Patent application title: FLEXIBLE CLAMP
Anthony A. Zante (Fremont, CA, US)
IPC8 Class: AA44B2100FI
Class name: Clasp, clip, support-clamp, or required component thereof having gripping member formed from, biased by, or mounted on resilient member with position locking-means for engaging faces
Publication date: 2008-10-16
Patent application number: 20080250614
A flexible clamp for clamping and spacing solar panel modules, including a
captive flange forming a top portion, which includes a top face, a bottom
face, a right side, a left side, a front side, a back side, a
substantially planar underside to engage the modules upper surface. It
also includes a longitudinal axis and an aperture disposed generally
along that axis. First, second, and third horizontal members are disposed
under the captive flange and include substantially planar surfaces
generally parallel to the underside of the captive flange. Each
horizontal member includes a right side, a left side, a front side, a
back side, a width slightly less than the width of the captive flange,
and an aperture coaxial with the aperture in the captive flange. A first
vertical member connects the right side of the first horizontal member
with the captive flange at a point slight right of the longitudinal axis
and left of the right side, thus forming a right overhang for engaging a
first solar panel. A second vertical member connects the left sides of
the second and third horizontal members in such manner that a left
overhang is formed, and this is adapted for engaging a second solar panel
adjacent to the first panel. A third vertical member coplanar with the
first vertical member connects the right sides of the second and third
horizontal members. When a bolt is passed through the coaxial apertures
and tightened, the clamp flexes and bows slightly outwardly.
1. A flexible clamp for clamping and spacing first and second objects,
each having a generally planar surface portion, said clamp comprising:a
captive flange for use in engaging an object to be clamped and having a
top face, a bottom face, a right side, a left side, a front side, a back
side, a substantially planar underside to engage the object's surface
portion, a width extending from said right and left sides, a longitudinal
axis, and an aperture disposed generally along said longitudinal
axis;first, second, and third horizontal members having substantially
planar surfaces generally parallel to said bottom face of said captive
flange, wherein each of said horizontal members includes a right side, a
left side, a front side, a back side, a width slightly less than the
width of said captive flange, and an aperture coaxial with the aperture
of said captive flange;a first vertical member interposed between said
captive flange and said first horizontal member, said first vertical
member disposed at the right side of said first horizontal member and
between said right side and said longitudinal axis of said captive
flange, thereby forming a right overhang of said captive flange, said
right overhang having an underside for engaging the first object's planar
surface portion;a second vertical member interposed between said left
sides of said second and third horizontal members, wherein said left side
of said captive flange overhangs said second vertical member thereby
forming a left overhang having an underside for engaging the second
object's generally planar surface portion; anda third vertical member
interposed between said right sides of said second and third horizontal
members, said third vertical member being substantially coplanar with
said first vertical member.
2. The clamp of claim 1, wherein each of said vertical members is oriented substantially perpendicular to each of said horizontal members and to said captive flange.
3. The clamp of claim 1, wherein each of said horizontal members is similarly dimensioned, and wherein each of said vertical members is similarly dimensioned.
4. The clamp of claim 1, wherein when a bolt is inserted through each of the apertures and tightened, said clamp flexes and bows outwardly right and left.
CROSS REFERENCES TO RELATED APPLICATIONS
The present application claims the benefit of the filing date of U.S. Provisional Patent Application Ser. No. 60/911,134, filed Apr. 11, 2007 (Apr. 11, 2007).
STATEMENT REGARDING FEDERALLY SPONSORED RESEARCH OR DEVELOPMENT
THE NAMES OR PARTIES TO A JOINT RESEARCH AGREEMENT
INCORPORATION-BY-REFERENCE OF MATERIAL SUBMITTED ON A COMPACT DISC
BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION
1. Field of the Invention
The present invention relates generally to flexible clamps, and more particularly to a flexible clamp adapted to affix adjoining structures in a coplanar fashion. It accomplishes this through a flexible compression of the clamp so as to engage a flange upon the planar structures and engagement of the sides on the clamp with the surface of a frame channel.
