You Must Master These 40 Steps to Install Residential Solar PV Profitably

     

Solar Project Management

This is a guest post from our instructor Fred Paris.

Fred teaches our Solar PV Installer Boot Camp + NABCEP Entry Level course. A portion of this course is dedicated to efficient project management. Click here to sign up for the next NABCEP Solar PV Entry Level Course.

If you’d like to download the image of Fred’s Gantt chart to use in your business, you can see do so below and at the very end of the article.

Download the Residential Solar PV Project Management Gantt Chart to Improve Your Operations

  • This is the email address that the Gantt chart will be sent to

Introduction

If you look at the above Gantt chart, there are 40 steps (and depending on your utility, more than 40 documents required) to install a residential solar PV project. In order to install residential solar profitably, and cash flow positive, you must must these steps. This is true if you’re installing a single solar job per month, or if you’re installing 10+ jobs per month.

Performing high quality and efficient site visits is absolutely critical to the success of profitable solar projects, especially residential projects! You need to be able to capture all of the information you need to 1) quote the system correctly 2) design the project and 3) inform the installation crew what to expect. An efficient site visit process will lead to smooth operations and profitable jobs while complex process can lead to unprofitable jobs and a lot of confusion.

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Click here to check out Sunify. Sunify is a simple mobile tool that solar sales people use to make sure they collect all the information they need on a site visit with the least possible effort. It’s so cheap it will pay for itself in one site visit. Sunify does 4 things that will make your site visits better.

  1. It will eliminate paper notes so you no longer have to copy and paste notes into emails and waste time.
  2. It will ensure that you, or the sales people that you manage, capture the information that they need to on the first visit.
  3. You’ll collect better quality information because you can collect video and audio notes in addition to photos and text answers. This will give lead to more accurate quotes, design, and an easier time for the installation team.
  4. It’s all the tools you need in one place, so you’ll never loose your notes again.

Click here to check out Sunify. 

 

Section 1. Project Management Tasks and Steps

Early Flurry of Activity

Our Gantt chart begins at the point where the contract is signed. This is the “Turnkey Contract”[1] with specific terms and conditions, many which have been defined by the CEC[2]. For new installers the Turnkey Contract has to be submitted to the CEC for approval. Once an installer has reached “expedited status” with the Massachusetts CEC, they begin to use the CECs’ Power Clerk system. A Turnkey Contract is still required, but does not need to be submitted for review.

Contract signing is a major milestone.  As soon as the contract happens, and we collect some early money (we call it ‘skin in the game payment’) the project really gets started.

Early activities include arranging and kicking off the requirements of the project that cost nothing.  The required energy audit – set it up. Utility net-metering application – get the application in early. Details for the structural approval must be gathered and in the hands of your engineer very early in the project.

The idea is that when an approval or authorization comes through, the project manager is ready to execute the next tasks.


[1] Samples included in class documents

[2] Massachusetts Clean Energy Center

Early Milestones

After the contract, the next most significant milestone is approval of the rebate application. Upon approved we collect some big money from the customer and order the hardware.  Sam collects 70% of the hardware[1] cost as defined in the cash flow of the proposal. Technically, you cannot qualify for the rebate if you start the project before the rebate is approved.  Recently however, (2013), as rebates amounts have lessened, Sam has been taking a chance and not waiting for the rebate to be approved. The logic is that if the rebate is not approved Sam would still want to do the project. For example, Sam would not walk away from a 5kW project sold for $29,000 with an expected $2000 rebate. When we quantify the risk, and consider the long history of successful rebates, Sam will start the project before approval. The savvy project manager takes prudent risk.


[1] Algorithms for pricing are reviewed in course material

Mid-Point Milestones

While Sam is waiting for the rebate to be approved, we initiated some of the required no-costs to the contractor activities. We arrange for the energy audit, we arrange for net metering, created the Bill of Materials (BOM)[1] for each supplier.  Continuing to wait, Sam has had discussions with our suppliers, we have firm pricing and shipping information, and we stand ready to “pull the trigger on the order” as soon as the CEC approval is in hand.

So then, it happens. We get a letter[2] from the CEC saying we can commence construction but we must be completed within a certain timeframe. We go to the customer with the good news and pick up a big check allowing us to order the hardware.

Sam shows the customer the original proposal and shows that the plan is moving forward and how this is the time for the next payment.


[1] Sample BOM Included in class documents

[2] Letter samples included in class documents.

Construction Milestones

Early on, Sam reviewed the project with his electrician and roofer to get prices that were marked up and included in the customers’ proposal. Now, Sam contacts the trades and test for start dates. There is no need to review the project; Sam works with the contractors to scheduling work the day the hardware arrives.

Getting to the Close

As the project is installed, Sam is tracking the installation. The electrician and roofer work together and the mounting system is installed according to Sam’s design. The electrician is installing the hardware and wiring, and at some point, we are ready to test the array. We activate the system to be sure it is working and then shut it down as we apply and wait for inspections.

