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What it takes to be a Qualified Solar Installer

 

 

In a recent post I wrote that an Electrician license alone – even a Master Electrician license – does not qualify you to design and install solar systems. I totally respect the fact that a Master license is a great achievement that requires significant experience and training, but it’s not solar specific. Some took exception to that position, but those are just the facts, in my opinion, and I think I have the experience and credentials to have that opinion.

Most states address this by requiring a building and an electrical permit to legally install a residential or commercial solar system. And in most cases, the plans have to be sealed by a licensed Professional Engineer.

But in many parts of West Virginia, as far as I can understand based on multiple inquiries to the Contractor Licensing Board, there are no clear licensing rules.

At Milestone, we have two licensed Master Electricians in our group, and I’ve worked with other Master Electricians as fill-ins, and I can tell you with total certainty that until you’ve received some formal training on solar systems, or on-the-job oversight from a trained and certified NABCEP installer, you’re not qualified to install all of the electrical components of a solar system, let alone design solar systems. There are many specific electrical issues that are quite unique to solar systems. And electrical is only part of the process. That’s not just my opinion. That’s according to NABCEP’s Job Task Analysis (JTA), spelling out in detail the areas their installer certification test covers and the percentage of questions for each area of expertise (Content Domain in the table below). Continue reading “What it takes to be a Qualified Solar Installer”

Solar Systems and Storage – What you need to know

 

If there’s more common buzzword in the solar industry today than storage, I don’t know what it would be. As is the case with many terms in the solar world, storage can mean different things – depending on who’s using it.

In its most basic use, storage means electric potential stored in a battery using a wide variety of chemistry, until presenting a load to the stored potential activates its power. For example, when you start your car, the electrical system presents a load to the battery, and the starter’s engaged.

When using the term storage within the discussion of solar energy it can get really confusing to the consumer. I tend to narrow it down to three typical applications (my terms) that actually exist at this point in time.

  1. Off-grid, when the batteries are the most fundamental part of the house electrical system. If the batteries are exhausted, you’ll either be in the dark or running off a generator system.
  2. Grid-tied with battery backup, where the battery bank mostly sits idle unless grid power is interrupted. Then the batteries engage, the inverter taking power from them and energizing a critical loads panel. You’re then operating as an off-grid system until grid power is restored – a two-mode (bimodal) system.
  3. Consumptive storage. This configuration is becoming very common in places like Hawaii and in many countries where electricity’s expensive and there’s no Net Metering (where the power company must accept all excess power from your array and credit you on a one-for-one kWh basis).

We’ve discussed off-grid systems on our website, so let’s look at systems 2 and 3 above.

A grid-tied, battery backup system (bimodal) is our favorite solar system, and I believe we’ve installed more of them than anyone in the region over the past 4 – 5 years. I know for a fact that we have dozens of systems installed and operational in the four-state region we serve.

As for the longevity of the batteries, we recently conducted a controlled load testing of a nearly 8-year-old AGM (Absorbent Glass Mat) battery system, and it showed almost no degradation of the battery bank. This test was conducted as part of an estate sale, and DEKA engineers confirmed our captured data. We’re expecting at least 10 years for the Made in USA, DEKA AGM batteries we use and have data to support that claim.

If properly and professionally designed and installed, bimodal systems provide years of trouble-free service and great peace of mind for the owners. In conjunction with an auxiliary generator system, they can provide the potential for months of electrical service in the event of a major loss of grid power. Some of our customers are preparing for this possibility.

A consumptive storage system is a different animal entirely. In this configuration, the solar array first services the house loads, then diverts excess power to be stored in batteries. When the array output doesn’t meet house loads (at night, for example) the batteries provide power to the house. One problem with this configuration is that it obviously demands batteries that can stand up to many cycles of charges and discharges (cycles). Another, really big, problem (to me) is that if the house loads are met, and the batteries are fully charged, the excess solar production is lost.

The consumptive solar system looks attractive to many, but the fact is that Net Metering, as long as we have it, is better by a wide margin.

If Net Metering goes away, then, like in Hawaii, consumptive storage will become the system of choice for many solar owners. We’re not there yet – and, by the way, neither are the battery systems needed to deliver a realistic return on investment or real work capability. If you don’t believe me, try to buy, and have delivered, one of the new Tesla Powerwall-2 DC systems. At some point other technologies like Lithium-Ion will probably be the answer, but not today.

By the way, the power companies are constantly challenging Net Metering – locally and throughout the country. I truly worry that if they influence enough politicians, Net Metering could be lost.

At this point, many of you may be wondering: If all this is true, why are some solar companies pushing customers to consider one of the latest and greatest storage systems based on cycling battery technologies, like lithium-Ion, instead of more mature and proven configurations like a bimodal system using AGM batteries.

