Solar Spring Break Part 2: Installation

(see Solar Spring Break San Diego Part 1: Arriving in Cali, here).

Once again, I cautiously slipped out of my creaky air mattress and tiptoed into the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee. Californian sun rays poured in through the large bay window while the coffee maker began to gurgle with completion. The warm, savory aroma filled the San Pasqual ranch house and I could hear some stirring in the two nearby bedrooms. Soon everyone was up and munching on quick breakfast bites.

Today, our group of eight UNC student-volunteers would install a 4.9 kW solar system!

By 7:50 a.m. we arrived at a home on the reservation that would receive free solar installation. GRID Alternatives staff met us there, handed out our hard-hats, went over safety protocols and then led a few warm-up stretches to encourage comfort on the rooftop.

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Solar Spring Break UNC Students must wear hard hats while installing solar panels.

“We have coffee and donuts here for you,” the father of the family exclaimed. The family — a mom, dad, two elementary-school aged daughters, one baby son and two huskies, greeted us with inspiring enthusiasm.  Their faces radiated as they welcomed us to their home, reminding us how special GRID’s work is. Increasing access to affordable, renewable energy is certainly an act of environmental stewardship, but beyond that, it aims to improve equity by empowering qualifying homes toward energy independence.

We split into a roof team and a ground team.

The roof team stepped into harnesses that would connect to pulleys and anchors on the roof itself, and were instructed not to step directly onto the ridge of the roof or angled transition points. It was also important to move slowly- sudden movements could trigger the pulley to catch! Though this is to prevent falling off the roof, ill-timed catches could result in slipping and falling. We were told about one staff member who moved suddenly, was caught and fell off the roof, swung into the garage, out and back onto the roof!

UNC students getting ready to go up on the roof as GRID trainer Josh discusses the harnesses, attachment cables and how to navigate the roof!

While the roof team installed the “feet” for the panel-supporting rails to connect to, the ground team assembled the rails. We linked and drilled them together to match the lengths designated in the site plan designs, then passed them up to the roof. The roof team began installing the rails for the rest of the day.

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The ground team took turns testing the Trina Solar modules by pulling the panels out into the sun and connecting the meter — all registered at around 32.2 – 32.4 volts.

Carrying a panel out into the sun to test it. Panels should always be carried by two people. (Photo courtesy of Erin!)
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Here Josh shows us how to test the panel. Nicole reads the meter.

Next, the conduit was installed next to the power box. I drilled holes into the bottom for the wires and grounding to feed through.

Then we bent piping for the wires to safely travel to the roof in, and cut the pipe.

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I’m checking to make sure I did a clean cut!

While Josh investigated the home’s electrical work, we took shifts playing with Poe, the adorable husky who wanted to be outside with us throughout the install.

The family’s husky, Poe, hangs out on the job.

After the workday, we returned to the ranch house and set up a table to play cards on. We enjoyed yoga on the porch, then had a nice group dinner together – grilled shrimp tacos!

The next morning, we returned to work at 7:50 a.m. I was handed the safety sheets to read aloud, and got through about 2 pages before asking for other volunteers. We put on our hard hats, set the tent & tables back up, pulled out all our tools and then huddled together under cover as rain drenched our site. Staff,  volunteers undergoing the certification training and our group of student volunteers chatted about personal histories, environmental issues, technologies and travels. When the rain finally let up, we got to work.

Roof and ground teams assembled, switching positions from the day prior. Today I’d be on the roof, mounting the solar panels while ground crew continued bending the piping and attaching it to the side of the house.

Once the rain cleared out, Erin and Christi get on the roof, ready to install.

It had been quite a few years since I’d been on a roof! Writing and drawing on rooftops had been a favorite past-time of mine growing up, but now I was harnessed and attached to a heavy pulley. Getting my footing right was a little intimidating at first, but within minutes comfortability with navigating rooftops returned to me. Feeling more balanced, I helped as we pulled all the tool bags up by rope.

