Although photovoltaic systems may seem simple, maintaining them can be somewhat complex. Because many of their components are installed outdoors, they are constantly exposed to changing environmental conditions. Vibrations from the wind; expansion and contraction from temperature changes; moisture, dirt and other forces from Mother Nature all can take a toll on these systems. To help identify and reduce these detrimental effects, it’s important to implement a predictive and preventive maintenance program. This can also help preserve an adequate return on initial capital expense and help minimize the potential of causing injury /damage to personnel or property. Below are some key components of photovoltaic systems that should be regularly maintained:
Whether solar arrays are mounted on the roof of a building or at ground level, they should remain securely fastened to help prevent excessive movement of the panels in relation to their structural attachment. The vibratory effects of the wind combined with expansion and contraction of system components due to temperature changes can cause the mechanical fasteners to loosen.
Excessive movement of the panels also can have a detrimental effect on the panels themselves, on the building or the structure to which they are attached, to the cabling and electrical connections between the panels and to the collectors and inverters. Therefore, it is recommended that any maintenance program for this equipment include a comprehensive inspection and tightening routine that identifies and addresses loosened fasteners.
Rain, snow, UV radiation, heat and humidity can potentially damage electrical components. UV radiation can break down rubber and plastic insulation on electrical conductors. Moisture can provide a path for electrical current to ground, as well as cause corrosion of electrical connectors. An effective inspection and maintenance program should include thoroughly inspecting components where electrical connections and wiring are susceptible to degradation.
Disconnects, switches and circuit breakers
Solar arrays generate DC power whenever they are exposed to light. To help ensure personnel safety, disconnects should be arranged to de-energize as much of the circuitry as possible and can be installed for each individual panel. These disconnects, as well as other switches and circuit breakers in the system should be maintained as directed by the manufacturer.
A key component in any solar system is the inverter. The inverter is an electronic device that converts DC power generated in the photovoltaic cell to AC power for use at the host facility or by the power grid. Inverters may be installed indoors, but they could also be located outside in a suitable weather enclosure. Whether the inverters are located indoors or outdoors, the maintenance program should be designed to help prevent conditions that could cause the inverter to exceed manufacturer’s design specifications. Good housekeeping practices should be enforced. Proper cooling air flow in and around the inverter is critical. Filters and systems employed to manage airborne debris also should be regularly maintained.
Although not installed in many solar systems, storage batteries can extend the availability of power during low light or overnight. Battery storage comes with added system complexity and additional maintenance requirements. Batteries are susceptible to damage from temperature variations and improper electrolyte levels. Batteries also require additional system considerations regarding available fault currents and electrical protective devices.
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