Processing

Please wait...

Settings

Settings

1. USRE047733 - Method and apparatus for mounting photovoltaic modules

Note: Text based on automatic Optical Character Recognition processes. Please use the PDF version for legal matters

CROSS-REFERENCE TO RELATED APPLICATIONS

      The present application claims the benefit of the filing date of U.S. Provisional Patent Application Ser. No. 60/542,463, filed 5 Feb. 2004, and U.S. Provisional Patent Application Ser. No. 60/568,513, filed May 5, 2004.

STATEMENT REGARDING FEDERALLY SPONSORED RESEARCH OR DEVELOPMENT

      Not applicable.

REFERENCE TO A MICROFICHE APPENDIX

      Not applicable.

TECHNICAL FIELD

      The present invention relates generally to photovoltaic modules and associated frames and mounting hardware, and more particularly to an interlocking photovoltaic module mounting system that provides a one piece, integrated photovoltaic module frame that is directly mountable to a support structure and interlocks with separate adjoining photovoltaic module frames.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION AND DISCUSSION OF RELATED ART

      Photovoltaic (PV) modules and related mounting hardware are well known and in widespread use. The most common mass-produced PV modules in use today include a laminated portion, or PV laminate, and a frame portion, and are designed specifically to convert light into electricity. The PV laminate portion is for encapsulating solar cells in a substantially flat, weather-tight envelope comprising a laminated construction of various layers including but not limited to glass, clear plastic, encapsulant material (like EVA), active photovoltaic material, interconnecting conductors between solar cells, and a protective backsheet (like PVF film). Photovoltaic laminates are commonly manufactured today in rectilinear shapes like squares, rectangles, triangles, and trapezoids and, due to their fragile nature, are usually completely enclosed by a permanent, substantially rigid, glued-on frame portion which holds and protects the delicate edges of the PV laminate portion and provides a means of attaching the PV laminate to other objects without damaging the PV laminate. The combination of the PV laminate portion and the glued-on frame portion is referred to herein as a PV module or framed PV module. The present invention relates to integral glued-on frames for standard PV laminates as are currently being produced, and to the associated mounting hardware which attaches to the integral frames for the purpose of securing the PV module to a roof or support structure.
      Since PV cells are typically optimized to produce electricity most efficiently from direct sunlight, most PV modules are mounted outdoors on roofs or support structures. There are two primary methods utilized to reliably mount PV cells in the sun: (a) attach a standard framed PV module to a building, vehicle, or structure, or (b) integrate an unframed, PV laminate into a standard type of building material like a roofing product (shingle, tile, etc.), curtain wall, or a skylight framing system such that the PV laminate forms a part of the weather-tight skin of the building.
      The latter approach is commonly referred to as “Building Integrated PV” and is not the subject of this invention. While there have been a number of recent developments in the field of building integrated photovoltaics, there are still very few installations because of their complex building design issues, higher costs, difficult ventilation issues (PV cells operate more efficiently with adequate air flow for cooling), problematic servicing issues (when a cell, laminate, or wiring connection fails), and inability to work well in retrofit applications.
      Physical mounting issues associated with the installation of standard, framed photovoltaic modules include the following:
      Alignment: Most photovoltaic systems are mounted on roofs and or structures which are not truly flat or straight despite the original design on paper (due to inherent deflection and flaws in materials). PV module alignment (in all three dimensions) is the biggest issue that photovoltaic installers face. The glass on photovoltaic modules heavily amplifies the normal dips and peaks that exist on roofs and structures. If the PV array is not straight, it is very noticeable from the ground. Typical variance is 2″ maximum in any one section of a roof, though over a large roof, it may sag by up to 4″. Alignment issues have typically been dealt with during installation by attaching multiple framed PV modules to several struts or channels and then attaching the struts or channels to separate foot-type pieces which include adjustable height provisions like slots or holes at different heights. Since this technique results in significantly less adjustability points than if the alignment features were built into the PV module frame, the result is that PV installers frequently spend hours just working on the alignment and generally have to eventually settle for an array which is only partially aligned and in many cases substantially non-planar.
      Grounding: The 2002 National Electric Code Article 690.43 allows grounding modules by either a grounding conductor (as is typically done) or by making electrical contact with a metal rack or support structure. Given the importance of grounding for lightning protection and personnel safety, most respectable installers run large #6 ground wires to every module—a very time consuming and tedious task which still doesn't properly ground the array unless ground wires are also run to all struts and metal supports (hardly ever done because it requires threading each strut). Using the mounting structure as the ground is generally not done, primarily because it is somewhat vague in the code and installers don't know how to make lasting “electrical contact” on a structure exposed to the weather (for example, standard, self-tapping screws are not allowed). This is a major problem area because most photovoltaic arrays are not properly grounded.