2. Discussion of Related Art Including Information Disclosed Under 37 CFR §1.97, 1.98
Clamping devices are well known and are widely employed in numerous fields for joining objects, aligning components, or fixing and stabilizing objects.
In the field of solar panel installation for photovoltaic power generation, the most common type of solar panel installation for residential, commercial and industrial uses includes an array of solar panels attached to the roof of the building structure. If the roof is pitched to any degree, the array is directly attached to the structural roof members and entails making penetrations to the roof. Flat roof installations can be made, in some instances, without making penetrations, though any installation must include attachments that are sufficiently sturdy to withstand the expected wind loads. The mounting elements typically include an aluminum or galvanized steel support frame comprising commercial strut channels, where are screwed or bolted to roof rafters. Clamps are then employed to attach the solar panels to the support structure. Not only must the support structure be strongly attached to the roof, the clamps and the clamping methods must be robust enough to ensure that the modules will remain affixed to the support structure under high wind loads.
Currently there are several forms of clamps that can be used for solar panel installation. Among the most popular is a T-clamp (or T-clip) that grips adjacent solar panel module edges to a common strut channel. (As used herein, T-clamp, Z-clamp, and L-clamp, are synonymous with T-clip, Z-clip, and L-clip.) The clamp is typically made with a height slightly shorter than the height of the side profile height of the module in order to provide a slight pre-load or pre-bias to ensure a clamping action upon engagement with the panel and support. Although the T-clamp and its various related forms are widely used, there several shortcomings connected with its operation. Notably, it is advantageous for a T-clamp to be held in a raised position so that an installer can slide a panel edge under the clamp's capturing flange. However, when employed in the field an installer normally needs both hands free to position the panel and cannot simultaneously raise the clamp's capturing flange while also positioning the panel for attachment. This necessitates the help of an assistant, increasing labor costs and related overhead, and thereby increasing the total costs for the installation of a solar panel system.
One alternative to using a clamp that is slightly shorter than the panel profile is to make the clamp the same height as the panel so that the panel can slide under the capturing flange. While good in concept, in practice panels may have small variations in edge thickness that may either cause the clip to be too short, thereby requiring the clip be lifted, or too long, which prevents the clip from effectively stabilizing an adjoining panel.
Other clamping applications utilize Z-clamps or L-clamps. The Z-clamp has an inflexible vertical side. The L-clamp is also inflexible, but it can be leaned slightly to clamp a panel edge. When so installed, however, it places a stress on the line of contact on the clamped member. Notably, most single piece clamps simply cannot be adjusted in height while simultaneously maintaining a proper angular position on the part being clamped.
Recently a flexible clamp in the shape of a "C" was introduced by the present inventor that is tall enough to allow a solar panel to slide directly under the clamping flange, and it has the flexibility to allow it to be clamped down to the panel. This device is described in U.S. Patent Application Ser. No. 60/910,201, filed Apr. 4, 2007, and is incorporated in its entirety by reference herein. The "C-clip," however, has a wide profile due to the arcuate configuration of its side element, and it thus requires additional space between panels for installation. This situation is sub-optimal for the arrangement of solar panels, as it is preferable to have as little space as possible between the panel edges. Accordingly, the C-clip described in the above-identified co-pending application is generally not employed between panels but only on the outside edges of panels.
Other methods have been developed to hold clamps in a raised condition including springs or retaining clips, but these solutions add components, thus complicating the clamping process and increasing the overall cost of clamping materials and labor.
The following patents provide an overview of known exemplary clamping devices:
U.S. Pat. No. 6,672,018, to Shingleton, discloses clips used to clamp solar panels to a channel support beam structure, such as sheet metal channel members. The clips have a T-shaped upper portion 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 inwardly directed flanges of the support beam.
