Earlier in my career before I switched into Project Management, I was given an opportunity to lead the Quality department for a leading US based EPC. I’d never seen myself as a QC guy – my background is in Mechanical Engineering, I’d fallen into the Construction world almost by accident, and by a series of fortunate events and leaders who put an incredible amount of faith in me, ended up managing the construction activities on large scale solar projects all over the country.

Throughout this journey, doing great quality work has always been a focus of mine – on a few of my first jobs working for a general contractor, I ran projects where we rushed through the construction phases in an effort to hit production rates, and had major delays when the next stage of the build couldn’t be efficiently constructed due to high defect rates from the previous task. I learned how critical it was to build things right the first time, and drilled this into my guys as a crew lead – going back and doing things twice was never a cost-effective option.

Unfortunately, when I switched to the utility scale work, this ethos was much more difficult to maintain – with over 150 guys on the crew, without really great training and strict QA/QC procedures, major issues can arise in no time – and I’ve worn my fair share of the repercussions of unrefined processes within construction and quality teams over the years.

An important point here is that Quality doesn’t need to be a dirty word. QC inspectors often get a bad rap from Construction guys because they’re the ‘bad guys’ – pointing out when things are wrong and ‘catching the production guy’. It shouldn’t be that way – a good Quality Manager is more of a coach than a policeman – he’s out there training and teaching and helping the production guys understand the right way to do things… focusing on the front end of the process whenever possible so that he identify small issues before they become big ones, and protecting the entire team from long and extensive punchlists, non-compliance reports and other issues that can damage a relationship with the most important stakeholder on the project – the customer.

So – how do you achieve high quality workmanship on a solar construction site? Unfortunately, it’s rarely an easy or immediate fix – and in my experience, is something that doesn’t happen overnight. However, if you follow these initial steps, you can be on your way.

1) Hire the right people

This may sound cliched, but it’s absolutely critical that your site leadership buys into the ethos of doing things right and handing over a great product to your Commissioning team or your client. It can be extremely difficult if you don’t have the ‘right butts in the right seats’ and your crew leads (at least generally) understanding the impacts of quality on a project.

2) Institute a QA/QC program

A formal QA/QC program is a must have for any company serious about building high quality work. Although all the details of such a program can’t be gone into in one blog post, some best practices include:

  1. Ensure the use of ‘Golden Rows’ to iron out any deficiencies or bugs in the racking system as early as possible
  2. Utilize a ‘First Article Verification’ procedure where each major step in the process is checked off by the client, the  production leads and the Quality team to ensure that all are on the same page and have the same expectations. This is also a great opportunity to create training documentation for your production crews.
  3. Implement checklists and sign-off paperwork for your Quality team to keep track of deficiencies and locations

3) Train and educate both your employees and your site labor crews

Time spent training both your site leadership and the onsite labor teams will pay dividends in the long run and should not be rushed or overlooked in the pursuit of production numbers – it will come back to bite you in the long run.

A recommendation is to create Standard Operating Procedures based off the ‘First Article Verifications’ with input from the production teams as soon as possible. Since the components within a solar power plant are generally fairly simple and repetitive, if well thought out processes are designed then it will significantly increase your teams chances of a well built final product.

4) Repeat the importance of Quality at every opportunity

Just like with safety – reiterating the importance of high quality workmanship is critical to get results. Whether it’s at each mornings ‘stretch and flex’, displayed via posters on the jobsite, spoken about via emails to the site leadership each week… keeping this concept front and center and getting through to all levels of the company is critical.

For additional training both on the importance of quality and the basics of solar construction – sign up to our course – Utility Scale Solar Construction and Project Management. You can also gain NABCEP credit for taking the course! Follow the link below to sign up and secure your spot today.