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Extending the life of your solar panels

Francisco CastroMay 1, 20191600

Residential solar power systems with a capacity of between 3-8 kW range between $11,000 and $16,000, with solar panels accounting for about 30% of that cost.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that photovoltaic (PV) modules last for about 20-25 years, and taking care of them and making sure they continue to output the maximum energy during that time is essential to get to the payback period as soon as possible.

There are dozens of solar panels brand on the market, both Tier 1 and Tear 2, each promising to power your home for years to come.

Price doesn’t necessarily equate quality, but Tier 1 manufacturers - those that have been in the market for more than five years - typically offer warranties that guarantee those panels will produce at least 80% of their nominal capacity after 25 years. 

Solar panel degradation

Despite technological advances, solar panels are just like any other electronic item; it will decrease in performance over the years.

Also, remember that the panels are exposed to inclement weather over your roof, pelted by rain, dust, wind, and snow (in some areas), so they’re bound to decline in output as tiny cracks develop in the silicon solar cells they encase, which actually turn sunlight into electricity.

If those cracks turn into big ones, they accelerate the panel’s deterioration and can even result in complete failure, affecting the entire solar array on your home.

Besides inclement weather, there are other reasons for panel deterioration. For one, thermal cycling due to temperature change, where materials expand and contract, putting joints between different materials under strain.

There’s also dynamic mechanical load, or flexing caused by wind. Properly attached solar panels won’t flex much, but it’s something you have to contend with.

UV damage may not be a serious problem for high-quality solar panels with UV blockers in the glue that holds them together, but it can happen.

Humidity is also a problem. If water seeps into the joints and seals, it can damage interior electronics. 

Abrasion and corrosion can also add up to their wear and tear. 

Regardless of the condition under which your panels are operating, most solar manufacturers estimate the degradation of their panels as 2% to 3% in the first year and 0.7% after. But those figures depend on a lot of factors and fluctuate from panel to panel.

The reason for this rapid degradation on the first year is that the modules have been in storage in a warehouse or factory and when exposed to the outside world, sunlight decreases their efficiency in the first few hours. 

Something else to consider is panel efficiency degradation, the amount of sunlight converted into electricity. Panels are typically around 17% efficient. 

For instance, if a panel degrades 3% in the first year, that means their output was reduced to 16.49%. Similarly, if the panel’s degradation after 25 years is measured at 20%, it doesn’t mean it will lose all its efficiency, but it will go down to 13.6%.

Something else to keep in mind is the quality of the installation. If a solar panel installer cut corners and/or doesn’t follow the manufacturer’s instructions for installation, they can damage it. An installation with faulty wiring and activation set-up, poor mounting on the roof rack or careless delivery and unpacking are often culprits of solar module damage. 

Extending their life

Michael Kempe, a senior scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratories (NREL), whose research focuses on ways to extend the lifespan of PV modules, says his goal is to see them last for 50 years. While some high-quality solar panels can probably reach that time frame, it’s likely they won’t be performing at 100% by then. 

Still, there is proof that with care, solar modules can last a very long time. In 1984, the Japanese solar company Kyocera installed 43 kW of solar panels on the roof of their Sakura Solar Centre and after more than 30 years, only lost 13% of their original energy capacity. 

So it is possible that they work even beyond their estimated lifespan. Maintenance is key for this, so here are some recommendations to make sure your solar panels keep performing in top shape for a long time.

Inspect them regularly - if you can’t do a close-up inspection yourself, call your solar panel installer and ask them to do a thorough evaluation of the modules and the components that are part of your solar power system.

Clean them - if the panels are on a steep tilt, regular rainfall will probably wash away any buildups. But if the panels are almost flat, pollen, leaves, and dirt that accumulates on your windows will also find its way to your solar panels, so clean them from time to time. You can simply point your hose and shower them. But if the buildup is severe, you might need to manually clean them. Just make sure not to use any abrasive material can cleaning them, as this can damage them. A soft squeegee can work with water. A good cleaning should be conducted at least annually. 

Check for any shade - maybe the neighbor’s tree hadn’t grown so much when first installed, but now it’s at the point of throwing shade over your solar modules. Any partial or complete shading of a solar panel will diminish its energy output, so make sure there’s nothing blocking them from direct sunlight.

Monitor your solar panels - a monitoring system provides data on the electrical output of your solar system. If you see any sudden drops in energy production, contact your solar panel installer for a maintenance check-up. 

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