      Wiring: The most common wiring mistake that happens is a missed or improperly connected electrical connector between two modules (almost all photovoltaic modules now come with quick-connect, plug-type connectors for simplified and fast wiring). Even though the development of plug-type connectors have improved intermodule wiring, getting back into the middle of an array to physically reach the wiring and fix a problem can be a time-consuming process, particularly with some mounting systems. In many cases the entire row of PV modules plus all of the large ground wires plus wire strapping must be removed just to locate the problem area. Most roof mounted PV modules are mounted within 6″ of a roof surface and in the same plane, so if wiring is beneath the modules or inside the module frames, it is not easily accessible once installed.
      Connecting to rafters: It is generally accepted that photovoltaic modules should be secured to the rafters, or other primary structural members (purlins, joists, etc.) for structural integrity and prevention of leaks, as opposed to screwing modules down to the sheathing. A single, typical aluminum framed PV module can expand and contract under normal temperature fluctuations by as much as 1/16″ and a whole 60′ long array by as much as 1″. If the array is only secured into the roof sheathing, then expansion and contraction over time will break the seal and create roof leaks. This issue is typically handled by use of additional struts or channels (since module edges or mounting holes rarely line up with rafters).
      Collection of debris: If there are trees around, then debris (and sometimes small animals) will collect beneath modules. Some contractors prefer mounting modules higher to allow easy access for cleaning.
      Water damming: Anything long and horizontal directly mounted right down on a roof is a potential leak site because water will dam up there. Roof mounted PV modules must be off of the roof, or building integrated PV s must be utilized.
      Module temperature: Photovoltaic modules become less efficient the hotter they get. It is therefore required to provide some airflow beneath the modules if more efficient operation is desired. While airflow is not generally a problem on ground mounted structures and racks, roof mounted PV arrays generally perform much better when elevated off of the roof surface (as opposed to being mounted directly down on the roof surface).
      Penetrations: Despite the incredible reliability of advanced roof sealants, PV contractors always want to minimize the number of penetrations that have to be drilled through the roofing surface since they are the ones who are liable for roof leaks. This is typically addressed by the use of additional struts or channels which serve to span multiple PV modules thereby minimizing the number of penetrations required.
      Ease of installation: Though most people agree that PV systems provide the most environmentally sound method of producing electricity, the high capital cost of PV systems still prevents most people from being able to afford them.
      Aesthetic mounting issues associated with the installation of photovoltaic modules include the following:
      Module height: The generally agreed upon aesthetic that most homeowners and architects subscribe to assumes that photovoltaic modules should be either not viewable from the street, or if they are, they should be close to the roof and stand out as little as possible. Given this scenario, any ability to see beneath modules is not good, and insistence on optimum orientation (for example turning and/or tilting modules toward south when in the northern hemisphere on a roof or structure which does not face south) should be avoided. Generally speaking, the PV array should be as close to the same plane as the surface to which it is being mounted. Stated differently: the photovoltaic array should look like one large skylight. While some systems are capable of locating PV modules close to the roof, they generally require some offset from the roof and thus do not look like a skylight. This issue is slightly complicated because heating, debris, and water damming concerns all require an offset, while aesthetic concerns dictate a minimization of height.
      Gaps between modules: The tighter the spacing, the better in order to minimize the view of the roof between PV modules and attain a skylight-like appearance.
      Hiding other gear: Mounting hardware (like rails, hold-downs, or feet), junction boxes, conduit, wiring, and balance-of-system gear is unsightly, and should be neatly tucked away somewhere out of sight, especially from the street.
      Module and frame color: Most homeowners and architects prefer black or dark bronze since these colors tend to draw the least amount of attention to themselves.
      Numerous attempts have been made to address these problems, but most have been in the context of costly and cumbersome non-integral mounting hardware, such as improved PV strut systems with specialized “hold-down” pieces that connect the frame portions of PV modules to the strut or by utilizing building integrated techniques. Though the additional hardware developments have provided solutions to enough of the problems to become the dominant technique, many of the issues discussed remain unaddressed. Building integrated solutions also solve some of the problems but come with a host of new problems as discussed above.
      Prior art examples include U.S. Pat. No. 6,672,018 to Shingleton which discloses a PV laminate mounting method and clip wherein a solar collector array is formed of a plurality of PV laminates mounted on a frame made of support beams which may be sheet metal channel members. A butyl tape or other glazing material is applied between the back laminate of the solar panel and the beam. Clips are used to clamp the panels to the support beams. The clips have an upper portion that is generally T-shaped in profile, and a retainer in the form of a channel nut or bar, with a threaded hole that receives a bolt or similar threaded fastener. The retainer biases against the inwardly directed flanges of the channel support beam. Electrical wires and mechanical fasteners are concealed within the support beams.
