Rooftop solar systems are garnering increased attention of late, and they are becoming less pie-in-the-sky and more mainstream in the public consciousness. Recognizing this trend and determined to stay on the leading edge of this potentially market-altering development is Michael Jacobazzi, who is convinced of the potential of photovoltaic (PV) systems.
“I believe that this is the beginning of a new future for what we’re going to be seeing on rooftops across the United States,” he said. “I feel good about being able to get involved with it from the beginning, so we can be one of the go-to guys. I’m trying to be a sponge and absorb everything I can about this technology.”
Jacobazzi’s company, Roofing Concepts Unlimited (RCU), was established in 1961 as R&J Roofing in Chicago, and a branch was opened in Florida in 1986. Both operations were running between 1986 and 1992; then the hurricanes hit, and all resources were allocated to the Florida operation.
“The solar market kind of grabbed my attention a while back at the NRCA convention in Las Vegas,” Jacobazzi explained. “There were a couple of companies - United Solar Ovonic and Advanced Green Technologies - that were exhibiting. United Solar Ovonic is a manufacturer based in suburban Detroit; they make the thin-film solar electric laminates. Advanced Green Technologies has distribution rights for United Solar Ovonic’s UNI-SOLAR system; they’re located 15 minutes from us in Fort Lauderdale, so we’ve partnered with them.”
Jacobazzi likes the versatility of thin-film laminates. “Compared to the rack systems, the thin-film system is, in my opinion, the neatest, cleanest and simplest installation because it’s non-penetrating, there are no wind uplift concerns, and it’s easy to transverse across the roof. Let’s say you had a 10,000-square-foot roof, and 8,000 square feet were covered with a racked system, with panels lined up end-to-end and side-to-side,” he said. “Each one of those panels has a pitch pan for each leg. If you have a leak in the middle of that system, you’d have to remove the racked panels to make a path to where you need to get on the roof. The rack systems are pretty much limited to a southern exposure in order to maximize their benefits. You don’t have that limitation with the thin-film system because it’s down flat on the roof. It gets sun as long as the sun is up.”
Understand that these are not waterproofing systems to protect the building and its contents. These systems are incorporated into the roofing system in order to generate electricity for the building. That’s a distinction that serves as a barrier in the minds of many in the industry. RCU primarily is a commercial, industrial and institutional roof contracting firm. “We do asphalt and coal tar built-up roofing, modified bitumen, TPO single-plies, metal roofing - which is becoming big business for us - and anything to do with roof-related sheet metal,” Jacobazzi said. “We do a little bit of residential work - our residential division accounts for maybe 5 percent to 10 percent of our business. During peak season, we run about 100 employees.” That’s a pretty conventional operation, proving that the rooftop solar market is not some distant, out-of-reach place available only to the most adventurous of souls.
“Solar contractors are not roofing contractors,” Jacobazzi said. “When you’re dealing with solar systems that are being installed on a rooftop, you can’t put someone up there who doesn’t have roofing knowledge, and turn them loose to install a solar system for the building. Incorporating the solar system - whether it’s the laminated type where it’s actually integrated into the roof or the panel type where it sits on angled legs on the roof - is going to impact the roof, so a thorough knowledge of roofing assemblies is absolutely necessary. The building owner wants to know that once the solar system is installed, the building remains watertight. These panels provide no waterproofing value. However, they do help protect the roof surface from ultraviolet damage. That’s why it’s imperative that a roofing contractor heads up these projects. The roofing contractor partners with an electrical contractor that has the expertise - and licensing - to wire these systems. The roofing crew does the actual installation of the system. Then, when it comes to wiring the system together, and then tying it into the utility company’s power grid, you obviously need to know what you’re doing there, hence the electrical contractor.”
Solar applications are more common in Florida, noted Jacobazzi. “People - especially in this area - have become accustomed to seeing a lot of solar panels for hot water heaters and swimming pools; those have been around a long time now. So it’s not that big a leap for people to understand the benefits of capturing the energy from the sun in a solar collector, and turning it into electrical power to run a building or home. With the cost of energy these days, the thought of being able to substantially reduce that is very intriguing for people. The interest in this product has been overwhelming.”
