In the land of “Unexpected things I certainly didn’t expect to be posting about in June 2022,” Idaho Department of Building Safety has eliminated the Renewable Energy Plans Review process! This means that the main obstacle for solar in Idaho is gone. And I am exceedingly happy to see this.
What does this mean? What was the history? What’s the path forward now? Keep reading for… well, honestly, I just don’t expect this to matter to many people, but I want to write about it.
Idaho Solar Before June 2022: The Plans Review Process
Starting back in 2019 or so , renewable energy installs in the parts of Idaho that weren’t covered by some other AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction, your local code compliance organization that some cities have) were under the Department of Building Safety - and they decided, for some presumably sane historical reasons, that they should review all the renewable energy plans before anyone was allowed to install them.
If you’ve followed my solar saga, you probably know something about this, but I’ve talked to a lot of people over the years about this process, and I’ll share some suitably sanitized anecdotes about the process.
- First and foremost, this process served as a wonderfully effective filter for solar salestypes at fairs. If I wanted to know if someone was actually a local solar engineer or just an out of state commissioned sales drone, I’d ask them about JS. Anyone local would shudder, give me a horrified look, and start sharing stories. Anyone out of state would ask, “Who?” - and that was useful enough. If you did solar in Idaho, you knew this process, and you hated it - because it was, quite literally, expensive nonsense.
- This process, singlehandedly, added substantial time and costs to solar installs in Idaho. Various people would peg it at different values, but I heard anywhere from “A few thousand dollars per install and about six months” to “About a dollar a watt, just to deal with this crap.” It was not a popular thing, and since you couldn’t start an install until the plans had been reviewed, the “months of waiting” was just… waiting. You could speculate on what would be approved or not, but if it wasn’t approved as you built it, well, tear it off and try again.
- Various people doing off-grid systems design gave up with hard wired installs and just had people doing an off-grid house put a big 200A plug on the side of it. NEC “ends at the plug,” so the house would pass NEC inspection, and anything plugged in wasn’t their problem. This was a way to avoid the plans review process, because they couldn’t get anything with batteries approved either. The power electronics would show up on a “portable” pallet, which was set in place and left there, with the house plugged in. It defeats the entire point of an electrical code, but it was also the only way that these systems could actually be installed - because it seemed like nobody could get a battery based system through the review.
- I’ve heard various complaints over the years that some of the reviews involved picking fights with licensed professional engineers over various bits and pieces of their stamped plans. If you’re not familiar with a professional engineer, they’re the sort of people who have gone through a long, long process with a lot of exams to be considered “competent and trusted to decide that something is safe.” They quite literally stamp their name on the plans - it’s their reputation on the line if something fails. The NEC largely has the “Or as approved by a professional engineer” clause around everything - so if one of them says something is safe, it’s the problem. Or, in Idaho, it was still the plans reviewer’s veto on it…
- My understanding of the plans review department is that DBS tried to create it, and was told by the legislature that, no, this was silly, you can’t have funds for this. So DBS did it anyway, funding it on plans review fees. This has led to some speculation about “rejecting plans until the monthly minimums are met,” based on the process of having plans rejected, resubmitting them with an additional blurb in the attached document that exists to contain these blurbs, and having the identical plans then approved. Obviously, I don’t know details, but speculation about this process was not particularly kind.
The love of the process wasn’t helped by highly specific, detailed resubmission requests like this - count the weasel words, in case you actually had submitted enough information.
“Appears” is the big one. But there’s an awful lot buried in “applicable 2017 NEC as adopted by the State of Idaho” as well, because that seems to include some local understandings… and the rest isn’t any better.
Anyway, the summary of it is that this process was not liked by anyone, it added substantial time and cost to literally every install in the state that wasn’t in one of a few cities (Boise, Moscow, and a few others have their own electrical divisions that weren’t subject to this), and it’s very much been the inhibitor of solar installs in Idaho.