      While this design does eliminate costly and unnecessary materials, it creates a new series of problems: fragile edges of the laminate are exposed and likely to break during normal-installation and/or roof maintenance, the system does not provide any means for vertical adjustability and will therefore include rows of PV laminates at differing heights which will compromise the aesthetic appeal, use of adhesive directly on the laminate means that removal of a single or multiple laminates may be difficult or impossible in some cases, thereby greatly reducing the maintenance capabilities of the system, and since PV systems are typically designed to last at least 30 years, the use of an adhesive which is exposed to the weather and under extreme daily temperature fluctuations is of questionable long term reliability.
      U.S. Pat. No. 6,606,830 to Nagao et al. describes a building integrated photovoltaic roof including a roof base member provided on a partition wall which partitions a building into an indoor portion and an outdoor portion, a solar cell module provided on the roof base member, and electric wiring with one end portion being electrically connected with the solar cell module. The end portion of the electric wiring is drawn to the outside from between the roof base member and the solar cell module and at an outdoor-sided position than an indoor side face of the partition wall.
      U.S. Pat. No. 6,465,724 to Garvison et al. teaches a photovoltaic module framing system with integral electrical raceways wherein a multi-purpose photovoltaic module framing system is provided which combines and integrates the framing system with the photovoltaic electrical system. The frame includes at least one rail which receives fasteners to directly mount the module on or to a roof, wall, rack, beam, or other structure. The frame has portions to space the PV module above a roof, so as to form a gap between the module and the roof to channel water, as well as to provide an air passage to cool the module. The frame includes portions that hold the PV laminate and for mechanically mounting the frame to a support structure. The PV modules are also overlapping interleaving side rails between intermediate PV modules and outboard PV modules. The overlapping, interleaving side rails can have a regular or inverted C-shaped or bracket shaped cross section with: (a) overlapping upper side flanges, which extend laterally outwardly from upper portions of the modules, (b) overlapping lower side flanges, which provide feet that extend laterally outward from lower portions of the modules, and (c) an intermediate side bight which provides a side crossbar that extends between and integrally connects the overlapping upper and lower side flanges. The bottom exterior surfaces of the feet can abut against and engage the shingles of an asphalt shingle roof. The multi-purpose frames also have integral electrical raceways which conceal and protect most electrical components and wires. The reliable frames are specially constructed and arranged to permit easy access to output wires and do not require junction boxes. Ground clips can be directly connected to the convenient framing system.
      While this attempt does solve a number of the problems outlined, it has the following major faults which have significantly impeded adoption: (a) the lag bolts go through pre-defined holes which means that the lag bolts in most cases will have to be screwed into the sheathing, missing rafters and therefore causing roof leaks; (b) there is no vertical adjustability so the sides which abut each other will be not be level with each other in most cases (since roofs are not flat) dramatically diminishing the aesthetic appeal of the PV array; (c) design is not backwardly compatible with the common inward facing flange integral frame and thus requires contractors to completely re-tool and learn a totally different product which impedes adoption of the invention; (d) can't remove a module from the middle if it breaks without painstakingly removing the whole row; (e) it requires three different types of extrusions per PV module which means triple the cost for tooling to manufacture the unit as compared to a design with only one type of extrusion; and (f) design only allows for PV modules mounted in portrait orientation (long dimension of the module running perpendicular to the roof ridge), yet most roofs can actually fit more PV modules in landscape orientation since the long dimension of the module is now parallel with the long dimension of the roof (most roofs are longer side to side than they are from ridge to gutter). Regarding the maintenance issues, if you do have to remove modules for service, you have to literally rip up all of the now dried roof sealant and pull lag bolts out of the sheathing—a very time consuming process. Or worse yet, if a module or wiring connection is suspected to be faulty right after initial installation (the most likely time to discover a problem), then modules will have to be removed exposing wet sealant and causing a mess. To avoid the sealant problems mentioned above, the only option would be to use an inferior type of sealant like butyl tape which no experienced PV contractor would want to do because of roof leak liability.
      U.S. Pat. No. 6,414,237 to Boer discloses solar collectors, articles for mounting solar modules, and methods of mounting solar modules, including a solar collector comprising at least one solar module; at least one solar module frame which supports the solar module; and at least one solar module bracket comprising a profile channel engagement hook, the profile channel engagement hook comprising a neck portion and a foot portion, the foot portion having a foot portion cross-sectional area in a first plane which is larger than a cross-sectional area of the neck portion in a second plane parallel to the first plane. There is also provided a profile channel attached to or integral with a support structure, the profile channel having at least one opening, the profile channel engagement hook engaging the opening such that the neck portion extends through the opening. There are also provided methods of making such solar collectors and methods of mounting such solar collectors on support structures.
