Look before you leap

Advice for glass companies going solar
October 3, 2011
BIPV canopy project at the Bay Area Rapid Transit System station, Union City, Calif. 
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The solar market is calling. Are you going to answer? If so, learning about the products, project integration and installation techniques involved will be crucial to your success, say glass company personnel already working in the field. And don't forget the politics. "It's as much about learning how power companies and government agencies work against and with each other in alternative energy," says John Juba, CEO and owner of contract glazier Juba Aluminum Products.

Glass installers shouldn't wait for the solar market to pick up to get educated, says Eddie Bugg, director, Sustainable Solutions, Kawneer/Alcoa Building & Construction Systems. "Dive in early. Don't wait for your competition to master [building integrated photovoltaics] first," he says.

It's important, however, that companies make an educated dive, gaining the knowledge necessary to not only install solar products, but to also act as an information source to the architect and building owner. "We have to do a lot more education to contractors, architects and owners," says Juba, who opened the subsidiary PV Energy Solutions, about two years ago. "The only way to do that is to be educated yourself," he says.

Juba Aluminum/PV Energy Solutions' entrance into the market has been "methodical," Juba says. "We didn't just jump into solar. We studied the problems, and learned about the issues we would face. We wanted to do it right and have been taking our time."

Juba Aluminum made investments in R&D, and in employee education. "We felt like we needed to take a couple of years to invest in [solar] systems, how they are used, the cost structure," Juba says. The company had employees take classes and readup on PV systems and installation. "We worked with the leaders in the industry, and helped set up a manufacturing plant for a local manufacturer of PV. With that came the knowledge of how these systems work," he says. "We're well educated and ready to go, when the economy allows."

Product knowledge is important. Enclos Corp. built a test rig to perform comparative testing on several photovoltaic products. Additionally, new entrants into solar should look to their suppliers for assistance, which means "choose your suppliers carefully," Bugg says. "Make sure they have expertise and proven experience."

BIPV product designer Pythagoras Solar, for example, works closely with installers throughout the project process, acting as a source of information for their products, says Brendan Dillon, director of product marketing. "We've worked with some installers who come in with knowledge on the details of solar integration—they understand the economics of reducing energy consumption while generating electricity; they know how thick the wires are and where they need to go. ... And other installers see this as a trend and are getting involved for the first time," Dillon says. "As glazing contractors become more comfortable, they will be able to speak for our products as well," he says.

For additional educational support, Bugg also recommends installers consider "contracting expertise. There's no substitute for a reputable PV consultant," he says.

Coordination is key

Preconstruction planning and coordination is critical on projects with a solar component. "If there was ever an industry where you need front-end help and preconstruction coordination, it's solar," Juba says.

By nature, solar projects require various disciplines, and installers need to work closely with the other trades involved: electrical, roofing and possibly plumbing, in the case of thermal solar projects. This is often the largest challenge for glass companies making a foray into solar: "the different trades or disciplines that are introduced, from thermal systems that really turn you into a plumber, to the electrical work on all solar projects," says Rick Hamlin, executive vice president, estimating and design, Trainor Glass Co. Glaziers need to make sure they focus on the glazing business, rather than competing against other trades, he says.

Gregg Haeberle, project manager at PV Energy Solutions, agrees. "It's important that every player knows what's required and is on the same page, so there are no surprises. The glazier is just as capable as the electrician to install solar panels. It's just a matter of working together," he says.

"I suppose that [solar] is a case that cries out for coordination of trades," Bugg says. "It's not the first time our industry has seen similar challenges. Contract glaziers, ironworkers and sealers have found a way to coordinate their trade skills when erecting a complex curtain wall. To be successful at integrating PV into the building envelope, a similar approach will have to be taken."

Coordination with suppliers is also critical. Acralight International Skylights, a designer, fabricator and installer of custom skylights, works closely with solar panel suppliers during projects, says Paul Simony, vice president of sales and marketing. "There is a lot of coordination to ensure that the panels they provide can fit into our systems," he says. The team uses mockups using an actual solar panel to ensure the system will work and look as the architect and customer desire.

Acralight relied heavily on this coordination during the recent Bay Area Rapid Transit System project in Union City, Calif, Simony says. The BART project features more than 700 lineal feet of electricity generating skylights in two canopies, each about 330 feet long and 25 feet wide. The BIPV system was developed by Onyx Solar and is UL 1703 listed.

While the installation took just a few weeks, Acralight spent about two years working on the project. "We had a lot of preliminary design meetings, bringing in the whole team—everyone from the construction manager, to the BIPV suppliers, to the solar integrators. We worked very closely with the whole team to make sure everything was coordinated before installation," Simony says.

Adds Acralight Project Manager Brendan Rogers: "We were well educated on everything that was happening prior to installation."