Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Solar Power System Inspected Years after Installation

The solar power system for our off grid cabin was not inspected when it was installed. Time to fix that.

The installer and electrician who did the original work in the early 2000’s didn’t pull a permit at the time. Now, more than a decade later, it was time to bring the work up to code and get it approved by an electrical inspector.

I called the Department of Labor and Industries, the state agency that performs inspections, and they recommended that I first hire in electrician to identify potential problems and correct them as needed. Leavenworth Electric graciously worked with me to do that.

Washington law complicates how licensed electricians work with DIY owner builders, but it doesn’t make it impossible. I pulled an electrical permit for a feeder, and the electrician pulled their own for the solar system at the same time. That way, we could divide up the work, everything was above board, and L&I would be happy. When we called for an inspection on part of the system, we referenced both permits.

There was a lot of work to do. We trenched and laid 400 feet of conduit between the powerhouse and the cabin site, plus a number of tasks that were never completed or not done properly the first time.

I would drive over to the property late in the week and meet the electrician there. We would review the work I had done the previous weekend, and go over the work that needed to be done the coming weekend. Then we would work together for the rest of the day on tasks that required skills or tools that I didn’t have.

One such tool was the hydraulic knockout tool, shown in the photo, which would have cost me well over $1000 to buy. There are cheaper and slower tools for this, suitable for smaller household conduit but not the 3 inch conduit we were mostly working with.

Contrary to what locals said would happen, I wasn’t penalized or fined for having an uninspected solar power installation. The electrical inspector was very understanding and reasonable – yes, even supportive. He helped me understand the code violations and the easiest ways to bring them up enough for him to approve them. He took time to understand rather complicated 48 VDC, dual AC voltage inverter system and generator interconnect.

It took us several weeks, but the entire installation and new conduit run were all approved. It’s a good thing, because new code requirements enacted a few months later would have caused us to rip out and reinstall significant pieces of infrastructure. We pulled our permit before those changes took effect.

When cabin construction reaches the point where we are starting to pull wire and connect it to this system, we’ll apply for a new permit for that work.

Photovoltaic combiner box with DC breakers and lightning arresters.
400 feet of PVC conduit and water line extend from powerhouse (on hill) to cabin site.

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