U.S. Pat. No. 6,473,945, to Draper, discloses a flexible clamp comprising a chain of plastic links, each link being a snap-fit with the next adjacent link thereby permitting a user to alter the length of the chain by the addition or subtraction of one or more links. The free ends of the chain may be latched together.
U.S. Pat. No. 6,412,239, to Miller, discloses a window frame with the structural members formed with substantially identical configurations. Each structural member has a U-shaped channel and first and second arms spaced apart on opposite sides of a base portion. The first and second arms have an end that turns inward and extends back toward the base portion.
U.S. Pat. No. 5,822,193, to Summers, et al., discloses apparatus for rigidly stabilizing or restraining circuit boards, which includes a rigid cross member and a circuit board clamp. The one-piece clamp has hooks with notched ends that attach to opposite sides of each circuit board. The clamp has a surface parallel to the hook. The parallel surface has threaded holes. Threaded shafts are used with the threaded holes to contact the clamp hook and provide pressure on the printed circuit board. A threaded hole is used with a threaded shaft to engage a rigid cross member. The cross member has unthreaded holes to allow for attaching to the clamps with threaded fasteners. The rigid cross member is then attached to the chassis with a fastener.
U.S. Pat. No. 5,946,874, to Roberts, describes a clamp including a pair of metal disks having a central opening for receiving a fastener to sandwich the corners of rectangular panels for erecting temporary display partitions at a trade show, exhibition or entertainment event.
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 duty of candor in disclosing information during examination that may be materially relevant to the allowability 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 herein.
BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION
In its most essential aspect, the present invention is a flexible clamp. More specifically, the present invention is a flexible clamp used to affix adjoining structures in a coplanar fashion. It accomplishes this objective through flexible compression of the clamp designed to engage a flange upon the planar structures while simultaneously engaging the sides on the clamp with the surface of a frame channel.
The clamp of the present invention provides sufficient flexibility to clamp panels that may vary in height. Because of its folded configuration, the flexible clamp of the present invention has a small enough profile to allow it to fit within tight spaces and in channels between panels. Also, because of its folded configuration and its side profile, the present inventor has dubbed the inventive with the proprietary name of the "waffle clamp."
The flexible clamp of the present invention may be oriented so that it can be clamped by leaning it in the direction of a first panel placed on a structural support beam while still providing sufficient clearance on the opposite flange so that a second panel may be slidably placed under the flange and clamped. A central screw compresses the flexible clamp much like a bellows spring and can therefore adjust to match the part or edge being clamped. This spring-like quality also provides the ability to partially compress the clamp to hold it in position while the panel is brought into place under the clamp.
In summary the flexible clamp of the present invention eliminates improper clamping due incorrect panel height, allows pre-loading the clamp to hold it in position while bringing the panels in place, allows securing the first panel in place while the second panel is brought into position, and minimizes the space needed for securing adjacent panels
It is therefore an object of the present invention to provide a new and improved flexible clamp for joining panel structures.
It is another object of the present invention to provide a new and improved flexible clamp that allows compression of the flexible clamp within a space to provide as little separation between the clamped objects as possible.
A further object or feature of the present invention is a new and improved flexible clamp that allows the secure fixation of materials of differing thicknesses.
An even further object of the present invention is to provide a novel flexible clamp that allows fixable attachment of a first object and slidable insertion of a second object for coplanar attachment.
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 drawings, in which preferred embodiments of the invention are illustrated by way of example. It is to be expressly understood, however, that the drawings are for illustration and description only and are not intended as a definition of the limits of the invention. The various features of novelty that characterize the invention are pointed out with particularity in the claims annexed to and forming part of this disclosure. The invention does not reside in any one of these features taken alone, but rather in the particular combination of all of its structures for the functions specified.
The foregoing summary broadly sets out the more important features of the present invention so that the detailed description that follows may be better understood, and so that the present contributions to the art may be better appreciated. There are additional features of the invention that will be described in the detailed description of the preferred embodiments of the invention which will form the subject matter of the claims appended hereto.