One of the downsides right now for this technology - just like for anything else that is new - is that it’s relatively expensive. “In order to make the financial models work, and to make the return on investment make sense to the building owner, it’s very important that our state and federal governments continue to show their support by offering rebates and tax incentives,” stressed Jacobazzi. “It varies state-to-state; states have differing views, agendas, goals and budgets when it comes to going green. In my state, in particular, we’re lacking a bit. We’re a little bit behind the curve. There are many of us within the industry who constantly are working toward improving that because we’re the Sunshine State, we really should be setting the standard for everyone else to follow. California is ahead of us by leaps, and even our neighbors to the north in the Carolinas and all up the East Coast have better incentive programs in place, and that is making this business boom in those areas. What we have available to us right now in Florida is a solar rebate program that is funded with $5 million - really not a lot of money in the big picture, and it’s exhausted pretty quickly because it covers all solar, not just roofing systems.”
Jacobazzi discussed the restraints he’s dealing with at this time: “As for the PV solar systems that we’re promoting, the state pays $4 per kilowatt, with a cap of $100,000. That’s a bit of a hindrance for us because it means the largest system that you can put on a building is 25,000 kilowatts. As an example, the Piper Aircraft plant in Vero Beach has a 90,000-square-foot building with a metal roof and electric bills that are six figures per month. After going through the financial models on a $2.6 million solar installation, and given the $100,000 rebate, the return on investment was about 16 years, so that was the end of that.
“As great as this system is, and with all its environmental offsets, it’s hard to sell a large system. Only companies that have made a very strong commitment to going green - the Wal-Marts, the Coca-Colas, companies that pride themselves on environmental friendliness and consider price secondary to those concerns - are viable prospects when it comes to the large systems. So most of the systems we’re installing right now - because of the way the incentives and rebates work - are right around that 25,000 kilowatt size. That allows the customer to maximize both the rebates and incentives and the benefits of the system itself.”
But he remains undeterred. “I think with the new administration and its stated commitment to renewable and sustainable energy sources - and solar always is on top of the list - this is going to be huge for the roofing industry,” he said.
Some Nuts and Bolts
These systems are grid-tied, meaning they feed power into the local utility’s power grid.
During the day, a building is going to have varying energy demands - air conditioning, lights, computers, etc. The building uses the power from the solar system first, and then whatever shortfall there is gets picked up immediately by the utility company.
The panels come in various sized rolls. While they are flexible, they contain metals inside of them in order to collect the sun’s energy so you can only bend them so much. They have a self-adhering sealant on the back - almost like a butyl tape with a release paper. “The panels we have installed on our building are 15½ inches wide and 18 feet long,” explained Jacobazzi. “The panel size to use depends on the layout of the roof area. You can’t cut the panels, but you can mix and match different sizes to fit into the configuration you’re dealing with. Also to consider are roof penetrations and shading issues. If you have a 2-foot parapet wall, you want to stay back from the wall four feet. You want to maximize the panels’ exposure to the sun so they can do their job.”
Jacobazzi used his own building as an example. “We had a gravel-surfaced roof on our building,” he said. “We installed that about a year ago, not knowing that we’d be pursuing this solar technology. We removed the gravel and put down an inch of iso and a half-inch of wood fiber to give us a suitable surface to fully adhere a TPO membrane, allowing us to install the PV solar system.” These systems cannot be installed on gravel or PVC. The butyl tapes on the back of the solar panels have compatibility issues with the PVC.”
“Our building uses 192 panels that each generates 136 watts of DC power,” Jacobazzi continued. “The panels, which are very thin - 0.2 inches - are put together in strings. There are two output cables at one end of the panels so they can be strung together. The connectors are watertight PVC wire management trays that conceal and protect the wires. It makes for a very neat and clean installation. Installing the panels really is quite simple. It’s kind of like laying floor tile. You pull measurements off of two corners and snap a couple chalk lines to get squared off. Just like with floor tiles, the first couple need to be right or you’ll get off course. You start at one corner of the roof and work your way around. Before you actually stick the panels down, you have to wipe down the roof surface with acetone. Two guys are prepping the roof surface, and two guys follow behind and install the panels. You want to keep the panels out of the sunlight until moments before they are to be installed. You can keep them inside their containers, or you can put up a portable tent to keep them shaded. The reason for this is if they get too hot, the release paper on the back of the panel is difficult to remove. Once you get rolling, it’s a very fluid system.
