Photovoltaic (PV) modules convert sunlight into electrical energy that can be used to provide power for specific loads within a building in a standalone system or as a supplement to the building’s utility power supply in an integrated system. Advances in PV materials and manufacturing techniques coupled with increasing electric utility rates are making PV more attractive to building owners.

In addition, PV is clean, environmentally friendly and an important “green” building technology. No longer are PV modules building “add-ons” mounted conspicuously on roofs or elsewhere. They are being integrated into traditional building materials such as roofing, window and curtainwall systems, referred to as building integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) systems. BIPV systems reduce the cost of a PV installation because the PV cells become part of the building itself, improve the aesthetics of the installation increasing acceptance by building designers, and may even increase the building operating efficiency by reducing air conditioning load.

The installation of PV panels and associated equipment and wiring for commercial and residential buildings is an emerging market for the electrical contracting firm. In order to take full advantage of this market, the electrical contracting firm will need to have qualified installation personnel, be licensed where required, and be able to differentiate itself from its competition.

One way that an electrical contracting firm can differentiate itself from its competition is through industry certifications. The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) has developed a new certification process for PV installers. Having this certification may help you market your PV installation services to building owners and allow you to bid on PV work if this certification finds its way into designer’s specifications.

Installation pitfalls

Owners should be concerned about who is installing their PV system. PV systems are complex and require specialized knowledge and expertise to install. Needed installation expertise includes not only understanding how the PV product should be installed, but also how its location and orientation could impact its efficiency. It’s also important to safely integrate the PV system into the building’s power distribution system.

Installing a PV system is an investment and most building owners expect to see a payback from it. This means that the site needs to be assessed to determine if it is a suitable location for a PV installation and how much power can reasonably be produced throughout the year from the installation. A realistic projection of the site’s potential for PV power production is critical to the owner’s financial analysis, which should consider the life cycle costs of the installation. The analysis should compare the initial investment against the discounted cash flow resulting from power savings, government and utility incentives, and any operation and maintenance (O&M) costs over the life of the installation. This analysis of the site’s PV potential may also serve as the basis for the owner obtaining a loan for the installation. If the original assessment of the site’s potential is overstated, then the building owner may never recover the investment in the PV system.

Even if the site’s PV potential is correctly evaluated, the owner’s investment may still be at risk if the installation does not take into account the movement of the sun throughout the day and year. The installation needs to account the physical environment surrounding the site and its potential impact on PV power production. Other buildings, trees, and the lay of the land should be considered to ensure that no shading of the PV system results. As important, building appurtenances such as parapets and other architectural features as well as building equipment, piping, vents, and other similar objects don’t shade or completely block the sun all the time or during certain parts of the day or year.

Safety is another important consideration. An improperly installed system can present both shock and fire hazards. For starters, the installation must be in accordance with the National Electrical Code (NEC) if mandated by the local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). However, even in rural and other areas where there is no AHJ or required compliance with the NEC, building owners should insist that the installation be in accordance with the NEC because compliance represents the minimum standard of care for the installation of electrical equipment and wiring in buildings. In addition, a PV system that is not installed in accordance with the NEC could impact the owner’s insurance coverage.

NEC Article 690 specifically addresses the installation of standalone PV systems with and without storage batteries and PV systems that are interconnected with the utility service. Stand-alone PV systems that include storage batteries can introduce additional personnel and fire risk. Storage batteries must be properly installed and connected and the storage battery location must be properly ventilated to prevent the accumulation of explosive gases. The installation of storage batteries for a stand-alone PV system needs to be in accordance with NEC Article 480.

Interconnection of the PV system can produce additional shock hazards for building maintenance personnel, electrical contractor personnel, and utility line personnel if not done properly or if allowed to backfeed into the distribution system. Interconnecting the PV system with the utility service must be done in accordance with NEC Article 690 as well as the serving utility’s requirements and PV equipment manufacturer’s recommendations.

