Faced with the current climate crisis and/or an unreliable power grid, many homeowners have recently gone solar to reduce their carbon footprint, become energy independent, and save money on electricity bills. The industry is flourishing at present and it’s predicted to expand exponentially during the following decade.
In other words, it’s a good time to be a solar PV technician. If you’re wondering how to become a solar panel installer yourself, you’ll find all the information you need below. We’ve also put together details about the job, the skills you’ll need to be successful, and the paycheck you can expect to earn from entry-level to experienced professional.
What Does a Solar Panel Installer Do?
Before you learn more about how to become a solar installer, consider the job description. A solar panel installer performs two essential tasks – installing PV systems and maintaining solar power systems that are already in place.
To install a new system, the solar panel technician must assess a client’s location and home. From this initial evaluation, the technician can determine how much sunlight the different types of panels will benefit from at a certain location, what the ideal positioning and angle calculation of the panels is, and whether a solar system is the correct choice for this household. In addition, they must assess the electricity needs of the client and determine the correct size of the solar array to be installed at the location.
Next, the solar PV installer can recommend the most suitable solar panels and other components to be purchased by the client. Once these arrive, the installer must mount the panels at a correct position, but also connect them to an inverter and battery (if necessary), as well as to an electrical system. Some items require grounding and the wiring must be done properly if the system is to safely function long-term.
When a solar power installer is not putting up new systems, they are most likely performing maintenance tasks for solar arrays that are already in place. In general, these technicians can work alone for smaller projects or in teams for extensive installations.
Are Solar Power Technicians Needed Today?
For a variety of reasons, including environmental awareness and financial concerns, an increasing number of households have opted for solar power over the previous decade. The Solar Investment Tax Credit (or ITC) has provided additional incentive for home- and business owners to go solar, and it has also ensured that the industry itself could become more stable and profitable. Meanwhile, the overall cost of buying and installing solar panels and other necessary components has decreased by no less than 70%.
In the past 10 years alone, the compound yearly growth rate of the solar industry has reached a record high at 60%. Almost 209,000 US citizens currently work in the solar sector and it is expected that by 2020 this number will double to more than 420,000 employees. One position that is particularly lucrative is that of solar PV technician, which is why it makes sense for more and more people to want to find out how to become a solar panel installer.
How to Become a Solar Installer: Courses and Apprenticeship Programs
Due to the fact that the solar industry is still relatively new, you actually don’t need any formal education or certification in order to become a solar PV installer. It is possible to become certified by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners and licensed in some US states, but this is by no means necessary.
In terms of education, all you need to compete for a job in the solar sector is a high school diploma and some knowledge about PV installations. It could be advantageous if you have a background in construction (especially the roofing segment), electricity, or mechanics, but this is not required for entry-level positions.
The question of how to become a solar panel installer is actually a matter of how you learn to perform the tasks required by the job itself. To become familiar with PV installations, you can take courses offered by community colleges in your area or look for apprenticeship programs at companies near you.
During these courses, you’ll likely learn more about:
- Tools, power tools, and building regulations,
- The procedures and practicalities of ensuring the functionality of systems you install (by maintaining and cleaning solar panels),
- The basics of PV installations, circuits, earthing, and bonding,
- Wiring regulations and safety (since you will be dealing with electricity on a regular basis).
Both during courses and during apprenticeship programs, you will likely be assigned solar PV installation tasks and, as such, you will get plenty of hands-on experience.
How to Become a Solar Panel Installer: Getting Certified
Getting certified by the NABCEP is not necessary, but it is a great way to differentiate yourself from other competitors when applying for a job in the solar sector. According to NABCEP, the certification provides a set of national standards that you can use to distinguish your work from that of other technicians if you possess the required knowledge and skills.
This can help you gain an edge during a job interview, but also offer your future clients the assurance that your competency as a solar PV installer has been assessed and found satisfactory. At this point in time, the NABCEP certification remains voluntary. If you want to get certified by NABCEP, here are a few steps to consider.
You are required to demonstrate some experience before you enlist in the NABCEP PV Installation Professional (PVIP) Certification Examination and learn more about how to become a solar panel installer. More specifically, you must be able to prove that you have participated in the installation of enough systems to earn 6 credits. The credits are calculated as follows:
- You earn 2 credits for each system between 1kW and 999kW.
- You earn 3 credits for each system above 1MW.
For NABCEP to recognize your experience, you must submit documentation that describes each project and the installation procedures involved, as well as records that prove you have had a “decision-making role” in the project. For the latter, you may submit signed letters from members of senior management in the company your work for, but also any proof that you were responsible for the project (such as design plans or quality assurance reports), in case you were not working for a company at the time. (Luckily, you won’t be expected to have to build your own solar panels.)
