How to Maintain Your Home Solar System
Does a Home Solar System Require Maintenance?
If you’re considering installing a home solar system, one of the worries floating around in your brain is likely to be “How much work will I have to put into this?” That’s certainly a fair question; luckily, in this case the answer is “very little.” In general, solar systems don’t need much maintenance at all. However, there are a few things you’ll need to keep up with if you want to keep everything running fluidly. Let’s take a look at what can go wrong, and then we’ll tell you what you can do to prevent it.
Why maintenance is important
The primary issue you might encounter if you don’t take care of your home solar system is poor energy output. The reality is that a home solar setup isn’t cheap; you’ll want to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth, which means making sure things are operating as efficiently as possible.
The biggest enemy of that efficiency is dirt. According to solar cleaning company Heliotex, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that up to 25% of your potential output could be lost from dirty panels. Dust, leaves, snow, bird poop—anything that prevents sunlight from reaching the panel is going to prevent your system from achieving its maximum output, and anything preventing that maximum output is wasting your investment.
What about warranties?
Since there are generally no (or very few) moving parts in a home solar system, cleaning is going to be the bulk of the necessary maintenance work necessary. Almost any other problem you may have is going to be covered under warranty, and therefore will be taken care of for you. For this reason, and because a solar system is so expensive, the warranty should be one of your major considerations when shopping for solar panels.
Nearly every solar panel manufacturer offers two warranties: The first is your standard product warranty, which covers any issues you may have with your panels (generally, they either work or they don’t). A majority of manufacturers offers a 10- to 12-year warranty on their panels, meaning if any of them stop working within that time frame, they will provide a replacement at no charge. A handful of companies do even better, the big ones being SolarWorld and SunPower. They offer 25-year warranties, something probably worth considering when choosing where to buy your panels.
The second type of warranty offered is a “performance warranty.” The reality of solar panels is that they will degrade over time; this can’t be avoided with the currently available technology. Therefore, the manufacturers of the panels guarantee that they will degrade no more than a certain amount within a certain timeframe.
The industry standard performance warranty is around 80% of original output for 25 years. This means that if your product warranty runs out (say, after 10 years), the manufacturer won’t replace the panels if they fail anymore (not for free, anyway), but they will replace or repair them if you can prove that they are putting out less energy than the warranty guarantees.
A few manufacturers exceed the standard 80% output number, with the best being SunPower with 89%. Again, this is probably worth considering when buying your panels. Although you probably won’t ever need to take advantage of the warranty, it shows that they have plenty of confidence in their panels, which is usually a good sign. Replacement panels can cost as much as $300, so a good warranty is going to be important, especially since this is likely a lifelong investment for you.
What you’ll need to do
Luckily, while maintenance is important, it isn’t terribly difficult. The most common thing you’ll need to do is clean the solar panels to ensure that hey are able to absorb as much sunlight as possible. Cleaning solar panels is similar to cleaning a car windshield: the best way is to use a squeegee and some mildly soapy water (dish soap works fine). You can also just rinse them with your garden hose, but this can leave streaks.
There is a step-by-step guide here covering the actual cleaning process, but really, it’s not very complicated:
1. Buy an extendable squeegee (you can grab one on Amazon for about $25) , or get up on the roof (be careful!).
2. Clean the panels the same way you clean your car windshield: wet the squeegee, run it over the panels, and then use the wiper side to remove the cleaning solution.
3. Dry the panels with a towel. Don’t leave the panels to dry on their own; this can leave residue that will block sunlight and lower efficiency.
How often you need to clean your panels depends on where you live; if your area is particularly dusty, you may need to do it more often, but the general recommendation seems to be to clean the panels every few months unless you notice a drop in energy production.
Some customers may be concerned about snow buildup, as well, but SunPower, a large solar company, says that normally you don’t have to worry about snow. Because the panels are so smooth and because they’re angled to take in as much sun as possible, snow will usually melt and slide right off. In the event of a major snowstorm, you may have to remove some snow, but it may be better to hire a pro since conditions like that can be dangerous—especially if you’re on a roof.
One final thing that it is highly recommended you do is monitor the performance of your system. Many manufacturers offer ways to keep an eye on output; SolarEdge, for example, has an app you can download that will keep you up to speed on how things are running. This app is useful because it can let you know when it’s time to clean your panels—if your output drops, there’s a good chance they need a scrubbing. If everything seems to be operating fine, it can save you a trip to the roof to check. It is also likely to be the only way you can prove that a panel needs to be replaced under a performance warranty. Knowing just how much money you’re saving on your utility bill doesn’t hurt either!
Tools of the trade
As far as making the act of cleaning easier, the tools you need are pretty run-of-the-mill. You can buy squeegees and dish soap almost anywhere. If you want to get a little fancier, though, there are automated cleaning systems you can install; this will really get you close to a zero-maintenance system.
One notable example of an automated cleaning system is by the previously mentioned Heliotex. Their automated system consists of nozzles that are attached to your solar panels. The nozzles will spray cleaning solution on the panels and then rinse them off every couple of weeks, and they can also give the panels a simple rinse every few days, ensuring that things run as smoothly and efficiently as possible.
That’s pretty much everything you need to know about solar panel maintenance. With a little basic cleaning, most people will have no problems getting several decades of use out of their system; for those who are not as lucky, you now know what to look for in a warranty to protect your investment, as well as what tools you can use to make your new solar life as easy and beneficial as possible.