The history and modern advantages of rail-less roof mounts

In this special edition of Contractor’s Corner podcast, rooftop solar racking and attachment manufacturer Roof Tech shares product insights as a company that’s produced PV mounts for nearly 30 years. We’re joined by Mike Dunlap, general manager of Roof Tech, to talk about the company’s product offerings, where rail-less roof mounts are today and what they mean for project inspections in 2022.

Below is a portion of the company’s Solar Spotlight podcast with Solar Power World, but be sure to listen to the full episode here or on your favorite podcast app.

I understand that Roof Tech Inc. has had success with its top-down, self-flashing roof mount, RT-MINI, and the company’s moving more into rail-less mounts with RT-APEX. Why head in this direction now?

So, actually, just to clarify, Roof Tech is actually primarily a rail-less racking manufacturer. That’s really where we got our start in Japan in the mid-90s — 1994 to be exact, which actually does make us the oldest rail-less manufacturer on Earth, not to mention in North America. But when we came to the United States in 2012 as the first branch off of our parent company in Japan to try to tackle the US market, we approached the market with rail-less, and in 2012 rail-less was a thing that was just unheard or. No one knew what it was very, very early on in the rail-less market in the US

So, a couple of years later we adapted to the market in the US by offering a mount that was meant for rail, because we had this awesome flashing, this flashing we’d been doing since 1994. It’s been a huge success, we have about 70% market share in other parts of the globe and when we came to the US we have this awesome flashing, but in a method that wasn’t quite accepted by the industry. To shorten up that, in about 2016 or so, we ended up coming out with the Mini, or the original product which was an adaptation of one of our rail-less bases to adapt to a rail-mounted system, which had huge success. At that point, everyone was able to take advantage of our proven technology with our flashing and still not have to change the entire game with rail.

With increasing aluminum prices and supply chain issues in mind, does rail-less make sense in every region?

Absolutely, and those are basically the two main reasons. The larger companies have chosen to go rail-less. Reducing costs of material and supply chain issues and also internal logistics, as a third main reason. Instead of having a warehouse that stores these giant rails, you can now fit everything into small boxes on a pallet. I think typically right now, you can do roughly one pallet of product — just a four by four pallet, 6 ft high — is typically around installs, roughly around 6 to 8 kW per install. That’s amazing to get into one pallet, which actually can be stacked.

The amount of space that you’re trying to warehouse products alone is a huge time saver, huge space saver. The other thing, too, is that aluminum costs have just recently over the past three years increased about 57%. That 57% was actually just within the past 12 months, so this has been a huge cost that we’ve seen spiking numbers in racking in general. But the thing about rail is the majority of their product is extruded aluminum and quite a bit of it. So just in simple analytics, we use less material than rail-less, so we’re able to offer a more fair price for what we’re dealing with, and also, you get to use every single bit of money that you spent in racking.

What does it mean for solar installers that RT-Apex uses fewer components than its rail-less counterparts?

As we’ve seen in recent years, other manufacturers are coming out with rail-less products or adapting their rail-less products to be more applicable to the market, and since have almost complicated the system. In Roof Tech, in our origins, it was all about simplicity and effectiveness. Honestly, you can do an entire rail-less system with Roof Tech with three components: A base, an end-clamp and a mid-clamp — very similar to a rail, although the rail would the bases, the rails, the end- clamps and the mid clamps. Those three components are the only things you actually need to do a Roof Tech-mounted system. That would be a four-point deck connection system: Bases, ends, mids. That’s all.

How do inspections differ between rail-based and rail-less installations? And what are mid point inspections?

This is I wouldn’t say an anomaly but a recent development over the past few years, that some jurisdictions are now implementing what they would call a mid-point inspection or a bonding inspection. When you’re doing a rail job, what that means in those areas is that you would only be allowed to set your bases, your mounts, your flashings, your L-feet and your rail, but then you’d have to stop the job, wait for the building inspector to come out and do a bonding inspection for continuity. They would have to make sure that everything was properly connected and bonded within that rail system before you lay the modules.

When rail-less comes into play with the mid-point inspection, it’s all of our bonding and all of our continuity comes within the module itself. So because we don’t use rails, we actually use the structural viability of the module itself to make our spans, which also means that we bond through the modules.

This podcast is sponsored by Roof Tech, Inc.

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