Solar Panel Maintenance: Does Dirt, Dust, and Pollen Affect Solar Energy Production?

There are many benefits to solar power. Not only do consumers and business get tax relief and or reduce their energy expenses, but well-maintained systems also produce energy without creating excessive amounts of emissions and waste. In fact, solar energy is so clean and easy to use that many governments are rushing towards implementing it into their existing grids, and homeowners are usually just excited to find out how much money they can save. Meanwhile, questions are being asked about the effects of dust, dirt and debris on the efficiency of solar panels. Do those particles play a role in how well your system works or not?

Research Shows Airborne Debris Reduces Solar Energy Collections

According to experts, environmental pollution could reduce the amount of light that gets absorbed by your solar panels, even if the system is relatively new. Research demonstrated a decrease in energy collected and produced when panels were blocked by dirt, dust and debris – as much as 25% difference in some cases.

As it turns out, solar energy itself is clean but the air between the sun and the panels is not. Therefore, the combination of airborne particles and existing environmental buildup can result in some losses. And if system maintenance is completely ignored, these things can happen rather quickly.

Scientists from Duke University working with a team from the Indian Institute of Technology in Gandhinagar wanted to know if solar was a more efficient power source in some places than it was in others. They also wanted to find out whether dirty panels produced less energy, and if so, how much less.

Their findings illustrate just how detrimental our current atmospheric conditions are to these low-cost, environmentally friendly solar energy installations. So while it’s obvious that dirty panels will not collect as much sunlight as the clean ones, nobody had been able to measure the difference until now.

The innovative team gathered their data by carefully measuring changes to solar energy collection over time, with their focus on a specific set of panels that were exposed to environmental pollutants constantly. They discovered that it only took a couple of weeks for the panels to begin decreasing in efficacy and efficiency due to dirt, dust and debris buildup. After thoroughly cleaning off each of the panels, the energy outputs skyrocketed by nearly 50%. This was the confirmation they were looking for. With that information on hand, researchers were finally able to create more useful maintenance schedules, advise on more durable construction materials, track down better resources, and begin transforming our power grids into a more substantial system.

road going through the plains

Environmental Debris Consists of Avoidable and Unavoidable Substances

Contrary to popular belief, the particles that stand in the way of maximum solar panel efficiency aren’t necessarily from pollution alone. Most of the time, the gunk that’s caked up on the panels is just ordinary dirt or dust from the surrounding landscape. This is especially true for properties located in deserts and/or plains, where wind can carry debris over extremely long distances. Experts say that only about 8% of those particles stem from human-driven pollutants though. So, even if we cleaned up our act significantly and lowered emissions on a planet-wide scale, installed solar power systems would still need to be cleaned off regularly to maximize their performance.

FACT: China currently loses tens of billions of dollars annually because of solar energy not collected due to unclean panels and environmental pollution.

Factors That Contribute to Increased or Decreased Power Production

As consumers and companies begin utilizing solar power grids more often, equal amounts of attention need to be given to the effects of environmental particles on the efficacy of panel installations. Having a measurable matrix is practical but understanding the factors that contribute to decreased/increased solar power production is just as important.

Environmental Conditions

The location of your installation is very crucial to the shelf life and efficiency of your grid. For example, installations near emissions-producing factories, roadways, large cities, shorelines and/or tourist areas are usually in need of the most cleaning. Studies have also shown a significant reduction in efficiency during certain seasons and in less habitable ecosystems.

Existing Pollution

Regardless of where your installation is located, every panel will be exposed to existing environmental pollutants that can do more than just reduce energy collection and output. Substances typically include, but aren’t always limited to:

    • Carbon monoxide and dioxide
    • Carbon dioxide
    • Sulfur (dioxide and trioxide)
    • Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
    • Hydrocarbons
    • Chlorine

All of these substances are abrasive, which means they can do massive damage to the integrity of your installation if they’re not adequately managed. By knowing and understanding the factors that contribute to a reduction in solar energy you can prevent those factors from turning into a more costly problem. It’s also important to learn how to properly clean and maintain panels before attempting to take matters into your own hands.

solar panel cleaning process

Basic Solar Panel Cleaning and Maintenance Guide 

Although it’s almost always the best idea to hire a team of solar power professionals to clean off dirty solar panels, with the right tools and a bit of knowledge, the average person can do it on their own. First, you should check the current state of your solar power system. If you have issues with efficiency, are these localized to the panel site? Or could something else be causing the issue? An expert can help you figure out how to streamline your grid for maximum energy collection and output, so don’t be afraid to ask questions.

If you absolutely must wash solar panels without professional assistance, you should follow these five important to prevent injury and/or property damage:

  1. Check with the manufacturer of the equipment to make sure there aren’t any special maintenance protocols required. Neglecting this part of the process may result in warranties being voided, so be diligent.
  2. Remember that solar panels can become extremely hot in the sun, so schedule your maintenance session in the early morning, at dusk if possible, or on a cloudy day.
  3. Attempt to spray off the first layer of loose dirt, dust and debris with a regular garden hose.
  4. Use non-abrasive soap on a soft sponge with warm water to loosen stubborn buildup and avoid surface scratches. NOTE: You usually don’t have to clean underneath the sun-facing side of the panels, but check your manual just in case.
  5. Rinse off all leftover soap residue thoroughly before allowing the panels to air-dry (a rubber squeegee is acceptable too).

Be extra cautious when climbing to reach high hung panel installations – use sturdy equipment and enlist a coworker. This is exactly why hiring a pro is usually recommended. The experts at Coastal Solar follow strict safety guidelines that go even further than what’s recommended here.

Either way, remember that clean systems put out a lot more energy and last for much longer than dirty ones, but allowing rainwater to do the work for you isn’t ideal. A study conducted by Google in Mountain View, California saw a 12% increase in system efficiency when panels were cleaned by hand instead of washed by the power of nature alone. It’s therefore reasonable to assume that dirt, dust and debris from the environment play a significant role in your bottom line.

Truth be told, cleaning off a solar panel isn’t much different than wiping down a regular window in your home. Fortunately, it’s not a time-consume endeavor either. Usually, solar power systems need to be cleaned by the property management staff or by the installation company about twice per year. Smaller panels may require quarterly baths, however, and all components are generally exposed to more environmental pollution in colder climates and arid ecosystems.

Good news! If you have a solar power battery, you probably won’t have to wipe that particular piece of equipment down.

PRO TIP: Track how often you should be cleaning your solar panels by monitoring the changes in power output before and after a wash.

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