Takeaways from NABCEP 2024 CE: Crucial code insight, solar installer ethics

The NABCEP CE conference is the best annual info dump and networking event for solar nerds. Last week, I wandered around the 2024 edition in Raleigh, N.C., ingesting an overwhelming amount of code updates, product info, and coffee. Lots to relay from my notebook over the coming weeks and months in more depth, but here are my broad takeaways.

UL 3741 continues to gain traction, but questions remain

I started the week at an in-depth UL 3741 training session with SMA and Unirac. Remember, this UL standard is a pathway to comply with the Rapid Shutdown code requirements of NEC 690, without incorporating module-level power electronics (MLPE).

What I like about the testing for UL 3741 is that it considers the design of the whole PV system – modules, connectors, racking, inverters, and wire management – and the risk it all poses to a first responder in a worst case scenario. So, to comply with UL 3741, each component must be tested as part of a system.

SMA was one of the first inverter manufacturers to earn the UL 3741 listing with its CORE1 inverter, which has the advantage of being a free-standing unit. That initial listing was in conjunction with Sollega racking, which is a made of a non-conductive, UV-rated Nylon6 plastic.

This session though, showed a UL 3741 compliant system with various Unirac racking systems, that are made of metal, and SMA’s Sunny Tripower X, which needs to be mounted.

I’ll get more in-depth into the nuances in the Q2 issue of Solar Builder magazine, but my initial thoughts:

  • The flexibility in terms of inverter and racking options is encouraging. There are overall more product and design options with a UL 3741 system vs. the MLPE-based rapid shutdown pathway.
  • Key to the UL 3741 compliance of the metal Unirac racking system is plastic, zip-tip wire management. Considering the movement away from zip ties in PV systems the last few years, that was definitely a curious tidbit. Maybe nothing wrong with this, but it did make we wonder if code, in general, needs to test for longer term aspects of solar system components.

Communication with AHJs, firefighters

In every NABCEP session, inevitably, there will be a mention of how this product or system design or code update will fly with certain Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs), or in the case of UL 3741, with local fire departments. This isn’t a huge revelation, but it’s clear that proactive educational outreach from solar companies to fire departments and AHJs could go a long way to ease their concerns, increase the general knowledge of solar energy in an area, and, in turn, open up more cost-effective solar projects.

For example, fire departments might really appreciate learning about the risk matrix testing of UL 3741 and how the systems you are designing grade out.

Dig deeper into UL 9540

The most packed session I attended covered ESS fire codes, and a lot of what was learned can be summed up with this warning: Do not trust product data sheets for UL 9540 compliance.

Always seek out the 9540A test results and UL 9540 certification from the website of the Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL) that conducted the test for any ESS. Data sheets are not compliance documents, and marketing terminology can be tricky, so double check that the system is UL LISTED.

In addition, the certification, and the manufacturer’s instructions, will have important information as to system’s spacing requirements and sizing as part of that certification.

Solar sales ethics a concern

Concerns about questionable sales and design methods in solar kept coming up in casual conversations. Companies “bidding below cost knowing they’ll make it up on change orders,” was called out by a few installers as an ethical problem they are seeing in their markets.

One idea that could help in the effort to boost quality and honesty across the country: Mandating installation experience for new hires. One installer said they always start new hires as installers first. Getting them up on the roof and understanding the challenges of being an installer and all of the pain points on site is a valuable perspective. From there, they leave the possibilities open. Are you more interested in logistics? In sales or design? Career paths are flexible, but they must start with that basic installation foundation.

Speaking of solar basics, the Midwest Renewable Energy Association is refining a very cool, mobile solar learning lab. They are already taking it on the road to aid in developing the solar workforce in lower income areas and among Tribal communities, but Nick Matthes, MREA Solar Project Manager, said they are developing a kit to expand this effort – possibly even commercialize it. In fact, they’ve already made the first round of cuts in the Department of Energy’s American-Made Solar Prize Competition.

Another super shady story heard from Georgia: An installer paying a $1,000 credit on a customer’s bill to the utility, so that the system ROI looks incredible in year one.

That’s an extreme, but it serves as a reminder, to me, that all PV system installations should be considered the beginning of your relationship with a customer, not the end. Beefing up customer relations is hugely important, and can start to develop new business opportunities.

Enact Solar showed off their new, cool way to do this. For starters, Enact offers a great PV design and proposal platform offers remote design using high-resolution satellite imagery. The new 2024 update will empower installers to leverage data to rapidly design more accurate project designs with effortless 3D modeling and automatic height and pitch detection. But Enact also has a customer-facing side that really helps any homeowner understand not just their PV system output, but their usage + rate data + on-site power production to explain true up bill savings.

How to say no to business

Is your solar business going through a change? Scaling up? Scaling back? Building a service department to serve orphaned systems? Whatever direction you’re going, Tiernay Marsh with BayWa r.e. hosted a great session about how and why to say no to business.

Properly answering yes or no all comes back to company strategy, and Marsh shared a handy model for refining that company strategy: The Galbraith Star Model. The points of the star include:

  • Strategy (direction)
  • Structure (power)
  • Process (information flow)
  • Rewards (motivation)
  • People (mindset and skills)

All of these are connected and influence the other. Working through the dynamic of sales vs. install teams in solar is a good use of the Star Model, for example. You can read more about it here.

Code making is crucial

A duh statement, but Jeff Spies, founder of Planet Plan Sets and NABCEP board member, highlighted a few times throughout the week just how precarious the position of the solar + storage industry is within some of these code-making groups.

There are a handful of dedicated folks making sure the industry’s point of view is represented and that codes evolve to better reflect the pros and cons of available technology and industry best practices. But there is strength in numbers. So, if you feel code could improve in some way, it would pay to get involved and make that case.

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