At SepiSolar, we get a lot of contractor inquiries about the price of a professional engineer’s (PE) stamp, certifying that a solar project or an energy storage project has been designed to applicable codes and professional standards.
We know where they’re coming from. Price pressure is a real concern for anyone in business. Many project designers obtain PE stamps only when required. And let’s face it. Whether it’s wet ink on paper or a digital mark, PE stamps generally look the same.
But all PE stamps are not the same. The stamp is only as valuable as the engineering firm and the liability insurance that stands behind it. If the firm closes down or the insurance offers too little protection, the contractor carries more risk. Getting a PE stamp also creates an opportunity to increase project value or drive down cost.
Here are three tips to help select an engineer for a PE stamp. Know how to recognize the key differences from one firm to the next. Understand the advantages of working with a specialized, focused and experienced firm. And try to mitigate risk whenever possible, even when a PE stamp is not required.
PE stamp evaluation
Selecting a PE stamp provider should be less time consuming than other decisions you make, like which inverters and batteries to install. Even so, take a page from the equipment vendor selection process. Find out how long a company has been in business. Then find out about customer service, too. At some point, you might want a PE to go to the permitting office on your behalf. Can the firm make someone available?
Look for an engineering firm that checks all the boxes below. Extra time with the evaluation will pay for itself, saving you from ongoing PE stamp price comparisons. Or paying to fix costly errors and omissions leading to property damage or personal injury.
A license makes an engineer’s work worth the paper it’s printed on. An unlicensed PE might draft all the same lines and shapes on the page. But you get no assurance that this person has followed the duty of care that PEs swear to uphold. Request a Proof of Insurance (POI) certificate to verify the coverage that a PE carries.
Think any PE can handle a solar or storage project? You’re setting the bar too low. Competent, experienced professionals know how to couple solar modules and power optimizers, among other things. They have done it many times. A generalist might use your project to figure things out for the first time.
Years in operation
Many PEs have been around for a year or two. SepiSolar has been in business for 10 years. Our experience and expertise bring customers peace of mind. No amount of education or licenses can replace the experience of doing this work day after day. That’s the ultimate value a company can provide.
Change is inevitable, in project development as in life. A firm with a service ethos can work with contractors to make design changes as needed and bring in the appropriate experts to facilitate. At SepiSolar, we once fielded a next-day request for a permit-ready C&I solar design. The ability to fulfill a request like this adds tremendous value for contractors.
We do our best work in collaboration, not in a vacuum. SepiSolar has invested heavily in an online customer portal, operations management and project management to provide not only great engineering but reliable, cost-effective and flexible services. We engage in extensive client communication. When you talk to a PE firm, ask how it handles urgent requests, how it ensures customer success, and what systems are in place to do so.
Specialized, focused and experienced
There are three types of PE firms: those that rubber stamp project designs without proper consideration, big corporate firms that take on distributed energy projects as part of larger real estate and infrastructure projects, and specialized PE firms that focus on distributed energy projects.
In California, the Board of Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors and Geologists strives to rescind the licenses of PEs who blindly stamp project plans in exchange for fees. Unlike a rubber stamper, an experienced and specializing PE firm works to remove risks for contractors instead of adding risk.
PEs at big corporate firms generally are not distributed energy experts. Their engineers will be less familiar with relevant codes and standards. As a result, they will spend longer researching them. And they tend to charge a premium for their time. By contrast, an energy-specific firm is less likely to burn so much time because its engineers are already well versed on codes and standards.
A PE firm specializing on distributed energy, like SepiSolar, has reasonable insurance, like a larger corporate firm. Our advantages come from direct relevant experience and strong customer service. Instead of taking time to learn the basics, we can review project designs for errors and omissions, then add value by helping to drive down costs and installation time, where possible.
Project engineering is a risk mitigation service. That is, the level of engineering you purchase should be commensurate with the level of risk you can accept. After all, nobody is perfect. You want a safety net, even if you hope to never need it.
About 10 to 20 percent of SepiSolar customers get PE stamps as a matter of company policy, whether required by the authority having jurisdiction or not. One such customer is Peter Florin, the owner of Lucerne Pacific, an electrical contractor in Garden Grove, Calif., specializing in commercial solar projects.
“The biggest thing for me is that I feel I’m more protected. If anything really goes wrong, it goes on the PE that stamps the plan,” Florin says. “A lot of times, we can sign our own plans as a contractor. But that’s putting the liability on yourself.”