The (work) life of a PV design engineer

A case for from, of, and for engineering for social good. 

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Written by Madhav Manohar | Jan 4, 2019

Despite the tremendous growth of renewable energy adoption through the recent years, concerns about its credibility and reliability are still at large among the masses. Fair enough. But, that’s not reason enough to disregard the benefits of renewable energy technology: right from low operational costs to infinite availability. 

Simply put, renewables have the potential to pave a sustainable path for our environment and us. That isn’t a philosophical statement. It’s backed by scientific proof – and design prowess shapes it. I’m going to tell you how. 

empty rooftop
rooftop pv design

Transformation begins with design: terrace area at Brigade Petunia, Bangalore

At Solarify, we undertake turnkey solar energy projects. This includes estimation, design, financing, installation, and commissioning.

As a design engineer, I drive the design process in collaboration with my PV design team. We recreate a digital model of the building in play, with a primary focus on the roof space as most requirements are for rooftop solar (as compared to BIPV). For buildings under construction, we work on AutoCAD drawings along with the architects. In other cases, we undertake a detailed survey of the building and reproduce it in 3-D using SketchUp Pro.

After a physical survey that facilitates digital recreation of the building, we place the solar panels in a way that helps achieve maximum efficiency while satisfying the customer’s specific requirements

A rooftop solar simulation for a home in Bangalore by Team Solarify, using SketchUp Pro

The process of designing and fitting solar panels has more to it than what meets the eye. 

Especially in rooftop solar, each one is unique and so are the needs and mindset of the rooftop owner. Given that, the design process isn’t purely technical in nature. We need to use our common sense and logic to analyse the feasibility. Good communication is key to an empathetic understanding of the customer’s goals.

Often, I’ve been told by my friends and family that my job is alien to them. They ask about my typical day at work. That’s when I decided to put it down in writing. Here, I’ll give a sequential overview of my role as a trainee design engineer at Solarify.

1. Keeping it (really) simple.

Before we get technical, it is critical to acknowledge that the laypersons do not have a firm grasp over the concepts of solar energy. Remember how we were on the very first day of college? Yes. Today, that’s the actual state of most prospective solar buyers. 

As a professional, we must not abuse this predicament. It’s our responsibility to keep things simple, in a way that nudges them towards informed decision making.

From what I’ve experienced, most people are worried about the aesthetics of the set up for a variety of reasons. As engineers, we help them balance their expectations between good looks and performance of the system. (Read more: A homeowner’s detailed guide to solar power

All of this is possible only when we use our knowledge to inform and not intimidate prospective solar power users. 

aesthetic design rooftop solar
One of our rooftop solar installations in Bangalore. A new house, aesthetics was key.

2. Embracing variety design after design.

Each design requirement brings with it a unique set of challenges. In my opinion, no two sites are the same. In the context of rooftop solar, we refer to the terrace or roof area.

We map the dimensions draw out a rough blueprint of our own. This helps us identify the position of components such as overhead water tank, solar water heater, and – basically anything that can cause a shadow on the terrace area.

The tri-partite goal is to maximise the number of panels, allow enough access for cleaning and maintenance, and make it look good.

(See: A quick guide on solar power for a homeowner)

Access structure along with a raised structure for the panels. At a home in Banashankari, Bangalore

3. Just doing it. 

In case a prospective buyer wants a simple overview, we provide a two-dimensional representation using Google Earth + Helioscope. If floorplan is available as a digital file, we use AutoCAD.

If you’re keen on practically exploring this process, download stock building plans and start working with it, placing solar panels with a checklist of good practices to guide you.

While working with architects, the know-how of working with AutoCAD comes in handy to establish your domain expertise. This is super important for design engineers like me. Moreover, AutoCAD is the most accurate means to create building plans.

Click here for an interactive view of this design

4. An informed proposing.

After the design is finalised by all decision-makers, we prepare a proposal. The document outlines the cost, financial savings, environmental impact, and relevant technical details. 

A good understanding of consumer behaviour helps highlight information that is important to a specific buyer. In a young start-up like ours, both commercial and technical knowledge is handled by the design engineers.  

Larger organisations may separate the two, and that usually leads to an unsatisfactory solution for a prospective customer. But, they play a volumes game and can afford to operate at a 1% contact: customer conversion because – err, let’s not get into that.

A design I made for an apartment building in HSR Layout, Bangalore | Guide to solar for apartment communities

5. Going beyond technicality. 

Over time, I realise that satisfying a customer’s requirements isn’t the only goal. Clear and timely communication within the team, along with their support, takes an idea from design to real-time execution.

Solarify has been a useful platform for me to grow professionally. It wasn’t just limited to PV design training. I understood the ethical responsibilities around being a design engineer, working as a part of a team.

I’ve designed rooftop solar systems for various clients with unique requirements, ranging from individual homeowners, apartment communities, and educational institutions. It’s an exciting prospect to provide a meaningful solution, after all, that’s what engineering is all about.

google earth view of solar
A satellite view of our installation in Zee School, HSR Layout, Bangalore

Signing-off.

Every day, I learn new technical and practical aspects of design. This has helped me understand the solar energy business very well.

As I approach the end of my training period, I can say that I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of learning and interacting at Solarify. All in all, this was a great start to my career, and I look forward to similar experiences in other workplaces.

Answers you won’t find on Google.

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> Get in touch by clicking here or on 9742454443, where you can freely address your queries.

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