A Day (or Three) in the Life of a Solar Installer (Continued)

(Continued from Day in the Life of a Solar Installer, June 17, 2007). This is the tale of a new solar installer and her adventures in renewable energy.

Day Three: If the project is a smaller project, or just relatively straight-forward, then by day three this should be the final touches of the project. Oftentimes, projects take a few more days, but for this example we're using three days. So, with all of the panels up and the conduit run, it is time to pull wires from the panels down to the inverters. Assuming the entire conduit is in the correct direction and there are not too many bends, or too many wires going to the panels, then the pull should be fairly simple.

If the wires are thick, then it can take sheer brute strength to get those wires through the conduit. Depending on the size of the roof, the runs can be 30 feet or over 200 feet, and sometimes there are 20 or more wires going through a 1-2" piece of pipe. Yikes. Then each of these wires must go from the roof, down into the DC disconnect, to the inverters (the boxes that change the power produced by the panels (DC) into the power that your house uses (AC)), sometimes to a sub-panel (depending on the size of the project), to an AC disconnect, then into the service. All of the wires from the panels must be connected to wires that are run from the inverters. Typically we leave a few of these leads unplugged throughout this process to keep from shocking ourselves — once light hits those panels they are producing energy, whether we have them tied into the service or not. We install a new breaker into the service panel and land the wires in this breaker box to complete the system.

Sometimes we have to land a grounding rod, in addition, which means we have to pound a 10 foot copper rod into the ground with only 6 inches sticking out, using a post-hole digger and a sledgehammer. You get used to it. If everything is installed properly and there are no wild hairs that we don't know about it, then when we fire up that system, the meter should go backwards. I have yet to find a homeowner who doesn't immediately say "Can I see the meter spin backwards?" when you tell them that the system is working.

Within a few days, one of the installers must return to the site to meet the inspector and answer any questions they may have about the site. This can be a little nerve-wrecking the first few times because you feel like you're taking an exam. You get used to it.

Lately we've been installing all over the area, and not just San Diego County. Heading out towards Palm Springs we see massive wind-farms to the left and right, which is thrilling (then again, the massive wind power for these windmills is also going to turn those panels into kites when we're trying to install them on roofs. You'd be amazed how easily a wind-gust can list a 45 pound panel right out of your hands!). We are typically on travel at least one week a month and sometimes more.

Downsides: Well, a lot of the stuff that we deal with is pretty toxic. Yeah, I know, solar is supposed to save us from our fossil-fuel indulgences, and don't get me wrong, I think its certainly the way to go, but we also need to be aware of what we're getting into when we all run like lemmings off the ledge and assume solar will save us all. PVC is commonly used to encase all of the wiring from the disconnect boxes up to the panels. PVC if you'll remember causes dioxin when heated up. Some of the other glues and materials are toxic if inhaled, swallowed, or otherwise exposed to them. Aluminum is put into the environment when putting the systems together from the shavings of the metal fittings and rail cuttings, which will eventually get into soil and groundwater. For off-grid systems, a pack of deep-cycle batteries is needed, but these batteries off-gas during their life and are toxic to dispose of.

Upsides: One of the coolest things thus far was traveling to New Orleans to volunteer and install panels on one of the homes being rebuilt after Katrina. It was pretty eye-opening to travel through the ninth ward and see the physical and emotional destruction throughout the area. Talking with the homeowners was pretty powerful and the three of us came away better for it. We also got to meet installers from all over the country and quickly bonded with each of the crews.

So what have I learned.
Do it right the first time. A common phrase in the field is measure twice, cut once. This could not be more true — its often one small miscalculation that can ruin your entire day.

I tend to sacrifice a little blood to the solar gods at least once a day. I'm getting better now, and don't have as many massive bruises on my legs as when I first started, but rare is the week/day that I don't bump/cut/gash myself in some way. You get used to it.

I'm in some of the best shape I've ever been in and never need to join a gym. In fact I find that I run after work and am learning to surf (I didn't even have sore muscles after my first surf lesson — lifting those panels is good for something after all) and play beach volleyball on the weekends. If anything, I'm learning that I need to take it easy sometimes, that too much exercise can almost be as bad as not enough.

Snack time is not just for kindergarteners. I find that the times when I start to get mistakes or sloppy coincide with the times when I am running low on fuel. Taking a break keeps everyone happy and keeps everyone from falling off of the roof.

Flexibility is key in this job. I've learned a lot about this job, and about life in general. I have the freedom of an office that changes at least once a week and am challenged every week. No site is the same. No project is ever the same. One day I might be installing panels and the next day I might be sent on service calls around the county to replace a breaker, or to crawl across a roof full of pool panels in order to find the one leak. You have to like change, or this job will wear you down.

Finally, you can get used to almost anything. You get used to climbing on steep, high roofs. You get used to using tools like drop saws and sawsalls, which seem very scary at first. You get used to the long hours — typically 50+ hour weeks. You get used to the calluses on your hands and the bruises on your shins. You get used to driving huge, dualie trucks or trucks named Robo. I guess this is because I get to spend the entire day outside, I get to see all kinds of wildlife on the job, I get to listen to music all day and have great (or at least entertaining) conversations, and the scenery is always changing. When I look back on it, it does seem like a rough way to earn a living, but I love it.

Kristin works at HelioPower as a photovoltaic installer and can be reached atkristin_at_treehugger_dot_com.

Tags: Electricity | Energy | Renewable Energy | San Diego | Wind Power

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