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You finally decided to go solar and want to make the best decisions, so you’re doing your homework. That’s perfect because being well-prepared, especially when it comes to maintenance is critical. A single malfunctioning panel can reduce your energy production by 25-percent or more.
So, what kind of maintenance do solar panels need? Clearing of obstructions that block sunlight, and removal of build-up from pollen, dirt, and grime that will affect energy output. Maintenance also requires annual inspections, monitoring the system for solar performance changes, and repairing or replacing damaged and broken components.
Did you know that the sun can generate power to satisfy global energy needs for a year? According to the International Energy Agency, solar energy is now the world’s fastest-growing source of power. And since panels last 25-30 years, and newer, more advanced models are expected to last about 50 years, taking care of them becomes paramount to their lifespan, but only if you how to care for them.
What Kind of Maintenance Do Solar Panels Need?
In this article, you’ll see how to effectively maintain your solar system, which tools, and cleaning materials you should use, along with a few DYI hacks, and the cost of servicing panels. If you haven’t installed them yet, we have tips on what to look for in warranties, the upfront costs of installation, which American companies make panels, and the tax credits you’ll receive.
What Are Solar Panels and How Do They Work?
Solar cells are made of silicon and act like semiconductors. Multiple solar cells make up a solar panel, a series of panels are called modules, and when they are wired together, it forms a solar array. Panels are photovoltaic (PV), meaning it uses alternating current (AC) electricity (versus the direct current or DC electricity that power grids currently use).
The sun releases energy in the form of photons that travel 93 million miles (in 8.5 minutes) to reach the earth’s atmosphere. When it makes contact with a solar panel, the cell captures the “energy” and extracts electrons. Conductors then transform it into an electrical circuit, and that generates electricity.
The more solar arrays you have, the more energy it generates. One advantage of solar (if offered by your utility company) is what’s referred to as net metering. Any excess energy produced (that you don’t use) converts to credits that can later be used to draw power from conventional grids when you need it.
Do Solar Panels Need to Be Maintained?
Modules are tilted towards the sun, and that works for and against the system. Most of the time, anything caught on panels usually blows away on its own because of the angle. However, dirt, leaves, grime, and bird droppings can collect on modules over time, and even small amounts of dirt can reduce energy production.
The loss of power can be as little as 1-4.7 percent, but research has found that long-term dirt buildup can reduce energy-yielding capabilities by as much as 20-percent. Some experts argue it’s as much as 25-percent.
Hence, solar panels need to be cleaned, but it’s relatively simple if it’s done regularly. If you have ground panels versus roof panels, it is easier to access, clean, inspect, and monitor. Even for a one-story home, cleaning is much easier than a two-story dwelling.
Let’s take a closer look at what cleaning and maintenance entail, and how to make your panels outlast the average lifespan.
What Should I Do to Keep My Solar Panels in Tip-top Shape?
Periodic maintenance checks and visual inspections should be done at least 2-4 times a year. If you stick to this schedule, the only maintenance you’ll need to perform is to wash the dirt off with a garden hose or use a leaf blower to get rid of debris.
Of course, some of it depends on where you live. The only other time you might need more than a periodic cleaning is if you live in a desert area where it’s dusty, or during a prolonged dry season or drought. Also, where there is a lot of smog, you may see reduced solar production over time. In these circumstances, it’s important to clean modules regularly.
Tips for Maintaining Your Solar Panels in Any Climate
Usually, snow melts in a couple of days because of the heat from the sun (and the angle). If, after an intense snowfall, a dense layer of snow remains, you can still use the same method of a leaf blower and garden hose to wash it off.
However, don’t use hot water as the extreme temperature disparities between the hot water and cold panels will make them crack. If you decide to clean snow yourself, you can also invest in a snow roof rake designed for solar panels. It costs anywhere from $30-150 and comes in fiberglass, polycarbonate, and aluminum.
“For your panels to be self-cleaning, they will need to be mounted at an angle of 15 degrees or more.” – Energy Sage
Fortunately, solar panels are made of tempered glass and are durable and can withstand most weather conditions. It also doesn’t have moving parts (except for tracking mounts), so general cleaning tips are similar, regardless of where you live or how many panels you have. However, using the wrong tools and soap will cause damage.
Here are some general cleaning tips and do-it-yourself hacks.
