Solar Photovoltaic Operations & Maintenance (O&M) companies can benefit from analyzing the service cost base. The competition is tough these days and the question is whether the business can be made more profitable. In this blog, you will read about 5 easy steps where costs may be reduced. Solar PV O&M companies can sharpen the competitive edge and even increase earnings.
Maintenance processes in Solar Photovoltaics
What happens when a customer reports a problem? Should someone simply calm down the customer first and carry out a set of control measurements? Should there be 2 service technicians and a service engineer on-site? The responses are immediately reflected in the costs. If the service technician goes to a faulty PV system but does not have the possibility to locate and fix the problem immediately, the service trip makes no difference to the customer.
If 2 technicians go on a second, or even a third service trip, then the cost of service trips including mileage, staff wages, breaks, food, and time add up. This time might have been used better and more profitably somewhere else.
An O&M management pattern without a stringent process to follow often leads to unwanted costs. Costs for which the customer can ultimately not be billed are summed up and the loser becomes the O&M company. The customer wants his problem solved at the lowest possible price, and he does not want to see any invoices before the solar PV system is producing to its specifications again.
This process from A-Z (error reporting to invoicing) can be analyzed and updated, and we recommend doing so, while the customer portfolio grows and changes.
Organizational restructuring, new or lost competencies in personnel, as well as new technologies and opportunities are all calling for solar PV O&M companies to optimize processes that are continuously and dynamically developing. Thus the process can also take a starting point in the highest possible profitability and customer satisfaction. If an error is indicated in the monitoring system, or if the customer notifies himself of an error, the internal questions for the O&M company could be the following.
What exactly is wrong at the solar PV site?
Collect data and interview the customer before starting the car. Acquire inverter monitoring data and similar observations. Is the error weather-related? How old is the PV system? Did your company or someone else install it? Ask the customer to send you a smartphone snapshot to identify if you need scaffolds. Eventually, ask for the PV installation invoice and design drawing, and check all system components, module connectors, and so on. Efficiency means to be prepared in this context.
When should we fix the problem?
Make detailed plans, and calculate the cost of lost energy for the customer. This will make it easy to prioritize the order of the service trips. Beware: Some PV installation faults develop from reversible to irreversible if nothing is done to prevent further damage. Again, collect as much info as possible before deciding how to manage alerts, and in what order.
Who has the right solar PV skill set?
Carefully consider how to use experts and external services. Consider further education of your own team. Solar PV energy installations are based on semiconductor materials, and hence complex in nature. This is not always acknowledged, and much too often service is carried out without knowing or understanding the root cause of a problem. Fault finding in solar PV installations has over time proven to be costly since much time is spent figuring out the basic electrical behaviour of the system circuits.
How do we solve the problem?
Make sure to write a logbook and build a catalog of experiences. Solar PV systems and modules degrade and break down according to known patterns, and most people can learn to identify basic fault scenarios. Testing and analysis of measurement data is a big part of resolving “invisible” problems. Make sure to have dedicated solar PV test equipment in-house, and make sure that staff is properly educated in its use. If solar PV testing data is not well understood by the instrument operator, why bother buying an expensive solar PV tester, and why bother testing at all? A bit of specialist knowledge and the right solar PV test equipment is the key to figuring out solar PV installation faults.
Clearly define criteria for solar PV service field trips
When solar PV O&M is offered in a broader geographical range, our experience shows that the winners are those who carefully design transport plans, and never drive to a PV site in vain. More residential and industrial segment customers are gaining interest in their solar PV installation performance, daily yields, etc. Even in the case of small variations in performance, service trips are often demanded without further ado.
Here, it is requested to differentiate between the customers or the criteria to catch a service visit. Naturally, it all depends on the business model and the services and warranties offered, but if “driving now” does not “fix the now”, it is wise to use all technical insights when planning the alarm management.
Where is the customer solar PV installation located? Is there a risk for a second service trip? What if you receive another service call, while already being on the road? Perhaps it is too late to assess whether the competencies for a given problem are present on the current ride?
Are the criteria the same whether the customer has a maintenance contract or not? Clearly defining criteria for field trips helps solar PV O&M companies to optimize the business.
Minimize waiting time in Solar PV O&M
A large number of solar PV installations have been installed very fast in the past 5-7, and in many cases faults were introduced simply because of the push to finish installation work before Feed-in Tariffs, etc. were changed. In the years to come these solar PV installations now have to be improved step by step because of deficiencies and errors. The situation offers solar PV O&M companies the opportunity to win new customers and to include other equipment and services in their business.
A maintenance overview of existing, as well as newly revamped systems, can be done quickly and as a starting point, exhaustive database solutions are not needed. A spreadsheet will do in many cases. The listed overview should also have a section where wait times are estimated:
What were waiting times during the last visit to “installation X”?
Why did we have to wait?
How long did we have to wait?
Did we miss a key to the inverter shack, a colleague with specific knowledge, an external service provider, a customer, an approval, wiring diagrams, solar PV test equipment, tools, etc? Waiting for anything is seen as a cost factor over time. The purpose of these registrations, for example, over a fixed period of about 2-4 months, is to minimize the waiting times in the future gradually. If systematic action is taken, patterns can be brought to light with their scope and impact on the overall business so far.
Incorrect maps and missing documentation
Many solar PV service providers will have experienced the fact that missing wiring diagrams of the solar system can be a considerable and costly challenge. Not only does it hold for roof-top systems, but indeed also for ground systems. Who bears the costs for faulty or missing plans and diagrams that will undeniably lead to a longer service interruption? Always make sure to settle the documentation and mapping responsibility before initiating problem-solving.
Internal and external solar PV training of employees
Is there a hidden potential in your employees that is not realized? Probably yes. Solar PV technology and components are fascinating topics for most staff, which already chose to work with these things every day. Often they are open to training and in sometimes even fascinated by the technology. Experienced employees can use their knowledge and systematically forward it to new employees to increase their competencies. The properly trained staff makes the difference in a competitive market. Over a year, the number of service trips can be optimized and, above all, the time of service interventions can be reduced dramatically. The potential is to make clear conclusions at the first service visits, by increasing the competence of the employees to avoid a second service trip. Take pictures with your smartphone and write notes. This will make it easier for you to share the experience either online or at workshops.
Recommended further reading
If you are new to solar PV O&M “Photovoltaic Design and Installation For Dummies” by Ryan Mayfield is actually a good place to start.
If you are an experienced solar PV technician already, we can highly recommend owning “Handbook of Photovoltaic Science and Engineering” edited by Luque & Hegedus.