I Lack Connections!

By , April 19, 2015

In the last few decades, society seems to obsess over connections and/or lack thereof. We all need to be connected for business success, and to feel connected for personal success. Those with connections win, those without lose. Lost connections must be avoided at all cost. Connectivity is, we are told, key.

Lately, I’m suffering from a lack of connections.

Our new solar panels continue to lean against the shady side of the cabin, waiting to for installation (see The Shipment in Transit). Almost all the other components are in place: wiring, charge controller, disconnects (see Piecing the Puzzle Together). I’ve even constructed the framing as much as is practical without installing the panels. Everything awaits the proper connections.

While waiting for the panels to arrive I looked at the company’s spec sheet, trying to learn as much as I could about them, and to gather any peripheral fittings.

I read that the panels featured Tyco Solarlok connectors on their installed cables. I didn’t worry about that much. I didn’t know what those connecters were, exactly, but figured I’d likely cut them off, strip an inch or two of wire, and tie them into my wire run.

However, I also downloaded the installation manual for the panels, and learned that cutting those connectors would void my warranty, one of the longest in the industry. To preserve the warranty, I needed to find extension cables with the same connectors, plug those into the panels, then tie the cables into the wire run.

Simple . . . right? Not quite.

I waited for the panels to arrive to look at the connectors before finding extensions. When I shopped for Tyco Solarlok extensions, I noticed that the connectors didn’t really look like the ones dangling from my panels! This led to Web searches, emails to suppliers and tech support staff, both the vendor’s and the manufacturer’s. I perused online catalogs from Tyco. I even snapped photos of my connectors and passed them around. The suppliers responded first, and ensured me I could return any that didn’t fit. I ordered extensions with a fair degree of confidence.

When the cables arrived, I tried to plug an extension coupler into the panel’s coupler, literally trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The connections did not fit.

I tried emailing again, using a different account this time and started making phone calls. I also doubled my Internet search effort.

The second email got an immediate, but terse and ultimately single response from the solar panel manufacturer. Their tech informed me that my panels do not have Tyco Solarlok connectors, but Rehne 05-6 connectors!

Silly me! Why on Earth did I—you know . . . BELIEVE THE COMPANY’S OWN SPEC SHEET?

What a rube. I got what I deserved, didn’t I?

Rehne turns out to be a Chinese company, one that surprisingly few people in the industry seem to have heard of or to sell extensions for.

Eventually, I received assurance from a vendor that these connectors mate well with a common standard, MC4. I’m now waiting for these extensions to arrive, and, of course, hoping for the best.

I made a rather disturbing discovery in this process. My Internet searches led me to several professional solar installer forums, where, as one might imagine, the dizzying variety of connectors gets discussed at length.

I learned a few essential lessons that I’d like to pass along:

  • NEC and other regulatory agencies change the requirements for connectors fairly frequently. I suppose that’s to be expected in a quickly expanding industry?
  • Solar panel manufacturers may not stick to one type or manufacturer of connectors. Single makes and models of panels may feature different connectors in different manufacturing lots!
  • A lot of professional installers keep extra connectors on hand, and often clip off whatever connectors panels may have, then install their own if necessary. I did not research this, but I sincerely hope these are only in cases where the homeowner leases, rather than owns the solar panels. In those cases, the leasing company faces the loss of warranty, not the homeowner.

That last one makes me think that, were I ever to hire a professional installer to set up a PV array, I’d make sure they didn’t take the shortcut above if it threatens my warranty.

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