There are so many great tools available online today. Some of these tools are multi-faceted and can be used for a range of applications. Some are specific for one industry or another. When looking for a tool to specifically help with a solar lighting project, understanding each tool and its use is a great way to make sure you use it to its fullest.
First and foremost, not all solar lights are created equal, and there is definitely no "one size fits all" solution. Due to sun hour differences in different parts of the world, and needs for every project can be completely different. However, utilizing these five tools and working with a qualified solar lighting specialist will ensure your commercial solar lighting project is a successful one.
1. Google Earth
Where is your project located? The first thing to figure out is where exactly is the solar lighting systems going to be installed. One of the best tools is to use Google Earth to see the exact location to learn about any obstacles that could create a problem, such as shading from nearby trees or buildings. It is also used to determine rough estimates of the size area that will be lit.
There are applications where the light needs to be placed, and without the use of Google Earth, you may not know that there are buildings, trees, or other obstacles that would not allow for a good solar installation. Google Earth can also show you an area where you could remotely mount the solar power assembly nearby to gather the sun while allowing the light to be installed in the shade.
This also allows a solar lighting specialist to provide project assessments and lighting layouts. For example, understanding a parking lot by viewing it on Google Earth would enable them to place the light poles in the correct areas and illuminate the parking lot correctly. Without this information, it can be challenging to determine how many lights are required for a project and where the best placement for each pole would be.
The next thing to do is find out the number of sun hours available in your project's location. Since each system is built for a worst-case scenario, you need to look at the sun hours available in the winter. Since you size a project to run flawlessly when there is little sun, and then in the summer, the system will have no issues at all. NREL is a great place to start this process.
NREL provides sun hour calculations using data from thousands of stations around the world. Each location gathers the availability of sun for each site, and NREL collects that data and creates maps and databases that you can use for these calculations.
We would use worst-case information for off-grid solar solutions, such as our solar LED lighting systems, almost always in December. If sizing up a grid-tied system, you would instead use the yearly average information.
Make sure that you input the angle that the panels will be mounted. Here at SEPCO, we mount all solar panels at a 45° angle unless they are mounted near the equator, then they are mounted at a 5° angle. This can significantly change the amount of sun that would be available. Some roof-mounted applications have panels mounted on the pitch of the roof. This can be calculated online and you can input the degrees into either system.
Finally, the direction the solar panels will face also needs to be used. Obviously, if you are flat mounting the panels, the direction makes no difference. When using an off-grid solar solution, the solar should always face the equator. Grid-tied solutions should face the equator as much as possible.
AutoCAD can be a great tool to get exact dimensions as well as terrain and other pertinent information for a project. Since most designs are now completed using AutoCAD, these files are perfect for any designer to use. This shows things that you cannot see from Google Earth, especially with new site development.
The file is sent to the lighting designers, and the engineers place the lights and run lighting reports specific to the application. They are able to provide a point-by-point analysis of the light that will be provided using their lighting programs (see 5) and provide pole placement in a more detailed manner.
An AutoCAD drawing is not required for lighting designs but is a beneficial tool and definitely one that is recommended.
4. Wind Load Calculations
Do you live in a hurricane zone area? Or a special wind zone? What type of wind load requirements are in your area? Let your solar lighting specialist know of specific requirements to ensure that your system is still functioning after a natural disaster.
There are many steps a reputable commercial solar lighting company can take when they know the wind load requirements to ensure the durability of the system. First, engineers work together to ensure that the provided poles are designed to meet the local AASHTO wind load ratings with the weight and EPA of the solar unit. Without this, there can be liabilities for the end-user if the pole fails.
5. Lighting Engineering Software
Finally, lighting analysts software is the last step in any lighting design for solar. Using the above tools along with other project specifications given by the designer or end-user will be brought together in the lighting analyst's software.
The software provides project-specific information such as luminance in either foot-candles or lux depending on the type of requirement needed as well as a visual rendering of what to expect after the installation is completed. The design then provides the information to the engineers, designers and end-users exactly how much light is being cast, if there will be any dark areas, meet local lighting code requirements, and so much more.
Without the use of the lighting analysis software, the project could have dark areas, not meet basic lighting requirements, and provide additional liabilities to the end-user.
Not going through any of the steps above is a good sign you are being sold a "one size fits all" system that is not guaranteed to operate to its fullest or meet customer requirements year-round. These systems may cost less, but will cost more in the end by replacing parts or the entire system due to failures and not meeting the requirements outlined at the beginning of the project.
Instead, by using the correct tools, you can be sure that your lighting system setup will provide the required light, have enough power not to leave anyone in the dark, and operate exactly how you need it to. It may seem like a lot, and you will have a more reliable and long-lasting system in the end, saving you both time and money. Now, who doesn't like that?