Solar Panel Operation And Maintenance
Because solar photovoltaic (PV) panels have no moving parts, manufacturers can confidently ship their modules with 25+ years of warranty protection. If there’s a defect or malfunction over that time frame, the panel owner qualifies for a free replacement (assuming the original manufacturer is still in business).
However, any number of other problems can arise during that 25-year span – some of which aren’t covered under warranty. And this explains why many power producers invest in solar panel operation and maintenance (O&M) to keep their PV systems in optimal working condition.
This article outlines what this maintenance entails, why it’s important, and what customers can expect to pay to have their solar systems regularly serviced.
Solar Panel Maintenance Requirements
Although solar PV is one of the most resilient energy generation technologies on the market, something as simple as dust accumulation can negatively impact panel performance. This is certainly true with a standard residential installation, with excessive dust build-up often resulting in noticeable dips in production – which in turn lead to lost solar savings. Those losses merely compound as the size of the PV system grows. This is why utility-scale solar farms invest in daily cleaning to maximize facility-wide power production.
However, panel cleaning is just one aspect of maintenance. And for most solar systems, it represents the lowest-hanging fruit. More advanced servicing includes things like:
PV panel repositioning
In addition, PV systems are becoming more sophisticated, with many newer installations featuring battery storage and electric vehicle-charging – both of which can increase a PV system’s servicing requirements.
Reactive vs. Preventative Solar Panel Maintenance
Sometimes, emergency system maintenance is required to correct sudden drops in solar output. This reactive approach normally requires that system owners regularly check their utility bill statements – or that the PV systems themselves come with in-built solar monitoring to alert their owners to deviations in energy production.
Other times, servicing is done on an ongoing basis as part of general upkeep. This strategy qualifies as preventative maintenance – similar to yearly auto inspections or annual physicals. During these visits, solar panel maintenance technicians will inspect the systems, reconfigure any loose wires or panels, and optimize the installations for maximum solar output. More severe problems – like cracked panels or faulty inverters – can also be addressed during these visits.
Many residential solar customers are reactive, treating their PV systems as set-it-and-forget-it technology. They only intervene when there are large drops in solar production. Many smaller businesses also adopt this approach because it’s typically cheaper and easier than paying for scheduled maintenance.
As the size of the PV installation grows, however, it becomes easier to justify the ongoing cost of preventive maintenance. Whereas dust on 20 panels might translate to $30 in forfeit savings, that same dust across an entire PV farm could mean tens of thousands of dollars in lost savings.
And again – that’s just dust.
When you add all the other components, wires, nuts and bolts that can potentially fail at any point, it becomes clear that solar operations and maintenance can be a worthwhile investment that delivers tangible results.
But what can PV system owners expect to pay for regular upkeep?
Solar Panel Maintenance Cost
Every system is different, making it hard to give absolute costs. Just as you can’t price an installation without seeing the property, you can’t price solar maintenance until you see the PV system.
However, there are industry averages. According to HomeAdvisor, for example, residential solar customers can expect to pay:
$150 for a comprehensive solar PV system inspection
$3 – $10 per panel for cleaning (or a flat rate of $150 – $350)
$711 on average for solar panel repair
These estimates fall in line with DIY portal, Fixr, which states that for a standard 2 kW residential PV system, you can expect to pay about $350 a year for routine cleaning and inspections.
But again, size matters. Repairing a large commercial PV installation, for example, might cost significantly more if servicing requires removing damaged panels, reinforcing the roof, and installing newer PV modules.
The good news is that not all repairs will necessarily be out-of-pocket. If a malfunction is covered under warranty (and the manufacturer is still around to honor it), the PV system owner should receive a free replacement. However, that customer will still need to pay out-of-pocket to remove the faulty panel and install the replacement module.
When Is Maintenance Needed?
For customers who adopt a preventative maintenance strategy, servicing is ongoing, with most homeowners and businesses choosing an annual schedule. However, cleaning and inspections may need to happen more frequently depending on local conditions. For example, pollen, dust, leaves, and snow are all seasonal factors that can impact PV system performance.
Daily or weekly servicing is normal for industrial-scale PV farms. This frequency doesn’t mean every single component is serviced every single day (unless bird droppings are a major problem). But the facility as a whole undergoes daily or weekly upkeep to help optimize solar power production across the entire PV farm.
For customers who choose a reactive solar maintenance strategy, they only need to intervene when they detect a problem due to:
Solar monitoring that alerts them to deviations in PV system output. These monitoring solutions exist at the consumer level all the way up to the utility scale.
Noticeable increases in utility bill spending. However, this requires a lot of vigilance from the PV system owner since they must regularly check their statements. Using an “eyeball” approach also makes it harder to account for seasonal variations in energy production. And system owners may be better off comparing statements from year-to-year instead of month-to-month.
Visible damage to the system. This includes slipped panels, loose wires, or even modules cracked by falling debris like tree limbs or hail. Even if this damage doesn’t immediately translate to lost savings, tiny problems can quickly grow into larger and more expensive ones if they aren’t corrected early on.
What Are The Options For Solar Panel Maintenance Services?
Solar customers who require emergency or preventative maintenance for their PV systems have two main options:
Work with an installer that offers in-house solar operations and maintenance
Work with a dedicated O&M company that specializes in solar maintenance
In-House Installer O&M
Some solar contractors provide one-off repairs for the PV systems they’ve installed. Others offer maintenance and cleaning as add-on services – but again – only to their own customers.
The benefit of using this approach is that the original installer already has working knowledge of the components in the system. They’re also more aware of local variables like climate, irradiation, and permitting.
But aside from having to be a customer already, there are other downsides of keeping everything in-house:
Many installers don’t offer maintenance or cleaning
It’s not usually their core service, so the quality can vary
Installers have limited resources for larger jobs
And if the experience wasn’t positive during the initial installation process, it may not be worth working with that contractor again.
Direct O&M Companies
As the PV industry matures, there are more companies that specialize exclusively in solar operations and maintenance. And in fact, many installers subcontract their own projects to these O&M services. If you do too, you should be able to recommend reputable maintenance companies to your clients. However, it’s also important that you explain the pros and cons of this approach.
For example, dedicated O&M companies tend to have the resources for much larger jobs – complete with the tools, inventory, and personnel required for 24/7 coverage. And because they’re specialists, they are better equipped to tackle more complex projects – often with faster than their installer counterparts can.
For a homeowner who just wants regular servicing, paying for annual inspections and cleanings makes sense. But hiring a dedicated O&M company full-time is probably overkill for most residential systems. This option is best reserved for larger PV installations at the commercial or industrial scale. And even then, one must carefully balance the cost of ongoing maintenance against the potential boost in solar power output.
Many solar customers are initially caught off-guard when they discover their PV systems require regular maintenance. That’s because the technology is often marketed as ultra-resilient and hassle-free.
But while solar maintenance requirements are indeed low, they’re not zero. Problems can and will arise over the 25-plus years of a PV panel’s warrantied lifetime – to say nothing of the countless other components that go into a solar installation. And failure to correct these problems as they arise will inevitably lead to forfeited financial and environmental savings.
Emergency maintenance can help reclaim those savings in the short term. And preventative maintenance can help protect them in the long term.
GreenLancer is expanding our offering of operations and maintenance, so if you’re looking to roll trucks to your solar PV installations, sign up now and shop our network of service providers.