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Solar PV Addict Gives Tips for Checking out Qualified Solar Installers

The following post is from Heather Andrews Bias, a Nevada solar installer, solar installation instructor, and self-professed “PV addict.” In short, Heather loves solar as much as Solar Fred, perhaps even more. As a solar instructor and member in good standing with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (local #357, Las Vegas), she knows solar right from solar wrong, and she knows what to look for in a quality solar installer. Heather recently told me about an experience with a friend, and so I asked her to repeat that story and give her personal inside tips for checking out a qualified solar installer.  Heather writes:

Recently, I met with Nick, a potential consumer looking to go green by having a PV array installed on his roof. I wasn’t looking for a sale; rather, Nick’s a friend who asked that I help him decipher the bids he was given so that he could make the right choice. I looked over each bid intently, questioned a few things, and did some extensive research.

  • Of seven bids, three of the contractors were not properly licensed to connect his array to the utility grid, meaning that Nick would be required to hire an electrician at additional cost to do so in order to pass inspection. This was not disclosed to him.
  • Another contractor was not approved by the utility to apply for state rebates (also not disclosed), while yet another told Nick that if the utility lost power, he would still have power to his house if the sun was up, even without a battery backup. In reality, grid-tied solar without a back-up will not protect you from a black out. The reason is to protect utility workers fixing the electrical lines.
  • Of the final three bids, the prices differed wildly by over $15,000, and only one contractor performed a solar site survey after meeting with Nick. A proper site survey is needed to determine shading, the condition of your home’s electrical system, and other important issues for designing a safe and efficient solar installation.
  • On behalf of Nick, I called these contractors and asked if their installers held the Nevada OSHA photovoltaic installer’s license, a requirement for anyone performing an installation in Nevada. Three of the seven contractors were under the impression that only the lead installer was required to have this license, though Nevada’s Revised Statutes clearly dictate otherwise.

Unfortunately, Nick’s experience is not unique. With solar quickly becoming en vogue and many home contractors looking to cash in, I’m finding that many small installers have little or no electrical background, zero hands-on training before their first professional installation, and in some cases, less than 10 hours of instruction before they’re sent out to put together a rooftop power generating system. To better protect you as the buyer get a bid bond. What is a bid bond? A bid bond is issued as part of a bid by a surety bond company to the project owner. The owner is then assures that the winning bidder will undertake the contract under the terms at which they bid.

I strongly feel that solar should be installed by licensed electricians. A solar array (whether residential or commercial) is a major investment, and such things should be taken seriously. 600 volts coming out of a typical solar array is no joke, and it takes both knowledge and skill to work with it safely.

Solar installers and contractors have an obligation to be ethical in their business practices, and that includes proper licensing, extensive training, and honest consumer education.

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9 thoughts on “Solar PV Addict Gives Tips for Checking out Qualified Solar Installers

  1. Jim Jenal says:

    As always, caveat emptor. One additional thing customers can look for is NABCEP certification. Nice job, Heather!

  2. Dale says:

    Safety has to be the first priority when working with power and it is vital for solar installation companies to not just get trained but keep training current.
    First class article Heather keep up the good work.

  3. Sue says:

    Great article and very informative. I’ve worked with Heather and I can assure you that she is indeed a solar addict! She has taken the initiative to not only broaden her knowledge by attending regular courses and conferences but has gone a step further by becoming an instructor. She understands the industry, the regulations and the importance of proper training and certification. I hope that the public will become better informed through articles like this and the people like Heather that are so excited about the solar energy industry.

  4. Christof says:

    Nice, informative post. Glad to see Solar Fred and PV Addict are working together!

  5. martin says:

    Also suggest for consideration “Solar Industry Orientation”
    http://extension.berkeley.edu/cat/course1830.html

  6. Ken Oatman says:

    Great crack reporting job, Heather. Thanks for taking the time to investigate and write it up, it’s a useful tale.

  7. martin says:

    I would like to thank you for a wonderful article. The ability to practice is important for contracting. Since consumers are installing a PV system for the first time, they should be aware of this process. In fact as a business, there is a need to compare bids. If a roof-top implementation, roofing expertise as differentiator including workmanship. The solar integrators today appear to use finite subset of reliable modules and inverters. Therefore, why should the costs vary substantially?
    By the way, the cost of our consulting services helps customers decide and pre-train customers.

    Is training by a specific installers an objective perspective to the caller?

    Although the Maximum Power Point (MPP) may be less than 600V still typically greater than 250V. Specifically, the National Electrical Code (NEC) 690.7 (D) “photovoltaic output circuits over 150 volts to ground shall not be accessible to other than qualified persons while energized.” NEC 250.97 “Bonding for Over 250 Volts. For circuits of over 250 volts to ground, the electrical continuity of metal raceways and cables with metal sheaths … ” What is a qualified person: “One who has skills and knowledge related to the construction and operation of the electrical equipment and installations and has received safety training to recognize and avoid the hazards involved.” Think you are correct.

    We have found one of the unique opportunities is training not only professionals as installers, but the public as the callers.

    If California, there are various classifications:

    http://www.dsireusa.org/solar/incentives/incentive.cfm?Incentive_Code=CA07R&re=1&ee=1

  8. martin says:

    I would like to thank you for a wonderful article. The ability to practice is important for contracting. Since consumers are installing a PV system for the first time, they should be aware of this process. In fact as a business, there is a need to compare bids. If a roof-top implementation, roofing expertise as differentiator including workmanship. The solar integrators today appear to use finite subset of reliable modules and inverters. Therefore, why should the costs vary substantially?
    By the way, the cost of our consulting services helps customers decide and pre-train customers.

    Is training by a specific installers an objective perspective to the caller?

    Although the Maximum Power Point (MPP) may be less than 600V still typically greater than 250V. Specifically, the National Electrical Code (NEC) 690.7 (D) “photovoltaic output circuits over 150 volts to ground shall not be accessible to other than qualified persons while energized.” NEC 250.97 “Bonding for Over 250 Volts. For circuits of over 250 volts to ground, the electrical continuity of metal raceways and cables with metal sheaths … ” What is a qualified person: “One who has skills and knowledge related to the construction and operation of the electrical equipment and installations and has received safety training to recognize and avoid the hazards involved.” Think you are correct.

    We have found one of the unique opportunities is training not only professionals as installers, but the public as the callers.

    If California, there are various classifications:

    http://www.cslb.ca.gov/GeneralInformation/Library/LicensingClassifications/
    http://www.dsireusa.org/solar/incentives/incentive.cfm?Incentive_Code=CA07R&re=1&ee=1

  9. Law Dawg says:

    Nice work Heather! Looks like there are a lot of openings for qualified lawyers in the LV area. Good thing there’s such an abundant solar resource there.

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