Training requirements – The OSHA 10
You’ll be required to complete two types of training to become eligible for the NABCEP solar panel installation certification. The first refers to the 10-hour OSHA program, which is an Outreach Training Program offered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
During this voluntary program, you will learn about workplace safety, health, and hazards, with particular focus on the construction sector. You will not learn specifically how to become a solar installer, but training will be participatory and provide hands-on experience in order to help you recognize, assess, and avoid hazards, become aware of your rights and responsibilities, as well as become able to file complaints when necessary.
To qualify for the NABCEP solar panel installation certification, you’ll also need to demonstrate a minimum of 58 hours of advanced training in solar PV installation. A minimum 40 of these hours must be spent in a teacher-learner format as part of an accredited course that prepares the student to assume decision-making roles in future projects.
What constitutes “advanced” PV training is defined in the NABCEP PV Installation Professional Job Task Analysis. Institutions that are considered to be “accredited” and can therefore offer eligible course are specified in the NABCEP Certification Handbook. They include institutions accredited by agencies recognized by the federal Department of Education, U.S. Department of Labor Registered Apprenticeship Training Programs, but also other training programs authorized by State or Provincial Department of Education. So you may be learning about other kernels of solar power systems, like solar charge controllers.
The remaining 18 hours can be obtained from non-accredited courses on electrical, fire or building codes, OSHA safety courses above the entry-level 10-hour program, or other coursework relevant for PV installation.
The NABCEP Solar Panel Installation Certification Exam
Once you’ve completed the necessary training and submitted all required documentation, you will be able to sit for the NABCEP solar panel installation certification exam. The exam comprises 35 multiple choice questions that you must answer in 240 minutes (or four hours). For the duration of the exam, you are allowed to consult the National Electrical Code for reference.
To become more familiar with the content that will be examined, you can consult the NABCEP PV Installation Professional Resource Guide, which is available online, for free. The guide includes information on solar power system design, project management, the installation of electrical and mechanical components, as well as maintenance and troubleshooting activities.
The NABCEP certification offers one possible answer to the question of how to become a solar panel installer. Although it is not required to enter the solar sector, the exam and application process are a great way to learn the trade and earn a certificate that proves you are a competent solar panel technician.
Remember, however, that the NABCEP certification is only valid for the duration of three years from your exam. In order to remain certified once this period of time has passed, you must enlist for a recertification exam based on the same content, but with slightly different entry requirements to reflect your development as a professional PV installer.
How to Become a Solar Panel Installer: The Skills
Now that you know more about how to become a solar installer, you can get familiarized with the specific skills of a successful solar panel technician. These include:
- Installation. This is the bread-and-butter of your work as a solar PV installer. You need to know how to use installing equipment and related machines, how to do proper wiring, and how to employ dedicated programs for the design and monitoring of systems.
- Active listening. Much of your job will revolve around the client’s requirements and the input of other technicians on your team. Active listening refers precisely to your ability to give enough attention to what others are saying, identify the points being made, ask questions if needed, and avoid interruptions at inappropriate times.
- Critical thinking. Each household is different and each solar power system is therefore unique. That means different requirements and various problems for every installation, which is why critical thinking, or your ability to assess issues and provide alternative solutions, is essential to your work as a PV installer.
- Monitoring performance. As a solar panel technician, you won’t only monitor solar power systems. You’ll sometimes be in charge of projects and, as such, you’ll have to monitor your and others’ performance in order to offer feedback and make improvements.
- Physical fitness. Most of your work will be carried out on top of roofs and you will often be required to pick up and move solar panels that weigh an average of 2-4lbs (10-20kg) per square foot. Your physical condition must allow for such sustained physical effort and coordination.
How Much Can You Expect to Earn as a Solar Power Installer?
On average, a solar power installer can expect to earn an hourly wage of $20 and a yearly salary of $42,500. Because more people are buying or leasing solar panels than ever before, yearly salaries for the job range from $27,000 to $60,000, depending on experience and location.
For instance, while the entry-level (no experience) worker can expect to earn between $27,000 and $33,000, a PV technician with 3 to 5 years of experience will likely make just under $40,000 per year. Depending on the company you work with, you might also be paid for overtime.
If you’re wondering how you can become a solar panel installer fast, then you could consider moving to a solar-friendly state. These are states where solar installations are very popular among homeowners, while solar power systems are more advantageous due to geographical positioning. Solar-friendly states include California, North Carolina, Arizona, Nevada, and others.
How to Become a Solar Installer: Summary
Due to the fact that the industry itself is still new, it’s fairly easy to become a solar power installer in 2020. Employers often do not require higher education diplomas, although a background in construction, electricity, or mechanics can give you an advantage.
Something to consider if you want to stand out from the competition is certification by the NABCEP. To earn such a distinction, you’ll be required to complete projects, attend specific classes, and undergo advanced training, all of which will ultimately guide you through the process of how to become a solar installer.