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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.

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.

 

How would you feel getting electricity for the first time ever?

 

You’d probably feel as happy as the residents of Lingshed, India, high up in the Himalaya Mountains, where electric grids can’t reach.

Engineers volunteering for the IEEE’s Smart Village project installed off-grid solar arrays with battery backup, providing dependable electricity around the clock, day in and day out.
himalayas

What works at the top of the world works even better in your part of it.

Get ready for more West Virginia snowfall (and more outages) this winter

 

 

 

Meteorologists are predicting a colder, snowier 2016-2017 winter, thanks to a weakened La Nina.

According to thewinterforecast.com

La Nina is here but it’s on the weaker side as of September. We see this weak La Nina to peak now but get a second burst in December and January before moving to a neutral pattern February and March. This weak La Nina means a colder winter for most of the nation and certainly much colder than last winter.

A weak La Nina, they add, typically brings the above normal snow for the area.

In the West Virginia area, snowfalls are predicted to be 10% to 15% above average, totaling as much as 71.7″ in Beckley, 77.8″ in Bartow, and 95.3″ in Elkins, for example.

As West Virginians know from often painful experience, more snow can mean more outages. That’s because as snow accumulates and freezes on overhead power lines, its weight can snap cables and topple poles – often in locations that the state’s mountainous topography and twisty roads make hard for repair crews to get to.

A Milestone Solar installation with battery backup bank is great protection from winter power outages. Unlike emergency generators,you get day after day of electric power – without flammable fuels, without toxic exhaust fumes, without moving parts to maintain or repair. And your system automatically “refuels” when the sun rises each morning. Continue reading “Get ready for more West Virginia snowfall (and more outages) this winter”

Off-Grid Solar Making a Comeback

Not that many years ago, almost all of the solar systems being installed in the country were grid-tied or grid-interactive systems. Net metering was becoming common throughout the county, and many states were offering very generous incentives over and above the 30 percent federal incentive.

Only a few years ago, for example, the state of Pennsylvania provided a $2.25 per watt incentive that was gradually reduced to $.75 per watt until the funds ran out. It was a crazy time in solar land, with nearly every PA contractor with a work truck surfacing as a solar expert.

Many changes have occurred since then. Prices have dropped substantially – particularly solar module prices – and the new buzz in the industry is storage. Storage, defined as energy stored in battery banks to be used during power outages, or, in some cases such as in areas with multiple tiers of energy prices, to be used when grid prices are highest, most often in prime evening hours. Some systems call this load shaving.

Almost forgotten in all of the new systems and technologies buzz is the basic off-grid solar system. No net-metering. No load shaving or AC coupling. Just you and your solar system against the world. In many ways, this is the purest form of green living, and a surprising number of families are doing just that.
Continue reading “Off-Grid Solar Making a Comeback”

“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.

 

Milestone CEO becomes West Virginia’s only solar installer to earn double national certifications

Now there are twice as many reasons to trust the quality of a Milestone Solar installation.

With the award of the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP™) Solar PV (photovoltaic) Installation Professional Certification and PV Technical Sales Professional Certification,Milestone Solar’s CEO, Bill Anderson becomes not only West Virginia’s only solar industry professional holding both prestigious national certifications, but one of only 93 nationwide.

As the cost of solar systems has dropped sharply over the last few years, more and more households, businesses and municipalities are “going solar.” When they do, these two NABCEP marks of quality assure that they’ll be choosing a qualified contractor.

To earn his second NABCEP certification, Anderson had to demonstrate his knowledge of the whole range of multi-craft techniques, skills and abilities required to competently design, install and maintain solar systems – everything from electrical and mechanical system design to job site safety, National Electrical Code compliance, roofing and construction techniques, and system maintenance and troubleshooting.

“One thing you can be assured of when hiring a NABCEP Certified PV Installation Professional is that your project won’t be their first,” said Richard Lawrence, Executive Director of NABCEP.

Anyone who makes the considerable effort required to earn NABCEP certification has documented their training and experience as part of the eligibility process. They’ve also made a very real commitment to upholding high standards of ethical and professional practice. I’m delighted to welcome Bill Anderson of Milestone Solar to the ranks of the industry’s leading solar professionals.

Anderson said that the pair of prestigious national certifications

means Milestone can offer our customers twice the added confidence of knowing that their solar system installations will be completed to the solar industry’s highest standards. Our emphasis, and commitment to customers, has always been based on quality – quality materials, quality engineering, and installation techniques that closely follow industry best practices.

Milestone Solar Consultants, located in Falling Waters, WV, was founded in 2010 and is licensed in West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Company president Bill Anderson is a PMI certified Project Manager (PMP), licensed General Contractor and now holds both NABCEP’s Solar PV Installation Professional and Technical Sales certifications. Milestone has residential, commercial and municipal installations throughout the four-state region – including more solar systems with battery backup than any other West Virginia company.

NABCEP  is a nonprofit organization governed by a board of directors comprising volunteer solar industry representatives, NABCEP certificants, renewable energy organizations, state policy makers, educational institutions, and the trades. NABCEP’s mission is to develop and implement quality credentialing and certification programs for practitioners by supporting and working closely with professionals and stakeholders in the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries.

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.

Which states have the most solar power?

sun-questionmarkYou might expect the sunniest states, or the ones with the biggest populations, to have the most solar power installations. But according to the Wall Street Journal‘s MarketWatch, that’s not so.

California and Texas, for example, are first and second in population, and with just 205 hours’ difference in average hours of sunlight per year, so you’d expect them to be first and second in solar power. But while California’s first in solar installations, Texas is only eighth.

There are other surprises in the rankings, too.

Massachusetts, which has fewer annual hours of sunlight (2634), is number five on the list of solar leaders, while Virginia (2829) doesn’t even make the top ten.

Same for New Jersey (#3, 2499 hours of sunlight) and next-door neighbor Pennsylvania (2614 hours).

Here’s a rundown of America’s solar powerhouses and what makes them solar leaders:

  1. California led the nation with 2621 megawatts of solar power capacity installed last year, but that had nothing to do with the fact that it also leads the country in population. About 1900 megawatts of that capacity was for utilities.
  2. Arizona – Elimination of a utility fee charged to solar customers created a spike in year-end solar applications, so more Arizonans will be taking advantage of their state’s 3806 hours of sunlight per year.
  3. New Jersey installed enough solar capacity last year – 235.6 megawatts, enough to power 33,701 homes – thanks to a system of attractive state credits. The fact that solar installation prices for home and businesses have fallen slightly more there than elsewhere didn’t hurt, either.
  4. North Carolina gets less annual sunlight (2651 hours) than northern neighbor Virginia (2829), but that didn’t stop them from going solar big time. Tax credits for homes and businesses are generous, and utilities have built solar farms throughout the countryside. Even the 19th Century Biltmore Estate has gone solar, with a nine-acre installation that provides 20% of their energy needs.
  5. Massachusetts (2634 sunlight hours per year) was next, largely because of commercial and utility installations.

Even though they didn’t make the top ten, Maryland (2582 sunlight hours), Pennsylvania (2614), Virginia (2829) and West Virginia all have enough sunlight and enough incentives to make solar power a smart deal for homes and businesses.

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.