A Day in the Life of a Solar Installer (Updated)
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So I originally wrote about my job as a solar installer almost two years ago. Since that time, I have worked on many jobs in many cities, including international sites, and I have received many emails from readers wondering how they can get a green job in the solar field. I've also read over that old article and realized that I was a baby when I wrote it and that my impressions of the field have changed. Here is an update to the article with tips on how to get a job, what to look out for and how things have changed over the years. Plus I answer commonly asked questions from the emails that I received.First, basic updates to the old article. These days we travel and spend more time out of town than when I first started. Since jobs are located wherever a contract is signed, and sales guys are spread out all over the state in order to cover the market, jobs are spread out much further apart these days. This means a lot of time in the car driving around traveling and a lot of time living out of a suitcase in hotels. For techs that are young (and single) this is not as much of a problem (though it definitely cuts into your social life), but for married guys this is something to consider as it means lots of time away from family and can be hard on couples with small children.
Next, the order of how we do things has changed a little bit. With crews of only experienced techs, we can move pretty quickly on a job site. Meaning jobs are much faster and that we split up and do multiple aspects at the same time. We typically don't install the solar panels until the very las step of the job. This means that we can still tweak things on the roof up until the last minute and also minimizes the chance that we will get shocked either up on the roof or down below. Why? Well, as soon as sun hits the panels, they are producing electricity. String a few panels together and you can pack quite a punch. So instead, we tend to do all of the wiring, put the breaker into the main panel and close all connections on the roof, and then put the panels onto the system. That way when the panels hook together, the system is wired all the way to the service and there is no way to shock yourself.
And now to some of the questions I have received:
Do I need a Certification/License?
Currently there is no certification/license that is required for solar installers. What solar installers are starting to get is a NABCEP certification. While this is not required, as more and more people get into solar and companies need a way to "choose" new workers, having a NABCEP certification may become one way to narrow the field.
Do I need Experience?
Not necessarily, but in the future this might not be true. Again, as the field takes off and as more and more funding goes into solar, companies will need a way to differentiate between candidates. So, having a little experience and/or education under your tool belt wouldn't hurt. What types of education might you need? Well, solar installation is still basically a construction job. So, obviously experience in electrical work is very helpful but not the only trade that companies may be interested in. Skills in roofing, framing and construction are also very helpful. Since every job is different and some jobs are on old homes and some are on new construction, having someone on the crew that knows how to lay conduit in walls and someone who knows how to find "hidden" rafters is a great skill.
There are solar training courses that have been around for years, like Solar Energy International and Solar Living Institute. These courses can be expensive and are only located in certain communities. So what can you do if you don't live where these are offered? Why not check out your local university or community college? More and more solar and renewable energy training courses are offered in community colleges these days around the country and some even have practical or hands-on applications in the course.
If you're thinking about getting in the field but can't find a solar course near you, it wouldn't hurt to take an intro electrical course at your local community college. Knowing what you can and can't do when it comes to electricity just might save your life on the job, plus would give you an edge over applicants that just have basic work experience.