- Use an abrasive soap, sponge or other harsh materials that will scratch the glass
- Use cleaning products such as RainX, car wax or rock salt that will compromise electrical components
- Use hard or mineral-rich water because it will impair panels over time
- Touch electrical elements of the solar panel system at any time
- Never use hot water on modules
- Use a soft rag, squeegee, and brushes
- Use biodegradable soap
- Stay on the ground and use a long-handled wiper
- Use safety precautions on the roof such as ropes, a harness for support, and other fall-protection equipment
- Turn off the system before you start cleaning
- If you have hard water, use a water-softening hose attachment, distilled water, or deionized water
- Clean early in the day or later in the evening when panels are cool – to avoid it drying too quickly from the heat and leaving smears
- Use a high-pressure hose nozzle with attachment (for soap) on two-story homes but don’t get too close to panels as the pressure may cause damage. Some experts discourage this because water will get in-between the frame and glass and deliver moisture to vulnerable areas.
- Rinse, spray soap, and quickly wash off with lukewarm water
Cleaning Kits and DIY Costs for Solar Panels
You can also purchase solar panel cleaning kits, which comes with biodegradable soap, a wiper, and brushes (with short and long handles). Some come with several extension poles, cleaning cloths, hose interconnections, and carrying bags.
The average soap costs $30-$50 and water-fed brushes, $80-$175. If you’re considering an extended pole or water-feeding pole, they cost between $500-$5,000, depending on the length, flexibility, if it has adjustable necks, interchangeable brushes, (or rotating brushes), and accessories such as spray jets. For example:
- 16” aluminum poles $300
- 41” aluminum poles $600
- 30” carbon fiber poles $1,000
- 45” carbon fiber poles $2000
Source: Home Advisor
Which Cleaning Supplies Are Safe for Solar Panels
Wondering about kits, or which brushes and cleaning liquids to use? Check out these ten brands.
This kit has a long extension pole with a tool handle that rotates. It also has a curved tube for harder to reach areas and can attach to a garden hose. The kit includes a squeegee, soft flow-thru brush, and carrying case. It has a 5’ to 12’ Procurve extension, a 14-inch deluxe wash sleeve, and a Hydra Solar flow through extension pole.
This kit comes with the same items as the 1005 but also includes a 15”x15” microfiber cleaning cloth and high-quality acrylic wash sleeves, which does not scratch modules.
EquipMaxx has a double gooseneck that allows for both the brush and squeegee on the same pole. It connects to a garden hose, is made of lightweight aluminum, and has a 24 ft. long hose that collapses to 6’ 6” (it weighs 6 pounds).
This cleaning pole has a gooseneck attachment (with angle adapters) and can be used with a garden hose. It’s 30 ft. long.
Madison is a biodegradable solution that will not delaminate or damage solar panels and can be used with pressure washers and hoses. It is chlorine and phosphate-free and cleans without oxidation or abrasion to aluminum rails or mounting tools.
This soap is biodegradable, chlorine and phenol-free, pH neutral, and removes dirt, grease, and oil. The container and label are also recyclable.
If your water has hard mineral deposits, this may be the solution. You run hose water through the standalone filter, and it sprays deionized water.
If you have another water source and only need a pump, the Superior 1/3 HP utility pump can move 2,400 gallons and lift water 25’ high. It also has a removable suction screen.
Ideal for two stories, it’s made of non-conductive fiberglass and has a 300-lb capacity. The V-shape design helps with stability, and it has an integrated work tray with tool slots.
This broom handles cleans without scratching and has a 27-46” telescoping handle.
Do Solar Panels Need Servicing?
You may not be the DIY kind of homeowner, and even if you are, cleaning, monitoring, and maintaining solar panels may not be your thing. No need to worry, there are services and equipment that can do the dirty work for you. Some homeowners also purchase maintenance and cleaning agreements, which lessens the annual fee.
You should also schedule annual inspections with a qualified technician who will check for:
- Overall efficiency and performance
- Visual examination of modules for fractures, corrosion, and moisture penetration
- Check the mounting system (framework and module clamps)
- Looks at the cabling that measures voltage levels and checks if inverters are damaged
- Check cable connections, the integrity of seals, functionality, and alignment
If you didn’t purchase an agreement and elect to pay separately for servicing, the average cost of an annual inspection of rooftop panels can cost $150 but typically run between $150 to $300. Any solar panel repair work will increase that cost to an average of $650 to $750.
