When asked about the most common problem regarding solar + storage, HeatSpring instructor Chris LaForge came up with his answer without hesitation. Tune in to the video or the transcript below to hear Chris’s thoughts on the issue. Chris has been in the solar and storage industry for over 30 years and has several courses on HeatSpring, including Designing Small Scale PV Systems with Energy Storage and the Utility Scale Commercial & Industrial Solar and Storage Series

The most common problem is an undereducated client because now that you’ve got clients out there that have expectations built up about what their system’s going to do – especially when there is a power outage if it’s a grid-tied battery backup system or in general operation if it’s an off-grid, standalone system – is uneducated clients. 

Uneducated clients come to us thinking one thing – electricity comes from an outlet and that outlet gives me as much power as I wired it for. And I’ve got lots of them all over the place. That’s what they know about energy.

As long as there’s a grid there, that’s not a wholly unacceptable thought, but if it’s off-grid, that’s the wrong approach. In my training and years of working with contractors, I’ve always underlined the fact that you may feel like you’re losing money by doing a lot of education of your clients, but that’s the opposite of the truth.

You are investing more time with your client and it doesn’t pay you cash other than the whole system sale and installation, but you’re avoiding callbacks. The most incredible nuisance and real money loss is when you have to roll a truck to go over and slip on a breaker for your client, that’s three hours away.

Callbacks are the nightmare you want to avoid. Great Northern Solar has always had a minimum amount of callbacks, most systems have virtually none. I don’t have to roll a truck because I trained them when they do have a problem that they’re not familiar with, we can deal with it on the phone. That’s because they know where the system disconnects are. They know how to monitor their system and they know (roughly speaking within reason) what to expect from the system.

The biggest thing that we have to do is we have to train them to not over demand from an off-grid system. They need to learn to not over demand from a system that’s backing up a certain portion of their household loads during an extended power outage, because they’re going to report back when it doesn’t operate to their satisfaction.

And this is the call… “Chris, I’ve got an inverter problem.” I go, “okay, tell me what’s happening.” They’ll say, “well, the inverter goes on and then it goes off and it goes on and it goes off.” What they have is a dying or dead battery because the inverter requires a certain amount of operational voltage from the battery. The inverter won’t just turn on and turn off randomly.

The inverter needs an adequate amount of voltage. When a battery’s dying, it doesn’t have it. So as the load comes on, the inverter starts powering the load. The battery voltage collapses and the inverter at a certain point shuts off. Then this is a rapidly cascading thing because as the battery voltage goes down, the inverter actually tries to compensate to power the load by ramping up the amperage, which drags the battery voltage down faster, which shuts the whole thing off and turns the light off faster. Then it will manually reset and then turn on. 

So you think, I got an inverter problem. They [actually] got a dying or a dead battery. And so then you’re going to have to go into the maintenance of revitalizing batteries. Hopefully they haven’t really run the battery poorly for the entire life of the system, which gets me to the main job of avoiding these callbacks. And that’s training the client on what to expect as far as maintenance and doing that. 

The first maintenance of all these systems – whether you have batteries or not – is observation. You have to watch the system operate, which for the first 2, 3, 5, 6 months of a system is easy because people are really fired up. 

Man, look at my cool system. I get out my phone. You can watch it now. Show all my friends and I watch it all the time. Then by about six months into the life of the system… Okay. It works. And then I kind of don’t think about it. 

If that happens and you don’t really watch your capacities, especially on an off-grid system where the battery cycles every day deeply, you’re going to wear out your battery prematurely, lose a lot of money, and have these problems where the lights go off and you don’t know what’s going on.

So training the client, training the client, training the client, that’s the biggest thing to avoid all the problems. 

And yes, I’ve had a lot of students and a lot of contractor students over time. And yes, they find this to be a real money loser and they don’t do it enough. Then, they have problems.

So that’s the basic outline of what we see for the worst troubleshooting.