Going solar

Important steps to take when considering rooftop PV panel installation
By Joe Bono
October 31, 2011

Compared to building integrated photovoltaics—solar panels that replace traditional glass products in curtain walls, window walls and other vertical facades—rooftop solar panel installation might not be the first service glaziers consider, when looking to enter the solar installation market. However, any type of solar array essentially requires installing a glass product into a support structure. And because of this, glaziers have a shorter learning curve than other contractors when it comes to installing standard pre-framed PV modules, such as those used in rooftop arrays.

In addition, glazing contractors already possess many of the key skill sets required for this type of installation: engineering experience, quality control, safety and project management. As a glazier, you would be amiss not to take advantage of the growing demand for solar panel installation, but there are important steps to consider before expanding into this marketplace.

  1. Know the basics.
    Understanding how solar panels interact with the building shortens the learning curve and allows glaziers to build on their existing knowledge and skill set. As the solar industry has expanded, educational courses on the fundamentals of solar panels have become widespread.

    In short, solar panels are made up of tiny cells of treated silicon. Each panel collects solar radiation and converts it into an electrical current. These panels are then wired together in series to create an array, and the electrical output from that array travels through wires and conduit to an inverter typically located near the breaker box. The inverter converts the direct current into alternating current.
  2. Determine where you need help.
    As a contractor, you likely understand how to market your business and sell a service while maintaining fruitful relationships with vendors and customers. When it comes to solar panel installation, most glaziers will want to subcontract an electrician or hire one on full-time as part of their new solar division. In many states and municipalities, an electrician is required to install the solar equipment into the building's electric utility system. Tools also differ from the glazing industry. Solar panel installation relies very much on roofing and electrical, so it's important to research what you can take on and what aspects of the job you might need to subcontract out.
  3. Research licensing requirements.
    Every state has different licensing laws, and it's important to understand the requirements for solar panel installation in your area. The majority of states require an individual license per trade. Check with your state's department of labor to find out what licensing requirements are needed in your marketplace.
  4. Gain hands-on experience.
    Once you've obtained the appropriate license and gone through the supplementary training to become a solar panel installer, the challenge becomes gaining experience. As a glazing contractor, you have the option to leverage your current commercial customer base to sell solar panels. In addition to getting on bid lists, it's sometimes advantageous to contact more established installers and offer to subcontract on their projects while you gain experience. Joining a solar franchise network is another option. Solar franchise networks can provide best practices and support you in booking jobs. A good solar franchise network also will give you access to greater purchasing power, allowing you to price yourself more competitively. Integrated sales and marketing training, and best practice sharing provided by solar franchise networks also can put you at a competitive advantage.
  5. Find a pricing tool.
    It's important to understand tax incentives when determining how to quote a solar panel installation. Incentives are issued at both state and federal levels. Some utility companies also offer rebates to customers that install solar. There are software tools available that can help you stay apprised of the changing rebates and incentives. This offers value proposition to your customer and allows you to remain price competitive in a growing marketplace. 

The author is the founder of Solar Universe Network which operates 24 franchises in six states. 

  • Fast facts

    Editor's note: The following information is an excerpt from the presentation, "Building Integrated Photovoltaics: It's Not the Future; It's Now!" by Richard Voreis, CEO of Consulting Collaborative. Voreis gave the presentation at 2011 GlassBuild America: The Glass, Window & Door Expo.

    • Despite a struggling domestic economy, the U.S. solar market will double in 2011, according to a recent industry report.
    • New Jersey is the fastest growing state in the U.S. in photovoltaic capacity.
    • While the U.S. currently comprises 5 percent of the world PV market, it is projected to increase to 12 percent by 2015, making it the fastest-growing major market in that time period.