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Solar Self-Storage Design: Size, Location, Placement and Aesthetics of a Solar-Panel Array


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.

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