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What to Expect from your RE Dealer

Richard Perez ©1997 Richard Perez

Every RE system begins its working life as a pile of equipment. Preparation, planning, and proper installation are all essential if the system is to be a success. You can do it yourself or you can get help from an installing dealer. Here is what to expect from your dealer. And here is what you may miss if you decide to do it yourself.

Load Analysis

Every renewable energy system begins with a complete, accurate, and thorough analysis of the appliances to be used in the system. If the load analysis is not properly done, then the system is bound to disappoint its user. If the system's energy consumption is estimated too low, then power shortages and dead batteries soon follow. If the estimate is too high, then the user is wasting money on unneeded equipment.

Who does this load analysis, the system's user or the person who sells the RE equipment? In most cases, both contribute information. The user lists and gathers data about each appliance (don't leave out even the smallest one and don't forget to plan for new appliances). How much and what type of electric power does the appliance consume? How much time will the appliance be operated? The dealer usually enters the appliance data into a computer and generates an estimate of daily energy consumption. A good dealer will also recommend appliance changes to reduce the system's energy consumption. The golden rule is: Every buck spent on an efficient appliance saves three bucks in system components. A good dealer knows this and will suggest replacing inefficient appliances (such as incandescent lighting and self-defrosting refrigerators which spit ice cubes out their door) with the most efficient type available. Listen to your dealer, he's not trying to sell you an expensive refrigerator, he's trying to save you three times the cost of that fridge in PV modules, controls, batteries, wiring and/or inverters.

Sad to say, many systems are purchased without ever doing a load analysis. Anyone who does this is wasting money and bound to be disappointed with their system. A good renewable energy system dealer will insist that a load analysis be done before selling you a system. If you haven't done the analysis, then he will nag you into it, or visit you and do the analysis with you. He deserves to be paid for this generously because he is really doing your homework.

A Budget is not a Load Analysis

Don't buy a packaged system just because its price is what you want to spend. Do the load analysis and if the system needed to power these loads is too expensive, modify the loads. Replace inefficient appliances, and if need be eliminate appliances until the system is affordable. It is not unusual to go through the load analysis and system design phases three or four times before the right system is found. This system costs what the user wishes to spend and the load analysis details the energy consumption of each appliance.

If you don't know how to do a load analysis, then see the article written by Ben Root in HP#58, pages 38-44. If you are hiring a dealer to do the load analysis, make sure they are listing all the criteria shown in Ben's article.

Site Survey

A site survey is an analysis of a specific location for its renewable energy potential. Every place is different, but your system is going to be installed in a specific location. You need to determine what types and amounts of energy are available to you. Site survey varies from simple to complicated. Let's look at surveying a site for PV potential.

Sunlight is the fuel used by PV modules to make electricity. The PV array needs to be located where it will receive the maximum amount of sunlight. With seasonal variations in the sun's declination, daily constant changes in the sun's azimuth, and possible shading from hills, trees, and buildings, finding the best spot for the PV array can be difficult. What is needed here is an instrument such as the Solar Pathfinder®. The Solar Pathfinder makes it easy to find the best spot and it produces a hardcopy , called a sun chart, of that exact place's solar insolation potential. If your dealer shows up to survey your solar site without a Solar Pathfinder or similar instrument, fire him. If you are doing your own site survey for PV, then borrow, rent, or buy a Solar Pathfinder and learn to use it. See HP#57 and HP#21 for specific information on solar site surveys.

Wind is a difficult resource to survey. Most wind generators are installed without long-term, wind speed, data logging. The current best idea for wind site analysis is installing a small generator at the exact place and at the same height as the proposed big generator. Recording instrumentation monitors the small genny's performance for a period of a year or so and then this info is used to estimate the performance of larger gennys. An experienced wind dealer, while he doesn't know your site's measured wind potential, he can make a very accurate guess. He can also help you find a suitable location for the tower and encourage you to make it as high as possible. See HP#40 and HP#41 for specifics on wind site analysis.

Hydro is the easiest renewable energy source to survey. Use either conventional surveying methods, or the cheap, but none the less accurate, liquid level method. Surveying for hydro can be done either by the system's owner or by the dealer. All that counts is accurate head and flow measurements and some historical data on the water sources seasonal output. See HP#21 for hydro siting information.

Many installing dealers combine the load analysis and site survey into a trip to their customer's site. In addition to working on the load analysis and siting the RE equipment, the dealer also gleans more vital information such as all wiring lengths and battery location. From the site survey he is able to estimate how much RE potential is present. This RE potential coupled with the load analysis is all the information needed to proceed to the next stage—system design.

System Design

Designing a renewable system means using the system's energy requirements and its RE potential to generate a specific list of RE equipment. This RE equipment supplies the needed electricity as per the load analysis and site survey. Put into sentences it sounds easy, but really there is just as much art as science involved in system design.