Then, we measured and marked the rails for appropriate micro-inverter spacing and attached the Enphase micro-inverters to the rails while organizing wires with clamps.  Enphase describes the difference between micro-inverters and the conventional string inverters: “In an Enphase system, there’s no single point of failure…”

“Whether it’s a leaf, dirt, or a cloudy day, obstructions happen. All the time, to every system. With microinverters, only the individual panel is affected, while the others keep performing to their fullest. At the end of the day, that means more solar power and greater energy savings from the same panels.

We added a ground wire between the top row and bottom row rails. Next, the panels were sent up!


After getting the first panel laid down, we placed mid clamps between the installed panel and the new panel by clipping it into place on the rail and sliding the new panel up against it. We lifted the side of the panel facing the empty roof space, connected the panel wires to the micro inverter, then lowered the panel and screwed down the mid-clamps.

At this step, I’m connecting the panel to the microinverter, and using clamps to hold the wires in the railing. Then Carleigh and I will stabilize it  up against the other panel, while Nicole adds screws to the midclamps in between.

After all 20 panels were set, we connected the wires sent up by ground team to a box we installed on the end of the roof near where the power box and conduit were on the side of the house. We ensured a ground wire was fed from the rail into the box along with the microinverter string wire.


As we finished the install on the roof, the family stepped out into their back yard and looked up to see their new panels for the first time!

We gathered all the tools then climbed down to the ground to join Josh at the power meter.

The family’s daughters play in the front yard while everyone awaits  finishing touches on the project at the powerbox, and the big reveal…

Waiting for the big reveal, we peered over Josh’s shoulder as he faced the power box. The system was connected and… the meter started spinning backwards!

Everyone let out joyful cheers!

When I asked how they felt about having solar power at home, the girls said they were happy! Then they asked if they could borrow my camera and take pictures (with their parents’ permission!) After playing with the camera, I asked their parents if I could take their picture!

Sisters hug one another after a new solar system is installed on their home!

Then we all got together for a group picture!

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Celebrating the completion of installing this family’s new solar system on the San Pasqual reservation!


Feeling fulfilled, yet exhausted, we went back to the ranch house briefly, then scurried over to the San Pasqual Cultural Center, where Stanley Rodriguez would lead a tribal night, and share the history of the Kumeyaay Native Americans and the San Pasqual tribe.

The Kumeyaay had lived for thousands of years in the region around where the San Diego Zoo is located now. The land was sequestered by the Spanish between the wars of 1776 and 1810, and then by the Mexicans in the Mexican Independence War between 1810 and 1821. The war of 1846-1848 resulted in American ownership of the region with the establishment of the current national border.

Stanley Rodriguez discusses Kumeyaay history at a tribe gathering we were invited to join.

During this time of conquest and dispersion, the Native American population in the area dropped from 150,000 in 1845 to under 16,000 by the 1900s. The Kumeyaay Native Americans especially suffered dispersion and were not given official reservation land until the 1910 establishment of the San Pasqual reservation, 60 miles inland. This dispersion resulted in loss of culture, which the cultural center is working to restore. Stan said that only 52 adults currently speak the Kumeyaay language, but the Cultural Center is holding classes to teach children, with hopes of preserving the language. After sharing the history with us, we all enjoyed a delicious meal together!

Later that night, we played traditional games. I was in a group with five children and one other adult, and the game we played used sticks and stones. A large stone sat in the center of the table, surrounded small rocks. Three sticks, just a little larger than your fingers, were used to play. The object was to tap the stone in the center then raise your hand and drop the sticks so that they hit the center stone and landed around it. The goal was to have sticks that were not touching each other, the center stone, or the surrounding rocks. Every isolated, but inside-the-circle stick gained you a point. Each player was assigned a very small stick (smaller than a child’s pinky) which would move to the spaces between rocks depending on the points earned.


If another player’s stick made it to the same position as your own stick, your stick was pushed back to the starting line. As we moved along the rocks, the children counted together in the Kumeyaay language. After the games, Stan told us all a Coyote and Rabbit trickster story, and then we called it night!

Tribal Night at the San Pasqual reservation’s Cultural Center.




(More to come!)

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