Small Item, Big Impact: Why and How to Prioritize Solar Connector Safety and Performance

U.S. solar installations saw a banner year in 2023. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), new installs set multiple records, exceeding 30 GWdc of capacity and comprising more than half of the nation’s new generating capacity for the first time.

Many cheer this renewable growth; others, whether wary of change or wedded to old methods, may search for grounds to caution against further expansion. Against such scrutiny, the solar industry cannot afford the financial or reputational risk begotten by improperly installed equipment, even if the component is small and economic pressures high.

This article outlines how to optimize solar connector safety and performance amidst cost pressures. Because with solar connectors, prioritizing safety and performance is paramount—for project finance and industry renown alike.

Mountain Cost Pressures—Here’s Where Not to Scrimp

While the 2023 solar market boomed, SEIA predicts that the specter of supply chain constraints, less tax credit financing, and static interest rates may spook the 2024 market. Pressures to cut costs where possible may tempt solar developers to stretch their workforce capacity and/or purchase less expensive parts or tools.

Amphenol Industrial manufactures utility-scale photovoltaic harnesses and other solar equipment, including at the company’s newly opened facility in Mesa, Arizona. Courtesy: Amphenol Industrial

Often overlooked, solar connectors may appear a tempting place to cut costs. But investing in proper implementation—a difference of just pennies on the dollar compared to money-saving alternatives—is crucial. Investing in quality equipment plus installation reduces the risk of hazards, reducing costsy, hassle, and reputation risk over a project’s lifetime.

While frugality can be wise, parsimoniousness often backfires. With these guidelines, developers, installers, and asset owners can apply that knowledge to achieve “penny saved, penny earned” without becoming “pennywise, pound foolish.”

Practices to Preach: Three Solar Connector Essentials

Solar professionals should prioritize installer training, quality tools & equipment, and preparation for seasonal change.

Train thoroughly: Workforce shortages and high labor costs may tempt developers to do more projects with fewer people. They may send new installers or maintenance professionals into the field with minimal training to fill vacancies faster. They may have high expectations of the output of each employee so they can hire fewer people overall.

However, employees with less training may not learn all the factors to keep in mind when installing or conducting maintenance on solar connectors. And employees pressured to complete the upper limit of their range of possible work may themselves seek shortcuts to complete all the jobs in their queue.

While these measures may save money in the short term, they heighten the risk of malfunction that may imperil safety and performance. Ultimately, such short cuts risk costing far more in damage (to equipment and reputation) than they save upfront.

By training installers properly, developers can increase the long-term safety and performance of their projects by averting assembly missteps such as poor stripping, poor crimping, poor wire management, and under- or over-torquing sealing. One best practice: instruct installers to add back-caps after sealing.

On the maintenance side, trainings can incorporate instruction in how to 1) use thermal cameras to look for higher-than-average temperatures and 2) to inspect connectors visually for mismatched or damaged equipment.

Purchase proper connector equipment and tools: Harried equipment buyers looking to save money may think that solar connectors, with their smaller size and lower-profile role, offer a good place to economize on equipment and tools. However, quality solar connector equipment AND installation tools are essential to successful solar systems.

What should buyers and suppliers keep in mind? First, know that finding quality equipment requires research: with no single standard for solar connectors, it can be difficult to ascertain quality. While a base UL certification exists, it alone is often insufficient to determine which components will continue to perform well over time.

In that context, solar professionals looking for quality solar connectors should consult with a trusted equipment provider to learn the pros and cons of different models. Look for brands that stand by their products, and consider products with innovations that increase installation efficiency in a way that improves safety and performance. That way, solar projects can prioritize efficiency while avoiding the high labor costs of replacing malfunctioned field equipment.

A diagram of solar system hardware, with harnesses marked at #4 and #5. Courtesy: Amphenol Industrial

Second, know that proper installation requires proper tools as well as quality equipment. Just as a chef with the best ingredients but a faulty oven may end up with a scorched dinner, solar installers must purchase high-quality tools along with high-quality equipment for the resulting system to offer satisfactory safety and performance. All UL-listed PV connectors should have assembly instructions that list the appropriate tools for the task. These instructions are paramount: installers should reference them when installing connectors and use only the tools listed in the assembly instructions.

High-quality tools and equipment are worth the upfront investment. Less-expensive supplies from third-party vendors may reduce the setup costs of solar projects, which can initially look good on balance sheets. But poor quality tools often wear out faster—crimpers used for third-party connectors might not get as good a crimp, particularly over time. Poorly designed wrenches or metal torque spanners may cause over-torquing. And less expensive, third-party tools not qualified by UL for use on certain connectors heighten risk incompatibility, which can cause damage.

As all equipment is vulnerable to improper tools, proper selection of implements is essential to long-term project success.

Anticipate seasonal wire tension changes: Once solar professionals know the importance of solar connectors, investing in proper training, equipment, and tools may sound like common sense. But one more lesson hides in plain sight, alongside the glass jar that cracked when filled too full in the freezer: solar system components, like many objects, expand and contract with temperature.

Solar professionals often complete solar installations in the warm weather of spring and summer. But while installations occur once seasons change and weather chills, the projects of prior seasons keep humming. Installers should keep in mind that cables installed under in warm weather can shrink in winter.

Why is shrinkage bad? If cables with connectors on them shrink, they can pull apart the connectors, potentially exposing the interior live wire system. That exposure can then threaten the entire solar power system, along with any solar maintenance professionals who get too close. To avert this risk, fair-weather installers must implement lower-tension wiring. That way, temperature changes won’t change cable size enough to pull apart connectors, lowering risk of wire exposure.

While most pertinent in areas with frequent high and low temperature extremes, the increasing variability and severity of U.S. weather patterns means that this precaution is worthwhile no matter where an installation lies.

All Hands (And Eyes) On Deck

To optimize solar market potential, the industry must hold safety and performance in the highest priority. Properly installed, well-functioning systems are essential not only to the health of the installation but to the broader reputation of solar. To continue the industry’s growth trajectory, solar players must improve their safety and performance records even as they increase installation rates and face pressure to descend further along cost curves.

No matter where solar professionals stand in the supply chain, they can promote solar connector safety and performance.

If you’re an installer, take your time with the solar connector step of the installation process. A torque in time, shall we say, saves nine.

If you’re a developer, buy high-quality connector equipment and installation tools. If you don’t buy the equipment yourself, tell your suppliers or installers to buy from a high-quality provider that stands by what they make.

If you’re an asset owner, a hoster of panels (whether for rooftop, commercial, or community solar), or other industry partner (investor, inspector, etc.) with a stake in project safety and performance (but perhaps not directly involved in the development itself), check the solar connectors on any existing projects to make sure they are properly installed and maintained.

Connecting Everyone

Everyone involved in the solar supply chain should know about the importance of solar connector safety and performance. Project financiers, land owners, site developers, equipment installers, and home panel purchasers should all know the basics. That way, they can either know the best practices themselves or know the right questions to ask to help their industry partner(s) to do so.

Together, we can advance the solar industry stature and growth by maximizing solar connector performance. With a team effort, the solar industry can promote solar connector performance.

Eric Potter is a Field Application Engineer at Amphenol Industrial, a U.S.-based solar connector manufacturer.

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