When we began publishing Solar Installer in 2008, our intent was to educate the readers of Plumbing & Mechanical about systems that use the renewable energy source of the sun to heat water and buildings. We recognized that for the solar thermal industry to grow, plumbing and heating contractors would have to know how to correctly install these systems because the number of contractors doing only solar installations was limited.

We also saw the proliferation of products such as solar panels, tanks and controls that were either coming into the United States from overseas or being produced domestically. As was the case again this year, exhibitors at the ISH trade show held March 12-16 in Frankfurt, Germany, displayed the latest in solar thermal technology from Germany, Italy and other nations.

In 2010, we broadened the scope of our solar thermal publication to include the readers of pme, the engineers and designers of solar thermal systems. Solar Installer became the Solar Thermal Report. Our coverage of the solar thermal industry helped to support the efforts of trade and professional associations to educate their members about these systems.

One organization, the National Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, marks its 10th anniversary this year of certifying industry professionals to do solar installations. In 2003, NABCEP produced its first exam on photovoltaic systems. Since then, the association has certified more than 2,000 industry professionals on the PV side.

NABCEP added a solar heating certification exam in 2006. Since then, 292 professionals have taken the exams to become certified to do solar thermal work. The exams are administered twice a year.

“The target candidate for NABCEP certification is the person responsible for the system installation (e.g., contractor, foreman, supervisor or journeyman),” according to information found at www.nabcep.org. “The NABCEP Solar Heating Installer Certification has been developed in accordance with the certification field’s best practices and is based on a comprehensive Job Task Analysis.”

The JTA defines a general set of knowledge, skills and abilities typically required of practitioners who install and maintain solar hot water or pool heating systems, NABCEP says. The JTA guides the development of an exam where candidates for certification can show they possess the skills and knowledge necessary to do the job well.

“The JTA is the heart of the certification program and the blueprint for both the certification exam and the Solar Heating Installer Resource Guide, which is intended as a study guide for the exam,” says Richard Lawrence, who was named NABCEP executive director in January. He previously had been the association’s director of operations.

The guide also is useful in NABCEP’s entry-level program, which is intended for individuals who want to get into the solar industry.


Certification and eligibility

NABCEP certification is intended for experienced individuals who have a detailed working knowledge of the codes, standards and accepted industry best practices associated with solar thermal or PV installations. It begins with an application process with eligibility criteria that varies with the applicant’s level of expertise on solar systems. The cost to apply for certification is $125.

The certification exam covers six areas: preparing for the project (12% of the test); evaluating the site (13%); planning the system installation (19%); installing the system (30%); commissioning the system (14%); and servicing and maintaining the system (12%).

The exam costs $300 for a certification that lasts three years. Professionals can renew their certification every three years for $300 by working on a minimum of three solar systems and taking 18 hours of continuing education during that time.

Passing the entry-level exam is a way for people to demonstrate that they have achieved a basic knowledge of the fundamental principles of the application, design, installation and operation of solar heating or PV systems. Learning objectives of the solar thermal entry-level program include the identification of: solar heating safety practices, standards, codes and certification; systems for specific climates and applications; proper installation methods; proper use of balance of system components and materials; and common maintenance items. Students also must be able to conduct a site analysis, including a load analysis.

NABCEP works with local colleges and other institutions that develop their own entry-level curriculum base on these learning objectives. The cost of the entry-level exam is $95 for the print or online version.


Installer Resource Guide

In May 2012, NABCEP released its 158-page Solar Heating Installer Guide, prepared by Chuck Marken of Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield, Maine, and Vaughan Woodruff of Pittsfield, Maine-based Insource Renewables, which provides solar heating design/build, consulting and training services.

As a study guide for the certification exam, the chapters of the guide address the test’s six areas, as mentioned previously. It contains a glossary that fills three full pages, defining words that solar heating installers need to know.

Another useful page in the guide lists the government agencies and other organizations involved in the regulation, certification and research of solar thermal systems. Familiar names include IAPMO for its Uniform Solar Energy Code and ICC for its International Energy and Conservation Code. Also listed is the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy, which is a searchable and interactive database of government incentives that promote energy efficiency.

Two pages of photos in the guide are devoted to “Hall of Shame” installations done by contractors who have not been certified by NABCEP. Perhaps more instructive are the four solar heating case studies and a section of study guide review questions for the exam.

  The Solar Heating Installer Guide can be viewed at www.nabcep.org or purchased at the site’s online store on for $34.99 as a PDF file or print version.