The Paper, The training, and SRECs

Earlier in the project, we arranged with the utility to install a net meter and we defined the allocation of solar energy to different accounts (Schedule Z). Now, the utility gets a copy of the completed electrical inspection along with a certificate of completion[1]

The utility reserves the right to inspect the project, but they rarely do. In a few days, the utility sends a letter (email) saying that it is OK to activate the system.

The project manager arranges to have a closing meeting with the customer.  This is not just a casual thank you meeting. There are several important project objectives:

• Training the customer

The customer is walked through the project, shown the various disconnects and             switches, and informed on how they can gracefully shut down the system and             the sequence of activities to turn it back up.

• Delivering the Owners Manual[2] (written by the project manager).

• Review of each manufacturer’s warrantee papers.

• Contact information for future questions and support.

• Review of the on-line monitoring system and how to read the various reports

• Establish and complete the SREC application

• Collect the final payment


[1] Forms and documents provided in training

[2] Sample Owners Manual provided in training

Summary

For this project, we started when the contract was signed. In smaller firms, we often consider the scope of the project starting earlier  – as soon as a potential customer is identified.

The project manager defines: scope, project priorities, payment schedule, and sub contractor involvement.

The project manager and creates a systematic, step-by-step plan to get the system installed. This written plan – supported with a Gantt or PERT charts is shared with everyone, including the customer. Sharing this plan and getting others to acknowledge their part serves several objectives:

• All of the players will know when they need to deliver their part of the job.

• Contractors can see how any failure to deliver their services can affect the entire             project.

• The customer knows when payments will be expected.

Section 2. Tools and Techniques

Graphic Management Tools

Project management tools include Task charts; Excel based spreadsheets, Gantt charts, PERT charts, and many good homegrown tools based on spreadsheets and free on-line templates.

Contemporary on-line project management tools allow the entire installation team to share the same Gantt or PERT chart. Simple and free project management tools are available for the small installer, while larger firms invest in custom software. Custom project software can track any level of minutia that might be helpful.  For the small firm – keep the tools simple. The objective with software is to use the tools you need to help you keep on time, and in budget!   Many a project manager has felt captive by the very tools that were suppose to speed things up.

The Gantt Chart Snapshot

Looking at the Gantt chart (figure 1), we can see the Name of the Task the duration (in days), as well as start and end dates.

The three most important elements of a project plan include: cash flow, tracking resources, and projecting time toward end of the project.

Assumptions for the attached Project Gantt Chart

To discuss our Gantt chart and the underlying project, we need to make some assumptions about the project. In order to get to the fine details of this lesson, we should assume this is a very-small PV contractor (Sam). Sam is a one-person independent NABCEP solar practitioner with Entry Level credentials.

Therefore, Sam does everything including project management.  Sam made the proposal and sold the system. This is a cash deal and the customer will pay four payments along the way, (three progress payments and an early $2000 “skin in the game payment”- refundable later).

The Gantt chart reflects Sam using electrical and roofing contractors and managing all aspects of the project including collecting payments and tracking hardware delivery. Sam has worked with both the electrician and the roofer on several projects and has helped the electrician has gain “expedited installer certification” and is thus on the Massachusetts’ Power Clerk system. The contractor has met the insurance criteria for such qualification, and the system proposed meets the technical requirements of the Commonwealth Solar Program.

Section 3. Scope of Project Management

Project Geography

Massachusetts offers one of the most complex business environments for the residential PV installer. The Wind Sun Institute, having experience in other Northeast states and exposure to practices in other regions of the country, recognizes Massachusetts as having one of the most complexity implementation processes in the country.  For this reason, we selected Massachusetts as the template model for the lessons of this program.

Those who work in other states may not require every step, but they will gain insight into techniques and procedures used by a successful firm in a complex regulatory environment.  We believe that if you can manage residential PV installations in Massachusetts – you really know how to get PV installed.

 Scope Defined by Organizational Size

At the residential level, Solar PV is one of the most complex projects a manager may be challenged with.  When we seek to define the scope of project management we discover it largely depends on an organizations’ size.

For a smaller PV company, one person may be the only person of the company. In that instance we know who the project manager will be. In larger solar operations, with many simultaneous projects, several people will be touching every project, but there should be a clear hierarchy to a single person with responsibility and – just as important – corresponding authority, to get things done – this is the Project Manager.

Project manager can mean different things in different firms, In larger construction firms; the project manager may be the field person running solar operations at the site.  This person may not even meet the customer until the first day of construction – if at all.  In larger organizations, each person involved may define his or her segment or contribution as a project. The buyer in a large firm for example, will have responsibility for each “project” they need to buy and manage procurement and delivery for.

What do we look for in good project management?

It is clear that project management skills include: clear logical thinking, the understanding of sequence and flow, contractor relationships, understanding cash flow and payments, the ability to keep and update detailed records, all while having political sensitivity and diplomacy to get things done with people.

