strings. Panels on the roof are divided into "strings" or groups of panels before they are wired into the inverters. Each of the panels connect to each other by wires already configured into the panels, but the end panels will each have a wire that is unconnected, therefore an MC wire is attached to each end of the panel and run back to the junction box (J Box), called a home run, to attach to the wires coming up from the inverter. The number of the panels on the roof, and the capacity of the inverter will determine how many "strings" of panels that we will have and therefore how many wires will need to be run from the inverters up to the roof. Once each of the wires is run, then little boots are attached to the end to connect the MC wires to the wires on the panels.

Day Two: By day two, the racking (base of the system) should be up and we so we want to get all of the panels lain by the end of the day. Typically one person is in charge of laying all conduit (pipe that will hold/protect the wires as they go from the panels down to the inverters). The other installers are in charge of "prepping" the panels. This requires moving two forty-pound panels out of boxes, drilling holes for the grounding lugs, and stacking them in an out of the way area that wont block garage entrances and that is as close to the racking on the roof as possible. Oftentimes, the person prepping will get a few done and then begin passing them up to the roof. There are no magical panel elves to get those puppies on the roof, this again is the job of the person on the ground to lift those panels up the 10+ feet to whomever is on the roof ready to grab the panels and lift them over the ledge. (this is when squats and curls at the gym might come in handy).

Once those panels are over the roof ledge, the wind tends to pick them up. This can get tricky as you're trying to stabilize a panel that is as big as you are, on a sloped-tile roof. You get used to it. Next, the person on the roof carries the panel over to the racking, ties the leads (wires connecting the panels) together and lays the panel in the clamps. Then the magic happens as each of the panels has to line up horizontally with each other and vertically with other rows of panels. The panels can't look like they are angling funny with the lines of the roof, the tiles of the roof, the racking, or any other line that might give away the vertical/horizontal location of the panels. Often after three or four panels are set you can figure out whether the panels are "rising" or "falling." You hope that you get it right the first time, but often this takes a little coaxing of the panels to get them to do what you want. This process often takes a few hours and by the time you're done, you're ready to go home, and hopefully your patience is not completely spent.

This article continues tomorrow.

[Kristin works at HelioPower as a photovoltaic installer and can be reached at kristin_at_treehugger_dot_com.]

Tags: Electricity | Energy | San Diego