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Work as a Solar Installer

written by: KennethSleight•edited by: Swagatam •updated: 6/29/2011

The record setting growth of the U.S. solar industry in 2011 showed new grid connected installs up 66% over the same time period in 2010. The prices for an installed photovoltaic system have dropped over 15% over the same period. These trends suggest continued growth in the solar industry.

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    Solar installation is currently one of the fastest growing occupations in the United States, and around the world, with expectations of even greater need in the near future. It is estimated by the Solar Energy Industries Association that there will be five times the solar capture capacity in 2020 as we have today. Someone is going to need to install all of this hardware. What is the solar installer job description? How can I be one of these? That’s what we’ll be discussing here.

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    Education

    Although state certified electrician credentials are a good sell point they aren’t necessarily required. If you have prior work experience in roofing and the willingness and aptitude to learn electric systems, that should be enough to get your foot in the door. Prime candidates will have knowledge of the NEC Code and AC and DC electrical systems or Universal Building Codes and building materials and techniques. Good candidates will be self-motivated with a solid work history and be able to work in small groups. In addition to these general requirements, holding a North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) Certified Solar PV Installer certificate is recommended.

    Entry-level - An entry-level installer (or installer helper) needs the on the job skills acquired in construction. A High School Diploma or GED is required but a two-year degree in technology or industrial arts will make a potential hire far more attractive

    Foreman – Although there is no necessary, educational component for this job an associates degree in technology or electrical systems or bachelor’s degree electrical engineering will make this position more attainable.

    Operation managers – An operation manager is expected to have at least a Bachelor’s Degree in Construction Management or Electrical Engineering. A master’s degree will allow for more upward mobility and allow the candidate to ask for a higher wage. In addition to the degree requirement an operations manager should be able to use the Microsoft Suite (Excel, Word, Outlook) and be versed in Computer Aided Design and a CRM system (such as Siebel).

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    Technical Skills and Job Expectations

    The technical skills needed in this profession are commonly acquired by performing general construction or roofing work. Of course, education can compensate for some of these but most employers are going to want to see a bit of verifiable history in construction.

    Entry Level – General skills with hand tools, pneumatic nailers, electrical wiring, etc. With most solar installs being done on rooftops, ladder work is also a plus although not necessary. Problem solving skills are a huge advantage because residential and commercial installs are never the same and require innovative solutions. Experience with small machinery like bobcats, trenchers, and mini backhoes and work with various building materials and roof types is another positive attribute.

    Foreman – A foreman is usually promoted from the solar installer position. The bare minimum is at least 2 years of experience installing PV systems. In this time, a candidate for a foreman position will have learned how to install and troubleshoot an entire system. He will also be familiar will all pertinent electrical codes. In addition to the technical aspects of the job, a foreman must be able to handle managing a small crew, usually under eight people. This includes time management, assigning tasks based on ability, developing newer members of the crew, training future foremen, and communicating with upper level of management.

    Operations manager – An operations manager is responsible for coordinating multiple teams of installers. Previous experience as a foreman isn’t required but does help. At this level, a candidate needs to be familiar with photovoltaic manufacturers and suppliers and overall designs of AC and DC systems. Building codes knowledge and experience with obtaining permits and dealing with inspectors is crucial.

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    Where the Work is

    Currently there is work in the solar industry in all 50 states. Installers are most needed in California, Florida, Colorado, Texas, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, and Arizona as these states have enacted several tax incentive programs to entice residential and commercial entities to change over to solar power. Alaska and North Dakota don’t have any presence in the industry but this will soon be changing and a new entrepreneur could make a killing starting a solar installation business there.

    Most of the emphasis on solar energy up to this point has been in the commercial sector because the cost to transition was so high. The initial investment was simply out of the reach of the average Joe. As solar component technology has come down in cost, the residential sector has started to embrace this tech. This will mean a huge upswing in business. Solar installers are going to be in high demand in every state, especially those where a rebate program is available. Because solar power is available everywhere there is no black hole in the entire country. This industry is simply on the verge of exploding.

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    Average Salary and Future Job Prospects

    The average salary for these positions is rather skewed as most of the workers in this field are employed in California. Unfortunately, this means that the expected rate of pay in other parts of the country will be lower, more along the lines of what a current roofing laborer makes. The following numbers are from the Environmental Defense Fund survey of green labor jobs.

    • Entry Level - $15-$23/hr
    • Foreman – $25-$38/hour
    • Operations Manager – $31-$50/hour

    Moreover, as far as future job prospects go, solar is expected to have a high growth rate for the next 10 to 20 years. Some industry experts are cautious about this though as federal and state incentives begin to run out they expect to see a slowdown in the implementation of residential units. Without the incentive, the up-front costs may still deter some potential customers from committing to solar energy.

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    References

    Instersate Renewable Energy Council; "Occupational Profiles for the Solar Industry"; Prepared by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council; http://www.austincc.edu/ce/renewable/solar.pdf

    Green Job Store; Solar PV Installation Roofer Salary; http://www.greenjobstore.com/solarpvinstallationroofer.cfm

    Solar Energy Industries Association; http://www.seia.org/

    Grist; Green jobs are real: "U.S. solar employs more people than steel"; Stephen Lacey; http://www.grist.org/green-jobs/2011-06-14-green-jobs-are-real-u.s.-solar-employs-more-people-than-steel

    Image courtesy of Wayne National Forest @ FlickR; http://www.flickr.com/photos/waynenf/3725860708/sizes/m/in/photostream/