Smooth solar installation requires the right workers, tools and maybe most importantly, training. Being prepared to work with increasingly complex solar power electronics can mean the difference between a quick installation and hours of troubleshooting.
Back when solar inverters were basic machines solely used to convert power from rooftop arrays, manufacturers offered only a simple paper instruction manual for system setup.
“One thing that drove me nuts is that there was no real information transfer from the manufacturer to me. It just showed up in a box and I was to put it up on a wall,” said Jeremy Sullivan, former installer and current senior director of worldwide training for Enphase. “Nobody was walking me through or guiding me as an installer through the process.”
But now, with inverters performing more complicated interactions with the grid, batteries and other pieces of the smart home ecosystem, installation training must be more advanced.
“It’s a different environment than just installing an inverter. We have realized that, so we’ve really put a lot of resources behind training and see that as a priority,” said Michelle Spina, sales education manager at SolarEdge.
Inverter training has come a long way in the last few years, but there’s still room for improvement. Manufacturers, installers and other training organizations are working together to streamline this crucial step in the solar process.
The two most popular residential inverter brands in the United States, Enphase and SolarEdge, offer similar virtual training options for installers learning about their equipment, ranging from interactive online demos to quick video refreshers.
Training begins with online certifications for a manufacturer’s products. Installers are not even allowed to work with some equipment, especially batteries, until they’ve completed trainings and received an official certification.
Both SolarEdge and Enphase host self-paced online learning platforms where installers can also earn continuing education credits from the industry’s specialized certifying body, NABCEP. These online courses have evolved to simulate real installations as closely as possible. SolarEdge’s EDGE Academy classes require installers to click through virtual installs, rather than just read about the steps.
“It’s not like they’re sitting there and just watching a PowerPoint. It’s hands-on and they actually have to click things to simulate the process. It is interactive,” Spina said.
Enphase calls its platform Enphase University, and offers training in sales, design and installation. Enphase University links to the company’s commissioning app, the Enphase Installer App, which ensures every user is certified to commission an inverter or battery.
In SolarEdge’s SetApp, installers go through a commissioning checklist on-site to ensure they’re hitting every step. If they need more information at any point, SetApp offers instructional videos that correspond to each checklist item.
Enphase is embracing short training videos and the popularity of YouTube for education too.
“The first thing I did when I came to Enphase is I said we need more ‘for us, by us’ content for installers. I’m in the field, I want to know something right now. I don’t have my computer; I can’t sit down and take a training. I want something right in front of me. So I started a YouTube channel,” Sullivan said.
Enphase has recently rolled out a series of videos on its channel that answer very specific questions installers may have while working through an installation, like “How to replace an IQ Gateway’s serial number for a customer’s site using the Installer App.” The videos are about a minute long to help the installer get answers quicker.
SolarEdge’s YouTube channel currently offers longer-form instructional videos closer to formal training modules, but still aims to help contractors solve installation issues on their own.
“We’re seeing a lot of users wanting just short, quick things that are showing hands-on applications. YouTube videos are what people want to watch. So we are evolving and modifying our stuff based on what consumer needs are,” Spina said.
For more tactile learners, manufacturers offer a few different options for in-person inverter and battery training.
Both SolarEdge and Enphase offer in-person product training options to supplement online learning, with sessions held regularly at distribution centers across the country, like Greentech Renewables.
SolarEdge trainings are held for free once a month. Spina said she’s found contractors that prioritize hands-on training, especially for more complex battery installations, save time later.
“They’re down to under-30-minute commissioning times on batteries. If you don’t have that training, a lot of times, those first 10 installs, you’re stumbling through them and it’s very time-consuming,” she said.
In this smart-home era, where a residential system could include solar, storage, EV chargers and more, SolarEdge is also working to make it easier and quicker to install multiple products at once.
“We’re trying to bring and add efficiencies to the entire installation process. That’s a big thing we hear from installers — half of my team is sitting and waiting while the commissioning is updating or while there’s a firmware update, so what can you do in best practice during that time?” Spina said.
In addition to regular trainings at distribution centers, Enphase offers mobile training vans available to travel to installation companies for sessions.
“They can literally wire up our battery storage product and actually commission it, which is super wild by the way. Not all companies can do that,” Sullivan said.
The biggest inverter players may have the funds and staffing to create comprehensive training programs themselves, but other manufacturers may not be in the same position. In those cases, large installation companies and other training providers are stepping in to fill the need.
NABCEP offers both general online courses on solar installation and design as well as training for specific products, including Sungrow, Fronius and Solis inverters.
National residential installer Suntuity Renewables also started its own training program to ensure consistent education for its over-400-person team of workers as new products hit the market.
“There’s very little hands-on training that’s available, other than the manufacturers sending their reps. If you don’t have the right training, it is a revenue loss for the companies installing, but more importantly, it is dangerous for the industry,” said Suntuity CEO Dan Javan.
“At the end of the day, you’re putting a power plant in someone’s home. If you don’t do it right, you’re going to burn someone’s house down,” he continued.
Suntuity has started a combination of online learning and in-person sessions at the company’s 10 regional offices.
“You’re starting off online, which gives you the fundamentals, but really the best practices need to be done in person where you can touch and feel the product,” Javan said.
Suntuity is now opening up its NABCEP-certified Suntuity University training model to other installers. Currently, the company has partnered with inverter manufacturer Hoymiles and smart electric panel maker Span to offer training courses. Those manufacturers pay Suntuity to host the online and in-person courses, which are then offered free to any installer who wants to learn.
The installation company is in talks with other manufacturers interested in hosting trainings through Suntuity as well. Javan thinks dedication to thorough training will be a make-or-break factor in inverter brand success as more players enter the market.
“Because the capital markets are tightening up, there’s margin compression that’s happening, which means now as a manufacturer…you have to justify what you charge,” he said. “What’s the additional value you bring to the equation? Training is one of them.”
Javan said he’s seeing other large solar installers starting training programs like this for internal purposes. He thinks this can only be a boon to the industry and will ensure higher-quality installations.
“If we can now license our training programs to some of the training curriculums that they put together and cross-collaborate, I think that’s going to help the industry grow in general,” Javan said.
As systems become more complex and move toward whole-home electrification, thorough training for installers will only grow more important.