The Complete Guide to Solar Panel System Maintenance for Homeowners

All it takes is a thin layer of dust to hurt your solar panels' efficiency.

You may feel tempted to think that solar panels are a "fire-and-forget" energy solution; that is, once you install them, they'll produce energy on their own, and you'll never need to check on them again.

99% of solar panel issues are a lack of maintenance. If you want to see the highest efficiency possible, taking a trip up to the roof every so often needs to become a regular habit for you.

Here's your complete guide on solar panel system maintenance!

Solar Panel System Maintenance

Perhaps you've noticed lately that your solar panels are producing below efficiency. You go and take a look at them. They seem fine, so what's the problem here?

99% of the time, a drop in efficiency happens when your solar panels are dirty. This may be hard to notice from a distance, which is why you should get up there regularly to take a closer look. Regular solar panel maintenance will be a small price to pay for the energy you receive in return.

When you think about it, this makes sense. Solar panels make their energy by using photons to knock electrons off of electron-dense atoms. The fewer photons you let through, the less energy you produce.

How Solar Panel Location Affects Buildup

In most cases, solar panels are mounted on the roof. Depending on where you live, the reason they get dirty may vary. Drier climates such as in the southwest will experience significant dust buildup.

Wetter places where there is regular rainfall will have less dust buildup. However, that rain may bring down chemicals with it that can coat or damage your solar panels.

Birds may take residence on your roof, and their guano can and will cover the panels. You may feel tempted to ignore regular cleaning if you only see a few spots of pigeon poop here or there. However, bird feces combined with other factors may lead to a significant reduction in energy production.

Further, pollution from nearby factories and other atmospheric chemicals will build up over time. This will be far less noticeable than dust or pigeon dung. 

The location of your solar panels affects how dirty they will get, too. If you're located next to a highway or busy street, the dirt and grime cars kick up will eventually land on your panels.

Lastly, weather such as hail can possibly damage your cells.

In conclusion, regularly checking and cleaning solar panels will solve the majority of solar panel issues in one fell swoop.

Shade from Trees

Solar panel efficiency may drop close to zero when in the shade. Obvious, right? What's less obvious is when your solar panels might be getting shade.

You may have already trimmed all the surrounding trees down to nubs to make sure they don't overshadow your panels. But have you checked where that shadow falls at different times throughout the day?

It's all too common for solar owners who are away at the office all day to be unaware that for a few hours, one of their trees is covering some or all of the panels. You may not notice it until you happen to go outside on the weekend!

A gap of even one hour can have a significant impact on your electricity generation. There may be a tree that you need to uproot to obtain the best efficiency. It's up to you to decide how far you will go to get that efficiency.

Keep track of the neighbors, too! That tree that's near your back fence? Asking your neighbor if they can trim it, getting the HOA involved, or moving your solar panels away may be a wise solution to getting efficiency up to 100%.

Cleaning Solar Panels

So you've discovered that your solar panels are in need of a wash.

But remember, solar panels are sensitive precision instruments! You can't just go up there with a scrub brush and scour the panel to get it clean. There are a few things you should keep in mind before servicing your panels.

First, you will damage the panels if you use abrasive cleaning materials. Generally speaking, your cleaning materials should be:

  1. A low-pressure hose
  2. A soft-bristle brush or broom
  3. A soft sponge
  4. A leaf blower

There's a saying among people who clean solar panels regularly: clean your panels as you would your boss' car. Go as easy as you can. You're not trying to get graffiti off the wall, it only takes a slight amount of pressure to free your panels of dust.

Tips When Cleaning Your Solar Panels

Start off by powering off your solar panels. This goes double for doing solar panel maintenance. You do NOT want to cause a short or, worse, shock yourself.

Then, use the leaf blower to clean off as much debris as you can. Make sure to get under your panels too. Careful not to throw up too much dust, as this may settle back down after you've just cleaned them.

Once you've done that, go at it with the brush or broom. Use gentle motions, push the dust off the closest edge, and dust off your brush every so often.

Final Cleanup: Be Gentle With the Dust!

The accumulated dust can become abrasive and act like sandpaper, so this is why you want to treat your panels like your boss' car! Scratching your panels will reduce their efficiency.

Now that you've dusted off your panels, you should use the hosepipe to get anything you may have missed. Use the leaf blower again to dry off as much of that water as you can.

After this, it's crucial that you leave your panels to dry for a day. If there's any water squirreled away out of sight, you don't want to risk that water shorting your system if you turn it on only a few hours after cleaning.

That said, using water to clean is optional. If you don't feel comfortable doing this, then don't. Better yet, hire a professional that knows how to clean solar panels.

Fall Risk

Going off the last point, a fall is a serious risk here. There were over five thousand work-related fall deaths in 2020. Some statistics estimate that as many as forty thousand fall-related deaths overall occurred in the same year. 

Falling from the short distance of a one-story roof may seem minimal, but this could lead to serious injury or death. You need to do some serious risk assessment here, depending on your age, the height of your roof, and the tools you have on hand.

Cleaning solar panels is safe, provided you take the necessary precautions. Use a sturdy ladder with good footing--do not be one of those people who mounts their ladder poorly! Wear a helmet, gloves, and if possible, consider a safety rope and harness.

It's tempting to think these precautions are extreme, and you'll be fine. But the minor discomfort can and likely will be the difference between life and death.

If you feel uncomfortable performing regular solar panel maintenance, there's no shame in asking for the help of a friend or a professional service.

Repairing Solar Panels

If all else fails, there may be a faulty part in your solar panel array. Your panels are comprised not only of the photovoltaics, but several other essential parts. 

Regularly check your inverter. This will have an indicator light. 

Replacing a defective inverter may solve the lack of efficiency your panels are experiencing. Inverters have an estimated lifespan of about 10 years.

Your panels may be overheating. Take a look at the cooling system, and clean the air inlets.

Maintaining Batteries & Future Maintenance

If your solar panels are connected to a battery backup, this may also be the culprit for issues. Lithium-ion batteries only have about 300 charge cycles before they die. Older batteries may well need a replacement.

Lead-acid batteries, on the other hand, need regular maintenance. They need you to top up their acid at least once a year and apply new sealant to the nodes.

To keep track of future issues, make sure you install your own power meter. Being able to see fluctuations in the energy will be a useful tool for diagnosing your panels.

This is why solar panels are such a smart investment. They're relatively low maintenance, and often require only a minor fix to get them back to full efficiency.

You’re Ready to Maintain Your Solar Panels

Now you know all the basics about solar panel system maintenance. The best part is that your solar panels require far less maintenance than their gas-guzzling counterparts. Most issues can be solved by going up to take a look.

If your solar panel is not functioning at 100% capacity, grab that ladder and go take a look at it today!

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