“You roll out the panel, and before you release the paper, you make sure that it’s in the correct position because you want everything true and square and plumb so it all lines up nice and neat - aesthetics count. You lay them out loose; that way, you can adjust them. The installers can use permanent markers to help keep them in line. They get the panels situated, and while the panel is down flat - not in the roll position - they’ll start at one end of the panel and pull the release paper diagonally. The release paper is coming off on a diagonal and out the side of the panel; you’re not pulling it straight out toward the end of it. As the panel is in position, you’ve got one person on hands and knees ready to push the panel down in its place, and the other person is pulling the release paper off to the side. Typically, it goes from end-to-end as fast as the person pulling the release paper can walk. After maybe 10 or 15 of the panels are down in place, a couple crew members will drop back and go over the panels with rubber rollers to fully compress that butyl tape onto the roof.”
The Small DetailsWarning: you cannot adjust these panels once they are completely put down.
“You want to keep about a quarter-inch gap between the sidelaps of the panels in case you have to make an adjustment in case a panel isn’t perfectly square,” Jacobazzi said. “Once a panel is down, it’s down; you’re not going to be able to move it. You’ve got one shot to get that panel lined up, and that’s before you start pulling off that contact paper. The headlaps need to be about 6 inches apart because that’s where the wire management trays are going to be situated later. Once all the panels are down, the panels are strung together by the electricians. Then the strung-together panels are hooked into a combiner box, which takes all the wires that have been strung in series, and combines them into one wire. The combiner box often is mounted to the side of a parapet wall, and is located in the proximity of where the main comes into the building. The combiner box wire goes into a fuse disconnect that’s mounted next to the combiner box. From the disconnect box, it goes down to another disconnect - the redundancy is for safety purposes - and from there, it goes into an inverter, which takes the DC power and converts it to AC power for delivery to the utility service. Then it can be circulated back into the building.
“The utility company provides a digital bi-directional meter that allows you to track when the meter is spinning backward. For example, on our building, on a very sunny weekend day when we’re closed and the lights and equipment are off and the thermostat is turned up, we can go into the building and actually see the meter going backward - we’re banking kilowatt hours. In some cases, the solar system generates more power than the building consumes, therefore allowing the owner to sell the extra energy back to the utility company. Our system isn’t capable of providing all our power needs, but it does reduce it substantially. As soon as you enter my office, you see a 50-inch flat-screen on the wall that displays the monitoring system. When people visit my office, that’s a real eye-catcher. It tracks the data from the day the system was installed right up to the current moment.”
Maintenance IssuesRegular service and maintenance on the roof doesn’t change. Aside from the occasional blister, most of the maintenance is done on components other than the field of the roof where the solar system is installed. “You’re going to look after drains, curb penetrations, vent stacks perimeter counterflashing, debris and foliage cleanup,” Jacobazzi noted. “All of that still is going to be done. It’s in the installing contractor’s best interests to explain to the building owner the importance of continued maintenance, especially considering the size of investment involved. So really, nothing changes in that regard. Let’s say you do have a blister in the field of the roof. Then you would have to remove the panels in the immediate area to facilitate the necessary repairs.”
Rooftop equipment means people are going to be walking around up there. These panels are very durable; they can be walked on. They are hurricane-resistant, Dade County-approved. You don’t, however, want crew members stomping around up there with asphalt and gravel on their work boots. And what if an HVAC guy is up there and he drops a wrench on a panel? “It will take a wrench falling off a 3-foot air conditioning unit,” explained Jacobazzi. “If the wrench falls from four stories up, then you’ve got a damaged panel. If a couple panels are damaged for any reason, the system keeps going. Obviously, it won’t perform to its maximum potential. And once the system has been in place for a while, you can tell by the data monitoring system how things are working.”
“The thin-film will be the most successful of the solar systems in the commercial market because of the way it’s installed - it’s not intrusive and it’s easy to maintain,” Jacobazzi said. “I imagine that in the next five years, we’ll see the prices start to come down, and we’ll also see improvements in the types and dollar amounts of the incentive and rebate programs.”