An Eye on Efficiency

OutBack Power Technologies Allows Installers to Monitor Systems Wherever the Job Goes

an-eye-on-effie-2A solar array isn’t a build-it-and-forget-it kind of project. After modules are installed and a system goes online, owners and installers must keep an eye on its performance and ensure its operating the way it should. In September 2014, OutBack Power Technologies, a designer and manufacturer of advanced power electronics for renewable energy, backup power and mobile applications, released OPTICS RE, a cloud-based user-interface application designed to monitor systems. While the majority of monitoring programs in the solar industry focus on owners, OutBack’s OPTICS RE provides both installers and owners of OutBack systems the ability to easily monitor PV/solar system operation, performance and output via an intuitive dashboard from any Internet-enabled device. Solar Builder had the opportunity to chat with two members of the OutBack team — Paul Gardner, product manager, and Mark Cerasuolo, marketing manager — about this exciting new product.

SB: What is the OPTICS RE software, and how does it benefit installers?
Gardner: OPTICS RE was developed for two main stakeholders — installers and system owners. The No. 1 feedback that we’ve gotten from customers is that they want the ability to remotely access their systems. Even better, as we move forward, we will eventually gain remote control over the systems. OPTICS RE is a cloud software-based platform that allows for remote monitoring, as it stands today, of OutBack Power systems.

There are multiple value propositions for an installer. The main reason is a lot of these systems that people are installing are in remote-based areas, especially with OutBack and our strong off-grid presence. The ability for an installer to remotely gain access of what’s going on at the site is saving them time and money. If one of their customers calls them up and says they’re experiencing an issue or they have a question, the installer can now dial up and remotely access that system and try to triage or troubleshoot what’s going on on the ground.

Eventually, we will implement the remote control element of the platform. It takes it one step further. If they are able to find out something that is going on on the ground, being able to change something remotely saves them the roll of a truck out to the site. The other thing that is a value-add for OPTICS is that a lot of the power systems, whether they’re Outback or a competitor, are really limited on the display that is locally on the device. That typically is three to four rows or lines for text and images. Imagine now we can leverage all of the beautiful hardware that’s out there — whether it’s a mobile phone, iPad, laptop — and utilize that larger screen to view the monitoring controls and visualization of data.

SB: Do the system owners and installers see the same data?
Gardner: Both the installer and the system owner have the ability to view the same data. We have different user access levels. The way that OPTICS is set up, we like to think of it as we present data or information in layers. At the very top level is our fleet management view. For an installer, it’s very important that they can see all the systems and sites they have access to at a snapshot. There’s a screen in OPTICS where you can see a map with all the different icons of the installations that they have visibility to, and they’ll change color depending on status. If they were to sign on to the main fleet, they could very easily see what site they might want to go look at proactively and the ones that they don’t need to have a cause for concern because everything is status quo.

an-eye-on-effie-1That page isn’t so important for a system owner because they’re only going to have one site or system. When they sign into OPTICS, they bypass that page and go directly to the dashboard. That gives you a snapshot of what’s live and happening on the ground at that point in time, as well as historical production. We’re able to show historical production and consumption information for a five-year period.

SB: What equipment is needed to run OPTICS RE?
Gardner: The main piece of equipment that you need is a MATE3 or access port — those are the two gateway devices that are OPTICS RE-enabled. They’ll allow you to speak to the cloud. There’s an ethernet cord on each one of those devices, and that’s where you would hook into the internet connection. You will need an internet connection locally at the site, whether that’s WiFi or a direct-connect, and we even work with GSM modems as well.

SB: Is OPTICS RE available to everyone?
The OPTICS platform is a value-added feature set that we are adding to our hardware devices. In the end, we want to sell more inverters and charge controllers. For systems purchased prior to March 2014, there is a $100 upgrade fee to gain access to OPTICS. Anything after March 2014, OPTICS is provided free of charge. Therefore, with the purchase of a MATE3 or access port gateway device and the remaining OutBack hardware, you have the ability to sign up for OPTICS for free.

SB: Are there future plans for expansion of OPTICS RE into 2015?
Gardner: With software, once you put it out there, it’s constantly in a state of evolution. Moving forward, there are many different rounds or series of enhancements that we will do in 2015 and beyond. Most notably, at the end of 2015, we’ll integrate mobile applications — meaning Android and iOS. There will be more sophisticated options in terms of automating system functionality. We have a parameter [grid-use timer] that currently exists. You can set up the time of the inverter when you want to connect or disconnect, to use the grid or not use the grid throughout the day or week. We will implement more of those types of functionality into other attributes and functionality within our devices. Right now, the majority of our device attributes are a manual nature, meaning you have to change manually at the device level or eventually [with] OPTICS you manually have to go in and select things to change. We want to move more toward a smarter-type of programming where a system owner or installer can set up the conditions and have the system either activate or deactivate accordingly.

an-eye-on-effie-3SB: What insight and feedback have you received on OPTICS?
Cerasuolo: We do this certificate training program every month at Outback. We have two training facilities — one in Arlington, Wash., and one in Phoenix. We get 20 installers every month for a NABCEP-registered class. They come in from all over the country. We took advantage of that and showed them OPTICS as we were developing it. Paul was able to survey this group and show it as a work in progress. We were able to get installer feedback throughout the entire developing process which was just invaluable.

Gardner: It went live in September. The great thing is that we have a very strong user-base that loves OutBack and loves to give feedback. There’s integration right in the platform that allows people to either post ideas or ask questions directly within the OPTICS website. Both myself and tech support gets those messages pretty much live and we can communicate back and forth with them. We also had a pretty strong beta turnout in terms of users that wanted to gain early access into OPTICS, and we were able to get a lot of feedback prior to going live as well.
The other stakeholder, probably the third in the chain — you have the installer, system owner and then our tech support team. Any data that is available, we also have insight for our tech support team to dial in on a remote base as well. Imagine as before, they’re calling on the phone and walking through step-by-step of a system on the ground. They now have the ability to go in and see all the data live for themselves as well. That reduces call times and time to get to a triage.

Pam Kleineke is a contributing editor of Solar Builder.


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