What can you do about a cracked solar panel?
You look up on your roof and see that the glass on one of your solar panels has shattered. Here's what to do about it.
Solar panels for home and commercial use are really tough. They’re designed to withstand hurricanes, rain storms, and hail, and will usually continue to work for 25 years or more.
That doesn’t mean they’re indestructible. While they’re designed to withstand impacts from one-inch hail, a wayward baseball or unusually large hailstone can shatter the tempered glass. If this happens, you might notice the telltale spider pattern of broken glass.
What can you do about it? Well, that depends.
Broken “hobbyist” solar panel
First of all, we should make a distinction between a solar panel installed in a residential or commercial setting versus one that is used in a hobbyist or portable application.
For example, there are small portable solar panels you can use for camping or other small off-grid applications.
If you own one of these panels and discover a crack or other visible damage on the front side of the panel, check to see if it still generates power. As long as the insulation around the wiring on the rear of the panel is intact, you may safely continue to use the panel.
You might see reduced power output and eventually experience a premature failure, but as long as the panel continues to generate a useful amount of power, feel free to continue to use the panel.
What to do about a broken solar panel on your rooftop
If you have a broken solar panel on your roof, the situation is a little different.
The first thing you should do if you notice that one of your panels might be broken is to check your monitoring system. If you have microinverters or power optimizers (and a majority of home solar installations today do), you will be able to see the power output of individual panels in your system.
When a panel is damaged, you might see that is has less power output than an adjacent panel, or it might not have any output at all. Some monitoring systems, such as Enphase Enlighten, can automatically alert you to failures like this.
Check your warranty coverage
If you find that one of your panels is damaged or has failed, the first thing to do is check your warranty coverage. Remember that your installer and the equipment manufacturer will provide their own warranty, so you’ll need to read your contract from the installer and look up the warranty coverage on the solar panel manufacturer’s website.
Unfortunately, in most cases, neither the manufacturer or installer will cover damage that is out of their control such as weather-related damage or your neighbor’s kid using your roof for target practice. That said, it’s worth taking a minute to check.
Check your homeowner’s insurance
Because solar panels are attached to your home, they are usually covered by your homeowner’s insurance policy. If so, you might be able to make an insurance claim for the repair.
However, you will have a deductible for any insurance claims you make, and this might typically run between $500 and $2,000. That will often be more than the cost of the repair itself. Unless you have several panels that have been damaged (such as might happen in a freak hailstorm), making an insurance claim unfortunately may not be worth it.
A cracked solar panel will eventually stop working
If you have a cracked solar panel that is still generating electricity, the odds are that it will eventually stop working.
The glass on your solar panel provides a barrier to physical damage from impacts, but it also keeps out humidity. Even if you don’t see water pooling inside the panel, cracks in the glass can allow water vapor to leak inside.
Eventually, the presense of water vapor can accelerate corrosion. The wires that connect the individual cells of a solar panel are very thin, making them susceptible to oxidation. While an intact panel can be expected to last 25 years or more, if the glass or frame is damaged, corrosion can accelerate and cause the panel to fail years before its expected lifespan.
You could just leave your broken solar panel alone
Whether or not your cracked solar panel is still generating power or is completely dead, one option is to simply leave it alone. If you have 20 panels in your system and one is broken, that’s only a 5% loss of power.
A repair, on the other hand, might cost you hundreds of dollars. The cost of that repair could easily exceed the value of electricity that one panel would generate for the remaining life of your system.
One situation where this might not be an option is if you have a string inverter. With this type of inverter, a failure of a single panel can cause the entire string to go dead, similar to a string of Christmas lights.
This is one significant advantage of microinverters. With microinverters, every panel in your system works independently. The failure of one panel doesn’t impact any other panels in your system.
One reason to go with a ground-mounted system
I don’t recommend crawling around on your roof to repair your own solar array. Even if you’re comfortable on a roof and have the required safety harness, it’s too easy to cause more damage this way.
For example, it might seem like it’s safe to step on a solar panel to reach your broken one, but it’s not. While the damage won’t be visible, flexing a solar panel by applying your weight to the front glass can cause microfractures in the silicon cells. Even if the damage isn’t immediately obvious, those invisibile fractures can lead to premature failures down the road.
However, the story is different if you have a ground-mounted solar array. If you’re comfortable around electricity and basic tools, it’s possible to replace a broken solar panel in a ground-mounted array on your own.
Just keep in mind that a solar array generates thousands of watts of electricity at hundreds of volts. While your system will have a disconnect switch, the wires at the rear of the panel are still “live” when the sun is shining.
This means that you should use insulating gloves, and it’s best to work in the early morning or late evening before the sun is hitting your array.
Keep in mind that solar panels come in slightly different sizes, so it’s best to replace your broken panel with an identical panel so it fits properly in the rack and has the same wattage.