      U.S. Pat. No. 6,336,304 to Mimura et al. describes a building integrated photovoltaic roof in which an upper-end engaging portion of a downstream roof panel is seam jointed with a lower-end engaging portion of an upstream roof panel, wherein at least the lower-end engaging portion has flexural rigidity enough to disengage the seam joint.
      U.S. Pat. No. 6,269,596 to Ohtsuka et al. teaches a building integrated photovoltaic roof member and mounting method thereof wherein roof members are those fixed to the roof, each roof member being a combination solar cell and roof member having a solar cell element and a metal reinforcing member, wherein a metal member is provided below the combination solar cell and roof member or a metal member is provided along an adjacent portion between adjacent combination solar cell and roof members, wherein the metal member is electrically conductive to metal reinforcing members of plural combination solar cell and roof members and wherein the metal member is electrically grounded. Provided based on this structure are the roof members easy to install and excellent in the external view and electric safety.
      U.S. Pat. No. 6,242,685 to Mizukami et al. discloses a structure and method of installing photovoltaic modules wherein a photovoltaic module has a cathode and anode acting as electrodes for collecting an output power. When the photovoltaic module is installed on a roof of a building for example, the cathode is located at a position higher than the anode.
      U.S. Pat. No. 4,636,577 to Peterpaul describes a building integrated photovoltaic module for directly mounting to a roof surface comprising a plurality of solar panels and a low profile, elongated frame including a generally flat, rectangular base having a plurality of substantially planar surfaces for supporting the under surfaces of the solar panels. The panels are removably sealed to the frames at the under surfaces thereof, rendering the upper surfaces fully free and unencumbered for receipt of incident solar radiation. The frame includes, integrally therewith, upstanding walls adjacent opposite edges of the panel supporting surfaces, defining raceway channels for concealed passage of electrical wires connected to the solar panels. The channels and walls have provision for overlapping interlocking with similarly fabricated frames for ease of installation, weather-proofing and high-density panel mounting.
      U.S. Pat. No. 4,392,009 to Napoli teaches a solar power module comprising an array of solar cells arranged on a flat panel, the panel being supported by a substantially rigid, easily assembled frame comprising spaced apart side channels that each interlock with adjacent end channels to form a single photovoltaic module.
      U.S. Pat. No. 4,336,413 to Tourneux discloses a building integrated photovoltaic generating panel easily adaptable to a roof. The panel is equipped with a peripheral frame formed by the assembly of straight light alloy shapes. The particular form of these shapes makes possible the laying of adjacent panels with overlapping of the edges of the latter similar to roof tiles.
      U.S. Pat. No. 4,246,892 to Waiche describes a solar thermal energy collector panel, having an absorber plate and a frame within which the absorber plate is mounted. The absorber plate is comprised of a plurality of absorber plate sections each having interlocking structure formed along both of their lateral edges. This interlocking structure forms a tubular passage when the interlocking structure of the adjacent absorber plate sections are matingly locked together. An elongated tubing member whose external diameter is slightly larger than the internal diameter of the tubular passage is frictionally captured within each of the tubular passages. The absorber plate sections are formed of extruded metal and they have a plurality of corrugated surface portions that provide the absorber plate sections with greater surface exposure and improved absorption angles to the sun throughout the day. The thickness of the absorber plate sections is the greatest where the interlocking structure of the adjacent absorber plate sections are matingly locked together, thereby providing a greater mass for heat conduction transfer from the absorber plate sections to the elongated tubing member. The interlocking structure formed on the lateral edges of the absorber plate sections comprise a fin portion whose configuration is basically that of a cylindrical tube that has been cut in half longitudinally. A recess is formed adjacent one edge of the fin portion and a protrusion is formed adjacent the opposite edge of the fin portion. The frame has a back plate, side frame members, end frame members, and a glass top panel.
      The foregoing patents reflect the current state of the art of which the present inventor is aware. Reference to, and discussion of, these patents is intended to aid in discharging Applicant's acknowledged duty of candor in disclosing information that may be relevant to the examination of claims to the present invention. However, it is respectfully submitted that none of the above-indicated patents disclose, teach, suggest, show, or otherwise render obvious, either singly or when considered in combination, the invention described and claimed herein.
      Furthermore, it is clear from the lack of prior art and number of problems which still remain unaddressed, that a definite need exists for a simple, cost-effective widely adaptable PV module mounting system which is integrated into the PV module frame design and which provides improved alignment capability, simplified and more reliable grounding, wiring which is hidden from view yet always accessible without removing a PV module, ability to always connect to the rafters, minimization of required penetrations in the roof, greater ease of installation, backward compatibility with inward facing flange framing systems, ability to connect PV module frame directly on top of a roof or mounting structure without the need for costly struts and hardware or expensive building integrated PV technologies, ability to remove any PV module in the array without having to remove others or pull out primary penetrating bolts, ability to easily add and remove optional items like debris screens and cosmetic flashings and caps, and improved appearance.

BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

      The method and apparatus for mounting photovoltaic modules of this invention provides a simple, cost-effective, complete mounting strategy for installing photovoltaic modules on most common roofs, structures, vehicles, and surfaces. The present invention provides an interlocking photovoltaic module mounting system that provides a one piece, integrated photovoltaic module frame portion that is directly mountable to a support structure and interlocks with separate adjoining photovoltaic module frame portions. The inventive apparatus includes a frame member for enclosing the perimeter of a photovoltaic laminate and which is made of substantially similar construction on all four sides; the frame member having a top portion, bottom portion, inside surface, and outside surface, the inside surface including a recess for capture of the laminate. The frame member outside surface includes at least one interlocking means for adjoining a first frame member of a first PV module with a second frame member on an adjacent, second PV module to form a planar array.
      A preferred embodiment of the invention includes an interlocking mechanism comprising at least one C-shaped channel portion on the outside surface of the PV module frame member with the opening oriented parallel to the plane of the substantially flat top solar cell covering, and which interlocks with an identical adjoining C-shaped channel portion of an adjoining PV module frame member through the use of a separate male coupling member which is inserted into the C-shaped portions of the two adjoining modules. The adjacent C-shaped channel portions do not overlap each other. The male coupling member may also serve as a means for providing electric ground continuity between PV modules.
      The frame member bottom portion may also include at least one height-adjustable mounting foot portion which is also adjustable in a direction perpendicular to the primary structural elements which are supporting the PV array, such as the rafters of a roof, and which provides a means for attaching the frame member to a structural member, and at least one height adjustable leveling foot portion which provides a means for supporting the frame member and adjustably, vertically aligning individual PV modules with adjoining PV modules to form a substantially planar PV array.
      The inventive system thus provides an interlocking, self-grounding, and self-aligning framing structure for each module, which provides three-dimensional adjustability, allows simple connection to the rafters, minimizes penetrations in the roof, allows access to wiring interconnects without removing modules, does not require expensive strut hardware, utilizes a non-overlapping, interlocking mechanism which allows for all PV modules in an array to rest in the same plane instead of having consecutive modules at slightly different angles due to the overlapping nature of an interleaved connection, and which in some embodiments allows removal of single PV modules from the middle of the array.
      The inventive system also provides an attractive appearance by having a low profile, with no gaps between modules, and no visible hold-downs or hardware, plus optional cosmetic flashings for screening visible edges of the array and optional cosmetic caps for covering the small gaps that may occur, or in one embodiment, for bridging between two adjacent PV modules to cover the wiring. Additional benefits are further described herein.
      It is therefore an object of the present invention to provide a new and improved frame apparatus for photovoltaic modules.
      It is another object of the present invention to provide a new and improved interlocking photovoltaic module mounting system.
      A further object or feature of the present invention is a new and improved interlocking, self-grounding, and self-aligning framing structure for photovoltaic modules.
      An even further object of the present invention is to provide a novel method for mounting photovoltaic modules.
      Other novel features which are characteristic of the invention, as to organization and method of operation, together with further objects and advantages thereof will be better understood from the following description considered in connection with the accompanying drawing, in which preferred embodiments of the invention are illustrated by way of example. It is to be expressly understood, however, that the drawing is for illustration and description only and is not intended as a definition of the limits of the invention. The various features of novelty which characterize the invention are pointed out with particularity in the claims annexed to and forming part of this disclosure. The invention resides not in any one of these features taken alone, but rather in the particular combination of all of its structures for the functions specified.
      There has thus been broadly outlined the more important features of the invention in order that the detailed description thereof that follows may be better understood, and in order that the present contribution to the art may be better appreciated. There are, of course, additional features of the invention that will be described hereinafter and which will form additional subject matter of the claims appended hereto. Those skilled in the art will appreciate that the conception upon which this disclosure is based readily may be utilized as a basis for the designing of other structures, methods and systems for carrying out the several purposes of the present invention. It is important, therefore, that the claims be regarded as including such equivalent constructions insofar as they do not depart from the spirit and scope of the present invention.
      Further, the purpose of the Abstract is to enable the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the public generally, and especially the scientists, engineers and practitioners in the art who are not familiar with patent or legal terms or phraseology, to determine quickly from a cursory inspection the nature and essence of the technical disclosure of the application. The Abstract is neither intended to define the invention of this application, which is measured by the claims, nor is it intended to be limiting as to the scope of the invention in any way.
      Certain terminology and derivations thereof may be used in the following description for convenience in reference only, and will not be limiting. For example, words such as “upward,” “downward,” “left,” and “right” would refer to directions in the drawings to which reference is made unless otherwise stated. Similarly, words such as “inward” and “outward” would refer to directions toward and away from, respectively, the geometric center of a device or area and designated parts thereof. References in the singular tense include the plural, and vice versa, unless otherwise noted.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS/FIGURES

      The invention will be better understood and objects other than those set forth above will become apparent when consideration is given to the following detailed description thereof. Such description makes reference to the annexed drawings wherein:
       FIG. 1 is a side elevation cross-sectional view of a first embodiment of an interlocking photovoltaic module mounting system of this invention, illustrating two adjacent interlocked photovoltaic module frames;
       FIG. 2 is a side elevation cross-sectional view of the interlocking photovoltaic module frames of FIG. 1, this section take at a mounting foot;
       FIG. 3 is a side elevation cross-sectional view of the interlocking photovoltaic module frames of FIG. 1, this section take at a leveling foot;
       FIG. 4 is a side elevation cross-sectional view of an alternate embodiment of an interlocking mechanism for photovoltaic module frames of this invention;
       FIG. 5 is an end elevation view of a single photovoltaic module frame as installed on a roof;
       FIG. 6 is a perspective view of two adjacent interlocked photovoltaic module frames; and
       FIG. 7 is an enlarged perspective view of two adjacent interlocked photovoltaic module frames illustrating the interlocking mechanism.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF THE INVENTION

