Boots on the Ground: Interview with Site Superintendent Loren O’Hara

We sat down with Borrego Solar’s most experienced site superintendent, Loren O’Hara, to get insight about what goes into properly preparing a site for solar and what customers can expect from the construction process.

How long have you been in the solar industry and how much solar capacity have you successfully completed since?

Since 2003, and I have conservatively been directly involved with the installation and interconnection of over 14 MW of solar capacity on hundreds of different projects.

Loren for blog

What’s the first step you take to prepare a roof-top site for a solar installation?

We always first survey the general condition of the roof and document any areas that could present problems down the line, such as leaking. We make sure the customer is made aware of these areas so they can be addressed before we start construction, if necessary. We also thoroughly review the construction plans and make sure there aren’t any roof vents, skylights, air conditioning units, and other general obstructions that we need to make sure people can access and service once the project is complete and the crews are gone.

What about preparation for a ground mount system?

This is a tough one, because all ground sites are different. While shading issues are always considered during the design phase, we also always keep an eye out for any major potential shading issues in case anything has changed since being designed. It’s also very important to look at any changes in grade. If the plans don’t properly reflect the site’s slope it can impact inter-row shading, which is significant on single-axis tracking applications and elevated solar support structures such as carports or shade awnings.

Regardless of the installation type, it’s important to take photos of the existing site conditions and have a record of what they are before we start construction and bring in our crews and equipment. This comes up a lot when we’re building solar on parking lots. We want to thoroughly document conditions so we know what state the site needs to be in when we return it to the customer.

Is there a strict standard for the site preparation process that all solar installers should adhere to?

Yes, doing a thorough investigation—or site survey—of the underground activities and any grade changes is critical. This is the only way to figure out what utilities might be running underground that we need to avoid running into during installation. Other than a thorough site survey, there’s not a specific standard for how you begin—it’s always nice to go with an installer that has a high quality installation team with a lot of experience under their belts.

What should a customer do to best prepare for the construction phase of a solar installation?

Collecting and having as-built plans of the property or building and irrigation plans is key. In addition, it’s always super helpful to have someone who works in facilities or maintenance and is not only knowledgeable, but also available to answer questions about the site whenever they arise, such as where the appropriate shutoffs are and how various systems are run on site. This person is key to keeping us moving smoothly through the beginning of the construction phase until we have a chance to become experts on the ins-and-outs of the site. This customer representative should have access to irrigation plans as well. Their willingness to help us or be available if we have questions should not be underscored.

Most solar installers use subcontractors for fencing, roofing, electrical, surfacing, etc. How do you successfully manage multiple vendors on a site?

Communication and proper planning are key. Having the ability to collaborate and have foresight into progress is important, which comes more from our collective experience working with multiple subcontractors and on multiple sites with unique conditions than anything else. It’s also important to have the flexibility and ability to address problems as they arise and quickly make the right decision about how to remediate those issues. Having regular communication with the customer is also helpful because the continuous feedback loop allows us to understand how our work on the site is impacting their day-to-day operations, which we can then communicate to subs and keep them abreast of what’s most important to the customer. This is where communication can really impact the customer experience in a positive way.

Safety is of the utmost importance. How do you properly prepare a site to be a safe working environment for the workers? And for the public?

The most obvious first step is installing fencing and clearly delineating where the construction zone is. Having clear signage up that explains where people can and can’t be is also very important. It’s been my experience that the best way to address safety is to stay on top of it and ahead of it. We have weekly safety meetings, and we require all of our subs to have similar weekly safety meetings. As the site superintendent, I’m responsible for what’s happening on the site at all times. We’re constantly monitoring the work of our subcontractors and paying attention to any traffic in and out of the construction area. This is something that can only be done effectively by having a constant presence on site.

Is there anything else you think a customer should know or be prepared for at the commencement of construction?

There will be noise and there’s no way around that. There are times when we will need to use cranes and there will be at least one power shut down on site. Whether we’re coordinating the shutoff with the utility or just with the staff on site, it will definitely have to happen at some point. We aim to do the power shutoff at about halfway through the project so we’re fully mobilized and the customer is used to us being there. This also gives us ample time to schedule the shutoff for when it will be least disruptive for the customer and also gives us a time buffer if for some reason things need to be rescheduled. Again, it all comes down to effective and thorough communication so expectations on both sides of the table are managed.

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