December 29, 2021

Efficient and Accurate Validation of PV and Energy Storage System Designs: An Introduction to SolarAPP+

IREC has developed free online training courses that introduce both solar installers and inspectors to SolarAPP+, a tool that automates the plan review and permitting process for qualified solar PV systems.
A man working on a laptop.
An image from the SolarAPP+ training sessions led by IREC.

Not Enough Time in the Day

If you’re a local code official, perhaps your desk has been flooded with permit applications for solar PV systems and, more recently, energy storage systems. It may seem like just yesterday when the first system was installed in your jurisdiction.

With solar and storage technology rapidly changing, how can a code official expect to keep up? On top of evolving technology, there is a push to reduce the amount of time it takes to issue a permit for residential systems. Before throwing your hands up in defeat, let’s consider what is different about issuing a permit for a PV system rather than one for basic electrical work—and how the process might be streamlined to save you time without sacrificing safety. 

In order to responsibly issue a permit for a safe residential PV or energy storage system, the most important aspect to consider is the accurate validation of the design. This validation need not take a lot of time, but the process should be consistently performed. 

The traditional approach to issuing a permit is manual system design validation. PV and energy storage systems must comply with jurisdictional building, electrical, and fire codes. One plan’s examiner may review and validate all aspects of the plan, or the plan may go to more than one department for review and approval.

Automated Validation

An aerial image of houses with solar panels on the rooftops.

Today, many jurisdictions have the option of saving time with automated validation. In 2021, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) worked with IREC and other partners to develop SolarAPP+, short for Solar Automated Permit Processing. This is an online automated design validation tool that can evaluate many new residential rooftop solar PV systems. Beginning in 2022, the tool will validate the design of energy storage systems as well. 

SolarAPP+ automates the plan review and process for issuing permits to qualified businesses and individuals who are installing residential photovoltaic (PV) systems. Based on model building, electrical, and fire codes, SolarAPP+ automatically performs a compliance check based on inputs supplied by the contractor to ensure the proposed system is safe and code compliant. Installation practices, workmanship, and adherence to the approved design are then verified by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) through the inspection process.

The SolarAPP+ portal asks a standard set of questions regarding component parts and certifications, site conditions, installation methods, and other essential details. The portal then references the California Energy Commission equipment lists to perform automated calculations that assess compliance with code requirements. From there, the portal will determine if the applicant can proceed to paying their fee and printing the building permit.

Specification sheets and listing certifications are required to be uploaded as part of the SolarAPP+ permit application and verified by the inspector. Application errors and inconsistencies are rejected automatically, and the computer-automated program will not let an application through to issuance until it is complete and code compliant.

Does SolarAPP+ replace an existing permitting process?

The SolarAPP+ tool is a time-saving part of the permitting process, designed to allow 70-80% of all rooftop PV projects to be permitted online and instantaneously. Furthermore, its code compliance checks can support plan examiners while they come up to speed on the technology and code requirements they would need to understand in order to manually validate the design.

For typical solar projects, SolarAPP+ replaces the need for human plan review with an automated system of compliance checks and streamlined field inspections. In this way, SolarAPP+ supplants a significant portion of the AHJ’s existing permitting process, but the traditional permitting system would still be needed for more complex projects that fall outside of the platform’s eligibility limits (e.g., commercial and multi-family projects). The majority of single-family residential rooftop solar systems can be processed through SolarAPP+, significantly decreasing the time and resources required for building and inspection staff.

With some online permitting software, for example Accela, jurisdictions can allow solar installers to submit projects into SolarAPP+, receive approval documentation, and complete their permit application with the SolarAPP+ pre-approved solar plan. This enables the installer to then instantly receive their permit after payment is confirmed. 

Great Timing!

In light of the COVID pandemic, many building departments have already switched to online permitting. An online system can save time for both the code officials and the applicants. Plan reviewers have adjusted to viewing documents online, which must save tons of space in the office filing cabinets! For many of these communities, using the SolarAPP+ online tool may be an easy transition. Keep in mind that the process of issuing a permit can still be distinct from validating the design of a system. Regardless of how the permit is issued and how long it takes to issue it, the design of PV and energy storage systems should be accurately and efficiently validated prior to issuance. 

Save Time Using SolarAPP+ To Instantly Validate Compliance

IREC has developed free online training courses that introduce both solar installers and inspectors (AHJs) to the tool. Installers can practice entering a system into the tool, viewing the requested inputs for four different inverter technologies, and submitting a system for a permit. Inspectors can practice inspecting a system with the Inspection Checklist that is produced as part of the approval document when the system design has been validated using SolarAPP+.

Through these courses, you will learn more about the most common code compliance issues that are found during field inspection. The courses are available for free thanks to funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. Join the hundreds of jurisdictions that have opted to use SolarAPP+. Take a free online training course and earn CEUs!