In addition, industry-recommended practices and standards for interconnecting local power sources with the utility system such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) Standard 929 entitled Recommended Practice for Utility Interface of Photovoltaic Systems and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) National Electrical Installation Standard (NEIS) ANSI/NECA 405 entitled Recommended Practice for Installing and Commissioning Interconnected Generation Systems should be followed.

Licensing and certification

To protect the public, a number of states have either instituted licensing requirements for PV installers or are considering it. These state licensing requirements vary from being a licensed electrical contractor or electrician to having a specialty license or certificate to do solar work. Most states currently do not have any licensing requirements, leaving consumers to fend for themselves when it comes to the installation for PV systems. As the PV market grows there will be a growing need to ensure that installers are competent and have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to install a safe and functional PV system.

NABCEP was formed in 2002 to develop national voluntary standards and certifications for renewable energy installers. NABCEP was born out of the concern that a lack of consistent installer standards could result in shoddy work by unqualified installers. This would damage the industry’s reputation and slow the adoption of viable renewable energy technologies. Its board of directors includes representatives from all parts of the industry including NECA, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), and the National Joint Apprenticeship & Training Committee (NJATC). NABCEP’s first initiative was to develop a certification process for PV installers that it hopes will help the public in selecting a qualified installer as well as provide a way that installers with the certification can differentiate themselves from their less qualified competitors.

Getting the NABCEP PV installer certification is not easy. First of all, electrical contracting firms cannot get NABCEP certified, only individuals are eligible for certification. To get certified, the individual must submit an application outlining his or her background, education/training, and experience with PV installations. If qualified, the individual is allowed to take an examination that tests a variety of knowledge and skills that a qualified PV installer should have: assessing a site’s suitability; installation techniques; safety; and applicable NEC requirements, among others.

The exam is given in a number of locations across the United States, so it is accessible to anyone who is qualified to take it. There are a variety of ways that an individual can qualify to take the examination. A NECA contractor will typically qualify by being a licensed contractor in good standing and have at least one year’s experience installing PV systems. Similarly, an IBEW master electrician or journeyman can qualify to take the examination by completing the apprenticeship program and having one year of PV installation experience. In fact, Local 103 in Boston incorporates PV installation into its apprenticeship-training program.

The first PV installer examination was given to about 100 candidates in October 2003 at 14 sites around the country. According to Peter Sheehan, NABCEP’s executive director, the pass rate for that examination was about 70 percent. The second examination was given in April 2004 and the next examination is planned for September 2004. Applications for the next examination can be obtained from the NABCEP Web site at www.nabcep.org. NABCEP has been requiring that applications be submitted about three months before the exam date to allow time to evaluate applicant qualifications and notify applicants about their eligibility to take the exam.

The major advantage of certification is that it “allows you to stand out from your peers and assures customers that you have the skills and competencies necessary to install a safe and functional PV system,” according to Sheehan. However, there are other advantages to certification as well. One manufacturer, SunWize Technologies, supports the certification exam by reimbursing the application and examination fees to installers who pass the examination by applying a credit to their next system order of $5,000 or more. Sheehan also notes that NABCEP is currently investigating the possibility of obtaining group insurance coverage for certified installers at reduced rates.

PV technology will continue to advance and the knowledge and skills required by installers will need to be continually updated to keep pace with this change. As a result, NABCEP’s PV installer certification will not last forever. Installers will need to go through a recertification process every three years. This includes showing that they have completed at least 18 hours of continuing education with a minimum of three hours on safety. Additionally, the certified installer must also show that he or she has competed at least one qualifying PV installation per year over the three-year period.

If your firm is planning to enter or expand its PV market, it is important that you are aware not only of the technology but also emerging licensing requirements and your customer’s desire for certified PV installers which may be expressed as a specification requirement. Getting licensed and obtaining the NABCEP installer certification for key employees involved in PV installations today may give you a competitive advantage over your competition tomorrow. EC

GLAVINICH is an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at The University of Kansas and is a frequent instructor for NECA’s Management Education Institute. He can be reached at 785.864.3435 or tglavinich@ku.edu.