      Referring to FIGS. 1 through 7, wherein like reference numerals refer to like components in the various views, there is illustrated therein a new and improved apparatus for mounting photovoltaic modules to a roof, generally denominated 10 herein.
       FIG. 1 is a side elevation cross-sectional view of a first embodiment of an interlocking photovoltaic module mounting system 10 of this invention, illustrating two adjacent interlocked photovoltaic module frames 12L, 12R above a roof 13. Each frame member encloses the perimeter of a photovoltaic laminate 14. Each frame is made of substantially similar construction on all four sides, and each includes a top portion 16L, 16R, bottom portion 18L, 18R, inside surface 20L, 20R, and outside surface 22L, 22R. Inside surfaces 20L, 20R include a recess 23L, 23R for capture of the laminate 14. The frame member outside surfaces 22L, 22R include at least one interlocking mechanism 24L, 24R for adjoining frame 12L to adjacent frame 12R to form a planar array of laminates 14.
      Interlocking mechanism 24L, 24R may consist of C-shaped or female channel portions 26L, 26R on the outside surfaces 22L, 22R of each of the PV module frame members with the opening oriented parallel to the plane of the substantially flat top solar cell 14, through the use of a separate male coupling member 28 which is inserted into the C-shaped portions of the two adjoining modules. Thus, the male coupling portion (coupling member 28) positions the first and second frame members above a support structure (see frames 12L, 12R above roof 13 in FIG. 1, and further shown in the embodiments of FIGS. 2-5) without clamping the first and second frame members to the support structure located beneath the first frame member; and a discrete male coupling portion (coupling member 28) acts to position a first frame member above a support structure (roof 13) with an unfilled open area, space, gap, or clearance between at least a first frame member and the support structure. The male coupling member 28 may also serve as a means for providing electric ground continuity between PV modules, as by tapping the coupling member 28 with the optional grounding screws 30.
      The frame members may be constructed as an extrusion, with all portions run full length except the top of the female channel portion at the ends, and various slots and holes which may be punched out after the extrusion is run. The frame members may include an inward flange 32 for backward compatibility with existing mounting systems. Screw holes 34 may be used to connect frame pieces together at the module corners.
      The frames may include an optional cosmetic cap 36 for covering the small gaps that may occur, or in one embodiment, for bridging between two adjacent PV modules to create a wireway.
       FIG. 2 is a side elevation cross-sectional view of the interlocking photovoltaic module frames 12L, 12R, this section illustrating a mounting foot 38. Mounting foot 38 includes lateral portion 40 which may be secured to a roof with lag bolt 42, and vertical (cylindrical) portion 44, which is captured by foot sleeve 46 of mounting foot bracket 48. Bolt 50, with a bolt head shown between frames 12L, 12R, threads into bracket 48 and compresses against the vertical portion 44 of the mounting foot 38 to secure the mounting foot in position and at the desired height. Mounting foot bracket 48 is preferably inserted through slot 52R of frame 12R, and secured there by twist lock clip 54R. With this arrangement the bracket portion is both angularly (as by rotation of sleeve 46 around cylindrical vertical portion 44 or vice versa) and vertically adjustable about and along a substantially vertical axis (an axis through a vertically oriented centerline of vertical portion 44). The presence of bolt head for bolt 50 in the gap between frame 12L, 12R results in the threaded height adjustment mechanism being operable from a position substantially above said female receiving portions 26L, 26R of frames 12L, 12R. Also, a frame member is shown in FIG. 2 as being located immediately above and clearing a support structure (roof 13) as there is an unfilled open area, space, gap, or clearance below a frame member and above the roof 13; as well as shown with embodiments in FIGS. 1, and 3-5.
       FIG. 3 is a side elevation cross-sectional view of the interlocking photovoltaic module frames 12L, 12R, this section illustrating a leveling foot 56. Leveling foot 56 includes lateral portion 58 (which is preferably not physically secured to the roof), and vertical portion 60, which is captured by foot sleeve 62 of leveling foot bracket 64. Bolt 66 threads into bracket 64 and compresses against the vertical portion 60 of the leveling foot 56 to secure the leveling foot in position at the desired height. Leveling foot bracket 64 is preferably inserted through slot 68R of frame 12R, and secured there by twist lock clip 70R.
       FIG. 4 is a side elevation cross-sectional view of an alternate embodiment of an interlocking mechanism for photovoltaic module frames of this invention. Here, U-clip coupling strip 72 engages vertically-oriented channels 74L, 74R to secure the adjacent modules together. Spring loaded pins 76 extend into the frames 12L, 12R, and may be released by pulling a handle at the top. A hook on the end of the coupling strip allows removal of the strip from an access port. Thus, in this embodiment a first male portion (the lower left portion of coupling strip 72) is shown inserted into and mating with an inside portion of the first frame member female receiving portion (channel 74L) and a second male portion (the lower right portion of coupling strip 72) is shown inserted into and mating with an inside portion of the second frame member female receiving portion (channel 74R) to securely interlock the first and second frame members together. Additionally, at least one of the self-locking male coupling portion(s) automatically locks into its respective female receiving portion similar to the embodiments shown in FIGS. 1 and 7 for horizontally oriented or C-shaped channels 26L, 26R being engaged by the left and right sides of separate male coupling member 28. Due to the configuration and shapes of the