Accordingly, before explaining the preferred embodiment of the disclosure in detail, it is to be understood that the disclosure is not limited in its application to the details of the construction and the arrangements set forth in the following description or illustrated in the drawings. The inventive apparatus described herein is capable of other embodiments and of being practiced and carried out in various ways.
As such, those skilled in the art will appreciate that the conception, upon which this disclosure is based may readily be used as a basis for designing other structures, methods, and systems for carrying out the several purposes of the present invention. It is important, therefore, that the claims are regarded as including such equivalent constructions as far as they do not depart from the spirit and scope of the present invention. Rather, the fundamental aspects of the invention, along with the various features and structures that characterize the invention, are pointed out with particularity in the claims annexed to and forming a part of this disclosure. For a better understanding of the present invention, its advantages and the specific objects attained by its uses, reference should be made to the accompanying drawings and descriptive matter in which there is illustrated the preferred embodiment and best mode of practicing the invention.
BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE SEVERAL VIEWS OF THE DRAWINGS
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 perspective view of the flexible clamp of the present invention;
FIG. 2 is a side view of the inventive clamp showing a compression bolt inserted through the clamp, with the clamp in an uncompressed configuration; and
FIG. 3 is a side view of the flexible clamp and compression bolt in a compressed (tightened) configuration.
DRAWING REFERENCE NUMERALS
FIGS. 1-3 100 flexible clamp 110 captive flange 115 first bolt aperture 120 first vertical member 125 first horizontal member 128 second bolt aperture 130 second vertical member 135 second horizontal member 140 third vertical member 145 third horizontal member 150 fourth bolt aperture 200 compression bolt 210 first planar object 220 second planar object 230 channel
DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF THE INVENTION
Referring to FIGS. 1 through 3, wherein like reference numerals refer to like components in the various views, there is illustrated therein a new and improved flexible clamp, generally denominated 100 herein.
FIG. 1 illustrates a first preferred embodiment of the inventive flexible clamp 100. The flexible clamp 100 has a flat captive flange 110 forming the top portion of the device. The captive flange 110 is generally rectangular in shape, having a longitudinal axis 111, a top face 112, a bottom face 113, a left side 114, a right side 116, a rear side 117, and a front side 118. A circular first bolt aperture 115 is located centrally in the captive flange 110 generally on the longitudinal axis 111. Extending perpendicularly, and medially to the captive flange longitudinal axis is a first vertical member 120, having a top edge 122 and a bottom edge 124. The top edge of the first vertical face 120 is attached to the bottom face 113 of the captive flange 110, slightly right of, and parallel to, the longitudinal axis of the captive flange 110, leaving an overhang portion 116a of the right side of the captive flange 110 to overhang the first vertical member 120. The first vertical member 120 is of a similar length as the captive flange 110.
Extending generally perpendicular from the first vertical member 120, coplanar with and having a longitudinal axis 126 parallel with that of the captive flange 110, is a first horizontal member 125. A circular second bolt aperture 128 is located centrally in the first horizontal member 125 on the longitudinal axis 126. The second bolt aperture 128 is coaxial with the vertical axis 129 with the first bolt aperture 115 and is of a similar diameter as the first bolt aperture 115. The first horizontal member 125 has a width slightly shorter than that of the captive flange 110, thus creating an overhang 114a over the right side of the first horizontal member 125 by the right side 114 of the captive flange 110.
Extending perpendicularly in a downward direction from the first horizontal member 125 right side, and parallel to the first vertical member 120 is a second vertical member 130. The second vertical member 130 is dimensioned similarly to that of the first vertical member 120. Extending perpendicular from the second vertical member 130, coplanar with and having a similar longitudinal axis parallel to the longitudinal axis 112 of the captive flange 110, is a second horizontal member 135. A circular third bolt aperture (not seen in these views) is located centrally in the second horizontal member 135 on the longitudinal axis 137 of the second horizontal member. The circular third bolt aperture shares the vertical central axis 129 with the first and second bolt apertures and is of a similar diameter. The second horizontal member 135 is dimensioned similarly to the first horizontal member 125.
