Solar Self-Storage Design: Size, Location, Placement and Aesthetics of a Solar-Panel Array
Copyright 2014 by Virgo Publishing.
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Posted on: 04/15/2012



 

By Bob Burson

There are many factors to consider when adding solar panels to a self-storage facility. These include cost, potential energy savings, incentives, physical requirements and more. But an important aspect often overlooked in the process is the overall system design.

Design can mean different things. To the facility owner, design can be as simple as the placement or location of the solar array. To the contractor, it will not only be the location but the type of modules and mounting structure, the tilt angle of the modules, the direction of the modules, the number of modules in a string, the size and number of inverters, and other factors. This article defines system design as the decision-making process that addresses the general size, location, placement and aesthetics of a solar array, as well as the building requirements needed to host a system.

Uncover Your Facility’s Needs

Your contractor will be able to recommend a system size based on a number of factors. The first and foremost is the facility's energy usage. Does the building have a live-in manager? Does it offer 24-hour access? Are some or all of the units climate-controlled? What kind of lighting does the site have? How old are the buildings? What climate does the property experience throughout the year?

All of these elements together will play a role in driving the energy use of a property, which will, in turn, determine your needs and directly affect the system’s size. The more solar panels in your array, the more power the system will produce. The more power you need, the larger your solar installation will need to be.

Once your contractor has recommended the ideal system size to meet your energy needs, you can work with him to determine the best location for the installation. The ideal placement of the solar panels will be one that receives unobstructed access to the most amount of sunlight as possible throughout the day. Most of time, this will mean the facility's roof, but it could be elsewhere on the property. It’s important to avoid nearby trees and buildings that may cast shadows because they’ll limit the system's energy production.

The DL Energy headquarters in Valencia, Calif., uses a ballasted racking system. The racking is held in place using weight (or ballast) from cinder blocks instead of being physically attached to the roof, allowing it to be installed on a building without affecting the integrity of the roof.

If your building has a parapet wall, you’ll want to provide enough offset from the perimeter of the building to avoid shading the array in the early morning and late evening. If possible, you also want your solar modules to be mounted at an angle facing the equator—south if you’re in the northern hemisphere and north if you’re in southern hemisphere.

This is where your contractor’s expertise is important. It’s up to him to provide you with a design that maximizes the system production based on the unique features of your property. It's important to remember that it’s not necessary to have a perfect building or installation to still achieve a strong return on investment.

Every facility has its own unique characteristics that will play a factor in determining the ideal installation location. Most often, these factors directly relate to the type of building and property. For example, does your facility have a flat or pitched roof? If it’s pitched, which direction does it face? What material(s) comprise the roof, metal, rolled composition or a PVC membrane? What’s the age of the roof? Does your property have unused land that could be used for an installation?

Your solar contractor will work with you on different design options based on your facility’s features. For almost every type of building, roofing and property, there’s a specific product designed for mounting solar panels.

Fortunately, there are three basic types of mounting categories for solar panels: direct attach, ballasted and ground mount. Within each one of these categories, there are many system-specific products.

A large residential installation in Santa Barbara, Calif., features a “top-of-pole” mounting system. Solar panels do not always need to be mounted onto roofs to be effective.

Direct-attach racking systems are designed to mechanically fasten directly to your building’s roof structure. Most racking companies will offer a variety of different mounting brackets, each designed for a different type of roofing system. They’re all designed to provide proper support to the racking while minimizing the impact on the roof.

Ballasted systems use weight or “ballast” to keep the panels in place. This is so you limit or eliminate any roof penetrations to maintain the integrity of the roof.

Ground-mount systems come in many different styles but are basically all doing the same thing: mounting your panels on the ground.

Make It Work

So you’ve figured out what size system you need, and you have a good idea of where you want to put it and how you’ll mount it, but do you even know if your building can handle the installation? This, again, will be based on your individual self-storage facility. For the most part, solar will not place a great strain on your building, so the addition of a solar array should not be difficult for it to handle.

There are, however, two issues that can be a challenge: the weight of the system and the wind load. Unless there's something unique about a facility (i.e., extreme age, unusual construction, etc.), it can usually handle the weight of a solar array because it weighs only a few pounds per square foot. More times than not, the biggest concern will be the wind load. This will require more engineering if you’re in a location with high instances of heavy wind. However, most solar panels and racking systems are designed for extreme weather conditions. Your contractor should include all the necessary engineering costs in his total price for the installation.

Consider Aesthetics

When it comes to the aesthetics of a solar installation, you’ll find a full range of opinions. It can be a very subjective topic. Some people feel the look of solar panels is quite appealing and progressive, while others think they can severely take away from the attractiveness of a building. It really comes down to how you feel about the look of a solar array.

In many cases, however, you do have some options to improve the overall look of the system or implement some design tools that can effectively hide the installation so most people will never see it. For example, you can tell your contractor you want all black panels to give the system a uniform look, or you can choose to flat mount the system on the roof so no one can see it at all.

Overall, the most successful designs are the ones that are a collaboration between the installing contractor and the facility owner. The contractor will be your partner, expert and advocate through the whole process, but it’s up to you to make the final decision on what’s best for your business.

Bob Burson is the director of business development for DL Energy, an energy-efficiency and solar-integration company that provides custom energy solutions for the commercial industry. For more information, call 661.310.7245; visit www.dlenergy.net.

Solar Design in Progress: Oakley Executive RV/Boat Storage

Oakley Executive RV/Boat Storage in Oakley, Calif., which is expected to open in the fall.

Oakley Executive RV/Boat Storage, being built on 11 acres in Oakley, Calif., is designed to be a full-service, class-A facility serving the recreation-storage needs of the Delta region and greater San Francisco Bay area. Opening this fall, the project features the Solar Support System designed and engineered by Baja Construction Inc. The installation covers 170,000 square feet, delivering 331 shaded parking spaces and supporting a 1.67 megawatt solar park. Solar panels attach directly to the support system, creating shade for parked vehicles. The facility will reap greater revenue from shaded-parking income and the solar energy produced.

Based in Martinez, Calif., Baja designs and engineers solar-support structures and light-gauge steel structures that perform under any snow, wind or soil condition or load. The company can provide a fully installed solar-support system to any jobsite nationwide.