With a lifetime of 25 to 30 years, residential solar panels become an integral component of the home after they are installed. It’s reasonable for prospective buyers to wonder just how much servicing and commitment is required over that long period. As it turns out, solar power systems are low maintenance. Here’s what you can expect as they age, along with tips on how to keep your system in optimal shape and how to navigate disposal when you choose to replace it.
During installation, it’s very important to handle the panels with care and clamp them securely. Selecting a location farther away from trees and shrubs reduces the risk of damage caused by branches. Professional periodic maintenance checks will uncover loose racking, exposed wires or other potential areas of concern. Finally, cleaning the panels using approved chemicals will keep things running smoothly.
Degradation is mainly caused by wear and tear. Solar panels are constantly exposed to the elements. Rain, snow, ice, hail and temperature swings that cause repeated expansion and contraction of components all contribute to the formation of microcracks on the surface of the panels. Higher-priced systems tend to withstand these effects because they are built using more durable materials such as high-quality solar glass and solar cells, and feature outer frames made of thicker aluminum.
It’s normal for solar panels to demonstrate reduced performance over time. Most will experience a 0.5% to 1% reduction in power output every year – the manufacturer of your equipment should have exact figures available. The product’s performance warranty will also reflect the expected degradation rate.
The performance of your solar panels may degrade by as much as 25% after their 25th year in operation, but the choice is yours as to whether you wish to replace them. They will continue to work for years, albeit with reduced power output. Less solar power generation means more reliance on grid power, which at a certain point will not be economically viable.
As we mentioned in an earlier blog post, string inverters will also need to be replaced at least once during the life of your solar panels, so you should factor this cost into your ROI calculations.
Solar panels are mostly made of glass, plastic, aluminum and silicon, materials that are routinely recycled. They also contain chemical elements like tellurium, iridium and gallium, resources which the European Chemical Society claims are at serious risk of depletion in the next 100 years. Reclaiming all these components at the end of the product lifecycle promotes a circular production process less reliant on mining. Sending solar panels to a landfill, meanwhile, leads to environmental contamination, as hazardous materials can leach into groundwater.
The cradle-to-grave concept in waste management gives manufacturers the responsibility of outlining plans for the safe disposal of all products they produce. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, a quarter of the world’s energy will be derived from solar by 2050, and an estimated 78 million tons of photovoltaic waste will have been created. While manufacturers like SunPower and First Solar offer recycling programs, many consumers in North America need to make their own arrangements to have their systems recycled – public programs aren’t widely available. This will change as federal policies on the matter are implemented. Plus, as the demand for large-scale photovoltaic recycling increases, it will be more economically feasible to open more facilities.
By law, producers of solar modules sold in Europe must put sustainable disposal strategies in place. This has spurred the industry to set up privately funded take-back and recycling firms there, one of them being PV Cycle. This nonprofit has partnered with US counterparts to ship solar waste to Europe for recycling. One of these outfits, Recycle PV Solar, opened a processing facility in Nevada that serves the entire country.
Making the switch to residential solar is a rewarding journey. From the moment you begin to calculate the potential savings on your utility bill, to shopping for your first panels, tailoring the system to your needs, coordinating the installation and enjoying at least two decades of clean energy before responsibly disposing of your hardware, the impact of your decision to transform your relationship with energy can have far-reaching environmental repercussions.