Solar Panel Cleaning Robots and Cleaning Systems
If you integrate a solar panel monitoring system, it will track the electrical output of your solar system daily, and allow you to see what may be affecting performance. It alerts to panel malfunctions and damage, so you know when to call for service. By paying attention to changes, you can be proactive without having to trek up and down a ladder to check on modules.
Monitoring systems can tell you how much CO2 your system is emitting and comes with a wall-mounted display; the green flashing light indicates the need for inspection or repair. These systems are add-on purchases.
Solar Cleaning Systems
These automatic cleaners work as a sprinkler system and are programmed to wash and rinse based on whatever timeline you desire.
It has a nozzle that’s positioned every few panels, and there are no tools or other steps involved. The only work involved is refilling the soap and replacing the water filters. There is a one-time installation fee, but after that, everything else is automatic.
Solar Cleaning Robots
Robots wash your panels daily, and some run on tracks. They are autonomous, and many use solar energy (each robot has its own panel). It can do the job with or without water and uses microfiber brushes, so panels aren’t damaged.
Solar Panels Cleaning Service Costs
If you choose to hire a company to clean your modules, Fixr says the average national cost for a solar PV system with ten panels is between $150-$300; for 20 panels, it’s between $300-430, and for cleaning and repair of 20 panels it’s $500-750. Some cleaning companies charge $15-35 per panel or offer a flat rate. (These prices are also based on wattage capacity of panels).
Home Advisor says the typical cost to have solar panels cleaned ranges from $100-$350, and the average price is true $150. According to their data, some companies charge as little as $3 and $10 per panel or between $120 and $160 for cleaning alone. Some offer a flat rate between $150-$350. Annual inspections cost is also separate from the cost of cleaning.
It’s worth noting that some contractors charge for their time and equipment costs regardless of how many solar panels you have. Hence, expect to pay at least $100for cleaning.
Prices may be substantially higher depending on the several factors:
- Location: Where your panels are positioned (ground or roof)
- Distance: How far contractors have to travel to your residence (a 20-mile radius typically pays a lower fee)
- Slope: Angle of your rooftop (requires more time and labor)
- Height: If it’s a two-story home or three-story dwelling
- Size: The volume of your solar array – larger ones cost more, but there may still be a minimum fee for small arrays to cover contractor costs
- Buildup: How much cleaning needs to be performed (if it’s grimy and hasn’t been cleaned in years, it will cost more in labor, time, and materials)
- Agreements: if you bundle a cleaning and maintenance agreement upon purchase, it will lower your annual fee
So, what are you paying for? Essentially, a professional cleaning your panels reduce the risk of damage due to handling and materials used. The technician can also provide feedback as to the state of your modules, and what may need replacing or repairing. Not to mention, there is no physical risk – you don’t have to climb on top of your roof, at an angle, or watch out for wiring that can cause electrocution upon contact.
A professional cleaner will:
- First using a soft brush to remove dust
- Using a clean cloth and sponge to gently clean panels
- Bring non-abrasive detergents, chemicals, and materials, so you don’t have to buy them
- Bring poles and attachments and may use your garden hose
- Use a soft dry cloth to wipe panels down and remove any leftover residue after rinsing them off
Are Solar Panels Expensive to Maintain?
Unforeseen costs include roof repairs, which means one or more contractors will first remove panels, do the tile repairs, and then reinstall your solar array. It can cost anywhere from $1,500 or more depending on where you live and how vast your array is.
The bulk of your annual costs, however, will come from maintenance, cleaning, and repairs or replacements.
Solar Panel Warranties, Repairs, and Replacement
Although solar panels can handle most weather conditions, they will freeze when temperatures drop below 32-degrees. There are solar thermal heating systems that use antifreeze to regulate temperature (though most still use water). Of course, this option comes at an additional cost.
Also, in extreme heat over 90 degrees, solar modules loose efficiency (roughly 1-percent, per degree). If they were installed with room underneath for air circulation, it will not hamper energy production and will keep panels cool.
Modules have held up in a hailstorm, hurricane, and windstorms. They will suffer damage in tornadoes and lightning strikes, but if you have a good homeowners’ policy and a sound warranty, some maintenance, cleaning, repairs, and replacements are covered.
Some solar providers bundle annual inspection and maintenance agreements where technicians do all that’s required to keep modules operating at optimum levels. If you don’t have an agreement, experts recommend doing visual inspection ever so often and monitoring your bill for any noticeable drop in energy production (which, sometimes are related to a lack of cleaning). A standard warranty plan will also check your panels efficiently if it starts to decrease.
