CAI-MN Minnesota Community Living - Jan/Feb 2015

Page 10

A Construction and Insurance Dispute Lawyer’s Perspective on Solar Panel Installation By Matt Drewes, Thomsen & Nybeck, P.A., Attorneys


olar energy has been a topic gaining momentum for a number of years, and with good reason. A free, endless resource that has the potential to power our homes or even generate revenue by selling excess electricity is attractive. But the increasing access to this technology can generate tension between the interests of common interest communities and individual unit owners. Some owners may want to install solar panels, but their communities may resist that push for any number of reasons. This article is intended to provide some very general considerations about the effort to introduce solar technology to a community association from the point of view of an attorney who represents associations in construction defect and insurance coverage disputes. This is not a discussion of how to regulate solar panels. Certainly the issues of oversight and control of the installation, placement, appearance, and maintenance of these systems are hot button issues. Recent proposed legislation would have mandated community associations to allow owners to install solar systems on their roofs, but existing documents and governing law likely would place the obligation of insuring, maintaining, and replacing those systems on the association. Then there are the aesthetic considerations, which needless to say can be polarizing. But rather than discuss the issues which presumably all members of a community association can readily anticipate, this article is provided to raise awareness of some other issues that solar panel installation can create. This article isn’t about whether solar arrays in community associations are good or bad, but hopefully it will generate discussion of certain practical considerations about the physical impact these systems can have on the buildings of a community association, and where construction or insurance considerations are likely to arise.

A Force of Nature The installation of solar panels on the top of a structure changes the forces put on that structure. Without attempting to discuss technical or advanced engineering concepts (which I’m not qualified to do), there are obvious changes to the dynamics affecting a roof when solar panels are installed. First, the system adds weight to the roof. Many jurisdictions throughout the country regulate the amount of weight per square foot that may be added to the roof system, and may also require a plan reviewed and approved by a professional engineer. Even if this review isn’t required, it’s important to have an engineer or other 10

Minnesota Communit y Living

design professional calculate the weight your contemplated solar array will add to your roof, and to ensure the roof can withstand the added weight. This person should also take into account the age and composition of your roof, the trusses (interior framing) holding up your roof, the potential for snow to accumulate on or under the solar panels, and also the weight-bearing capacity of your walls, which support all of this. The fact that you can stand on your roof without falling through is not a reasonable basis on which to conclude the roof can hold the relatively small number of pounds per square foot of roof surface your proposed system may add. Bear in mind, the weight of a solar array will cover a large portion of the surface of the roof, yet its weight will not be spread evenly. There will be attachment points, or base mounts, that will be spaced out across the roof. Due to other concerns discussed later in this article, installers will be motivated to reduce the number of base mounts as much as possible. Also, the brackets holding the panels, and the mounting system itself, will add weight. And all of it, in the aggregate, will be increasing the forces pressing down on the roof and the walls of the structure. These downward forces should be considered and calculated, and they may not always be appropriate without additional support or bracing. A second way in which an array of roof-mounted solar panels will affect a roof system is that it will generate vastly different wind loads than those that were likely contemplated when the roof was designed and built. Once again, an engineer is more qualified to talk about the calculation of those loads, but they can be significant. The solar panels can act like a sail. In Minnesota, where we can have severe straight-line winds in summer hail storms and winter blizzards, the risk of the system, or even the roof itself, becoming compromised by wind is a real risk. Be sure you consider the need to properly secure the system, and that your structure has been designed or modified to account for the lift a strong wind may generate under a solar panel.

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