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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”

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:”

“Plug-and-Play” isn’t

 

People have asked is whether we install “Solar Kits” that some home improvement businesses and online dealers sell at good prices.

The short answer is no, and there are several reasons.

First, most of the “kits” we’ve looked at are anything but complete. Racking, grounding, disconnects, wiring, and other components are often missing. Customers are very disappointed to learn this, often after the purchase has been made – ouch!

Second, we would never recommend the components that are in the kits, and therefore we can’t support them. If we install it, we own it as a support issue going forward.

Since we install a lot of grid-tied, battery backup systems, we also field a good many calls about certain online businesses selling grid-tied, battery backup systems that they describe as “plug-and-play”. Our electricians will be surprised to learn this, because we find that even the most experienced electricians we bring on board take a number of installs to become comfortable with the technology and installation techniques we use.

If someone describes a bimodal solar system to you as plug-and-play, it’s time to move on to a qualified vendor.

Caveat emptor, my friends.

 

Ground Mount versus Roof-Mounted Solar Systems

On a national basis, the vast majority of residential solar systems are roof mounted.  It makes sense.  It is space that is not being used, and the roof often has the best orientation to the sun’s path, and is the most shade-free area on the property.Untitled1

But in many cases, we encourage customers to at least consider a ground mount system.  The two main reasons are:

  1. You can precisely orient the array to the sun path – allowing for maximum annual production.
  2. If your array is part of an emergency power system (battery backup) and you get a big snow, it is easy to get the snow off of the modules, which is very important for an emergency power system.

For some customers, a ground mount is not a good option. For example, you may have a roof with a great orientation and pitch that is better than, or as good as, any ground mount system.

Not just for Virginia homes

The Roanoke Times reports that starting a few weeks from now, a solar array will provide the Salem, Virginia, Veteran Affairs Medical Center  with 1,620 kilowatts of free electricity – about 10% of their power needs.

Another VA hospital, in Alexandria, has a 1,995 kilowatt solar system under construction.

The Norfolk Naval Station gets 2100 kilowatts from its solar system.

Washington and Lee University and Virginia Tech also save on electric bills with solar power (450 and 103 kilowatts, respectively).

At Milestone Solar, we’ve been helping commercial customers offset as much as 50% of their electric bills with

  • a 37.4 kilowatt solar installation for the Ernst Market in Clear Spring, Maryland (20% offset).
  • a 15.87 kW solar array for the Town of Man, West Virginia, town hall (50%).
  • a 5.04 kW solar system for the Beech Bottom, WV, town hall (more than 50%).

So if you run a business, are concerned about your bottom line and overhead, and thought that solar electricity was just for houses, it pays to think again.