From the Chair: Does a qualified tradesperson make a qualified PV installer?

HVCCConfLogoI am going to focus this column on the PV Installers Certification and I want to be clear that the views I express are my own.

One of the biggest issues facing NABCEP today is also a real blessing for the solar industry. Qualified trades people are taking notice of the amount of work there is in the PV industry and seeking PV Installer Certification. All of the entry paths to sit for the PV Installer exam require on-the-job experience as the person responsible for the installation. Many of these otherwise qualified trades people are seeking to sit for the exam before they actually ever install a PV system on a job site.

I’ve been involved with NABCEP from the very beginning and, for me, one of the “best features” of the Certifications we have developed is the multiple paths different individuals can take establish eligibility to take the exam. It was very important to the Board that we create a Certification that was inclusive of all qualified installers and relevant to the industry of the day. While I never thought I’d call the early part of the 21st century “history,” the PV industry has grown at such an amazing pace that virtually everything has changed since the Board first sat down to craft a set of fair test prerequisite conditions. We did a good job then, and the time has come to open the conditions for review.

The issue at hand is “does a qualified trades person – a journeyman electrician in this case – necessarily make a qualified PV Installer.”  The obvious short answer is “no.”

There are special skills and knowledge outside the scope of every-day electrical work that a PV Installer needs to do their job. Unfortunately, the world is not such a simple place and the long answer is more complex.  Journeyman electricians have thousands of hours of training on the job and in a classroom environment as part of their apprenticeship process. While extensive the additional skills and knowledge that these individuals need to learn is generally within the scope of their professional training and experience, there is no real reason that the unique parts of the solar electric installation trade can’t be taught to journeyman electricians.

The question is: How do you assess the installation part of a training program? All of the current entry paths to NABCEP Certification rely on the permitting and inspection process of real-world electrical installation. At the time, successfully obtaining an electrical permit for a solar electrical system and getting the system through to a signed off “Inspection Complete” status was as good as it got for validating that the person sitting for the exam actually did the work and pass a written exam.

Today, there are dozens of well-equipped solar electric training labs across the country and a similar number of extensive and thorough training programs aimed specifically at electrical trades people.  Heck – we even have real textbooks now!  Graduates of these programs are knocking at NABCEP’s door at a time when our industry is undergoing strong demands for an expanding work force.

At our October meeting, the NABCEP Board formed a committee to look for a way to define standards for “hands on installation training experience” that would serve as alternative to on-the-job experience for journeyman electricians. This committee has been hard at work, but like many things “volunteer,” it is moving more slowly than we originally anticipated.

The committee continues to wrestle with vexing questions such as:

  • how many students should be able to get “alternative experience credit” from a single installation;
  • what sort of equipment should be installed:  should it all work out-of-the-box, how complex should the installation be, what type of roofing and racking system should be used;
  • what is an appropriate student to teacher ratio; and
  • how shall the student’s success be evaluated.

As always, we are fortunate to have the caliber of volunteers we do at NABCEP and the group working on developing the new qualifying path standard is made up of some of the more notable names in the solar electric training industry, representing the wide range of stakeholder groups who offer comprehensive solar electric training programs.

I look forward to being able to present the recommendations of this committee to the Board this spring. It will be a good thing for NABCEP and the PV industry to find a way to open their doors to greater numbers of qualified and specially trained electricians.