The truth is I really don’t know for sure in every case, but I do know that potential solar consumers are being lobbied by solar salespersons with minimal or nonexistent battery system experience, understanding and credentials, and some customers are making some unfortunate purchase decisions.

Some of the battery system proposals we’ve been asked to review are both technically and economically incorrect – massively incorrect. Battery-based solar systems are substantially more complicated than typical grid-tied systems, and no place for on-the-job learning at your expense (and peril).

Do your own research. Ask for reference installs. Talk to existing system owners. Then, I invite you to give us a call or fill out a web page contact form for a free professional consultation and proposal.

People keep asking about solar kits

 

 

More and more solar “kits” are showing up at home improvement stores and on Internet web sites, and we regularly get questions about them. Here’s an example:

We’re seeing a number of solar kits being offered for sale at the local home improvement stores at what look to be pretty good prices. Are these kits a good deal, and do you install them?

They’re not, and we don’t. Here’s why: Continue reading “People keep asking about solar kits”

Why don’t more solar installers offer ground mounts?

Merrell Ground Mount

We do a lot of ground mount systems each year, and over the last year or so we did an even higher percentage than usual.

The list below features a dozen recent ground mount systems – ten as part of battery backup (bimodal) systems. Ground mounts are a particularly good option for battery backup systems ( see reason 2 below).

  • 36 module system – New Martinsville, WVDSC_3252
  • 44 module system – Williamsport, MD
  • 48 module system – Sharpsburg, MD
  • 28 module system – Greenbrier County, WV
  • 20 module system – Monroe County, WV
  • 24 Module system – Harrisonburg, VA
  • 45 module system – Hagerstown, MD
  • 24 module system – Shepherdstown, WV
  • 32 module system – Romney, WV
  • 20 module system – Rockport, WV
  • 44 module system – Orange, VA
  • 36 module system – White Sulphur Springs, WV

While I encourage people with the property to at least consider a ground mount system, some installation companies take an opposite view. (This may have less to do with the merits of ground mounts and more because they haven’t invested in equipment needed for trenching for wire runs and augering for pier holes.)

DSC_3361

Of course, ground mounts aren’t an option for everyone, but for those with enough property they offer two major advantages over roof mounts (to say nothing of a lot more minor ones):

  1. Most roofs are not perfectly oriented to the sun path. You can precisely orient a ground-mounted array for maximum production, which you obviously can’t do with a house. Over time, the production difference will be significant.
  2. After a big snowfall, you can clear the snow off your ground-mounted array so it starts generating electricity to power appliances (and charge backup batteries, if you have them). When you consider how many snowstorms produce power outages, this can be a very big deal.

Before you buy a solar system, ask the installer these questions:

There’s only one reason I can think of why anybody would take on the serious safety and long-term production risks of having an inexperienced installation company, or one using a group of trainees, install their solar system. That reason is, they may not  know what to ask about, besides price. And when safety and structural integrity are on the line, cheaper isn’t better.

Most non-micro solar systems operate at very high DC current flow and voltages (some as high as 1000 volts DC). Adding batteries takes the installation to a whole other level of complexity. The design and safety issues involved are real and not, in my opinion, a good place for a class project or on-the-job training at the homeowner’s peril.

And while a master electrician license requires knowledge and experience, the license alone doesn’t make someone truly qualified to design and install solar systems. There’s lots more to it than what’s covered in the National Electric Code book or the master test. (I’m sure of that because we have two master electricians on our team, and I’m very familiar with every edition of the NEC Book published since 2005.)

That’s only one part of a solar installation project – and the reason most authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) require a building permit as well as an electrical permit.

So in addition to pricing, licenses and components, you should also ask potential installers about track record, references from previous projects, solar experience and certifications.

Probably the best question you can ask is whether someone who’ll be working on your installation has earned North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners certifications. Their PV (PhotoVoltaic) Technical Sales and PV Installer certifications are tough to get. That’s because NABCEP is the only organization that tests for and credentials every aspect of grid-tied, off-grid and battery backup solar installations – design, mechanical issues, electrical issues, optimized production issues, installation and maintenance. (Please don’t confuse this with NABCEP’s Associate certification, which is an entry-level program; Associates must work under a senior installer, hopefully with full NABCEP certification.) You can check which, if any, NABCEP certifications an installer holds here.