The excuse was that it would save time and money - the old announcement from 2019 made the following claims:
That doesn’t seem to have matched the experience of anyone I ever talked to, who found it was massively the opposite (increased costs and massively increased delays, across the board). But now, it’s gone!
What’s Replaced It?
The replacement, available in a release from DBS on 05/24/2022, goes back to “what everyone else does.” Your install has to meet code, and you have to prove to the inspector that your install meets code. If you have questions, talk to your inspector before you do something that might not meet code, and be prepared to help your inspector if you’re working in some weird bits of code they may not have seen before.
Those procedures are sane and match what the rest of the world seems to be just fine with.
Of note, they now require, “Please provide documentation that is legible and of a size that the Electrical Inspector can read it.” This does not mean “machine printed.” Previous requirements (still up here as of posting) note, “Generic and hand drawn One-Line Diagrams are not accepted for an Electrical Plans Inspection. Several examples of and programs for One-Line Diagrams can be found on the Internet; there are also several web-based programs available, including some that are free.” So, as I read the new install requirements, hand-drawn diagrams, as long as they’re neat, legible, and suitably large, are now permitted again.
Obviously, if you’re doing this sort of thing, be neat about it! For some ground mount styles, I’ve got reference drawings laying around that can be easily modified for any particular home out here. For roof mount systems with microinverters, you can easily find online diagram generators that should spit out everything you need.
If you’re interested in a set of reference plans and spreadsheets for ground mount A-frames, get in touch!
And you should do the work - your inspector will expect to see a range of diagrams and calculations (depending on how weird the system is). But the main takeaway here is, call your local inspector and find out what they want. Now, instead of having to go through a centralized process, you just have to talk to them. Which could be good or bad… but it’s certainly going to speed the bog standard installs that have been clogging up the review pipeline.
If you’re a professional installer, this is just purely good news. Keep doing good work, you’ll have no trouble getting the regular stuff approved, and see if you can teach inspectors about some weirder stuff.
If you’re a homeowner doing a DIY install… well, it’s still going to come down to a bit of what your local inspector knows and wants to see. If you’ve put in a bog standard grid tie install with sane wire gauges, it shouldn’t be a problem. If you’re doing something fancy with backup power, you’ll probably want to talk to them before it’s done and get their eyes on your plans first. And you might have to have your copy of the NEC open to help, if it’s something they’ve never seen before.
However, you’ll always help your case by taking the time to do the neatest work you possibly can. Spend the extra time to make it neater than 99% of the installs they see, and you’re well on your way!
So, What Happened?
I’d been hearing rumors of a pending change to the plans review process for a while now - maybe six months. What I’d heard was that the process was going to be changed so that the regular installers didn’t have to go through it for the sort of boring, standard, grid-tied installs that have been taking six months or longer because of this process. I wasn’t expecting the whole thing to go away.
However, I also know that some people were demonstrating to the various influential people in the state the difference (in time and cost) between mostly identical installs in the Boise area and “Not Boise” - with the goal of getting the plans review process modified or removed. Clearly, someone has been successful in something.
But I would love to hear more about the process and changes here. If you want to leave a comment, please do. If you would rather it be rewritten and filtered and unattributed, I can do that too - I’m easy enough to get in touch with. I like “first initial, last name” type email usernames at my domain.
I’m just stunned that this particularly annoying process has been eliminated - and I hope to see a reduction in solar install costs as a direct result. Plus, ideally, more backup power - though I expect that will still be a challenge to get past inspection. If you’re going to do your own solar plus backup, you’d best be prepared with a good paper copy of the NEC to go through the relevant sections with the inspector if they’re not familiar with it.
On the other hand, had I been able to do the install as I’d originally planned, with battery backup and full grid down running capability, various other wheels wouldn’t have been set turning. Those wheels are still spinning up, but they’ve generated some beautiful results so far. Results like this:
What’s this? A fully custom, off road capable solar battery trailer - and one of a line of them of various sizes and capacities. But I’ll be talking more about those in the future!