Spotlights

Job Description

Long before humans learned to harvest it, solar energy has been beaming down from the Sun to heat our planet and create an environment where life can flourish. Today, solar thermal energy technology (or STE) captures what the Sun gives us for free and converts it into usable power for our numerous energy needs. 

GreenCoast explains it best: “Solar thermal is a technology that collects sunlight and converts it to heat, stores it, and later transforms it into electricity. In this technology, the panels on rooftops act as the collectors for sunlight and they heat the liquid in the tubes which later goes into a cylinder ready for use.” 

STE isn’t only for rooftops, though! STE comes in three distinct categories — low, medium, and or high-temperature collectors. Low-temperature flat plates are suitable for heating pools, while medium-temp plates can heat both air and water in homes. The high-temp technology utilizes mirrors and lenses to produce electric power, but in a more different manner than photovoltaics.

In the continuing push for greener energy, many homeowners and companies turn to Solar Thermal Installers and Technicians to assess their needs and put in suitable STE. Most Solar Thermal Installers and Techs enter the field with a high school diploma or GED and learn the job through a relatively short certification or apprenticeship program. 

 

Rewarding Aspects of Career
  • Working in a sector devoted to helping the environment
  • Potentially saving clients money by mitigating energy costs
  • Gaining experience in a sector primed to grow substantially in the coming years
2020 Employment
11,800
2030 Projected Employment
17,900
The Inside Scoop
Job Responsibilities

Working Schedule

  • Expect full-time work with occasional ebbs and flows. Most workers in this field are employed by contract businesses or are self-employed. Roughly 13% are self-employed and must spend unpaid time advertising and marketing their services, as well as potentially needing to bid on jobs that they may not get hired to do. In emergencies, Solar Thermal Installers and Technicians may be called to respond during irregular hours. 

Typical Duties

Note that installers and technicians aren’t quite the same things. Installers may specialize in new equipment made by a limited range of manufacturers. Technicians are often exposed to a wider range of equipment. They may thus develop a deeper knowledge of troubleshooting and carry a broader assortment of equipment.

  • Review work requirements with customers
  • Assess needs, determine suitable installation options, and estimate materials and costs 
  • Inspect and test electrical, mechanical, plumbing, and control equipment and systems
  • Prepare locations with suitable materials 
  • Identify areas requiring tags or labels 
  • Cut and install materials such as carpets, vinyl, or pipes 
  • Install solar energy collection devices on various types of structures
  • Apply weather sealants and protective coatings
  • Install insulation and controls, sensors, or gauges
  • Perform diagnostics and maintenance on equipment

Additional Responsibilities

  • Weatherproof systems as applicable 
  • Perform other electrical checks
  • Measure performance to ensure systems are functioning within expected parameters
  • Maintain records of tests and maintenance
Skills Needed on the Job

Soft Skills

  • Ability to objectively monitor and assess the performance of people, systems, and equipment
  • Ability to teach and train others
  • Commitment to quality assurance
  • Cost-conscious  
  • Critical thinking
  • Customer service skills
  • Detailed-oriented
  • English proficiency
  • Inquisitive and creative
  • Safety-minded
  • Sound judgment and reasoning 
  • Strong verbal communication and listening skills
  • Teamwork
  • Visualization

Technical Skills

  • Comfortable working at elevated heights
  • Normal (or correctable) vision
  • Physical fitness and dexterity
  • Steady hands; good hand-eye coordination
  • Familiarity with hand tools  
  • Ability to understand blueprints, technical plans, and drawings
  • Able to work with raw materials 
  • General familiarity with basic engineering principles as they apply to the job
  • Aptitude for math, including algebra, geometry, calculus, and stats
  • Computer-aided design 
  • Software for CRM, email/office, and project management
Different Types of Organizations
  • Contract businesses
  • Self-employed
  • Utility companies
Expectations and Sacrifices

Solar Thermal Installers and Technicians work both indoors and outdoors. Building assessments, measurements, and installations are mostly done outside, while design and prep may be done indoors. Some STE is installed at elevated heights, so installers are susceptible to falling risks, as well as electric shocks, dehydration, exposure to too much sun, and other hazards. Workers must know and practice safety precautions, including wearing personal protective equipment, as needed.

Current Trends

State and federal legislation continues to push for and incentivize greener energy solutions. Homeowners and businesses around the country are doing their part to work towards energy efficiency, with STE being a growing part of that drive. Energy.gov notes that the current administration’s mandate for America to have a “fully decarbonized electricity system by 2035” means that “the solar workforce will need to grow from approximately 250,000 workers in 2021 to between 500,000 and 1,500,000 workers by 2035.” 

Solar is one of the easiest alternative energy solutions to incorporate into nearly any structure, and the demand for qualified installers could eventually outstrip the supply. With the relatively brief educational requirements needed to get started, this could be a great time to train for employment as a Solar Thermal Installer and Technician. Workers with prior experience in construction or as an electrician may be perfect to transition into this field.

What kinds of things did people in this career enjoy doing when they were younger…

Solar Thermal Installers and Technicians probably enjoyed being outside and doing physical activities. They may have loved construction projects and working with their hands, yet were also reasonably good with math and design principles. While it isn’t necessary to be an environmentalist, many people in this field are driven by the desire to help promulgate alternative energy solutions. Of course, some are simply interested in getting into an exciting career where workers can get started without sitting through years of college classes first!