Large and Small PV firms

In larger organizations project work and tasks may be segmented into:

  • Sales – closing the deals – customer interface to the firm.
  • Buying – working suppliers, pricing, deliveries
  • Administration – paper pushing, contracts, letters, applications, permits etc.
  • Operations – technical design, and fieldwork installing the solar project.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the small PV company – sometimes just a one-man show hiring contractors. For this person, the project and the documentation start when the phone rings and a potential customer ask a question.

As a PV firm grows, it is almost universal that the first step logical steps toward task-segmentation is having a dedicated person (typically inside) to push the paper, the forms, and the applications, and maintain records.

Section 4. Work Types

Administrative and Construction Activities

Of all the steps and tasks required to get residential PV installed, only a few are focused on the physical installation at the job site. Consider, we write proposals, obtain permits, certify rebates, plan with the utility, get structural reports, and more. In looking at these tasks for install a new (2013) 8kw rooftop in Carver, Massachusetts, are were more than 30 unique documents requiring much of the same information. These activities – I call it ‘pushing paper’ include: tracking costs and budgets, documentation, keeping reports and activity logs, tracking vendors, and creating all conformance documents for municipal and state paperwork.

If everything goes well, it is possible to design, sell and get a system installed in less than 60 days.  Most projects actually take a lot longer.  There will be several instances during a project where waiting for approvals and authorizations just eats up time.  When all is in order the actual construction time for residential systems up to about 10kW is three days or less.

The Case for an Inside Administrator

Recognizing that the tasks for installing PV are the same for both small and large firms, the segmentation of tasks – which happens in all growing companies – should be based on the nature of the work being performed.  As a firm grows it is logical to think task-segmentation for types of work: construction, buying, administrative, sales, and others. For PV, the volume of forms, documents, and buying activities reinforce the idea that early work segmentation first separates the paper from field operations.

Small Firm Hurdles

The smaller PV contractor – typically doing all project management work – faces the challenges of hiring contractors, getting building permits, structural analysis of the building, electrical permits and all of the on-site construction activities. The activities require working with state governments that want technical and performance data, (typically through rebate or permit applications).

Solar is new to some municipalities so they seek opportunities for new ‘revenue focused’ solar’ building codes. Some local municipalities have passed some rather arbitrary rules for installing solar. The project manager needs to research the requirements when they have a project in a new area.

Customer and Paperwork

Submitting forms and applications quickly, as soon as possible, can really speed up a project.  We never give a form or application to a customer to complete. The form would just sit on the kitchen table until the customer knows what ‘kWh’ means.

For all projects, we complete all paperwork for our customers, we have them just sign it, and maybe give them a copy.  I say maybe because our final documentation package includes all the applications and paperwork of the project.

We work with the utility to arrange utility interconnections, net metering and Schedule Z allocation. We arrange and install PV monitoring hardware and software, we set up service contracts, and, all along the way we adjust and reset our customers’ expectations as we remain sensitive and forward looking for issues and hurdles.  Keep the customer away from the paper.

Section 5. People, Documentation, and Diplomacy

As every project manager knows, the key to a successful project is based on managing the people as much as managing the process.

The style and nature of the project manager is important. As we work with contractors, bureaucrats, vendors, inspectors, and others, there is a need to consider diplomatic and political perspectives. Where or when there appears to be a shortcoming in performance – without obvious justification, the project manager needs to stand firm, point out the tasks or issues in question, resolve the issue, make adjustments as may be required to the plan, document everything – and continue to move forward.

Diplomacy is a learned skill, but to the savvy project manager sometimes just using the right words can make a difference. Especially with people outside of their control.  For example, we know the project manager must manage outside contractors, electricians, roofers and others. However, we encourage our managers to speak of ‘teaming’ with others – even though we know, that our project manager is running the show. The simple concept of using a ‘team approach’ with the project manager as the coach, offers a diplomatic spin where players (contractors and vendors) are perceived as equals.

Positive Control and Documenting Details

Since the project manager needs to have their finger on every aspect of the project, they must have the authority to ask questions of any other entity involved. Often, the questions require the person or organization answering to make an adjustment in their activities or approach to a task.  These adjustments are as directed by the project manager. Every change, every adjustment to the plan, and every agreement and understanding between contractors – no matter how informal – needs to be known by the project manager and documented.

Residential solar PV projects require operational knowledge, administrative knowledge, contractor negotiation skills, technical knowledge and an ability to work with others. In a small firm, one person can do it all.

Fred teaches our Solar PV Installer Boot Camp + NABCEP Entry Level course. A portion of this course is dedicated to efficient project management. Click here to sign up for the next NABCEP Solar PV Entry Level Course.

Download the Residential Solar PV Project Management Gantt Chart to Improve Your Operations

  • This is the email address that the Gantt chart will be sent to
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About Chris Williams

Chris Williams works with HeatSpring developing products and managing online content. Chris is a NABCEP Certified Solar PV Installer and an IGSHPA Accredited Geothermal Installer. He has installed over 300kW of solar PV systems, tens of residential and commercial solar hot water systems and 50 tons of geothermal equipment. Chris is the Chairman of the Government Relations Committee of New England Geothermal Professional Association and he consults with renewable energy companies on sales, marketing and design.
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