September 7, 2016

What are we up against?

Solar panels are continuously improving, and with these improvements comes increased efficiency and longevity. Like any appliance or utility, solar panels have a limited lifespan. Thankfully, they generally see 25+ years of action before ramping down, with the potential for an even longer lifespan in the right environment. In fact, some arrays from the 70’s are still soaking up the sun and producing clean energy 40+ years later.  So why are most manufacturer warranties 25 years? Naturally, there are a variety of outside factors that can shorten your array’s lifespan and lead to early degradation. Ahead, we analyze these influences and outline what you might be able to do to minimize their impact.

Complications during installation.

The mission to maximize your array’s lifespan is one that actually begins before you even purchase an array. Solar panels themselves aren’t inherently fragile, however, as with any interconnected system the connections and overall structure of your array are not to be overlooked. Installing solar panels is a long-term investment, and you’re not just paying for the panels, but the whole system that supports them. Ironically, despite the panel’s durability, they actually face their biggest threat during the installation process where careless installers can step on the panels throughout the course of the job. Technically, the panels are rated to withstand this pressure, as most are manufactured with the same tempered glass used for windshields. However, repeated stress can still cause micro-fractures in the PV cells, ultimately leading to an accelerated degradation of the panels as they are constantly exposed to the elements and soiling.

Outside factors that can pose problems.

The most common factor that clips a solar panel’s lifespan is soiling. Soiling losses refer to a panel’s power loss due to the elements like snow, dirt, dust and other particles that accumulate on them. Studies have shown that an average of one percent loss of solar radiation results from dust collecting on the surfaces of solar panels with a tilt of 30 degrees (with the highest loss at 4.7 percent). Additionally, businesses may be more inclined to face soiling losses due to the surfaces on which the panels are mounted. Those that have flat roofs, while they are great for solar installations, typically result in higher dust, snow and dirt buildup.

While the weather is generally responsible for the soiling of panels, it can also be much more catastrophic. The potential for a storm to trigger damage from nearby trees or other structures that have the potential to fall on the panels, cannot be overlooked in the process of installing your array. Compounding this issue is the potential for local wildlife to use nearby trees or other structures as a pipeline to your roof.

These seemingly harmless critters are responsible for a notable amount of damage to panels each year. First, birds are inclined to nest in the dry cover beneath the panels. Naturally, with their presence comes an expected degree of grime from droppings that not only inhibits efficiency, but can also cause long-term damage if left untreated. The next most likely culprit, and far more destructive of the group, are rodents. Their tendency to chew or gnaw as their teeth are growing means that the wiring in an array looks like the perfect relief to a squirrel on the roof. Unfortunately, this can mean costly repairs, that are rarely limited to a single panel.

What can you do?

So what can future and current solar owners do to extend their array’s lifespan, and ultimately maximize their investment?

Smart decision making from day one.

Making sure panels are installed properly can considerably change the lifespan of a business’ solar system. First, potential property owners considering an array should do their homework to ensure they trust their investment in the right hands. When looking for a solar provider, you’ll want to make sure they have a steady track record of successful installations for businesses or organizations similar to yours. Companies should be able to provide you with a portfolio of completed projects, and will be eager to provide references to corroborate their success over time. If you’re up for it, even consider checking industry publications for featured projects, or look at the company’s rating on sites like the BBB if you’re still unsure. Another tell-tale sign of a company who is invested in your array’s success is the presence of a service and operations division. The intent to maintain your array for its lifespan is a good sign that they plan on standing by their work for years to come.

Active ownership is key.

Actively participating in an Operations and Maintenance Services program is a smart idea for any solar owner and offers even greater benefits for the owner’s ROI. We touched on the adverse effects local wildlife can have on your array, and a big piece to mitigating that damage is knowing when it’s happening. Arrays without proper oversight can easily have damages escalate beyond repair before seeing the effects reflected on their energy bills. A good way to reduce the likelihood of this happening is to minimize entry points for the animals. Trimming back any overhanging limbs, or cutting down nearby dead trees will not only help keep critters off your roof (and prevent shading), it will also prevent the potential catastrophe of a branch falling on the array.

When it comes to soiling, solar panels (like most appliances) must be well maintained and cleaned in order to maintain optimum efficiency. Of course, like anything, you can do just as much harm to the array with improper cleaning methods. So be sure to do your homework and find a trustworthy company to service the array for you as they’ll have all the skills and expertise you need.

In following simple yet significant safeguards, businesses can increase the lifespan of their solar systems well past their warrantied 25 years. As the number one commercial installer in Massachusetts, we pride ourselves on our installation and maintenance services that generate ideal results on each of our projects – enabling our customers (and the environment) to experience the advantages of solar for as long as possible.