Consider that a system designer can choose between at least eight different brands of PV modules with each brand having at least four models. Consider that you can choose many different battery types, wind genny models, inverter kinds, control makes, and instrument types. There are literally thousands of different combinations of equipment. A good system designer has learned through experience what works and what doesn't. He knows which equipment plays well with other equipment. He knows details such as: should we use a PV tracker, what size pipe to use in hydros, how tall should the tower be, how should the battery be configured, what kind and size of cable/wires are required, and inverter/appliance compatibility. They know your local RE environment. When you pay someone to design your system, you are buying their expertise. In almost all cases, professional help with system design pays off—mistakes in the design phase are expensive to fix after installation.

Every system, regardless of size and without exception, should be safely designed. Over current protection devices, disconnects, and proper conductor use make for a safe system. If your dealer doesn't do NEC® compliant systems, then get another dealer who does. If you are doing the design yourself, learn the NEC and follow the rules. Renewable energy is real. It can burn down your home as easily as the grid.

Once the system designer has a specific list of RE equipment we find out an essential bit of information— the system's hardware cost. At this stage the system's customer usually chokes and says, "I can't afford that!" Does the system's designer begin deleting PV modules and batteries to bring the system down in cost? NO! A good system designer goes back to the load analysis. Can we do anything more efficiently? Can we do without some of the luxury appliances? The system's user and the designer work on the load estimate until the system becomes affordable. A good designer will revise the design until it satisfies the current load estimate and the customer can afford all the hardware. This is an essential give and take process. One very important product of this process is that the user is made aware of the system's capabilities. If the designer knows what he is doing, then the customer knows what the system will power.

System Purchase

With the load estimated, the site surveyed, and the system designed we have arrived at the first big milestone—the one where you get to part with your hard earned bucks.

Now is a good time to pause. Are you comfortable with your dealer/designer? Do you trust them? If you have doubts, now is the time to get a second opinion. If you decide on a second opinion, pay the first dealer/designer at this point. Pay them for their help in load analysis, their site survey, and their work in designing your system. This makes their design yours—you just bought it. If you decide to buy from another dealer, then this essential information is yours to use. Most dealers/designers charge from a measly $200 to about $600 for the load analysis, site survey, and system design. Many will refund this charge if you buy the gear from them and have them install it.

If you designed your system yourself and are shopping around for the cheapest deal in hardware which you intend to install yourself, then you should get a second opinion. Hiring an experienced designer/installer to review your load analysis, site survey, and system design is money very well spent. Most designer/dealer/installers will do this for less than 5% of the money you are planning on spending for hardware. A second opinion before purchasing your first-time design can save thousand of dollars later.

It is not uncommon for installing dealers to ask you to pay for some or all of the hardware prior to installation. This allows them to use your capital to finance the job. It is not uncommon for installing dealers not to have all the equipment for your system in stock. Inventory costs money and a little patience on your part keeps installing dealers from having to charge you more for your system. You should never have to pay for installation labor until the system is installed and working to your satisfaction. It is not uncommon for an installing dealer to refuse to install hardware which they did not sell. The installing dealer is working on very slim profit margins. Installing dealers are beset on all sides by competition with companies that offer low prices instead of on site service. If you appreciate the help that your installing dealer has given you and will give you, show it by paying them enough to live on.

At this point money changes hands. Everything must be on paper, one copy for the installing dealer and the other for the system customer. In this packet of paper work is: a copy of the final load analysis, a copy of the site survey complete with sun chart, a printout of the system design, including system schematic, with all estimated RE production data, manufacturer's spec sheets for all components, and a copy of the hardware bill. If you don't have all this paper work at this point, then don't sign the check until you do.

Your installing dealer will now take your check, order your gear, and prepare to return to your site for installation. This entire process may take two to six weeks, so be patient.

Shipping

There may be some of you who are acting as your own designer/installer and are now getting ready to accept the equipment you have purchased from a company who doesn't install. Check every box and every item for damage before you accept shipment from the carrier. Once you've signed off and accepted the shipment, claims for damage are very difficult. If you notice any damage, then refuse to accept all the damaged goods and have it returned to the shipper. Let your supplier and their carrier discuss who is to pay for the broken equipment.

If you purchased your system from an installing dealer, then you can forget shipment hassles. The dealer will show up at your site with all the equipment in good condition. You have already paid them to deal with any broken batteries or smashed PV modules that may have occurred. This is their problem not yours.

Installation

This is the phase which really determines if you were right in deciding to install your own design, or whether you should have hired an installing dealer to help you. This is where months of planning and many dollars should become electricity.

If you are installing your own system, then I can only hope you have done your homework. We at Home Power have tried to help with technical information, schematics, and everything we could think of that would make you as informed as an installing dealer. What we cannot supply through Home Power is experience. Only time and many systems installed and working can do that.

If your system is being installed by an installing dealer, then you should consider becoming his shadow. This person has done dozens, maybe hundreds, of these systems. He is a wealth of information and will explain every wire and every device if you have sense enough to ask. The installing dealer should explain to the user battery watering and any other routinely required maintenance. The dealer should also explain how to operate the system's controls, how to use the inverter, and how to understand the information displayed by the system's instruments.

