DIY Solar Panel Cleaning Systems

How to keep snow, dirt, and dust off a solar array

Posted by Steve Graham | Sep 13, 2009
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Winter snow and summer grime can block sunlight and reduce the efficiency of solar panels. There are simple, cheap ways to clear these problems.

Do you really need to clean your solar panels?

First, not every solar panel needs a monthly bath. Many homeowners with solar panels rarely need to clean them. There is often enough summer and fall rain to wash off dust, dirt and leaves. In the winter, snow slides off a roof relatively quickly in many areas. It's still worth checking your solar array regularly. A cleaning may be in order, and it can be safe, easy, and inexpensive.

Summer Solar Panel Cleaning

If you live on a busy, dusty road or in a congested urban area, dirt, soot and grime will build up on solar panels. Even in areas with clearer air, it's worth checking for leaves, bird droppings and other objects covering solar cells. A few covered cells can seriously diminish the output of solar panels.

Some commercial solar panel cleaners are available, including automated systems for washing and rinsing the panels with soap. However, a simple alternative is a quick, gentle spray with a hose. Don't use any abrasive cleaners. The panels are basically covered with window glass. Don't use anything you wouldn't use on other windows, and be sure to wash off all the soap. Don't walk on the panels to clean them, and don't spray cold water on the panels if they are very hot.

Winter Solar Panel Cleaning

By the same token, don't spray hot water on a really cold panel. The thermal shock in either situation could crack the glass. Winter poses safety concerns for cleaning. After snowstorms, ice builds up just when you want to clear panels so they can heat water for a long shower. Ice on the roof, gutters, and garden paths prevent safe cleaning from the roof.

Just wait. The slope, glass surface and residual heat from the panels may push the snow right off a solar array. In other cases, the best bet is a roof rake -- a small shovel with a long, adjustable extension arm. They are generally used after heavy snowstorms to prevent ice dams and keep the thick blanket of snow off the roof. Rakes are lightweight, but can be difficult to control from the ground. A wildly swinging rake could chip a solar panel, so be careful. This model includes small wheels that help the rake glide down the roof.

Other Concerns

Dirty panels are not the only maintenance concern. Inspect panels for leaky or discolored pipes. Also look for brittle, sun-baked plastic wiring insulation. If the plastic breaks, it could expose wiring and damage the panels. Also check for corrosion on battery terminals.

Solar panels are a major investment. Any homeowner with solar panels should consider an annual inspection and cleaning to make sure dirt isn't building up in the solar array and damaging panels, and should regularly check for other issues. If more regular cleaning is needed, water and roof rakes are typically adequate tools.

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