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Is a NABCEP Certification Really Necessary to Install Solar?

My first encounter with NABCEP (North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners) occurred several years ago. At the time, I found solar energy to be an exciting area to move my established electrical contracting company into. Austin Energy had just introduced their solar photovoltaic (PV) rebate program. So with an empty pad of paper in hand, I took the 45 minute drive north to learn more about their program. I was convinced of my qualifications – after all I had passed the requirements to get my master electrician's license. That, along with some very extensive military weapon system training, gave me a resume full of very significant qualifications.

What I was told was blunt and to the point: “You have the legal right as a licensed electrical contractor to install solar arrays, but you don’t qualify as an Austin Energy-approved solar installer unless you are NABCEP certified.” In other words, without the piece of paper, I would not be allowed to build a grid-tied system in Austin, nor would they pay a rebate to my customers.

Back then, in order to qualify for the semi-annual exam candidates had to have been responsible for installing at least two solar arrays in the recent past, had several years of electrical or solar installation experience (I easily had that one covered), and have taken 40 approved solar classroom hours of training. I was of the opinion that after they saw my electrical contracting resume they would eagerly invite me to take the test. And how difficult could a test covering six pages in the National Electrical Code book actually be? (The book has since been expanded with much more comprehensive coverage of solar PV practices.)

Needless to say, NABCEP wasn’t very impressed with my application package. My first thought was that the few solar companies who had people with the certification were protecting their turf. In the early days of NABCEP, this might have been the public perception. But to actually prove that the certification was really worth the paper it was printed on, I would have to go through all of the requirements to qualify and then pass the exam. I didn’t like it, but those were the rules of the game.

It took me months after that first trip to Austin before I could repeat what the acronym “NABCEP” stood for twice in a row. It has taken me years to appreciate what they have come to represent. It took me two years to meet the testing qualifications – I designed and built the systems, completed the training and paid the fees. After I finished the practice exam, I found that I would need to invest even more time to pass the real one.

The NABCEP certification exam is not a walk in the park. To pass it, you need to have a solid understanding of the National Electrical Code and know how to properly design and install solar arrays. In case you are wondering, I passed the exam on my first attempt. But until the day the official letter came in the mail, I still had my doubts. For me, that exam ranked in difficulty right up there with the national master electricians exam, missile crew qualification, and raising children.

Now that I have been in the solar design and installation business exclusively for a few years now, I’ve learned a few things about the industry. First of all, there are a lot of unqualified solar installers selling their services who have no background in electrical contracting. Secondly, there are a lot of electrical contractors who are not qualified to design and build solar arrays (even though they have the legal credentials to do so). By the same token, there are a lot of engineers and architects who are also not qualified to design solar arrays. But what I have also found is that the true discriminators between the qualified and unqualified are the skills learned through specialized solar training and the application of that training towards actual successful solar projects.

In the end, the real question is whether or not the NABCEP Certification is of any real value. There are some very good solar installations completed by those without the certification.  But now that I’ve seen the solar business from both sides, I must admit that going through the NABCEP certification process has made me a much higher qualified solar professional.

The true test of a certification’s value is the amount of effort required to achieve it. Now that I have the piece of paper, I am admittedly biased in favor of the NABCEP Certification as a discriminator. But don’t take my word for it – ask some of the hundreds who have been trying unsuccessfully to get their certifications if it’s easy. Then ask those who own systems designed and installed by NABCEP certified solar installers what they believe.

Now that I’ve shared my opinion, what do you think? Is a NABCEP certification really necessary?

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