Education and Training Needed
  • A high school diploma or equivalent is enough to get started; a college degree isn’t required, but most workers receive training via an online, community college, or vocational school program 
  • Solar thermal installation training programs vary. The 950-STF1 training model features classes such as: 
    • Centrifugal Pumps
    • Control Valves
    • Copper Tubing
    • Differential Controllers
    • Electrical Installation
    • Expansion Tanks
    • Fluid System Installation
    • Heat Exchangers
    • Instrumentation
    • Mechanical Installation
    • Pressure/Temperature Valves
    • PVC Piping
    • Solar Collectors
    • Solar Storage Tanks
    • Soldering
  • Many employers prefer to hire workers who hold North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) Solar Heating Installer Professional certification
    • NABCEP’s Solar Heating Installer Professional certification requires “prior experience, education, or a combination of both, & OSHA 10 or other requirements as specified by the Qualifying Category.” Those who wish to gain this cert must also pass a rigorous exam
  • NABCEP also features pathway options for workers with sufficient experience: 
    • Solar Heating Associate (SHA) – Education Pathway
    • Solar Heating Associate (SHA) – Experience Pathway
  • Some solar energy workers go on to obtain the National Fire Protection Association’s Certified Electrical Safety Technician credential 
  • OJT and informal apprenticeships are a big part of learning this field
  • Product and system-specific training may also be necessary but should be provided through the employer or via modules
  • Prior experience in construction, roofing, carpentry, and electrical work can shorten the learning curve substantially
  • The Department of Energy’s Solar Training and Education for Professionals initiatives also include a Solar Ready Vets program for Active duty and military veterans transitioning into civilian careers
Things to look for in an University

A university degree is not required for this field, however, completing a good solar thermal installation training program is generally necessary. Holding a Solar Heating Installer Professional certification from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners will help make you more competitive while job-seeking.

LIST OF SOLAR THERMAL INSTALLER AND TECHNICIAN PROGRAMS

Many community colleges and vocational/technical schools offer training programs for Solar Thermal Installers and Technicians. For students who don’t live near institutions offering relevant courses, there are also online programs that can teach some basics but don’t offer any hands-on practical experience. Online examples include Solar Energy International.

Things to do in High School and College
  • A career in Solar Thermal Installation relies on both physical and mental preparedness
  • Classes involving labor, tool usage, or physical fitness will help develop necessary physical aspects, while algebra, geometry, calculus, stats, computer-aided design, and electrical courses will build tech skills
  • Often high school students can take community college classes simultaneously, helping expedite the path to getting a job right after graduation
  • Develop your technical reading and IT skills through classes or by practicing at home
  • Get practical work experience through part-time carpentry, construction, or roofing jobs
  • Consider volunteering on local Habitat for Humanity projects
  • Look for apprenticeship opportunities at Apprenticeship.gov. There may be more openings for Solar Photovoltaic installers than STE, but it’s worth checking! 
  • Watch related videos on YouTube and other sites to learn more about the field 
  • Find professional organizations that offer educational opportunities (see Recommended Websites below) 
How to Land your 1st job
  • Employment portals like Glassdoor, Indeed, or SimplyHired are usually the best starting points to find jobs anywhere in the country
  • Small companies may advertise on Craigslist. You can also simply do a Google search for local solar companies, then check their websites for career opportunities
  • If you take community college or vocational training classes, ask the career services staff for help. They may have direct connections to local recruiters
  • Read job ads carefully to ensure you meet the requirements and have the experience an employer needs. Only apply to jobs you’re qualified for
  • Check out existing resume templates for Solar Thermal Installers and Technicians
  • Focus on relevant work and academic experiences, skills, and personal characteristics 
  • After applying, always answer calls from unknown numbers professionally!
  • Expect employers to do homework on you by reviewing your online public profiles
  • Polish up your interview skills by conducting mock interviews. Read through Glassdoor’s posts on real-world interview questions that workers report being asked
How to Climb the Ladder
  • Solar Thermal Installers usually start in entry-level positions and work their way up through hard work and learning everything they can
  • Knock out any additional coursework or training your employer suggests
  • Become proficient with the equipment and systems you work with, and study manufacturer-provided materials 
  • Become NABCEP-certified, and/or complete optional core and advanced certifications when you have the minimum experience needed 
  • Obtain state licensure, as applicable 
  • Talk with your supervisor about promotions to project supervisor or manager
  • If you’re interested in sales, let your employer know or reach out to manufacturers
  • Installer experience will make you a much better salesperson than someone who's never gotten their hands dirty
  • For those with an entrepreneurial mindset, consider launching a private PV installation business. Chron’s How to Start a Solar Power Company gives great tips to get started!
  • More resources:
    • Fast Company - 4 Market Niches in the Solar Boom
    • Franchise Direct - Solar Universe Franchise Costs
    • Solar Energy International - State Licensing
Recommended Resources

Websites

  •     Electrical Training Alliance 
  •     Energy.gov
  •     EnergySage
  •     ETA International 
  •     Franchise Direct - Solar Universe Franchise Costs
  •     Interstate Renewable Energy Council
  •     Interstate Renewable Energy Council Solar Licensing Database
  •     IRENA
  •     National Fire Protection Association    
  •     North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners 
  •     Small Business Administration
  •     Solar Energy Industries Association
  •     Solar Energy International
  •     SolPowerPeople
  •     U.S. Energy Information Administration
  •     Underwriters Labs

 

Books

 

Plan B

The world seems destined to shift towards renewable energy sources, however solar isn’t the only horse in the race. Meanwhile, for those who’ve explored the option and decided to pass, the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists plenty of similar labor-related occupations. Each has its own education and training requirements, but typically none require a four-year degree to get started:

  •     Carpenters
  •     Construction Laborers 
  •     Electricians    
  •     Glaziers    
  •     Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Mechanics 
  •     Ironworkers
  •     Masonry Workers
  •     Plumbers, Pipefitters, Steamfitters
  •     Roofers
  •     Sheet Metal Workers

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Source: Source: Interviews, Bureau of Labor Statistics

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