How to Care For Your RV Solar Panel System

You finally got that Solar Panel System properly installed in your RV (or have had one for a while now), and now how do you take care of it? We will be going through how to care for each of the components of your solar panel system, which we’ll nicely outline first into an easy-to-follow maintenance checklist, then explain in detail in the sections afterward.

Remember that this article is focused on the solar power system and not just the solar panels per se. If you’re not too familiar with the components I’ll be referring to, or you’re still deciding if you should actually go get one (or upgrade), you could read more about it in the article I wrote on solar panels HERE.

Maintenance Checklist For Solar Power System

Monthly Check

  • BMS efficiency
  • Only for Wet-Cell Lead Acid Batteries:
    • Check for electrolyte levels, add distilled water as needed
    • Check and clean battery terminals for corrosion
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Image Source: iStock

Annual, Or As Needed

  • Clean dust or debris off solar panels (if your panels are laid flat, in a dusty area or if BMS drops)
  • Check solar panels for microcracks or any part that has corroded/deteriorated
  • Vents are free of debris
  • Switches have no defects
  • Check charge controller wire connections if they’re clean and secure (BMS will tell if there’s something wrong with it)
  • Check all wire connections for cracks or corrosion, including the wires mated together
  • Electrical checks to see if all parts are working as intended
  • Check if mounts and fasteners are tight
  • Inverter is in a place that does not overheat
  • Anti-theft measures: security cable/lock, motion detector light, etc.
  • Easy to see emergency procedures for shutdown and isolation are visible
  • As applicable: Snow guards are securely attached

Off-Season Storage

  • Battery should be fully charged, removed from RV, stored in cool, dry place (counter self-discharge)
  • For Wet-Cell Lead Acid Battery: check for electrolyte levels

How Do I Monitor Solar Panel Efficiency?

Tracking the electrical output of your solar panel system should be done through a Battery Monitoring System (BMS), which you can record the data over time to calculate panel degradation. This is important especially if your solar panels come with a performance warranty, and you want to track the efficiency through time. In addition, your BMS can also notify you if there’s any damage or malfunction in your solar panel system.

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Image Source: SolarElectric

Do You Really Need To Clean Your Solar Panels? And If So, How Often?

So when it comes to keeping your solar panels clean, for the most, you can clean them at least once a year if your solar panels are laid flat (and more frequently if you live in a dusty area). Some sources even recommend getting the solar panels cleaned every three (3) to five (5) years!

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PCMag’s article explains that Google did a study on how dirt affects solar panel efficiency between solar panels that are laid flat and those that are angled. It’s quite fascinating that after cleaning all their 1.6 Megawatt solar panels after 15 months in their Mountain View headquarters, the efficiency of the solar panels that laid flat improved by almost 50%, while the angled solar panels had a “relatively” small difference.

Similar to this, the University of California also had a similar study where solar panels lost 7.4% of their efficiency after 145 days without being cleaned or rained on during a summer drought, which is basically insignificant enough to require professional cleaning. Dust storms or any localized circumstances, grime, leaves in the fall, very heavy snow, bird poop, and anything thick enough to block sunlight on the PV cells of the panels will require cleaning.

Do I Need To Clean Solar Panels During Winter?

Interestingly enough, solar panels work well, if not better, during winter since there’s less heat, which is better for the PV cells to work more efficiently. Solar panels work with both direct and indirect sunlight (when the light bounces off), so even if there’s a thin layer of snow ON your solar panel, it will still work.

That thin layer of snow will eventually melt since the dark panels attract heat and sunlight, and as it melts, it will clean the dust and dirt as it slides off the surface (especially if the panel is on an angle). This is also similar to how rain can clean the panels, but if there’s any thick film accumulating on it or there’s a significant efficiency dip, it would be time to clean the panel(s).

How Do I Clean My Solar Panels?

Here’s a step by step instruction on how to clean your dirty solar panels:

  1. See first if there are any special instructions from the solar panel manufacturer for shutting down your solar power system. Don’t just go on your RV roof top to clean it without being aware of the cables, etc. If your RV has an easy access to the roof, and you can safely clean the solar panels, then great! If you have the portable foldable ones, then at least you don’t have to worry about falling since you can clean your panels from the ground.
  2. Best time to clean your solar panel(s) would be early morning or evening, or on an overcast day so there wouldn’t be too much sun on the wet panels for the water to dry up too quickly and leave smudges during the process.
  3. Get a hose or a bucket of water (or two) ready, maybe a very soft plastic brush or a cloth-covered soft sponge if needed, and a squeegee (if it has an handle extension, better). No need to use strong detergents, any abrasive products or metal objects – nobody wants scratches on the solar panels since these scratches can create shadows, which will affect the panel’s efficiency. Water and a soft sponge is enough to clean the panels, but if there’s a layer of grime, using dish washing soap with a soft sponge can help (make sure to rinse it off well).
  4. Make sure your solar power system is OFF.
  5. Remove any loose debris (loose dust or leaves, branches, etc.).
  6. If you have access to a hose, do spray the panel(s) with water on it to soften whatever gunk on the panel(s). A bucket of water is fine too. This will make it easier to clean. If your hose has a good nozzle to spray water into the corners/crevices, you can do so too to loosen up the dust that accumulated in the corners of the frame (as applicable, since some solar panels don’t have a frame).
  7. Clean off the dust/dirt/grime with a soft sponge. If the bird poop’s a bit stuck on there, just make sure you don’t rub into the solar panel too much. Water should help soften it up until you can clean it out with a light rub with the sift sponge and water.
  8. Once the panel(s) clean, squeegee off any excess water. This step is important especially if you’re using ‘hard water’ (mineral-rich tap water) so there aren’t any streaks or any mineral build-up.

