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Contractor Licensing & Certification

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Description


States establish licensing requirements for contractors in order to protect consumers from unsafe practices and protect the reputation of the industry, as improper installation may create safety risks or result in poor equipment performance. Licensing is distinct from certification. While licensing is mandatory for certain practices, certification is a voluntary standard that installers attain to differentiate themselves from competition and to instill confidence in consumers. Certification may entail completing coursework, installing systems for a certain period of time, or taking an exam, but it is typically not required to install equipment.

The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) is a nationally-recognized, independent, voluntary certification program for photovoltaic (PV) and solar-thermal system installers. To become NABCEP-certified, installers must attain at least one year of installation experience and must document all training and installations. Installers must also pass a rigorous exam, sign a code of ethics, and take continuing education courses for re-certification every three years.

Licensing and certification have different advantages and disadvantages. From a financial point of view, voluntary national certification is preferable to mandatory state licensing because it results in a lower cost of installation and provides greater consumer choice than mandatory licensing. In states that do not require solar contractor licensing, certification can provide a baseline level of quality. State licensing may be restrictive, as state licenses do not typically transfer, so geographic mobility is limited. However, state licensing can protect consumers from potential safety hazards and will help ensure that systems are installed properly. While both licensing and certification have drawbacks, requiring solar contractors to be licensed or certified is preferable to no quality control of system installation and will result in baseline standards being met, which will in turn lead to higher consumer satisfaction.[1]


Status & Trends


Solar contractor licensing commenced in the 1980s alongside the introduction of incentive programs for solar water heating. State regulation and licensing of solar contractors continues to evolve as the industry grows. Currently, 12 states and Puerto Rico have solar contractor licensing requirements. The contractor licensing requirements described here refer to solar-specific licensing requirements, rather than general electrical or plumbing contractor licenses. Most states require a licensed electrical or plumbing contractor for PV and solar-thermal systems, respectively. 
Solar Contractor Licensing
Some states require solar installers to obtain a separate, specialized solar contractor’s license. In most cases, solar is a specialty classification under the general electrical or plumbing licenses and all appropriately licensed contractors can install solar systems without the solar specialty license. However, contractors can obtain the solar specialty license and install systems without having the full electrical or plumbing license. This reduces the cost of licensure for contractors who only install solar systems.

Even in states that do not have contractor licensing requirements, financial incentive programs often include installer requirements, such as pre-approval or, some cases, NABCEP certification. Although intended as a voluntary, value-added credential, NABCEP certification is now either mandatory or preferred for contractors who seek to install systems eligible for state incentive programs. For example, to be eligible for state rebate funds in Maine, Minnesota or Wisconsin, a PV system must be installed by a NABCEP-certified professional. California, Delaware and Massachusetts rebate programs prefer or recommend NABCEP-certified professionals. In Utah, NABCEP-certification is a prerequisite for qualifying for a state solar contractor license.

In the absence of state licensing or certification requirements, local governments may adopt regulations or establish their own licensing procedure. For example, Madison, Wisconsin, and Austin, Texas, have acted in advance of their state governments by adopting solar contractor licensing and/or certification requirements.

For solar-electric systems installed in the United States, nearly all aspects of licensing are governed by the North American Electrical Safety System. Many organizations, however, are involved in developing product codes and standards, testing, and approvals, such as these:
 
  • Standard Practices. The IEEE/American National Standards Institute (IEEE/ANSI) develops standards and recommended practices.
     
  • Product Certification. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratories (NRTLs), such as Underwriters Laboratory (UL), conduct product certification, listing and approvals. 
     
  • Permitting, Inspection, Interconnection. The electrical building department officials and the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) conduct permitting, plan reviews and inspections, and the applicable electric utility grants interconnection approvals. The NEC and the National Fire Protection Association (adopted as law by most local jurisdictions) govern installations.
     
  • Installer Certification. The NEC (along with OSHA and the U.S. Department of Labor) establishes the qualifications of those who are allowed to work on electrical systems, including their experience and training on the associated safety hazards.[2]

Examples

  • Florida began offering solar contractor licenses in the 1980s. Until 1994, Florida offered limited specialty licenses for residential solar hot water and pool heating, as well a general solar contractor's license. Those specialty licenses have not been issued since then, although installers holding those licenses may renew them. The new solar contractor license defines a broader scope of work. With the new license, solar contractors may install, maintain and repair solar hot water systems, solar pool heating systems and PV systems in residential, commercial and industrial facilities. If the scope of work for a solar installation is covered under the scope of work for another contractor license, then the contractor does not need a solar specialty license to perform that work. Likewise, solar contractors may perform minor electrical, mechanical, plumbing or roofing work that is covered by the solar contractor license and pertains to the installation of a residential solar-energy system. To qualify for a license, installers must have four years of experience, which may include both installation and education, and at least one year of experience must be in a supervisory role. An individual must also pass an exam to become certified as a solar contractor. This two-part exam tests both business and financial management, and general solar knowledge.
     
  • Utah is unique in requiring NABCEP certification (in addition to other requirements) to qualify for a solar contractor license. Utah's Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing requires installers of solar-energy systems to be licensed contractors. It has established two contractor license classifications -- one for PV and one for solar-thermal. A Solar Photovoltaic Contractor is licensed for the fabrication, construction, installation, and repair of photovoltaic cell panels and related components including battery storage systems, distribution panels, switch gear, electrical wires, inverters, and other electrical apparatus for PV systems. A Solar Thermal Systems Contractor is licensed for the construction, repair and/or installation of solar-thermal systems up to the system shut-off valve or where the system interfaces with any other plumbing system. To become a licensed solar contractor in Utah, an installer must have at least two years of experience as an employee of a contractor licensed in the license classification applied for, or the substantial equivalent of a contractor licensed in that license classification, and NABCEP certification.  
     
  • Madison, Wisconsin is an example of a local government that has adopted licensing requirements for solar thermal installations in the absence of state policy. Madison recently changed its building regulations for solar technology for the first time since the 1970s. The city previously required installers to have a city license for installing solar water-heating systems, but NABCEP’s Solar Thermal Installer certification is now accepted as an equivalent.

Resources

 
Solar Licensing Database. Pat Fox, Interstate Renewable Energy Council, Inc. (IREC), July 2010.
 
Credentialing: What's in a Name? A Lot. Jane Weissman, Solar Today, October 2009.
 
The Qualified Solar Installer. Jim Dunlop, Solar Today, October 2009.

Costs and Benefits of Practitioner Certification or Licensure for the Solar Industry. Interstate Renewable Energy Council, Inc. (IREC), May 2002.



Footnotes

[1]  Costs and Benefits of Practitioner Certification or Licensure for the Solar Industry, IREC, May 2002.
[2]  Solar Powering Your Community: A Guide for Local Governments, U.S. Department of Energy, January 2011.


 

 




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Disclaimer: The information presented on the DSIRE web site provides an unofficial overview of financial incentives and other policies. It does not constitute professional tax advice or other professional financial guidance, and it should not be used as the only source of information when making purchasing decisions, investment decisions or tax decisions, or when executing other binding agreements. Please refer to the individual contact provided below each summary to verify that a specific financial incentive or other policy applies to your project.

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