The Future’s So Bright (and Green): Luminalt on the Triumphs and Challenges of Solar Energy Installation

by Ken Micallef
- Aug 13 2013 - 5 min read

“Reliable solar. Done well. By good people.” That’s the motto of San Francisco–based Luminalt, a twenty-person-strong solar company that has outfitted systems for families, schools, senior-living facilities, and nonprofits—including Crissy Field Center and San Francisco’s first “net zero passive house,” Zero Cottage.

You’d think that with solar’s growing popularity (the U.S. ranks fourth in solar consumption behind Germany, Spain, and Japan) and the commensurate drop in prices, matching solar modules to both new and preexisting buildings would be kid’s stuff, and the people at Luminalt would sit back and rake in the dough, right? But that’s often where new ideas crash against old technology.

“Every jurisdiction has different rules on how they want equipment installed,” says Luminalt’s Senior Applications Engineer Eric Schoonbaert. “That can be challenging because it’s different in every place. For example, there’s a national electric code, which is basically a recommendation, and every jurisdiction can choose to adopt it. Local codes may require an additional disconnect, or that you bond this crown rod in a certain way; but that’s not true everywhere else. For whatever reasons, certain areas have developed unique requirements. And they’re not always entirely obvious. You can call them ahead of time and ask, but they may not know automatically. It’s often trial and error and knowing the right questions to ask.”

Perhaps it’s San Francisco’s high-density population and mountainous terrain—which is as stratified as some arcane building codes—that makes the local Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) sticklers for what can appear to be extreme minutiae.

solar-energy installation
Synergy School in San Francisco

“We were doing one project,” Schoonbaert recalls, “where we had to use fasteners on a flat concrete roof of a home. The building department wanted to see all the documentation for the fastener. They wanted to know the type of concrete, the background documentation, the engineering, and they also mandated an inspection for torque for each bolt. We had to hire a certified inspection service to be onsite during installation to confirm to the building department that they had checked all our fasteners for torque. That was out of the ordinary. So it helps to be very detail oriented and have a good overall understanding of all the variables.”

Thirty-five-year-old Schoonbaert, who rides his bike to work each day, has a background in mechanical engineering. He held a position with an aircraft parts manufacturer before joining Luminalt in 2007. His diverse skills were useful for two recent Luminalt projects: Synergy School in San Francisco, a K-8 grade school that has a 30kW system; and Pinole Grove Senior Housing in the East Bay city of Pinole, Calif. Developed in conjunction with Bridge Housing Corp., Luminalt was part of the $9 million renovation of the 70-unit center, which aimed to go “green” with new heating, cooling and water systems, and solar.

“Pinole wanted a solar-energy system, and they had an idea of a size they were trying to hit,” Schoonbaert explains. “They were putting solar in carports and in an awning system. We interfaced with the architect/structural people to make sure everything would fit with what we were asked to install. Physically, where to put the solar PV modules was something we had to figure out. They had already decided where the solar would go, so we worked out how to put the panels on the carports. We installed 117 panels at Pinole. That’s an average size for one of our larger projects. It’s about 15 percent of their total electricity usage.”

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Pinole Grove Senior Housing

Schoonbaert’s workflow process is a constant juggling act between AHJ codes, equipment, and, of course, judging the sunlight. “Ideally, the project is already in contract, so there’s a basic design to work with,” he says. “I go to the site and take pictures and measurements to verify what’s there. Often, we’ll do a drawing on the front end for the client. We think, ‘We’ll put a bank of ten here and thirty here,’ but then we have to decide if that will actually fit. ‘Do we have enough clearance for fire-department walkways? Are we far enough from this vent so we’re not shading something?’

“Then I take all the information and do a drawing set in CAD for permitting that will also serve as instructions for the crew. I also create a separate list for the crew of any special materials they will need, from a special breaker to flashing for water sealing. Then I give the customer a drawing set to hopefully match what they’re thinking. And the building department needs a set. There may be revisions to the plans once the customer and building department reviews them. Hopefully, the equipment is available, then we install.”

In addition to AutoCAD and Excel (for tabulations), Bing! and Google Earth for aerial imagery, and a small digital camera for photos, Schoonbaert uses a unique software application for evaluating sunlight on the many building roofs where solar is often installed.

“Solmetric SunEye takes a fisheye photo of the horizon,” Schoonbaert says. “It allows you to get a percentage of sky that is available at any given site. What if a roof is sunny, but not sunny all of the time? Solmetric [SunEye 210 Shade Tool, which incorporates a camera, GPS, and tilt sensor] allows you to take pics on the roof, and then run a report that details the percentage of access—meaning, the percentage of access that an unshaded site has. We use that to generate an estimate of what the system will produce.”

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Pinole Grove Senior Housing

Still a high-growth industry, solar is a business like any other and requires similar ingredients to be successful. “Surround yourself with good people—that’s the most important thing,” Schoonbaert advises. “We were extremely small when we started, and everyone did everything. You don’t necessarily need one area of expertise. It’s more about having people who are fairly capable across a broad range and whom you can work with.”

Ultimately, Schoonbaert loves his work and his place in the future of solar energy. “I get to meet homeowners; I get to crawl around on roofs and in attics and basements. There’s definitely an adventure aspect to it. It’s fun, and it’s creative. I am continually surprised by new and unique situations. Considering that some of the buildings around here are more than 100 years old, you see some one-of-a-kind electrical panels.”

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