A good power outage warranty should guarantee your peak power output wouldn’t fall below 85-percent. Some might add a clause guaranteeing it for 25-years, while other secondary warranties stipulate 90-percent over the first ten years.
The three types of warranties typically include:
- Performance: check that your system is working efficiently
- Workmanship: covers equipment if it’s not installed properly
- Equipment: covers PV system components, panels, and parts if they fail
There are also comprehensive warranties that cover the life of your products. If you do have one, be sure you contact the installer for recommendations on which tools and materials are best for cleaning and maintaining your panels, so you don’t end up voiding the warranty.
If you are leasing solar panels, the company is responsible for all repairs and maintenance. If you own them outright, don’t be surprised if your agreement doesn’t include cleaning and inspection because they are usually covered in a warranty (unless it’s bundled).
Your homeowners’ insurance doesn’t usually cover maintenance and cleaning, but a good policy will cover damage, repairs, and replacements, especially due to foul weather. You might want to increase coverage limits once it’s installed, too. Be sure to read the policy for any exclusions, stipulations, or deductibles.
Repairs and Replacements
The difference between repair and replacement depends on if the panel is broken beyond repair, physically damaged by debris or environmental factors, and if the panel efficiency is declining in output energy levels. According to Home Advisor, it costs an average of $650 for solar panel repairs.
The most typical repairs technicians find:
- Corrosion: replacing oxidized parts, $150-$350
- Cracked panels: solder edges or replaces a panel, $100-300
- Broken glass: laminating materials or replacing glass, $20-$400
- Loose wiring: re-solder cells and replace wiring, $100 per hour
- Loose or damaged roof tiles: removing panels, repairing tiles, and replacing panels, $100-$500
- Inverter issues: replacing or repairing a microinverter or string inverter $1,000-$2,000
- Tree trimming: removing vegetation $50-200
What Are the Top Solar Panel Manufacturers?
The top three global companies are Jinko Solar, JA Solar, and Trina Solar, and they are all based in China. The biggest U.S. installation companies for solar are Sunrun and Vivint Solar, and the top ten American manufacturers headquartered here are:
- Auxin Solar
- Certainteed Solar
- First Solar
- Global Solar
- Lumos Solar
- Prism Solar
- Seraphim Solar
- Solar Electric America
- SolarTech Universal
According to Energy Sage, these rankings don’t mean the listed companies offer the highest quality panel. It’s based on the volume of shipments and other factors that are of far less interest to buyers than cost and quality are. It does indicate to some degree that the brand is credible, but sometimes these larger companies have the highest prices – from $2,000 to $5,000 more expensive than smaller solar companies.
Most people are looking for energy independence, so consider all your solar options when taking bids and quotes from installers. Also, look at what their packages include, what kind of warranties they offer, and the types of equipment they have available (larger companies often have few options).
Take into consideration, too, the testimonials and reviews of clients and what they have to say about everything for customer service to follow-up care. If the company has financing, that can be a deal-breaker as some upfront expenses can be costly.
How Much Will I Have to Pay to Install Solar Panels?
Costs depend on several factors, but the typical homeowner should expect to pay approximately $3 per watt. Most residential homes benefit from a 5-kilowatt capacity. For example, you will need twenty 250-watts panels to reach 5-kilowatts, which is a total of $15,000. With a federal tax credit of 30-percent, the price is reduced to $10,500 (this excludes any installer rebates, sales tax incentives, and state tax credits).
Note that In 2020, the tax credit will also be reduced to 26-percent, in 2021, it will be 22-percent, and by 2022 there will be no more federal tax credits for residential solar panels. Also, tax exemptions may reduce the cost of solar ownership, but tax credits don’t directly reduce installation costs, it helps you deduct a percentage on taxes.
Finally, a solar system costs more than just the individual panels, which some manufacturers have reduced to as little at $.30 per watt. The total cost of installing a solar system includes:
- Special racking to hold the panels on the roof
- Specific wiring to attach the panels and collect energy
- The cost of DC electricity and an inverter
- Special brackets for modules
- The fuse box setup and wiring
- Installation and delivery costs
This is an excellent article with more details on the true cost of solar panels, and how to select the best array options for your home.
Title Image by Avinash Kaushik