NABCEP Entry-Level Course, Las Vegas

2011 June 9
by roma

The NABCEP Entry Level PV course, organized by Heatspring Institute, course ran for three days from June 6-8 at the Local 525 in Las Vegas. Interestingly, the 525, which specializes in pipefitting, plumbing, heating and cooling was right across the street from the local IBEW, which was outfitted with solar panels. Didn't matter, we still got top-notch training.

The first day of the course covered electricity and PV basics, site surveys and array installation. I completed the assigned readings covering these topics during the online portion of the course. This created a false sense of security and I thought I might have overprepared.

I got hit hard with the rest of the material. We were presented with detailed information on grounding, ampacity, disconnects, inverters and battery-based systems on the 2nd and 3rd days of the course. Keeping up with this detailed technical information was a challenge. I had done a silly thing by leaving the electrical integration chapter of the Photovoltaic Systems text for the end. Well, I was just going through the pre-course reading assignment in sequence, but I should have tackled the most difficult material first. This is especially clear in light of the fact that Ken Thames, our instructor, is a master electrician with a ton of experience. I could have been asking him more intelligent questions had I studied the hell out of the book.

Ken (thamessolar.com) was extremely knowledgeable about the subject. I appreciate his comprehensive understanding of PV's, his expertise, experience and thoroughness. I also found his focus on doing quality work admirable. The coursebook was also very thorough and relatively easy to understand. The material and the sequence it was presented in was obviously thought through well. Also, the cheat sheet with the NEC excerpts applicable to all parts of PV systems Ken created is marvelous!

There are a couple of things I think Ken could have improved. I have teaching experience, and I believe that a teacher should strive to build rapport with his students, irrespective of the subject matter. Making an effort to remember the names of the students goes a long way. There were only 9 students in the class, and Ken was still referring to some students with pronouns on the 3rd day.

It is quite a challenge teaching all of the diverse subjects covered by the test to a diverse group. Some students had no electricity knowledge at all. As I have been studying my head off for the past 2 months, the electricity basics were a review for me. Ken managed to lose me when he got to the domestic electricity section, though. I wonder how the absolute beginners felt.

It may be virtually impossible to teach all of this from 0, but I think some things can be improved. The beginners can be brought up to speed by incorporating a review of basics as more complex material is introduced. For example, examine an excerpt from a question in the coursebook:

If the PV array has 12 modules (Voc=25) in series, with a temp coefficient of -0.35%......

This is a golden opportunity to review how individual voltages add and current remains the same throughout a series circuit. The instructor can draw a quick diagram, or call on a beginner student to explain. These types of opportunities were passed up. Passing up such a review ignores the fact that the majority of people are not able to remember concepts after being exposed to them only once.

Yes, it may be a total waste of time for the electricians. Yes, it will take more effort on the part of the instructor to go slower. The inability of experts to understand the difficulty of their subject matter is actually extremely common. Nevertheless, it's the teacher's responsibility to gauge whether ALL of the students understand. It's not enough that the top student gets it.

Additionally, I felt that Ken didn't create an atmosphere conducive to asking questions. Perhaps I'm a softie, but I felt that he was at times condescending. Also, he sometimes went way too fast. I often had just barely enough time to mark the answer to the question in the chapter reviews off before Ken was firing away reading the next question from the slide.

Given the huge amount of material, it is probably a little bit unrealistic to expect this, but it would have been great to get hands-on experience with PV installations. We did have many BOS (balance of system) components passed around. Additionally, Ken showed us very detailed photos of an installation class at his shop. Still, there's no substitute for experience an install for yourself.

The facilities were great. Lou, one of the students and a member of the Local 525 arranged feasts for us every day. The other students in the class were also great. Jeannie Vaughn of Solar Electric Distributor treated many of the students to a delicious dinner at a tapas restaurant. I'm also thankful to Heatspring Institute for giving me a hefty discount. I wouldn't have made it out to Vegas without it. I'm also thankful to Ken.

The exam was initially scheduled for the end of the course, but there was a change. Heatspring is arranging for the students to take the exam at an independent testing facility near the students' residence. Fine by me!

That's just about it. Enough of the ranting, I must review the material and study for the test.

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