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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”

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:”

Questions You’ve Been Asking

Here are two questions people keep asking us:

1. It looks like many homeowners are getting solar systems with storage or battery backup. Our system doesn’t have batteries. Can we add them now?

Adding batteries to most existing systems is no problem. The configuration we’d likely use is called AC Coupling, and it’s fully compatible with all kinds of systems from micro inverters like Enphase to string inverters like SMA. The technical working of this connection is pretty far into the weeds, but we’d be happy to discuss and provide a quote to anyone interested.

2. We’ve noticed solar co-ops springing up in Virginia and West Virginia offering discounted pricing. Is that possible? Do you do co-ops?

Answering the last question first, while you should never say never, I will say it’s unlikely we’ll ever bid on any co-op offerings. I used to think that co-ops were a good thing because they promoted the growth of solar to many homes in an area. But now, based on some of the recent installer selections and direct experiences with members of multiple co-ops, I have concerns – about the installer evaluation process, about member expectations management, about co-op members’ protection. So we’ll opt out for now.

One thing I know is that co-ops have reined in their deep discount claims. West Virginia Sun, for example, used to claim 20-25% discounts. Today, they’ve changed their name to Solar United Neighbors and are more modestly claiming that “Co-op members leverage bulk-purchasing power to get discounted pricing and quality installations…” But, having been in the solar business full-time since 2009, I also know that no reputable installer can offer “discounted pricing” on a quality solar system and pay a co-op hundreds of dollars in fees per installation and make a fair profit. Real-world margins just aren’t that big. So what you may get for your “discounted pricing” is a cheaper system, based on cheaper components, a new (and less qualified) installer looking for work, and/or cheap and unskilled labor. But that’s a not “discounted pricing.” It’s a cheaper system, and you get what you pay for.

As for the “bulk purchasing power,” in my opinion that’s a fairy tale. The number of systems that co-ops deal in is far from bulk, and installers of any size already get best-tier prices from suppliers.

I always recommend that co-op folks get at least one alternate bid from someone besides the co-op committee’s selection. You’ve got nothing to lose, and when you compare apples-to-apples quotes, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Lots of Virginia and West Virginia families in co-op areas ended up liking our proposal better than the co-op installer’s proposal. Despite the supposed “discount pricing,” we’ve usually been more than price-competitive. Not having to pay a co-op hundreds of dollars per job helps. So does the fact that we always show up with a very experienced, very professional crew, supervised by highly qualified people.