Solar Racking Begins!

by Ben N on May 8, 2017

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I finally had a chance to start installing the Racking!

My package with the S-5! clamps showed up, and I was able to begin the racking during two evenings of this past week.

Let’s state two things right off the bat:
1) I am NOT a professional. I do not make a living doing this sort of thing. While I have taken a solar class before, I’ve NEVER done a full-blown system all by myself.

2) I have never worked on metal roofs.

So, I’m making this up as I go….
On a typical asphalt shingle roof, a shingle can be lifted up, and a roofing jack can be slid under it. That’s held in place by a few nails UNDER the shingle. The jack in turn holds a wide wood board. This gives the worker a place to set down tools and materials without sliding off the roof. It’s also a great place to stop the human if he starts sliding a little.

IMG_4341So, on my METAL roof, the fact that it’s a single piece of roofing all the way up is actually a disadvantage – I can’t use roofing jacks! I decided to instead mount the first row of solar racking within arm’s-reach of the bottom edge of the roof. My spacing sketch allowed for the racking to go there, and I could install it from a ladder. I attached S-5! clamps to either end of the roof, then filled in the ones in the middle in a straight line compared to the ones on the end. Install a clamp, climb down the ladder, move the ladder, climb up the ladder, install another clamp; repeat.

The clamps are installed on every third rib of the roofing. The ribs are 16″ wide, and the spacing works out to supporting the racking every four feet. This means 8 clamps per row of racking. Once the clamps were all in place, I carried the 28′ long piece of racking (held right in the middle) straight up the ladder, set it on the clamps, and bolted it down. That’s the quick description. Again, it took a fair amount of time, working from the top of the ladder, moving the ladder, and repeating seven more times.

When I was done, I finally had a bar that would at least prevent me from sliding straight off the top of the roof. It looked very much like one of those “snow retainers” that keeps an avalanche of snow from sliding off metal roofing. With the first piece of racking in place, I was finally able to actually climb onto the roof. First, I put on a brand-new pair of shoes that I had bought after searching the entire store for the style with the most non-slip soles. The roof pitch is an odd one – 6.8:12 – the reasoning on that had more to do with weird zoning laws and height maximums. Let’s just say that my roof is between 6:12 and 7:12 in pitch.

I climbed up onto the metal and…… ZERO grip!

Seriously, it was like Teflon up there. I could put hardly any weight at all on my foot without immediately sliding. I COULD walk, hunched over, as long as my feet were right up against the racking. Even better, I could “crab-walk”. I faced downhill, sat my butt on the metal, and braced my foot on the racking. THAT felt secure. With my low center of gravity and foot position, I wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, it was rather nice laying up on the roof on a spring evening. That was enough work for one day.

The following evening, I was able to install the next two rows of racking.

IMG_4392This time, I placed a clamp at either end of the roof and stretched a string between the two of them. This would be my straight-edge to help me locate the rest of the clamps. I continued adding the clamps, lining them up with the string, and tightening them down. Next, I carried one piece of 14′ racking onto the roof and then bolted it in place. I then installed the splice in the other half while on the ground, carried it to the roof, slid the splice into place, and bolted down the second half of that row of racking.

Since I could now stand on the SECOND row of racking, it allowed me to reach up and start working on the third row. (The second row also made an excellent hand-hold when standing at the first row, heading up and down from the ladder.)

I was able to install the third row before it was starting to get dark.

IMG_4397By this point, I was pretty high in the air. A little lower down, with my foot-hold on the first row and hold-hold on the second, I felt fairly secure, but less so the higher I was going. Hmmmm. It’s probably time that I really think about safety here. Being an amateur should NOT mean simply being stupid. I knew that I had a climbing harness around (although everything that USED to be in my garage was now in storage, possibly at one of several different locations…) I figured that I could rig something up with a rope to the peak of the garage, or possibly over the top, back down to the ground.

The big reason why I didn’t get ANY work done on the garage this weekend was that I was off at a three-day workshop-style class on wind turbines. I already knew the instructor through the MREA and some other events. I asked him about ideas for fall protection, and ended up getting a loan of an aut0-retracting strap. The device is somewhat like a safety belt in a car – if you pull on it, it unrolls. If you let go of it, it retracts. But, if you jerk quickly on it, it locks into place – for example when you stumble and would otherwise be falling off the roof.

IMG_4470I showed my six year old daughter how this device would help keep me safe on the roof, and she insisted on testing it herself. A few minutes later, she was hanging from the ceiling of the garage.

As soon as I get some more time, I should be able to continue installing the racking – this time with some fall protection. Although I’m pretty solid on the roof, I still can’t WALK on it. That means I still need my hands to move around, which in turn means that I can’t have two hands free to carry solar panels. I plan to get all the racking, the micro-inverters, cabling, and everything else needed installed on the roof by myself. After that, we’ll need a crane/man-lift, etc. to safely install the solar panels. Most likely, I’ll hire the metal roofer for a day, along with his boom machine for us to get the panels onto the roof and in place.

Until next time, stay charged up! And no falling off roofs!

-Ben

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