Volume 47, Issue 10 - October 2012
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Taking the Solar Plunge
by Penny Stacey
While contract glaziers around the world are experts in curtainwall and the intricate glass and glazing systems seen on the world’s most advanced buildings, few have fully immersed themselves in the area of solar glazing projects. These projects have grown in popularity in recent years, though, and a few contract glaziers have dove into this area with full force.
“People throw photovoltaic modules on racks on top of a roof all of the time, but that is not building-integrated,” he says. “To me, the definition of BIPV is if a PV module replaces a piece of glass on a building façade.”
Petzen’s company has become involved in BIPV projects just the way it would any—through bids, design build and more. “[Glaziers] just [need to] see that the glazing infill is the same as usual, but additional attention [does] need to be given to addressing wiring harnesses and electrical connections,” says Petzen. “It’s not just glass, but it’s glass with some extra panache.”
On his first solar glazing project, Petzen worked with an architect who was very familiar with PV, but not with custom skylights—one of Petzen’s specialties. “Off to the races we went and we tried to figure out how to design a system that the owner wanted,” he recalls. “My first unit consisted of unitized, pre-glazed 25- by 5-foot modules. That one was actually easier than anything I’ve done since.”
There are two types of solar glazing jobs out there, he has found—those where the architect is familiar with the product and addresses challenges upfront, and those where the architect simply is interested in trying something new.
“In a perfect world, you will deal with an architect or specifier who has done his homework so that the contract documents speak to the challenges and address all of the issues,” says Petzen. “In other instances, you have architects who are kind of like the guy in the transmission commercial who has just always wanted to do this. Those can be difficult because no one wants to take ownership of problem areas and communication can suffer.”
Another challenge can be sizing of PV modules. “In the PV world they make widgets—i.e., one, two or three sizes and that’s it,” says Petzen. “Architects don’t hear that very well. They want to treat PV modules like anything else; they think they can be provided in custom sizes … That can be a real uphill battle.”
Likewise, many PV module suppliers don’t want to get involved in a small project, so size is a necessity, according to Petzen. “It’s difficult enough to get a module manufacturer to express interest in a custom insulating glass module when you have a lot of material, but when you say it’s 1,000 square feet, they lose interest,” he says.
Is the Market Ready for Solar Glazing?
“We have not done anything significant with building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) to date,” says Mic Patterson, director of strategic development for Eagan, Minn.-based Enclos. “We would love to. We have prepared ourselves for this work through internal research and development and testing of products provided by various industry suppliers. We have pursued a number of projects that had a significant BIPV program, but without exception they have been value-engineered out.”
He adds, “As far as I can see, the marketplace is just not ready for the widespread adoption of BIPV technology. When it is, Enclos will be ready to deliver it.”
Others, such as John Juba, owner and CEO of Juba Aluminum Products Co. Inc. in Concord, N.C., thinks the time just isn’t right yet.
“We are finding that some of the reasons glazing installations may not be so prevalent right now is because our economic climate is still slowing growth in the BIPV growth area,” he says. “Everyone knows the advantages, but it is still an expense that most owners aren’t so inclined to invest in, even with financial incentives. Solar glazing installations do have initial costs and it may take longer than expected for the payback.”
While the company has been willing to delve into this area, Juba says most owners and general contractors with whom the company works just aren’t ready to take the plunge. “Juba does provide budget pricing for solar glazing installation but, in most cases, an owner and/or general contractor is looking for least expensive route to take in the building envelope,” he adds. “Unfortunately, this value engineering gets cut.”
Another industry expert, who declined to be identified, agreed. “In spite of all of the hype, I don’t personally know of any current jobs using solar on them,” he said.
‘The Most Fun’
“We went to Germany and bought all the electronic, CNC, cutting and milling equipment, and the best, state-of-the-art German software to build curtainwall,” recalls Bagatelos.
His visit to Germany also opened his eyes to something else, though. “ … I saw all the crazy energy efficiency stuff they were doing, so I took all those ideas and applied them to our facility,” he says.
Among these enhancements was a highly efficient electric heat pump, R30 insulation and more. The item that took the building over the top, though, was this: “Then I added photovoltaics (PV) to the roof, which got us to net zero,” he says. “[Creating] this net-zero facility—that year was my most fun year I’ve had in my 20 years in business.”
Bagatelos developed a passion for solar glazing, and his firm began not only completing solar glazing installations, but also developed its own solar glazing system. In addition, the company recently began working with Guardian Industries as well, in an effort for both to grow each others’ offerings in this area.
When it comes to solar glazing projects, Bagatelos suggests that contract glaziers unfamiliar with the process come to his company—or another like it—for assistance getting started. “I think a company like mine that designs its own systems would probably want to [develop BIPV] systems themselves,” he says. “But there aren’t many firms that can do this.”
BISEM provides both materials and training to glaziers looking to handle BIPV projects.
“There’s a lot of talking about [BIPV], but no one’s really doing it,” says Bagatelos. “ … There are probably 15 of us sprinkled around who do our own thing, but everyone else—I would say their best bet is to come to me because I’ve spent four years designing these systems.”
Penny Stacey is the editor of USGlass magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://penny.usglassmag.com, follow her on Twitter @USGlass, and like USGlass magazine on Facebook to receive the latest updates.