By Kevin Casey and Bradley Cardoso
The benefits extend beyond energy production. Thoughtfully designed solar canopies reduce winter maintenance and give parking areas a distinctive presence.
The adoption of solar technology offers a substantial opportunity to make a meaningful reduction in a building’s carbon footprint while also having significant economic benefits and enhancing building marketability. A thoughtful design approach that situates solar arrays atop parking garages or above parking lots extends savings far beyond energy production, benefitting the bottom line by reducing winter maintenance and other operational costs, while giving parking areas a distinctive presence and offering tenants an extra comfort perk. This innovative approach to sustainability promotes operational longevity and, as an added benefit, offers a way to install solar panels without the need to puncture building roof membranes.
Solar power generation can be made most effective when it starts with quality design and construction. Upgrading a property with solar technology should not be done in haste; a properly planned system results in maximized efficiency and eliminates difficulties post-construction. Four planning factors have a major impact on success:
1. Involve the state or local government early in the design process.Facility managers and building owners should approach a solar project as they would any other construction project. To avoid costly and time-consuming adjustments later, governing agencies should be included early in the process to ensure the design meets necessary permit requirements. When solar was introduced many years ago, small towns and municipalities were often apprehensive about having a large electrical apparatus attached to their utility infrastructure. Solar is now a proven technology widely recognized as an energy generator and saver, making decision-makers more receptive.
2. Be neighborly and conduct glare studies. The most productive angle to get the highest performance possible from your solar array could potentially have a negative impact on adjacent properties. Imagine the mid-day glare of sunshine bouncing off a commercial solar array – and into the windows of commercial or even residential neighbors. A glare study will uncover any possible issues and allow the design to be tweaked to mitigate the unwelcome effect. Sometimes adjusting the angle by a mere degree can reduce the glare on a neighbor. However, design modifications to alleviate the glare should be thoroughly analyzed to substantiate that the potentially less productive design remains efficient and has a sufficient return on investment. Transparency throughout the design phase demonstrates your trustworthiness as a good neighbor and community partner.
3. Work with experienced vendors. The effort to design and build efficient solar power systems is more successful when partnering with construction companies committed to high-quality construction as well as having experience with solar. They need the expertise to install the solar structures on existing parking garages without jeopardizing roof warranties and the garage itself. Great care must be taken to install the modules so they perform properly at optimal design capacity. In addition, the connection of solar arrays to an internal facility monitoring and testing system necessitates the expertise of an experienced construction company.
4. Create a logistics plan. Construction of a canopied roof solar array will temporarily remove a significant amount of parking at an actively used parking garage. The establishment of a proper logistics plan should take into consideration the high-traffic times for the building occupants and include designated areas for parking with a free shuttle service if needed. Preparing tenants well in advance for the upcoming inconvenience and offering regular updates throughout the project duration helps lessen frustration.
Tips for Designing and Operating Solar Canopies
Keep these strategies in mind to ensure solar canopies operate safely and efficiently for the long-term.
A well-designed and engineered system will eliminate most challenges and negative experiences following construction. Some parking areas lend themselves better to solar installation than others so there can be vast differences in output and savings. While the efficiency of each system varies based on footprint, seasonal solar direction, and voltage capacity, there are factors that should be applied to all systems to help boost productivity.
A permanent attachment with structural steel is the safest option, especially during stormy conditions. Situating the solar arrays atop parking areas as an upper deck canopy allows green spaces to remain intact and provides tenants with the added benefit of covered parking during inclement weather. Covered parking also reduces snow removal efforts and the use of salt and chemicals, further protecting the surrounding ecosystem, and keeps tenant vehicles protected from the elements.
The upper deck canopy enhances storm water management efforts, allowing rainwater to be harvested more efficiently. The array can be strategically angled to direct the water from rain and melting snow into a gasketing system installed around the periphery. Water is then funneled directly into the storm water management system rather than dripping between the panels of the array onto commuters and their cars. Water can be stored in a cistern system and treated to be used on site for landscaping needs, factoring into the building’s overall storm water management strategy.
After installation, each array is commissioned and checked to assure it is running as efficiently as planned. Monitors built into each array report performance on an hourly basis via a dashboard and immediately detect any malfunctions. The inclusion of optimizing equipment can remotely fix most problems. On the rare occasion a panel on the array needs replacement, staff electricians can easily and quickly replace it. Since even miniscule scratches can affect module operation, maintenance should be limited to necessary repairs only. The arrays themselves are essentially self-cleaning; rainwater is sufficient for keeping them clean.
Arrays are designed to withstand extreme cold temperatures, strong winds, and heavy snow pack. During a typical New England winter, the design is such that snow does not linger long. The deep blue-black color of the array, combined with the power of sunlight, gathers heat to efficiently melt the snow. A very harsh winter with little sunlight will, of course, reduce energy production.
Solar Canopies Case Study: Best Practices Revealed
An attractive ROI and a contribution to sustainability goals made solar canopies an attractive option.
Solar is a major contributor to the ongoing commitment of Hobbs Brook Management (HBM) to environmental sustainability and corporate responsibility in its properties. In 2014, HBM established the goal of incorporating solar power into its buildings by placing a solar array on every garage that will support it and analyzing site positioning and the angle of the sun for all renovation and new construction projects.
HBM has invested heavily in solar energy generation in the form of garage-mounted, long-span steel canopy array systems. Each array sits atop a parking structure and produces enough power annually to directly offset the electricity consumption of the buildings it feeds by approximately 13 percent.
While the canopy application is more expensive than other types of applications such as ground mounting or a ballasted system on a building roof, the canopy systems align well with the overall strategy of HBM, which invests and develops with longevity in mind. The canopy system is essentially a galvanized steel rack for solar cells, meaning that at any point, if cells lose efficiency or are damaged, they can be individually replaced. Similarly, if a breakthrough in technology is made, the cells can be interchanged for brand new, more efficient cells at a fraction of what a new system would cost.
The installation of solar power systems helps building owners save money and meet sustainability goals. Upfront costs can be considerable but typically are recouped within seven to nine years, depending on the size of the array and the factors of its installation. Aspects such as the distance from the solar array to the building’s mechanical and electrical systems, design choices, and municipal requirements will influence the return on investment.
In today’s competitive market, a commitment to sustainability can set an office building apart and be the deciding factor for attracting and retaining tenants. While the design elements of a solar array determine the overall efficiency and performance potential of the system, each solar panel installed as part of an energy strategy can help to reduce carbon emissions. Commercial buildings can help achieve measurable results in the fight to address climate change.
Kevin Casey is vice president and chief operating officer, Hobbs Brook Management (HBM), a commercial property management and development firm specializing in leasing, construction and development of Class A office space. Bradley Cardoso, AIA, is principal architect for the company. As the owner and developer of nearly six million square feet of office space in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Illinois, and Georgia, HBM has been incorporating energy efficiency and sound green building practices in the construction and renovation of its properties for more than three decades.
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