channel(s) ( 74L, 26L and 74R, 26R) and respective male portion(s) (left side of 72 or 28 and right side of 72 or 28), the respective male portions are self-locking and thus the male portion(s) automatically locks into its respective female receiving portion. Described differently, the self-locking male coupling portion (portions of 72 or 28) comprises one or more positive engagement feature(s) that mate with a female feature(s) on an inside surface of the fame member female receiving portion(s). Thus, a first self-locking male portion (left side of 72 or 28) may lock into a first respective female receiving portion ( 74L or 26L), and a second self-locking male portion (right side of 72 or 28) may lock into a second respective female receiving portion ( 74L or 26L). In the embodiments of FIGS. 1, 4, 6, and 7, a self-locking male coupling portion is shown connected to a first and a second frame member without the use of a separate fastener. Additionally, with regards to FIGS. 1 and 4, the male coupling portion (coupling member 28 and coupling strip 72) positions the first and second frame members above a support structure (roof 13), and the self-locking male coupling portion aligns the first and second frame members above the support structure with an unfilled open area, space, gap, or clearance between the first frame member and the support structure in an area beneath the male coupling portion.
       FIG. 5 is an end elevation view of a single photovoltaic module frame as installed on a roof. This view illustrates the plurality of slots 78 available for mounting and leveling foot brackets, as well as for inter-module wiring access. This view also illustrates a slot 80 on coupling strip 28 which may be engaged by a screwdriver or other tool to move the strip into or out of engagement with the female channel portion 26R.
       FIG. 6 is a perspective view of two adjacent interlocked photovoltaic module frames. This view serves to illustrate the coplanar nature of the laminates 14 in adjoining frames 12L and 12R to form a planar array of laminates. As shown in FIGS. 5, 6, and 7, a coupling portion (coupling member 28) may be located a laterally variable distance from a nearest connection point to a support structure. The lateral distance may vary as mounting foot 38 may support frames 12L, 12R at various lateral locations along frames 12L, 12R, or coupling member 28 may be located in various positions along frames 12L, 12R. Additionally, as shown in FIG. 5, male coupling portion (coupling member 28) positions a first frame member above a support structure with a clearance, gap, open area, or space between the first frame member and the support structure.
       FIG. 7 is an enlarged perspective view illustrating interlocking mechanism 24L, 24R adjoining frame 12L to adjacent frame 12R. The interlocking mechanism may be a removable coupler such as a double male interlock, as illustrated, or may consist of any other releasable interlock that permits connection of adjacent frames on all four sides of a module such that the supported laminates are coplanar.
      Inventive features of the present apparatus include, but are not limited to, the following:
      Self-locking—module frames securely interlock together to form a completely connected array structure. In the preferred embodiment of the invention this interlocking is achieved by a female channel integrated into all four sides of the photovoltaic module frame which mates with a removable male coupling strip. The coupling strip is releasable from the top via a break in the extrusion thereby allowing removal of any single module without requiring removal of previous modules in the row, unlike previous attempts at interlocking functionality which used an overlapping technique instead of the coupling technique described herein. Another embodiment of the invention achieves release of the coupling strip from the top by utilizing spring loaded pins and a release handle.
      Self-grounding—interlocking mechanisms provide a solid “electrical contact” (as required by the NEC) which is protected from the weather so it will last. One simple ground wire to one module grounds the whole array and its support structure. Another embodiment includes provision for a ground screw to tap the coupling strips if required for certain jurisdictions.
      Self-aligning—as modules are snapped into place, they are automatically aligned on the side where the interlock is being made. Small leveling legs are provided on the opposing side of each module to fine tune the vertical alignment before securing it to the roof or structure. Straight, substantially planar arrays are simple even on dramatically swooping roofs.
      Accessible yet hidden wiring—as each module goes down, the quick-connect electrical connectors are plugged together then tucked into a slot which is accessible from the top—allowing future repair of each module interconnection without removing any modules (note: installers can carefully crawl out on top of the modules to fix wiring on a module out in the middle). Thus, all wiring is still accessible, yet carefully hidden from view. Another embodiment includes a snap-on cover which hides the wiring.
      Strutless design—while a separate optional piece can be added to allow connection to all standard struts on the market, the inventive apparatus is capable of mounting photovoltaic modules to most roof surfaces and structures without the need for expensive and time consuming strut at all.
      Minimizes penetrations—while all other direct mount, strutless mounting systems require more penetrations than a strut mount, the inventive apparatus distributes the load more evenly across the array area and typically requires less penetrations. This unlikely result is obtained by reallocating two critical mounting hardware functions: 1) resisting the downward pull of gravity, and 2) resisting the upward pull of wind. All other mounting systems combine these two functions into a single portion, most commonly a foot-type portion. A preferred embodiment of the inventive apparatus however separates these two functions into two different types of feet: leveling feet which are not fastened to the roof or structure and primarily resist gravity, and carefully spaced mounting feet which are fastened to the roof and primarily resist windloads.
