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A FIT time to invest in PV?

Despite the recent turmoil generated by government actions over the feed in tariff, now is still a good time for electrical contractors to invest in gearing up for solar PV installations.

The last two years have been turbulent for the solar PV sector, largely because of the government’s inconsistent approach to setting feed in tariffs (FITs). Initially, there was a generous FIT that made installations of all sizes very attractive but, when the scheme had been in operation for little more than a year, the government slashed the FIT for larger installations.

Then it turned its attention to domestic PV installations, announcing that the FIT for these would fall from 43p to 21p per kWh on 12 December 2011. This was subsequently ruled to be illegal, as the consultation period did not end until 24 December, so the change was delayed.

Nevertheless, the reduced FIT of 21p for domestic installations did take effect from 1 April 2012, with a further reduction to 15.7p planned from 1 July 2012.

As might be expected, the effect of all these changes on the PV installation business has been substantial, with a big boom period created as people rushed to beat each of the tariff change deadlines, followed by slumps as soon as the deadline was passed. Latest figures indicate a 90% fall in the number of installs during April 2012 against April 2011. Among electrical contractors, these dramatic market swings have created uncertainty and a degree of apprehension, making many reluctant to get involved in the PV market.

However, the government has now published a schedule of changes to the FIT so the unwelcome surprises of the past should not recur. And even though it’s clear that the FIT is unlikely to be as generous as it was a few months ago, there is still very strong interest in solar PV installations among homeowners. In addition, with PV technology advancing, a contractor can purchase a typical 4kW installation kit for less than £3600 today. This would have cost over £8000 twelve months ago and required more panels and subsequently more roof space.

Put simply, PV is here to stay. The demand for installations may not be quite as great as it could have been had the FIT been maintained at a higher level, but there is still good, profitable business to be done in installing PV systems. And an important part of the installation process is testing to ensure the safety and efficiency of the system.

For many contractors about to take the plunge into PV, testing is a particular concern as the view has been widely propagated that expensive dedicated test equipment is needed. That’s simply not true.

Almost all contractors will already have much of the test equipment they need and, even if they don’t, they can now buy competitively priced kits that include versatile instruments that can be used not just on PV systems but also in many other applications.

One key requirement on PV systems, as with any other type of electrical installation, is to test the insulation. An ordinary DC insulation tester or the insulation test function of a multifunction installation tester is perfectly adequate for this task. It is also necessary to measure DC voltage and current, and to check continuity, and a standard multimeter will often meet these requirements.

In some cases, a clampmeter with DC capabilities will be a more convenient option for current measurements as it eliminates the need to break the circuit in order to make the measurements.

In addition, clampmeters can usually measure higher currents than multimeters, which is particularly useful on larger PV arrays.

There is one special instrument that’s needed for working on PV installations and that is a solar irradiance meter. It is used to measure the strength of the diffuse radiation reaching the PV array. These instruments represent only a modest investment but they should be chosen with care. It is important to remember that an irradiance meter may well be used at the actual location where the PV panels are installed, which is typically on a roof. It is therefore important that it is easy to handle when working at height. Some types are not and may, for example, have sensors that are separate from the main instrument body, making it difficult to juggle a sensor in one hand and a meter in the other when working at the top of a ladder.

The best irradiance meters have a built-in sensor that makes them easy and safe to use with one hand. Another useful feature is a reading-hold function, which makes it unnecessary to struggle to keep continuous sight of the display when making measurements in awkward locations. A tripod bush is a further convenience for making precision measurements in a specific direction or at a specific angle.

The conclusion can only be that contractors don’t have to make a huge investment in test equipment to equip themselves for working on PV installations. In most cases, all they’ll need is an irradiance meter and, even if they do decide to buy a complete kit, if chosen wisely, they will acquire instruments that they will find useful in many situations. In short, there can be no doubt that now is the time for all forward-thinking contractors to spend a little on carefully chosen test equipment and carve out their share of the potentially lucrative PV market.

Simon Wood is UK Wholesale & Distribution Sales Manager at Megger

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