Hey, did you get solar panels installed on your house? Nice work! You’ve joined about two million other solar installations in the United States.
Why not take a minute to stand outside your home and admire your shiny new solar panels? Hopefully it’s a sunny day, so that you can check your electricity production while you look at the bright sun glinting off your array.
After standing in your driveway and staring up at your roof for several minutes, you might start to wonder what to do next. For the vast majority of people, this will be the first home solar system they own. What are the things that a solar homeowner needs to know?
The good thing about solar panels is that there are no moving parts, failures are rare, and there’s little that you need to do to keep your system running. Here’s a list of things to tackle after you’ve had your system installed.
If you’re like me, you buy things like LED lightbulbs that have 10 year warranties and think ”Oh great! A ten year warranty!” but when the thing actually fails, you don’t have a receipt because nobody actually keeps a receipt for a $5 lightbulb for 10 years.
Your home solar system cost a little more than that, so make sure to stash a copy of your contract somewhere so that you can still find it a couple decades from now.
Your solar installer will provide a warranty for their work, and it could be 5, 10, or even 25 years long. In addition to the labor warranty, the solar panels and inverters will have their own warranty provided by the manufacturer. Make sure that you know the model numbers for these components and what the specific warranty coverages are.
It would probably be a good idea to print a copy of all these documents, because you can’t be certain that the warranty policy for your model will still be sitting on the manufacturer’s website 25 years from now.
In the US, at a minimum you will have access to the federal solar tax credit, and there may be state and local incentives as well.
Make sure you know what these are, and have the documentation to apply for them. In the case of the federal tax credit, you will be using IRS Form 5696. It’s only one page long and you only need to know the price you paid for the system, so it’s not a difficult form to fill out.
Do keep in mind that this is a tax credit and not a rebate. This means that you can only reduce your federal tax liability to zero. If you can’t use all of the credit given by your solar system, don’t worry - you can use the remainder the next year.
Several states also have income tax credits for solar too, so be sure to check.
Because you’ve added value to your home by installing solar panels, your property tax assessment may increase.
Fortunately, 36 states offer property tax exemptions for solar. This means that even though solar panels can add tens of thousands of dollars of value to your home, you may be eligible for an exemption that excludes the value of your solar panels from your property assessment.
This might save you hundreds of dollars a year, and thousands of dollars over the life of your system. Every state has its own rules around solar property tax exemptions, and in some states the rules only mean that local authorities have the option (but not the obligation) to offer the exemption.
For you the soalr homeowner, this means that you should check with your local property tax office to find out. In some cases, a solar exemption is something that you have to apply for, so make sure to submit any required paperwork before assessment time rolls around.
While you’re thinking about the increased value of your home due to the solar panels, don’t forget about your home insurance. Solar panels are typically covered by your homeowner’s insurance, but you should call them up to let them know about the addition (as you should anytime you do a major renovation). They may require you to submit photos or documentation.
While the addition of solar panels may change your insurance premium, but it’s important to keep your insurer updated with any major changes to your home to ensure that you are properly covered for anything that happens in the future.
Any home solar system will allow you to monitor the amount of electricity generated, either through a smartphone app, website, or a basic display on the inverter.
Whichever monitoring system you have, get in the habit of checking your electricity production at least once a week. This will allow you to understand how much electricity your system will normally generate on sunny days, cloudy days, in winter, and in summer.
If your inverter system is based on power optimizers or microinverters, you should be able to see how much electricity each individual panel generates in real time, or at least whether a malfunctioning.
With a central inverter, you won’t be able to monitor individual panels, and so you will have to look at the total system production to detect a drop in generation. If you have a large system, the loss of one panel might not be very noticeable, which is why power optimizers and microinverters have the edge when it comes to monitoring.
Look out for unusually low electricity production from your system, especially sudden dropouts (which surely point to a system failure). A change in expected energy production from one or more panels means that you need to take a closer look at your system, possibly by getting on a ladder - or having a technician pay a visit if you’re not comfortable with that.
If you have a clear view of your system from the ground, take a close look at your panels once a month. Solar panels don’t fail very often, but many failures can be visible.
Things you should look out for include cracked glass, humidity under the glass due to failed seals, and discoloration resembling scorch marks.
If you see these or any other signs of physical damage to your panels, try to take a photo using a camera with a good zoom, and send it to your installer who will be able to tell you right away if you have a problem that needs fixing, or they will send out a technician for a closer look.
Another thing that you should look out for are signs of critters nesting underneath your panels. Birds and rodents, especially squirrels, like to nest underneath solar panels. Squirrels are a particular problem because they’re known to chew on wiring, which can cause expensive damage to your system.
If you do spot a nest, you can try to carefully remove it on your own with a long pole, but be cautious of the many wires under your panels that can be easily dislodged or damaged. If in doubt, call your installer or a roofer to remove the pests, and consider having critter guards installed.
Solar panels will usually have a product warranty of at least 10 years. Premium panels often come with 25 year product warranties.
Central inverters, on the other hand, typically come with warranties of about 10 years. This means that your panels can often be expected to last twice as long as your inverter, or more. Don’t be surprised if your inverter fails after a decade and needs a replacement.
Be sure to budget for this expense if you decided to go with a central inverter.
When you look up at your panels, check to see if they are dirty. For the majority of people, it’s not necessary to clean your solar panels, and certainly not worth it to pay a company to wash them for you. Rain will often do a good enough job of cleaning your panels for you.
Do solar homeowners ever need to bother cleaning their solar panels? Sometimes, yes. In drought-prone areas, arid climates where dust is a problem, or neighborhoods with lots of trees that drop needles and leaves, it is possible that enough dirt or debris can accumulate on your panels to cause a significant drop in energy production. If you don’t get enough rain, you may need to think about cleaning the panels yourself.
If you pay a company to clean your panels, it’ll usually cost you more than $100 per visit. Unless you have very severe soiling or your panels are hard to reach yourself, the increased energy production you’ll get from clean panels usually won’t pay back the cost of the cleanings.
To clean your panels yourselves, first make sure that you can reach them without risk of damaging them (such as by smashing a pole onto the glass). Only use low pressure water (never a pressure washer) or a soft brush and extension pole. Soap usually isn’t necessary, but if you want you can use a little mild dish soap, which won’t damage the anti-reflection coating on the glass. Windex or any ammonia-based cleaners.
You can read our detailed guide on how to clean your solar panels, which includes some suggested products to make the job easier.
By the way, check out this solar panel cleaning robot that’s used for solar arrays in deserts of the Middle East. As you can see, there are definitely times when solar panels need to be cleaned!
Your neighbors will probably notice the work going on at your house, and the shiny new panels on your roof. You’ll probably have a quite a few people tell you that they’ve always been curious about solar, but have never taken the time to really investigate it. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions!
If you had a good experience with your installer, be aware that many companies offer a cash bonus to their past customers when they refer a person who ends up purchasing a system. So not only can you help spread the good word about solar by answering all the questions that your neighbors have, but you can often make a little money too.
Of course, you can always point them at The Solar Nerd where they can get multiple quotes from prescreened local installers.