Are You ‘PV Ready’?

Commercial rooftops are an attractive platform for the installation of solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity-producing systems. These low-slope roofs offer an economical and sustainable structural foundation for renewable solar energy. As an example, one of the largest roof-mounted PV systems in North Carolina has been online for several months at the Old Dominion Freight Line Inc. vault logistics facility in Thomasville. Almost 7,700 solar panels completely cover the warehouse’s 160,000-square-foot roof and produce enough power (1.8 megawatts) to offset more than 90 percent of the building’s annual energy costs.

Success stories like Old Dominion’s are becoming increasingly common in the sunny Carolinas. However, it is important to remember a roof’s function is, first and foremost, to protect the building’s contents and people from the elements. In this regard, roofing professionals need to anticipate the potential risks associated with the installation of a roof-mounted PV system (array). This sort of due diligence is particularly important when installing PV systems on existing warranted roofs.

A broad selection of membranes and thicknesses are available for consideration when a PV installation is planned. Photo courtesy of GAF, Wayne, N.J., and Protech Roofing Service, San Diego

A broad selection of membranes and thicknesses are available for consideration when a PV installation is planned. Photo courtesy of GAF, Wayne, N.J., and Protech Roofing Service, San Diego

To help in these industry efforts, members of Waltham, Mass.-based SPRI—the trade association that represents sheet membrane and component suppliers to the commercial roofing industry—have developed “PV Ready” roof assemblies and guidelines designed to provide maximum protection for the roof (and maintain its warranty coverage).

In September, SPRI’s technical committee and board of directors also approved and distributed to its members Technical Bulletin 1-13A, “Summary of SPRI Membrane Manufacturer Photovoltaic (PV) Ready Roof Systems and Services”. The bulletin contains general guidelines from SPRI related to “PV Ready” roof assemblies. This article goes into more depth about issues related to PV installations, particularly on existing warranted roofs.

Ask the Right Questions

The installation of a PV system on an existing warranted roof raises many important questions for the roofing professional and building owner. For example, will the roof accommodate the added weight of the PV array? Logistically speaking, before property owners decide on a solar-power system, they will need to determine whether their roofs are sturdy enough to support
the additional loads put on the existing roof structure by the solar array.

An average solar panel and support system typically add a minimum of 3 to 4 pounds per square foot to the existing roof. It is the responsibility of the roofing professional to ensure this additional weight does not exceed the load limits determined by the building’s designer.

From an economic (life-cycle-cost) point of view, it makes sense the service life of the existing roof membrane will come close to matching the projected service life of the PV system. If not, a complex and costly reroofing project may be required long before the solar panels need to be replaced. In general, the underlying roofing system must provide the same minimum investment horizon—generally at least 25 years—to realize the full potential of the rooftop PV system.

Most PV arrays require penetrating the roof membrane. Even non-rack-type systems may include electrical conduits, wiring and other components that may need to be flashed in a professional manner. It is essential the responsibility for this flashing work rests with the roofing contractor.

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About Mike Ennis, RRC

Mike Ennis joined SPRI in 1993. He has chaired a variety of SPRI committees and task forces and served as president from 2004-06. He became technical director of SPRI in 2007.

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