Most installing dealers will let you work with them. Most dealers would rather that you dig the wiring trenches or wind machine tower foundation holes. Building the power shed housing the PVs, batteries, and inverter yourself can save your money. Sweat equity pays off here. Installing dealers are highly skilled and mostly very busy. You can pay them to dig trenches at about $35+ an hour or you can do it yourself.

Also under the heading of sweat equity is system maintenance. During installation is a great time to learn routine system maintenance, such as battery watering, from your dealer.

Most installing dealers will not install hardware which they did not sell. Please don't shop around for a cheap deal on RE equipment and then ask your local dealer to install the system. If you want installation, then pick a dealer and involve them from the very beginning. An installing dealer must both sell the hardware and install it if they are going to make a living. Respect this and your local dealer is a terrific resource.

At this critical installation phase, the self-installer should consider every cable, wire, connector, over current device, and disconnect in the system. Is it designed properly? There is no such thing an an unimportant connection. Every wire and connector must be done right. For example, it takes a $300 crimper the size of pruning shears to properly attach the connector (@$2.50) to a 0000 copper cable. It takes a set of punches costing over $200 to make holes in electrical boxes. It takes a conduit bender to make bends in EMT conduit. While the bender is cheap, it's easy to waste $200 worth of conduit learning to use it. Installing dealers have all these tools and know how to use them.

Passing Electrical Inspection

Many installing dealers are also state-certified electrical contractors. Those who are not, hire an electrical contractor to oversee their work and show up for the electrical inspection. Chances are that your installing dealer has met with your electrical inspector before and knows what he is looking for. If the system is done to the local specs, then there will be no problems here.

If you installed your system yourself, then expect critical examination by your electrical inspector. Don't be offended or angry, the inspector really has your best interest at heart. He knows that this is the first system you have done. He is merely safe guarding your home and family. If the electrical inspector finds faults, listen to him. Make any changes he requires regardless of what it costs. If there are substantial changes at this stage of the process, you have only yourself to blame— you did not do your homework.

Dealer Support

Your installing dealer should support you. If any component fails while under warranty, the dealers should remove it from your system and seek warranty repair on your behalf. When the component is repaired or replaced they should reinstall it in your system at no charge to you. You should be able to call your dealer and ask them questions about your system's operation. If you are not getting this type of service from your dealer, then change dealers.

If you designed and installed your own system, then you have little recourse to service. If things go wrong or don't work when installed, then calling the catalog business which sold you the hardware is going to do little good. Troubleshooting a botched installation requires an on-site visit by a sharp technician. Many mail order companies are not equipped to spend hours on the phone with you trying to find what is miswired or improperly applied. If you are going to install your own system, then you should learn enough not to need outside technical support.

System Buyers treat your Installing Dealer right!

Your installing dealer is your best avenue for getting a system that works well at a reasonable price. Please realize that they cannot compete with discount mail order firms. Don't ask them to. Instead of a cheap deal, the installing dealer offers you expert personal service. Please realize that your installing dealer has overhead and expenses. It is not uncommon for them to wear out pickup trucks like you wear out tooth brushes. Expect your dealer to charge you mileage and realize that they must do this in order to stay in business. If this personalized service is worth the approximately 15% extra a system will cost when designed by, purchased from, and installed by professionals, then your dealer is your man. If not, then there is the phone and you are on your own.

Installing Dealers treat your Customers right!

This article details your responsibilities to your customer. If you are not providing this level of service, then you are in the wrong business. Have patience with non-technical customers who call in the middle of the night saying their batteries are broken because their voltage went down at sunset. Not everyone is a tech weenie and most customers will need considerable schooling from you before understanding how their systems work. This is your job. Your customers are part of your family, treat them as such.

Still want to design and install your own system?

I don't mean to discourage you, in fact we do our level best here at Home Power to give you all the information you need. You must do your homework. Take a hard, honest look at your abilities and available time. Failing in this leads to expensive, barely working systems which are often safety hazards. Renewable energy is not rocket science. You can learn to do systems properly and safely if you take the time to learn everything thoroughly. Be prepared to buy some expensive tools such as the monster lug crimper mentioned earlier. Be prepared to make mistakes and pay for those mistakes. While the information in Home Power is as complete and thorough as we can make it, it is not a substitute for on the job experience.

Access

I spent over ten years as an installing dealer of RE systems. During this time I established over one hundred systems before becoming editor of Home Power.

Richard Perez, c/o Home Power Magazine, PO Box 520, Ashland, OR 97520 Tele: 916-475-3179 (during west coast biz hours) FAX: 916-475-0836 (24 hours a day) E-mail: [email protected]

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Renewable Energy 101

Renewable Energy 101

Renewable energy is energy that is generated from sunlight, rain, tides, geothermal heat and wind. These sources are naturally and constantly replenished, which is why they are deemed as renewable. The usage of renewable energy sources is very important when considering the sustainability of the existing energy usage of the world. While there is currently an abundance of non-renewable energy sources, such as nuclear fuels, these energy sources are depleting. In addition to being a non-renewable supply, the non-renewable energy sources release emissions into the air, which has an adverse effect on the environment.

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