So you’ve got yourself some shiny new solar panels – a renewable energy system to boot. How do you ensure that your investment performs at its best and delivers the benefits that you’ve been promised? PV TLC hint #1: It’s about more than the cleaning…
Many people think that taking care of a solar PV system starts and ends with cleaning your solar panels – a bit of water and a wipe twice a year or so.
But this is not the whole story, and in fact, we at Perdaman Advanced Energy believe that it’s not even a big part of the story when it comes to ongoing care of a PV asset.
At PAE, we believe that operation and maintenance (O&M) of PV systems is a holistic issue. We think of it across three dimensions:
Now, language is always the doozy so let’s get some ambiguities off the table. Inspection and cleaning are the usual activities that make up the common (and industry) understanding of “maintenance” – but then again, many in the industry will sell their “maintenance” services as comprising cleaning only. So if you’ve received a quote for any PV system maintenance program, we advise that you clear up with your provider exactly what this involves. It could be anything from a rigorous system check-up to a cursory spray-down of the panels!
For the purposes of this article, we’ll split up the three key areas and deal with them in isolation. Sure, you can lump them together when describing a “maintenance” or “O&M” program, but use this breakdown to check that your solar upkeep regime is watertight – because there’s plenty to say about each!
Safety disclaimer: Please don’t attempt your own PV system maintenance. Engage a CEC-accredited or other suitably qualified party to do so, and feel free to get in touch with us to discuss your O&M needs. This article is provided for information purposes only.
Don’t wait for something to go wrong or your service date to swing around. Get proactive, because remote system monitoring is a must. This has two objectives: status monitoring – to ensure that the system is functioning correctly; and performance monitoring – to keep track of the energy being generated and therefore your cost savings and CO2 reductions.
A web-based portal that you can access from your PC (or other personal device) is the most common method for monitoring PV systems. A range of packages is available, from simple software like Sunny Portal which comes free with most SMA inverters, to more sophisticated systems like Solar-Log that give detailed power analytics, generate reports, and can even track energy use at your site.
At PAE, we believe that all good monitoring systems should, at a minimum:
- track your inverter performance
- record how much energy the system is producing in real time, and
- generate auto alerts (e.g. email, sms) to notify you of system faults.
Monitoring can also be outsourced to a third party if you don’t have the time or confidence to keep an eye on your PV system. We discuss these options at the end of this article, so read on!
A digression: Since we’re monitoring…
Monitoring is a stone’s throw away from public education. Online monitoring platforms often have a graphic interface that allows you to easily, attractively display the PV system performance or meaningful quantifies like “trees saved” for public viewing.
This is worth exploring if you’re a business, property developer, local council or school whose stakeholders would love to know about the sustainability of the site. It’s fantastic education, good awareness and great public engagement – for them and for you.
In our digital-immersed age, we often dive in and act without much awareness of our surroundings – but we shouldn’t fall into this trap when it comes to maintaining a solar PV system.
The first task at any maintenance visit should be to look around, both at the site and at the equipment. Is the roof clean, clear and safe? Are overgrown trees casting shade on the panels? Are branches dangling near electrical wires?
Next up, a visual inspection of specific components needs to be done, including but not limited to:
- Solar panels: Discolouration, dirt/debris accumulation, peeled coatings or backing sheets, and other signs of change or wear can all be symptoms of common panel degradation problems like PID, corrosion and soiling, which affect the performance of your panels.
- Electrical ancillaries: Wires, clips and other ancillary parts should be corrosion-free, well secured and neatly installed. Screws should be tight but not overtightened. The health of these ancillary components can affect both the performance and the safety of your system.
- Mounting frame: The base rail, roof hooks and other parts of the mounting system must be free of corrosion and structurally sound.
- Inverters, circuit breakers and other parts should be checked, with any signs of wear or anomalies investigated or rectified.
Electrical testing of inverters, meters and other logging equipment can also be undertaken to ensure that the electrical and software settings are still correct. It’s rare, but every now and again, an automatic firmware update can accidentally wipe or revert the settings that your installer configured at commissioning. Now imagine that flying under the radar!
Normally, electronics-related problems show up if you’re remotely monitoring your system (see point 1) but if you’re not hooked up to a monitoring platform, it may be worth asking your electrician to conduct some basic current, voltage and resistance tests to get the all-OK.
Cleaning requirements depend highly on your environment. In dusty areas, dirt builds up more quickly, necessitating a more frequent panel clean (even every few months) while coastal areas can see salt crust up and need to be removed to prevent equipment degradation and energy yield loss.
The need for cleaning also depends on how your PV system is laid out. Tilted panels facilitate “self-cleaning” thanks to the rain, and this can, in some cases, make extra cleaning unnecessary. In fact, studies are split on the benefits of cleaning panels: whether it’s worthwhile and if so, how often. I’ll get to this shortly.
Detergents and anything abrasive should be avoided when cleaning solar panels; water and a robust sponge, cloth, hose or wiper generally suffice.
Other than the panels, most parts of your PV system won’t need specific cleaning, but commonsense is never amiss so our general advice is to respond to the needs of the situation assessed at site. And taking the manufacturers’ advice on your products is always a smart idea, if not because of good maintenance practice then to oblige any warranty conditions.
Another digression: To clean or not to clean?
This question is the elephant in the room when it comes to PV system maintenance. Viewpoints differ from strong opposition to firm recommendation – and to confuse the matter, “scientific” studies have been interpreted to pull the argument both ways!
With 5-25% p.a. efficiency improvements on the table (which owes to the improved energy yield from cleaning the panels so that more sunlight penetrates their surface) it really depends on your own circumstance whether it’s worth the investment. The larger the system, harsher the environment, flatter the panel mounting angle, cheaper your service cost and pricier your electricity tariff, the more worthwhile it is for you to engage a panel-cleaning regime.
So if your PV system is a small, stock-standard Perth rooftop setup with a 22° pitch, you’re unlikely to benefit from forking up for a regular cleaning service – certainly not more often than annually, if that at all! But keep an eye on your system performance (see point 1) and consider a clean if the yield drops off more than a few percent per year or appearance suggests the need.
Don’t have time to keep tabs on your PV system?
Commercial solar users often engage a third party to monitor their PV system remotely. This is a smart move, and because we recognise its value to our clients, it’s become one of PAE’s proudest and most beneficial capabilities. Why us, and why this service? Ongoing PV monitoring combines our solar PV expertise with our great client service and quality reporting standards.
In addition to monitoring our clients’ PV systems remotely for ongoing performance review, we can also clean, maintain and manage your system to your specific needs – separate to or as part of the O&M package.
So drop us a line if you’re interested in any of the above asset management services, customised as you require. Remember, you’ve made the investment to go solar. Now make it count by making sure that it’s working for you!