Solar Installer Certification: A Thermal View

This week’s RE Insider is Bill Guiney, General Manager of the Water Heating Division of Duke Solar. In his article, “Solar Installer Certification: A Thermal View,” Guiney discusses the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners work at developing a voluntary certification program for solar installers. He writes, “As a manufacturer and distributor of solar thermal air-conditioning and water heating systems I strongly support the concepts and program proposed by NABCEP.”

The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) is currently developing a voluntary certification program for solar installers. As a manufacturer and distributor of solar thermal air-conditioning and water heating systems I strongly support the concepts and program proposed by NABCEP. The solar water heating industry is very small except for states like Florida, California, Arizona and Hawaii where pool heating has allowed the solar contractor to continue working in their trade by repairing old solar water heaters and selling or installing new solar pool heating products. There are many other hard working solar companies around the country but they are widely dispersed and many communities have no qualified solar contractor. In fact, there are many states with no solar companies listed. I believe our industry is going to see a significant demand for the products and services and we must prepare for this growth and try to control or limit the expansion of our trade to qualified companies with the technical skills necessary to design, and install solar heating and cooling systems. We have a couple of problems and issues interfering with the consensus building process within the industry. We need to address them head on and get directly to the point. Who is going to provide the products? That is easy. There are many solar companies manufacturing solar pool and hot water heating systems. The Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC) and Solar Ratings and Certifications Corporation (SRCC) are testing and certifying collectors and systems. All solar collectors should be tested and certifications published. No one should consider using untested or uncertified solar thermal collectors. I do not believe the current guidelines for systems approvals for SRCC certification are necessary, the FSEC method is less costly and provides the same consumer protections without the added costs to the manufacturer, contractor and ultimately to the customer. We’ll handle this topic another day. It will be important to separate the certification of equipment from the certification of installers. Many within the industry are skeptical of the motives of the SRCC board and its members. Most of those I have talked to prefer that SRCC is not a governing body or administrator of the NABCEP certification process and program. Who is going to install it? A licensed, insured and trained contractor is the only way to go. States are responsible for the licensing of their construction industry and the NABCEP certification does not and cannot change or modify state or municipal laws. Should it be a plumber, mechanical contractor, heating and air-conditioning contractor or solar contractor? It depends on what the law says. I believe any of the trades listed are usually qualified to work with plumbing and heat transfer components but the solar contractors are generally qualified for the necessary electrical, plumbing and roofing trade skills. That can’t be said of all the others and each of the others typically focus only on the related technical skills of their trade. The problem is, only a few states have a solar contractors license available so we are forced to work within the existing division of trades in each state or local jurisdiction and provide a template for those states considering implementing or expanding a solar contractors license. More important then the trade of the contractor is the technical skills of the contractor as they relate to the tasks of installing a solar thermal system. As a manufacturer, I require our dealers to be appropriately licensed to install a solar thermal system, insured both for liability and workers compensation and they must complete my company training program. I don’t want just any contractor licensed in the trade, I want a contractor trained to install and service our solar heating systems. Where are new contractors and technicians going to get experience? This is going to be a problem and there is no easy solution. Clearly, we need to build infrastructure and get more qualified contractors into the field especially in areas without qualified solar contractors. We need to verify the experience of individuals seeking certification but if there isn’t anywhere in their area to build the experience required for certification. What will they do? In areas where there is an active industry this isn’t going to be a problem. You’ll need to work for a company installing systems to get the experience. We’ll need to be careful that we do not restrict the business opportunities for new companies and figure out a way to allow individuals to gain the experience necessary to take the certification exam. This is one of the critical issues concerning solar programs and incentives requiring the participation of, or where participation may be restricted to only NABCEP certified individuals that must be resolved. What will NABCEP do for the existing contractor? NABCEP documents the experience and technical skills of the contractor and individual. This will not in any way change the local and state licensing requirements to do business but it will demonstrate the technical knowledge of the certified individual. Many trades are technically and legally qualified to install solar water heating systems, but very few of them actually have the skills and knowledge to install it properly. NABCEP will provide the existing solar contractor a certification that has been earned through their work in the industry. As the markets grow, more and more of the unqualified but technically legal companies will get into the business, offer their services and dilute the business opportunities that should have gone to the qualified companies. We have seen it before, any company that has sweat pipe or had a home improvement boiler room got into the business. They killed us then and we cannot allow it to happen again. NABCEP certification will be a nationally recognized certification that will demonstrate the knowledge and skills of the solar company and/or individual giving him or her a leg up on the unqualified and uncertified competition. I’ve installed solar systems for over 20 years, what is NABCEP going to tell me about installing a system that I don’t already know? Nothing, NABCEP is not setting up standards, they are testing and certifying the skills of the installer not telling you how to install a solar heating system. NABCEP is collecting information on the tasks associated with the installation or the skills necessary to design and install a solar heating system. The exam will be based on those skills, not what the contractor does or the methods he uses to install a system properly. In closing, I want to reassure those in this business that there is no other motive other then improving the technical skills of the solar contractor. We currently have our systems certified by FSEC and SRCC, which has provided considerable improvements in the products in the marketplace and it’s time to establish technician certifications like this proposal from NABCEP. Let’s do it now and participate in the discussions. I believe a certification program must be developed with or without the existing industry support. I prefer to participate and contribute to the development of a good and beneficial program. I encourage my peers to do the same. There is a lot of knowledge out there and it is best put to use formulating a workable solid program instead of pretending that we don’t need it. Some in this industry don’t want to see the solar industry grow and expand. They have their niche markets and don’t want it diluted. This will change, with or without our support. The demand for solar water heating systems is increasing. We need to participate or we’ll get left behind. About the Author Bill Guiney is the General Manager of the Water Heating Division at Duke Solar in Raleigh, North Carolina. He has over 21 years of experience in the solar thermal industry and is an instructor for solar water heating courses at the North Carolina and Florida Solar Energy Centers. Duke Solar manufactures and distributes residential and commercial solar thermal systems for hot water, air-conditioning, industrial process heat and utility scale solar electric generation.
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