Extending perpendicular and downward direction from the second horizontal member 135 left side, and coplanar with the first vertical member 120 is a third vertical member 140. The third vertical member 140 is dimensioned similarly to the first vertical member 120.
Extending perpendicular from the third vertical member 140, coplanar with and having a longitudinal axis 147 parallel with the longitudinal axis 112 of the captive flange 110, is a third horizontal member 145. A circular fourth bolt aperture 150 is located centrally in the third horizontal member 145 on the longitudinal axis 147. This aperture is coaxial with the vertical central axis 129 of the apertures above it and is dimensioned similarly. The third horizontal member 145 is dimensioned similarly to the first horizontal member 125.
FIG. 2 is a side view of the flexible clamp 100 and compression bolt 200 in an uncompressed configuration and disposed in a space 230 between first and second planar objects (e.g., solar panel modules) 210, 220, respectively. This is the configuration in profile one would expect to see before compression bolt 200 had been tightened. The captive flange 110 is not in contact with either the first planar object 210 or the second planar object 220. Additionally, the first vertical member 120, second vertical member 130 and the third vertical member 140 are in only loose contact with the sides of the planar objects.
FIG. 3 is a side view of the flexible clamp 110 and compression bolt 200 in a compressed configuration. The undersides 113 of the captive flange 110 in its overhang portions 114a and 116a are in contact with the first solar panel 210 and the second solar panel 220. Additionally, the first vertical member 120, second vertical member 130 and the third vertical member 140 are in contact with the sides of the sides of the solar panel modules.
Using the flexible clamp of the present invention, solar panel modules can be rapidly and easily clamped onto a support structure. The simple steps include approximating the clamp to the side of the first panel 210 with the overhang 116a disposed over a portion of the top side of the panel. The second panel 220 is then slid under the overhang portion 114a and the bolt 200 tightened.
As will be appreciated from the foregoing, the flexible clamp is configured and fabricated to flex and bow slightly outwardly both left and right when a bolt is inserted through and then tightened in the apertures in the captive flange and horizontal members. This provides a secure and balanced clamping force on each of the overhang portions while also spacing the panels to allow air circulation between the panels and independent handling of the panels during installation, removal, and maintenance and repair operations.
Thus, in another aspect, the flexible clamp of the present invention will be seen to provide an apparatus for clamping and spacing solar panel modules with generally planar upper surface portions. The clamp includes, in the first instance, a captive flange for engaging adjacent modules. The captive flange has a top face, a bottom face, a right side, a left side, a front side, a back side, a substantially planar underside to engage the module's surface, a width extending from the right and left sides, a longitudinal axis, and an aperture disposed generally along the longitudinal axis. First, second, and third horizontal members are disposed underneath the captive flange, each having substantially planar surfaces substantially parallel to the bottom face of the captive flange. Further, each of the horizontal members includes a right side, a left side, a front side, a back side, a width slightly less than the width of the captive flange, and an aperture coaxial with the aperture of the captive flange. A first vertical member connects the right side of the first horizontal member with the captive flange at a point slight right of the longitudinal axis and left of the right side, thus forming a right overhang for engaging a first solar panel. A second vertical member connects the left sides of the second and third horizontal members in such manner that a left overhang is formed, and this is adapted for engaging a second solar panel adjacent to the first panel. A third vertical member coplanar with the first vertical member connects the right sides of the second and third horizontal members. When a bolt is passed through the apertures and tightened onto a module support structure, the clamp flexes so that the underside of the captive flange captures and holds the solar panel module tightly against support structure beams. Additionally, the clamp bows slightly outwardly to the right and left to engage the sides of the adjoining solar panel modules, thus preventing sideways migration and ensuring a fixed spacing between the modules.
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 shall are defined by claims appended hereto.
Patent applications by Anthony A. Zante, Fremont, CA US