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Solar Panel Installation

Installation of a Solar Panel

Determining your Energy Needs

A Solar Panel's output is largely dependant upon the amount of average daily solar insolation (solar radiation over an area). First, determine your energy needs from your energy bill. This is typically listed as the monthly consumption in kilowatt-hours (kWh). Once you know how much energy you need, it's time to research your average solar insolation. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has provided a handy map for Americans. Locate your region to determine what kind of output you can expect from your solar panel array. For our sample solar panel installation, we will assume the national average of about 5 kWh/m2/day.

Now take a look at your power bill. Let's assume our sample household uses 500 kWh/month. 1 square meter of our solar panel will capture maximally 5kWh/day or 150kWh/month. Check the efficiency rating of your panel. Solar panels typically have an average efficiency rating of about 12-15%. Multiply the monthly kWh output by your panels by the effiency rating (let's assume 15%) and then divide your energy needs by the product. In order to meet our sample energy requirements, we'll need (500 / (150 * 0.15)) square meters of photovoltaic panels (rounded up), or 23 square meters of solar panels. At this rate, you will most likely be selling power back to the utility company every month, and turning a profit. On-grid installations are typically smaller than what's required to meet full energy needs, and you can balance your energy load between the power company and your solar panel installation. Bear in mind that solar panels decrease in efficiency as the years go by, so for solar panel installations that intend to meet a household's energy requirements in full (especially off-grid installations), it's important to overshoot a little. Use some good sense, and you'll be enjoying the benefits of renewably energy for years to come.

For more information on how much solar panels will cost you, check here for solar panel cost.

Solar Panel Placement Considerations

It's important to maximize the potential solar insolation of your solar panel array, so be wary of obstructions to sunlight that may decrease the efficiency of the solar panel. Make sure to place the solar panel in direct sunlight during the daylight hours. Before your installation, it is wise to chart the progress of the sun across the sky during the day, and make note of any obstructions to sunlight as the sun passes from east to west. Remove these obstructions or reposition the solar panel and try again.

Mounting the Solar Panel

Mounts can help maximize the amount of solar insolation your panel receives. There are different types of mounts for different solar applications.

Pole Mounts

A pole mount is comprised of a metallic rack and rail setup that is mounted onto a pole - as the name implies. A solar panel is then bolted into place on top of the rack. Pole Mounts elevate a solar panel above the ground and are ideal for getting optimal sunlight. Special tracking pole mounts follow the progress of the sun across the sky and allow for maximal power generation throughout the day, regardless of the position of the sun. Pole mounts are highly susceptible to wind resistance, so a deep base and a strong pole is recommended for maximal lifespan. The larger the surface area of the solar panel, the more wind resistance it will encounter.

For Solar Panel tracking pole mounts, seasonal corrections to the tracker's path will maximize the efficiency of the array. Inspection and lubrication of the tracking service is recommended at least once every two years, and optimally on an annual basis.

Flush Mounts 

Flush Mounts are inexpensive and easy to install - these are ideal for single panel installations and smaller solar arrays. Flush Mounts are mounted onto a level surface such as a rooftop, the top of a watercraft, or the top of a recreational vehicle and are not used for ground installations. These mounts serve to separate the solar panel from the mounting surface and allow airflow to pass under and cool the solar panel for smooth operation. It's ideal to leave at least two inches of space between the panel and the mounting surface. Also, ensure a secure mount and be sure to apply enough mounts to keep the solar panel from bending or cracking under it's own weight or environmental pressures such as rain, snow, or heavy winds.

Horizontal Axle

Horizontal Axle installations are typically tracking mounts, which support either active or manual re-alignment. Horizontal Axle Solar Panel installations consist of a long beam or pole suspended by two or more support columns on the endpoints of the structure. This kind of mount is typically used for medium to large sized arrays. Active installations typically apply motor-driven torque on the suspension bar to realign the solar panels.

Universal Mounts

Universal Mounts can be used either on the surface of the ground or any elevated surface, and are ideally suited for larger solar panel arrays. Installing universal mounts can be more expensive than installing solar panel flush mounts, but they are typically more secure and stable. Universal PV systems use a lattice of supports that are mounted behind the solar panel, which as a result make the installation more cumbersome and difficult to relocate.

Whichever solar panel mount you ultimately decide on should be mounted securely. If you need assistance, please consult a local professional.

Vehicular Solar Panel Installation

Solar panels are advantageous for many reasons when installed on both highway-faring recreational vehicles and watercraft. The advantages of such installations include the ability to run appliances without the need for a generator when operating in remote areas or on-the-go. For boats, a solar panel installation is helpful in eliminating noise-pollution when used close to shore, and can be used as a backup or primary source of electricity when at sea. When adrift, it is recommended to position the boat for maximal solar insolation if you are not using a tracking mount. A Solar panel is typically mounted with inexpensive flush mounts on both boats and recreational vehicles, due to the small size of the panels and the simplicity and affordability of installation.

Maintenance of a Solar Panel

For efficiency's sake, it's somewhat helpful to wash windblown grit off of solar panels in arid regions or during dry spells. Mounts - especially tracking mounts - may periodically need a re-application of paint to prevent corrosion. During heavy snow seasons, make sure the solar panel isn't bearing too much weight from precipitation to maximize efficiency and to prevent bending or cracking of the cells or the encapsulate.


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