      Works on most roof types—The inventive apparatus is compatible with all common roofs and surfaces found including: composition shingle, tile, shake, tar & gravel, membrane, standing seam, trellis or other wooden structure, ground mount metal structure, and many others. A preferred embodiment includes the use of circular foot members which allow standard circular pipe flashings to be used.
      Flexible orientation—The inventive apparatus works with Landscape and Portrait orientations and photovoltaic module rows can be installed in any order. However, the inventive apparatus does favor Landscape orientation which allows for fewer penetrations and, in most cases on sloped roofs, will yield a slightly higher kW/s.f. of roof area. Strut mounts, on the other hand, tend to favor portrait orientation which frequently results in less modules for the same roof. This happens because most roofs are wider east to west than they are tall (from ridge to gutter), so orienting the long dimension of the photovoltaic module parallel with the long dimension of the roof surface increases the likelihood of a better fit.
      Rafter connection—unlike any other mounting system available, the inventive apparatus includes simple integral adjustability in X, Y, and Z so connection to rafters is always possible. Set one dimension, then quickly adjust the other two with a single, easily accessible bolt. Fumbling with nuts, washers, and lock washers or losing hardware as it rolls down the roof, as is typically the case when mounting PV modules, is not required since a single wrench operates all integral bolts.
      Adjustable height—a preferred embodiment allows module height off of the roof or structure to be fully adjustable (no discrete holes) from 0″ to approximately 2.5″ (depending on module frame depth) so that the correct height for each situation can be chosen depending on the water damming, aesthetic, and debris issues on site.
      No gaps—Interlocking frames eliminate all gaps between modules and wire access ports are not discernible from the ground because there is a black frame right behind them.
      Easier obstacle avoidance—unlike strut systems which require ending the strut and starting a new row every time you run across a roof vent or skylight, the inventive apparatus easily accommodates small obstructions by simply leaving out a module.
      Snap-on options—Cosmetic flashings can be snapped right into the frames along visible sides of the array to eliminate problematic viewing angles beneath the modules, or in heavily treed areas, debris screens can be snapped on forming a complete skirt around the array. Other embodiments include snap-on pre-stressed sheet metal pieces to receive conduit, snap-on junction boxes and wiring combiner boxes, and snap-on caps between PV modules to cover wiring.
      Backward compatible—The inventive apparatus can be manufactured in a way which is completely backward compatible with all standard photovoltaic frames and mounting techniques. Almost all photovoltaic modules come with a C-shaped frame that includes mounting holes on an inward facing bottom flange. In addition to all of its other features, the inventive apparatus can include the exact same holes in the same relative place.
      Low Cost—Unlike other attempts to integrate more features into the PV module frame, the inventive apparatus includes frame members which are extruded from the exact same die, thereby minimizing manufacturing tooling costs. Low part count and simple installation also save PV contractor time & money.
      Removing single modules—A preferred embodiment includes coupling members which are removable from the top thereby allowing removal of single PV modules no matter what location in the PV array (and without requiring the seals to be broken between module and the roof, if applicable).
      Thus, the invention may be characterized as a photovoltaic module comprising a photovoltaic laminate having a perimeter; a frame member for enclosing the perimeter of the photovoltaic laminate, the frame member having a top portion, bottom portion, inside surface, and outside surface, the inside surface including a recess for capture of said laminate, and the outside surface including at least one interlocking means for connection to a frame member of an adjacent photovoltaic module so that the photovoltaic laminate is coplanar with the photovoltaic laminate of the adjacent photovoltaic module. In addition, the photovoltaic module frame member comprises individually disengageable interlocking mechanisms for the photovoltaic modules in a formed array.
      Alternatively, the invention may be characterized as a method for mounting photovoltaic laminates to a roof comprising the steps of: enclosing the perimeter of each photovoltaic laminate in a frame member having a top portion, bottom portion, inside surface, and outside surface, the inside surface including a recess for capture of the photovoltaic laminate; and interlocking one frame member outside surface to the complementary outside surface of an adjacent frame member to form a planar array of photovoltaic laminates on the roof.
      The above disclosure is sufficient to enable one of ordinary skill in the art to practice the invention, and provides the best mode of practicing the invention presently contemplated by the inventor. While there is provided herein a full and complete disclosure of the preferred embodiments of this invention, it is not desired to limit the invention to the exact construction, dimensional relationships, and operation shown and described. Various modifications, alternative constructions, changes and equivalents will readily occur to those skilled in the art and may be employed, as suitable, without departing from the true spirit and scope of the invention. Such changes might involve alternative materials, components, structural arrangements, sizes, shapes, forms, functions, operational features or the like.
      Therefore, the above description and illustrations should not be construed as limiting the scope of the invention, which is defined by the appended claims.