One of Mark Watney’s recurring chores while he was stuck on the red planet in the movie The Martian was to clean solar panels. Even a light coating of grime reduced their efficiency, and that just wouldn’t do.
Now, chances are you don’t live on Mars. But, if you have solar panels, this is nevertheless an aspect of ownership you must consider.
So, how exactly do you maintain solar panels? What’s at stake? Can you do it on your own?
Read on to learn everything you need to know about proper solar panel stewardship.
Electricity, and therefore power, comprises a flow of electrons through conducting material. To produce a situation in which panels can gather these electrons, solar panels sandwich two layers of conducting material, one positively charged and one negatively charged. This creates an electric field.
“A solar panel works by allowing photons, or particles of light, to knock electrons free from atoms, generating a flow of electricity,” explains Live Science.
“Solar panels actually comprise many, smaller units called photovoltaic cells. Photovoltaic simply means they convert sunlight into electricity.) Many cells linked together make up a solar panel.”
Photons enter through the top surface of the solar panels and then the force exerted by the electric field kicks those electrons out of the field, where they can be collected and funneled away in the form of electricity.
The main ingredient needed for solar panels to produce electricity is, as you already know, the sun. The sun’s rays are powerful, but they are not capable of flowing through most materials. They can get through the top of solar panels, of course, but if there exists an obstructive layer on top of them, they will not produce electricity.
Even leaving a coating of dust, debris and grime over the top of your solar panels reduces their ability to absorb sunlight. This usually does not mean that solar panels shut down. Instead, they start working less efficiently over time. That wastes money and makes your investment less worthwhile.
Solar panels need gentle maintenance. Using abrasive cleaners, scrubbing instruments or detergents all risk damaging the glass. Usually deionized water and soft bristle brushes that are made specifically for cleaning glass is best.
But, definitely don’t rely on the rain to do your cleaning for you. Rain water will wash away some dirt and grime, but usually isn’t strong enough to get rid of all of it. It certainly won’t get rid of water deposits, tree pollen bird droppings and freeway soot. Plus, it often creates more streaks.
The reason to hire an experienced professional to clean your solar panels is…because they know how. Maintaining your panels is not as simple as whipping out some Windex and going at it. Your panels need special treatment to protect their surfaces, keep their energy efficiency up and inspect the whole setup to spot trouble before it turns into catastrophe.
Cleaning solar panels isn’t an easy job. It takes time and the right equipment to get onto the roof, properly secure yourself, acquire cleaning materials and tools and address the grime without harming the panels. If you don’t feel like learning how to do that (and most owners don’t), it’s time to call in someone who does it for a living.
Moreover, most owners wouldn’t recognize the symptoms of impending trouble in their panels. Professionals, on the other hand, can let you know if your panels are suffering from any of the most common problems…microfractures or poor positioning, for instance.
Roofs are dangerous, plain and simple. A fall even from the second story can result in paralysis and death, or if you’re lucky, dislocated or broken limbs. It’s better to call in someone who has the gear to prevent falls.
Plus, solar panels are electrical systems, which means the risk of electrocution is very real. If you don’t know how they work, it’s much safer to leave the job to someone who does.
No matter how careful you are, there are several ways in which you might break your solar panels simply because of lack of knowledge. For instance, cleaning in high temperatures can break solar panels. The differential between heat and cold may weaken and crack the glass that protects the top, harming the photovoltaic materials beneath.
Luckily, professional cleaners know all about the factors affecting solar panel safety. They can recommend the right time of year and day, the right products to use and the tools that won’t harm your panels.
Depending on the company from which you purchased your solar panels, cleaning may prove more important than simply keeping energy efficiency up. That is to say, with infrequent or improper cleaning, you may unintentionally void your warranty. If you leave debris too long and it damages the panels, or you unintentionally harm them during a home cleaning, it’s likely the company will not repair or replace them for free per your warranty.
That, and the other reasons mentioned above, are why you need professional cleaning for your panels at least once a year.
If you live under trees that produce a lot of pollen, fallen leaves, needles, moss or bird droppings, the timing should be even more frequent.
Don’t wait until your energy efficiency is seriously affected or the cost of cleaning those panels is greatly increased because you have waited too long to clean them.