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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.