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How to Become a Solar Panel Technician

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Emerging industries are often the most reliable drivers of new jobs, and the solar energy industry is a stellar example. The Solar Foundation's National Solar Jobs Census, released in January 2014, reported a 22 percent jump in the number of solar installers from the previous year. Where do these new technicians come from? To find out we asked Richard Lawrence, Executive Director of the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, the industry's leading certification body. Here are our questions and his responses.

eHow: What backgrounds and skills do new installers usually have?

Lawrence: Installers usually come from a construction background. You need that same combination of tool-handling skills, willingness to work out in the elements, problem-solving skills on site, and ability to work with design plans. There are electrical and mechanical skills needed, so both roofing and electrical backgrounds are common. Construction workers in general already have the necessary grasp of OSHA requirements and job site safety skills. Some people do go straight into the solar industry, and NABCEP offers an entry-level certification that covers the fundamentals of solar technology.

eHow: What training paths are available for aspiring installers?

Lawrence: Some programs offer to take people with no prior experience and turn them into qualified solar installers after a week's training, but that's really not the case. Unless you're already a skilled tradesperson, you're better off to take a two-year associate degree in photovoltaic (PV) design and installation, or renewable energy. If you're already working in a related field, it's easier. If you're a trained electrician, for example, you can gain the specialized knowledge you need through a basic solar class. Reputable trainers are usually accredited by NABCEP or another body such as the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.

eHow: How do these certifications and accreditations work?

Lawrence: They're all complementary. IREC evaluates and accredits training programs, so they're assessing the quality of the instruction. NABCEP accredits its own registered trainers, and then, in turn, certifies the professionals who are actually doing the job on your rooftop. There are other notable certifications in the solar industry. A lot of installers start in roofing, and the roofing industry's Roof Integrated Solar Energy program, or RISE, has its own certification program. Underwriter's Laboratories offers a similar program for electricians. NABCEP's program is broader-based, because it grew out of the solar energy industry as a whole, and it's the most widely recognized of these certifications.

eHow: So what's the process? How does an installer become NABCEP-certified?

Lawrence: We offer entry-level training for people just starting in solar, who want a foot in the door. That's delivered through our own network of registered trainers. Our professional certifications are targeted to people already working within the industry. An aspiring PV Installation Professional must document a decision-making role on at least three, and preferably five, system installations. They must have at least 58 hours of advanced design and installation training, and 10 hours of OSHA training. Then they have to pass a rigorous exam, based on job-task analysis, by experienced professionals within the industry. Once certified, they need to maintain their credential by re-certifying every three years. That requires 18 hours of continuing education and the installation of at least three systems during the three-year interval. They're also required to sign and adhere to a code of ethics and standard of conduct.

eHow: Any final thoughts or advice?

Lawrence: PV installers are an important part of our industry, but they're only a part. Solar companies also need technical salespeople who can analyze a potential customer's energy usage and create compelling sales proposals. They need people with engineering backgrounds to design systems, and they need knowledgeable administrative staff. One of the big myths of green energy is that it all comes down to that person in a hard hat on the roof. You might start off as an installer, but after a few years there's plenty of opportunity to move into other roles.

About Richard Lawrence

Lawrence holds a BS from Florida State University, and a master's degree in Environmental Education from Lesley University. He became NABCEP's Executive Director in January 2013, after previously serving as the organization's Director of Operations.