Continue reading “Before you buy a solar system, ask the installer these questions:”

A great AAAAAA-rated review on Angie’s list

Check out this glowing Angie’s List Review from a White Sulphur Springs, WV, customer on March 30, 2016:

Milestone Solar Consultants, owned and operated by Bill Anderson, did our install. We purposely waited 5 to 6 months before doing a review because new stuff always looks good in the beginning but what about months later? We wanted it before the winter set in and he made that happen. ALL his workers were polite, courteous and knowledgeable about what they were doing. We had the batteries and analyzers placed in our basement. There were no boxes, wiring or any trash left lying around anywhere. They even swept. They left my house better than they found it. Mr. Anderson promised a turnkey job and that’s exactly what we got. All the wiring from the outside mounting racks to the basement equipment looks like a piece of art. Their attention to even the smallest detail is second to none! Even though they are a 4½ hour drive fro us, anytime we called him Mr. Anderson made himself available to us and was ready to drive down immediately to address any concerns or issues we had even if they turned out to be unwarranted. This shows his dedication to what he is doing, and he will do whatever is needed to see both his solar system and his customer is always happy. We’ve already experienced 3 power outages with our Electric Company and didn’t even know it. The solar system’s batteries kicked in so efficiently and quickly that our digital clocks didn’t even start blinking. When the power comes back on the batteries switch back to standby without us having to do a thing. We also ran our home on just the solar system itself, going completely off the grid (in the winter) and ran everything easily for 4 or 5 days. Which is exactly what Mr. Anderson said it would do. He has the credentials and expertise to answer any questions you pose to him. None of that, “Well I don’t know. I will have to check on that question and get back to you.” Which we had with other big name solar installers. Milestone Solar came into our home as strangers and left as family. Any and ALL questions were answered by Mr. Anderson and his crew and there were a lot of them! And we know he will ALWAYS be just a phone call away if we have more questions or need him in any way. And that speaks volumes!! If you are looking to put in a Solar Array System, it would be to your advantage to have a quote from Milestone Solar. His prices can’t be beat ESPECIALLY when he uses ONLY top quality equipment and materials. We looked at many different systems from other companies but Milestone Solar stood out by miles…no pun intended 🙂

 

Adding Battery Backup to an Existing Residential Solar System

When we first started Milestone Solar, a residential solar system that featured a battery backup option was not at all common. It was mostly a cost issue, as the batteries do add substantial cost to the system. But I think it was also true that many installers did not (and probably still do not) like the extra complexity that an integrated battery backup (bimodal) capability brings to the project, so they did not promote the capability.

We’ve always liked the bimodal technology and the capabilities it brings, and have offered it as an option to customers for years now. Our installed base of battery backup systems speaks for itself.

But there are thousands of residential solar systems that were installed without batteries. This type of system, which I call a straight production system, does a great job of producing electricity on a day-to-day basis, but when the grid is down, your solar system shuts down – by design. One of my friends, an engineer in the solar industry, calls it buyer’s remorse to discover that you now want to add battery backup to your legacy solar system.

I think it may be any number of factors, to include spreading the cost over a longer period of time, a response to some of big storms that have caused prolonged power outages for thousands of homes, or maybe a response to the various threats to the grid as discussed in the book Lights Out by Ted Koppel.

Over the past few years we have been hearing more and more about a capability to retrofit legacy solar systems with batteries using an electrical design called AC Coupling. Our standard or typical bimodal battery backup system uses DC coupling and features the array, charge controller, batteries, inverter and critical loads subpanels. Everything on the input side of the inverter is DC.

As you can see on the graphic at the top from Enphase Energy, the main components in this AC Coupling design/ retrofit are the battery bank, a compatible inverter/charger and a critical loads subpanel. On a day-to-day basis the solar array and, in this example, micro inverters, are sending AC power to the critical loads panel. Any excess is sent on to the new inverter/charger to be routed to the main panel for use in the house, or sent back to the grid for credit via the bidirectional meter. But when the grid is down, the inverter/charger begins supplying power from the battery bank, and after a short pause, the micro inverters will see a 240 VAC connection and will once again begin producing electricity.

 

One of the keys to this process is to have a fully compatible inverter/charger that is monitoring the state of the battery bank to insure that the batteries are protected from overcharging. Most use a process called “frequency shifting” to take the AC connection to the solar system out of spec, shutting down the array inverter(s) when the batteries are at a certain state of charge. Some companies are also recommending an additional inline relay to further protect the batteries from overcharging – an option worth looking into as well.

The obvious question that comes up now is, should we now abandon DC coupling for this AC-coupled configuration? In my opinion, if you are starting from the beginning, the DC coupled system design offers significant advantages, like highly efficient MPPT charge controllers with a tapered charge cycle that can be “tuned” to your individual system and also provides great battery protection.

It probably goes without saying that this is not a good do-it-yourself project for the average homeowner. But there is now more than enough of an installed base to consider AC coupling a viable and fully supported option for the many customers with legacy solar systems who would like to add batteries for when the grid is down.