Can You Pressure Wash RV Solar Panels?

Even if it does sound like an easier way to clean your solar panel(s), it may be best to avoid high-pressure washers (including any harsh chemicals and abrasive scrubbers) since it could potentially damage your solar panels.

Can I Use Windex On My RV Solar Panels?

Despite solar panels having a layer of glass for protection, it isn’t as simple as cleaning windows or any glass surface. Outdoor Windex is ok, but it may not be so environmentally friendly. This is why most suggest using just water and if needed, a gentle non-abrasive soap.

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Image Source: iStock

A natural cleaner (1/2 tsp non-abrasive soap like dishwashing liquid with 2 cups water and ¼ cup vinegar) is also a gentle and effective solution for stubborn dirt and grime. But just like the instruction section earlier, just make sure to squeegee the excess water off so it doesn’t leave a film (since tap water may have minerals that can do that.)

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Image Source: iStock

As a side note, never use RainX or car wax, rock salt (for snow, as this is abrasive), hot water, or walk ON the solar panels themselves (unless you have the walkable roof deck solar panel type).

How To Protect You Solar Panels From Weather Like Hurricanes, Hail, Snow Or Stones

Winterization

Thin layers of snow on your solar panels are fine, but if your solar panels are at an angle on your RV rooftop AND you’ll be in an area that experiences heavy snowfall, it may be best to make sure you do have snow guards installed. It’s more of a safety feature to help ensure that it breaks up the thick snow layer and lessens the impact of a snow avalanche, or how some call it, a “solar panel avalanche.”

This would happen when the thick layer of snow is heavy enough to slide off the smooth glass surface of your solar panel. Most solar panels permanently mounted on an RV roof are usually flat (unless you have the option to angle it either automatically or manually), and any thick snow layer build-up would be after a heavy snowstorm.

But if you think you may need to have snow guards, the clamp-on guards (installed at the solar panel edges or in between panels) maybe what would be applicable for solar panels permanently installed at an angle on an RV roof.

Hail

Depending on the company and the country standards where the solar panels were manufactured, some solar panels will be able to withstand hail up to 35mm diameter (half a golf ball or 1.38 inch), traveling 80km/h (49.7 mph).

Some solar panels are rated to take 25.4 mm (1 inch) hail at 84 km/h (52 mph). Some North American solar panel tests use a 2” diameter 5lbs ball dropped at 51” height.

The glass surface of good quality solar panels can often stand up to a beating, but of course, if you know you’re going to be traveling or be in an area that will get hail, there are ways to protect your solar panels like getting 1-inch plexiglass (cut a bit larger than the solar panel) and mounted with space between the solar panel and the plexiglass (not directly mounted on the solar panel). Do check if the solar manufacturer will include insurance that includes any damage from hail.

Hurricanes, Storms

Solar panels can usually withstand strong winds and rains since they’re waterproof and even could still create energy since they can still work with direct and indirect sunlight. Most solar panels can stand up to 225km/h (140 mph winds or around 2,400 pascals) and can withstand a Category 4 hurricane (speed range is from 209 – 256 km/h or 130 – 156 mph).

A word of caution, even if the solar panels can withstand the winds and rain, this doesn’t include things like rocks or debris that the winds could carry. The winds can also weaken the solar panel mounting on your RV roof (hopefully it doesn’t blow off the solar panel during the hurricane/storm), but do check the solar panel(s), the mounting, and all the wires once the storm passes.

Stones, Golf Balls, etc.

Unless mother nature decides to make it rain rocks (or it’s brought on by a hurricane), usually vandals would be the ones intentionally throwing stones, or a random golf ball or anything of that sort could accidentally fall on your solar panel(s).

If you park your RV in a location that may be prone to this, similar to how to protect your solar panel(s) from hail, you can also use plexiglass, mounted with space between the panel and the plexiglass (not directly unto the solar panel).

How To Protect Portable Solar Panels From Theft

There are different ways to protect your solar panel(s) from theft when you are camping. Portable solar panels tend to grow feet and walk off all the time. The best way to prevent this kind of theft is to keep them out of sight whenever you can. The other way to protect them is to use a ¼ inch aircraft cable with a lock and secure them to the RV or a tree nearby.

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Image Source: familyhandyman

Should RV Solar Panels Be Serviced?

Ideally, a licensed technician should do a routine check on the whole RV electrical system on a regular basis. Electrical safety has to be taken seriously and this also includes your solar panel system. I’ve integrated some of the things checked in a routine system check in the checklist at the start of the article, and if you’re a bit savvy with electrical systems in general, this should do.

But just in case you’re not too confident about checking your RV electrical system by yourself, including your solar panel system, then it would be best to check with a licensed technician, especially if there are warranties involved for one or other components on your RV or solar panel system.

Conclusion

Caring for the investment that you know will come back, in the long run, is worth it. Especially if you’re keeping it ‘green’ (and since the system can cost a lot). Hopefully, this article has helped with some basic know-how on how to care for and protect your solar panel system.