The typical lifespan of a solar panel is 25 years or more. The keys to a long life? A reputable installer and some basic maintenance.
Powering our homes with solar energy once seemed like science fiction. Even in the last decade, it was a strange sight to see a home covered in solar panels. But thanks to rapid advancements in technology and plummeting prices, that has changed.
Residential solar panel systems can now cost $20,000 or less after a newly expanded federal tax credit. That means the option to switch to clean energy has never been more attainable.
"Since I got started back in 2008, the cost has dropped by something like 90%," Chris Deline, a research engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, told CNET.
But solar panels are still an expensive investment, and you want to be sure that investment will still be paying off years from now.
So how long can adopters expect their solar panels to last, and how can they ensure the maximum lifespan of their investment? The list of factors to consider isn't too long.
With a $20,000 or more cost of installation, you'll want your solar panels to last longer than a few years. The good news is that they should.
Deline says most solar panels are designed to last decades, and reputable installers should offer warranties of 25 years or longer.
"In the entire system, probably some of the most durable and long-lived components are the solar panels themselves," he said. "They often come with 25-year warranties. Further, the materials they're composed of -- aluminum and glass, primarily -- can be durable enough to last much longer, sometimes 30, 40 or 50 years."
Often, if a failure occurs, it happens in the system's electrical components. Deline said that in many cases, issues like a problem with the system's power-inverter, which converts DC power to AC power, can simply be replaced without even climbing up to the panels themselves. In other instances, individual components of a panel's electronics can be fixed or replaced, which allow for a panel to last years into the future.
Solar panels aren't typically very fragile, so there isn't much that can affect their lifespan.
Deline said the elements of a solar panel degrade very slowly, which means they'll remain highly functioning well into their life cycles. Between the normal wear and tear of electrical components and micro-cracks that develop on the surface of the panels, he said experts typically estimate a degradation of half a percent per year. That means that if a panel sits on a roof for 20 years in normal conditions, it can still be expected to function at 90% of its original capacity.
Of course, natural disasters can lead to an earlier end to a solar system's lifespan. Events like a lightning strike, a hail storm or a wind storm can cause damage that the most durable panel can't withstand. But even in those instances, most panels are resilient. They require a lengthy testing process before being sold, which includes being blasted by hail up to 1.5 inches in diameter, alternating between high and low temperatures and baking in heat and humidity for 2,000 hours.
In the current solar panel industry, there isn't much room for differentiation between different types of solar panels, which simplifies your choices.
"I would hesitate to say that any one panel is going to be more likely to survive longer than any other," Deline said. "Panels are pretty much going to be the same. The differences are the quality control of the manufacturer and whether they have a good handle on the chemistry and manufacturing technology."
That makes it critical to ensure that you're getting your system installed by a reputable source. An increase in federal solar incentives, along with solar lease programs, solar loan offers and solar rebates, has flooded the market with less-than-savory outfits. Deline recommends interested buyers do their research, get a few quotes and avoid deals that sound too good to be true.
You might wonder whether you need to have a specialized roof before installing solar panels. The good news is that in 2023, solar panel installation requires very little of a typical roof.
Deline said that unless you have a roof designed for aesthetics rather than load-bearing, or if the design of your home means it can't withstand any more weight, a typical residential house should be just fine for solar panel installation. Your installer will also check the condition of your roof to make sure it will last.
"Generally, your installer should be able to figure that out just by looking at it," he said. "But if your roof is totally falling apart, it may not be worth it."
So how can solar system adopters ensure their panels last all the way through their 25-year warranties and beyond? Here are a few ways to maximize the lifespan of your solar system, according to Deline.
Because these panels will stay on top of your home for more than two decades, be sure to be thorough when doing your research on who is installing your system. Deline said finding a reputable installer is "far and away" the most important step in the process, and mistakes upfront can create huge headaches down the line.
It may seem obvious, but Deline warns that those with a solar system should be sure to monitor how much they're generating. That's because systems often have some kind of shut-off switch, which can be tripped surprisingly easily, even by an expert. And if you turn your system off without realizing, you can waste days or weeks of generation.
"I have kids, and we have a big red shut-off handle," he said. "I came home one day and it was off, and I found out that a month before, my kid had been messing around outside and had hit the switch. If you don't keep tabs on it, it could just be off for extended periods of time."
A little bit of dirt and grime won't render your panels useless, but it's still a good idea to keep them clean. Deline said different areas of the country lead to different types of buildup, from dirt and soil to snow. With too much buildup, they won't work as effectively. But the good news is that it's as simple as cleaning panels off with a push broom. Just be sure not to smash them.
"You can't walk on them, but otherwise they're pretty resilient," he said. "You can even hose them off."