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Should You Buy Ground-Mounted Solar Panels? What to Know

You don't necessarily need to install solar panels on your roof. Here's how you might be able to put them in your backyard.

Solar panels leaning against a metal rack outdoors, person with a hard hat in the distance.
Mounting solar panels on a rack can be a good alternative to rooftop panels.
anatoliy_gleb/Getty Images

Much of the solar power that's helping to fuel the expansion of renewable energy in the US comes from big solar farms made of rows and rows of solar panels oriented to capture the most sun possible. Some of it comes from people installing solar technology, usually on their roofs, to generate their own energy and save some money. About 1 gigawatt of residential solar power is installed every three months (or, 2.5 million solar panels).

You may have thought about solar power, only to find your roof is too shaded, facing away from the sun or not suited to solar tech for another reason. Ground-mounted solar panels offer an option that doesn't rely on your roof and can produce more energy, all while letting you take advantage of the federal tax credit, local tax incentives and solar power's long-term savings. Here's what to know. 

Advertiser Disclosure: CNET's corporate partner, SaveOnEnergy, can help you find the right energy fit for your home. The SaveOnEnergy marketplace helps you search, compare, sign up and save on the right energy fit for your home — all for free. If you're interested in solar, answer a few questions to get an exact price quote from our solar advisors.  

Ground-mounted vs. rooftop solar panels

The main difference between ground-mounted and rooftop solar panels is there in the name. While the more familiar rooftop panels go on a rooftop, ground-mounted panels are affixed to the ground.

There's more to it than that, and ground-mounted panels have some advantages over rooftop panels, but come up short elsewhere.

Pros of ground-mounted panels

The true advantage of ground-mounted panels is that they don't have to go on your roof. If your house is in a nice shady spot but you've got a nice sunny backyard, you can put them there.

Rooftop panels are also captive to your roof design, since solar panels work best at a specific slope and direction. While the optimum tilt depends on your latitude, the best direction is basically toward the equator. Since most roofs weren't designed with solar panels in mind, they likely aren't exactly positioned to maximize solar energy production. A ground-mounted system can be ideally positioned.

Read moreGround-Mounted Smartflower Solar Review: Beautiful, Not Worth It

Another advantage to leaving your roof out of the equation is eliminating the risk of damaging it. While solar installers offer warranties against roofs leaks, they don't always extend for the length of your solar panels' life. While this is a manageable issue and solar panels typically require little maintenance, keeping panels off your roof eliminates the issue altogether.

If your panels do require maintenance, reaching them on the ground is easier than climbing up on the roof. In areas that get a lot of snow, they'll be easier to brush off, too.

Cons of ground-mounted panels

The biggest drawback of ground-mounted panels is cost. Instead of using a structure that's already been built -- your roof -- installers will need to build a new one. They'll also need to run more wiring from the panels to your home than for rooftop panels. Both will increase the cost.

Ground-mounted panels might also be more susceptible to damage. While a lawn mower probably won't throw a rock up onto the roof, ground-mounted panels might be in the line of fire depending how close to the ground they are. Being close to the ground brings your panels closer to animals or kids or other potentially destructive agents. There isn't definitive data on maintenance costs for ground-mounted panels, though.

While rooftop panels don't take up any space that's regularly used otherwise, ground-mounted panels, depending on lot size and layout, might eat into heavily used real estate, like a backyard or flowerbeds. 

The upshot of ground-mounted solar panels

Ground-mounted solar panels represent a small enough portion of residential installations that they're rarely called out in reports on the residential industry. Cost and space are the main factors holding them back. Still, in some cases they might be the best option available and still save you money.

Before making any solar panel purchase, it's best to identify the best fit for your specific needs. Get multiple quotes and make sure you understand your contract and warranties before moving ahead. Solar panels can save you a lot of money in the long run, but they can save you more if you find the right fit.