A New Guide for Solar Plan Reviewers, Code Inspectors, and Installers

June 11, 2018
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Summer 2018
This online-only article is a supplement to the Summer 2018 print edition of Home Energy Magazine.
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When an industry grows as fast as solar, it can be challenging for consumers, contractors, and code officials to be in lockstep on the path to a successful installation—from plan review to inspection to ultimately flipping the proverbial switch.

Local jurisdictions across a single state, and certainly across the country, have different plan review systems and inspection standards, and a wide range of adopted codes. So sharing national best practices and encouraging consistency doesn’t just make sense, it makes timelines and expenses easier to anticipate. And when expectations are the same at every stage—on the part of building plan reviewers, inspectors, and installers—consumers are likely to see fewer expenses associated with inefficiencies or delays.

New updated guidelines created by the independent Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) are designed to help local jurisdictions improve the solar plan review and field inspection process. The updated model checklists included in these guidelines—which can be customized for local and state code requirements while meeting national best practices—can then be used by plan reviewers, inspectors, and installers.

tr Revell PV Inspector Checklist Cover

A survey of code officials across the United States named the predecessor of this guide a top five solar resource. The newly expanded tool, Plan Review and Inspection Guidelines: Model Inspection Checklists for Rooftop PV, includes solar-specific code requirements updated to the 2017 National Electrical Code (NEC) and the most current international building, residential, and fire codes, as well as additional information on safety and new technologies. It provides guidelines for reviewing building permit plan applications and inspecting most residential rooftop PV systems.

"Tools like IREC's model inspection guidelines are invaluable to support the work of building and electrical inspectors. By consulting this comprehensive guide to an effective solar inspection, individual inspectors and AHJs [Authorities Having Jurisdiction] can tailor the tool to fit their needs in the office and in the field,” says Pete Jackson, chief electrical inspector for the town of Bakersfield, California.

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An energy storage system featured in new online field inspection training for code officials.

For solar installers, the use of an updated inspection checklist that matches the AHJ’s can help to alleviate any problems prior to inspection.

“Solar hit with such a whirlwind in our area that there seems to have been little time for cities and towns to come up with exactly what they want for permitting,” says Jeff Constantine, a master electrician and vice president of operations at SolarFlair, a residential and commercial installer in Ashland, Massachusetts. “Getting to a point where installers know what each town is looking for would be huge for the industry.”

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Solar PV Technology changes quickly, one reason guidelines about the inspection process are important for the most current updates and consistency.

Lots of things can stall permitting, Constantine explains. “Installers have to do their homework and make sure that they have all information necessary for municipalities to approve a permit and inspections. The municipalities need to accept solar and all the technologies with it, while understanding that the installation practice and quality has significantly improved over the years, and with the proper training will continue to improve.” 

He advocates for getting out in front of the approval process. “Walk in with everything needed for permitting. (Keep in mind that conversation with inspectors is never a bad thing.) IREC's best-practice document is just the right step toward accomplishing this.”

Scott Shipley, just back from a weeklong volunteer gig installing PV in Puerto Rico, has experienced solar’s popularity from a unique vantage point. His solar design and installation company (Northern Lights Energy, Canton, New York) has grown for 22 years near New York’s Canadian border. It was launched from his experience living with his wife and two children completely off the grid for more than 10 years, originally with only outside plumbing and water—diaper laundry and all.

“We have two grid-tied solar-electric systems now,” says Shipley, “with our second installed the end of last year to power our Chevy Volt, among other things.”

Shipley says he has a good relationship with local code officials. “In the early days, I knew more about solar and the code than they did. As a NABCEP [North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners] installer, I have to get CEUs [continuing-education units], and keeping up with the code is part of that. Now when I need to understand a code issue, I generally consult my inspector to ask what he thinks.”

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The International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI) and the International Code Council (ICC) contributed to the updating of IREC’s new Plan Review and Inspection Guidelines: Model Inspection Checklists for Rooftop PV.

Funded by the US Department of Energy, the guidelines are available free of charge.

Newly updated online modules for solar training are now available for code officials, for a limited time at no charge. CEUs are available from the IAEI and the ICC.

Ultimately, the AHJ is the one who decides what the code means and how it is applied. “One can believe in one's heart that the code says one thing, but if the AHJ disagrees, then one is wrong,” says Shipley. “The more consistency among code officers, certainly the better for installers. The code can be difficult to interpret, and anything that creates coherency and consistency is better for builders.”

While the new guidelines were originally intended for code officials, they can help educate inexperienced installers and serve as a refresher for those who are more seasoned. The desired result for all: efficiently meeting the requirements for a code-compliant installation. 

"Solar capacity has grown exponentially since the first model inspection checklist was released in 2013, as has the number of code officials who see solar in their communities," says IREC Workforce Director Laure-Jeanne Davignon. "Best practices and guidance documents like these are increasingly important to ensure consumer confidence and consistent practices throughout the country.” 

Ruth Fein Revell is a freelance writer in upstate New York. She manages communications for IREC.

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