Everything That Can Go Wrong With Solar Panels

Quest: Solar

Everything That Can Go Wrong When You Go Solar

People mulling whether to go solar fear the worst-case scenarios. We fleshed out what those are and whether they’re worth the worry.

If you’ve thought about solar panels, you’ve probably thought about what could go wrong.

I talked over some of the worst-case scenarios with experts – this is what I found out about which fears are founded.

How long will these things last?

The general consensus is that solar panels will continue generating power for at least 25 years but perhaps even 40 years or longer.

Most panels have a 25-year manufacturer performance warranty thanks to past requirements under the California Solar Initiative rebate program and leases generally come with power production guarantees too.

Like any electronic, the panels will be most efficient when they’re shiny and new but they’re unlikely to abruptly stop working.

A 2014 analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the federal government’s renewable energy think tank, found that today’s panels are likely to be producing at more than 90 percent of their original capacity after 20 years. Older studies had put the estimate closer to 80 percent.

The quality of your solar panels can affect their life span and production.

What’s the likelihood something will break?

Pecan Street, a University of Texas-based energy research center, monitored solar systems on 255 homes with rooftop solar over four years and reported just two major failures during that time. In both cases, the inverter – which converts solar power into electricity you can use – was the culprit.

Indeed, the inverter’s the solar component most likely to need replacing.

Stellar Solar co-founder Michael Powers said inverters generally last 15 to 20 years and many companies’ warranties cover fixes for at least half of that timeframe. His company offers 25-year warranties for microinverters and 10-year warranties for more basic ones known as string inverters, though customers can buy longer warranties.

If your warranty’s up when your inverter fails, you’ll likely pay a few thousand dollars for a new one, though Powers said costs have come down significantly in the last decade.

Another 54 homes in the Pecan Street survey had more minor issues that researchers said usually cost less than $25 in parts and less than an hour of labor.

Those fixes won’t necessarily be on your dime, though.

If you’re leasing the panels, your agreement might cover maintenance or product problems.

And warranties in California usually cover panel issues for at least 10 years and often promise those panels will produce at least 80 percent capacity after 25 years. Solar installers also often offer warranties that cover installation issues that may have negatively affected the panels.

How will I know if my system stops working?

It’s crucial to regularly check how much your power your panels produce and most solar companies are making that easy these days.

Most panel manufacturers and micro-inverter makers offer web-based updates and phone apps that monitor production. Some even email you when things aren’t up to par.

Some companies also regularly monitor your panels and inverter themselves and contact you as soon as they spot issues.

These safeguards mean you’ll probably know your system needs a repair before it shuts down altogether.

What are the chances my solar panels will crack?

Solar panels are built to handle the elements.

Powers says solar panels are like a car windshield in this way. It’ll take a significant hit to crack them.

Most panels are now made of tempered glass and built to withstand one-inch hail at 50 miles per hour, he said. “Something that would bounce off the windshield of your car will bounce off your solar panel too.”

Are solar panels a fire hazard?

Your panels are unlikely to spark a fire but they can complicate matters when firefighters go to respond.

A 2010 analysis by the national Fire Protection Research Foundation found very few instances where fires started or were directly linked to panels.

“This implies that the solar power industry has a relatively good record when it comes to their equipment and components contributing to the source of ignition,” the foundation wrote.

Maintaining space on the roof for firefighters responding to fires that originated from another part of the house is more of a concern.

Retired Coronado firefighter and local green energy advocate Jamie Edmonds says firefighters’ initial goals when they respond to a fire are usually to turn off power and cut a hole in the roof for ventilation.

Solar panels can make doing those things more complicated but not impossible, he said.

Edmonds said state fire code updates have mostly addressed those issues for new systems by requiring more open space for firefighters on panel-covered roofs.

What if my solar panels get damaged in a storm, fire or earthquake? What if they fall off my roof?

Vandalism and damage from storms or fires will likely be covered by your homeowners’ insurance if you own the system.

But you’ll need an earthquake policy to address damage from earthquakes.

Accidents are often covered but get addressed on a more case-by-case basis, said Janet Ruiz, California representative for the Insurance Information Institute, an insurance industry group.

For example, if a roofer bumps one of your panels, his company may pay for the repairs.

The key when it comes to coverage of accidents and other damages is to ensure your homeowners’ insurance covers your solar panels.

The solar panels are unlikely to increase your premiums significantly, Ruiz said. “It might not even increase your policy or it might be nominal. It’s not expensive.”

Leasing your panels? You’ll need to read your contract to see how they handle natural and unnatural disasters.

What if I move?

This shouldn’t be much of an issue if you buy the panels outright. They’ll probably just add to the value of your home.

It’s more complicated if you finance your panels with leases or loans.

You may need to fork over a lump sum to get out of the arrangement if the person buying your house isn’t into the panels, or if there are still bills tied to them. There can also be headaches if the buyer wants to keep the panels but doesn’t qualify to loan them.

How heavy are those panels, anyway? Will my roof be able to handle them?

Solar panels actually aren’t that heavy.

Most are just 2 to 3 pounds a square foot, which isn’t a problem for most roofs.

But if your roof is in need of replacement or major fixes in the first place – say you’ve had a termite infestation or have some leaks – you’re not an ideal candidate for solar until you get a new one.

What if I end up needing a new roof? Or need some work done?

You’re probably going to have to remove your solar panels if significant fixes are needed and it’s probably going to cost you.

“Many lease (and power purchase agreements) clauses specifically call out that any removal of the system is done at the homeowner’s cost, not the solar company’s,” said Benjamin Airth, a senior manager for the San Diego-based Center for Sustainable Energy.

And, of course, if you own the system, you’ll also need to pay someone to remove them.

So, again, you should get your roofing projects done before you go solar.

What if the solar company goes out of business?

Many solar companies have come and gone in the last decade.

If the solar installer goes under, you can contact the manufacturer of the panels or other faulty equipment.

In that case, the manufacturer will connect you with a dealer or a contractor who can look at your system and figure out what’s wrong, Airth said.

Again, most manufacturers offer long-term warranties so they’ll cover repair costs.

Going with more established manufacturers can help on this front. They’re more likely to be around for the duration of your warranty.

The situation could get more complicated if your warranty’s up or the manufacturer’s gone under too. If that’s the case, you may need to track down a new company to help with repairs and foot the bill yourself.

Am I going to see the energy bill savings the sales guy is saying I will? And what rights do I have if I don’t?

Solar panels generally come with performance guarantees and some companies like Sullivan Solar Power even offer to write you a check if your panels don’t deliver as promised.

But you play a role in how your utility bill savings pencil out.

Solar companies decide how many solar panels you need and the power your system should be able to produce based on past electricity use.

If you end up using more energy, your San Diego Gas & Electric bills may not shrink as much as you’re envisioning.

“If a homeowner goes out and buys a large seawater fish tank, installs a whole-home dehumidifier, runs the pool pump more, etc., it will adversely affect the utility bill,” Airth said.

This is part of our quest on whether solar will pay off for San Diego. Check out our previous post, Most People Choose the Costliest Route to Going Solar.

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