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Solar Panels in the Winter: Here's How to Prepare for Ice and Snow

Cold temperatures actually help panels perform more efficiently. But here's what you can do about snow and less sunlight.

snow piled on solar panels on a roof
Too much ice and snow on your roof can hurt the efficiency of your solar panels.
Darren Lehane/Getty Images

This story is part of Home Tips, CNET's collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.

Rooftop solar panels can save you money and give you a long-term, year-round source of clean, cheap energy for your home. There's been some misinformation in the past about solar panels in the winter -- they actually work great on cold, clear days -- but you might have some questions heading into the cold season.

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Colder temperatures actually help solar panels run more efficiently, but grayer skies, shorter days and the sun lower in the sky can all decrease the amount of electricity they produce. Add a heavy snowfall or two on top of that and you might wonder if it's worth it at all. While you will certainly see less production from your solar panels, there are a few things you can do to keep them producing as much as possible.

Below we'll explain how you can squeeze the most solar power out of your panels when there's less of it to go around. For more, check out some cheap ways to incorporate solar power into your home and how recent laws in the US will save you money on energy efficiency projects and boost the solar tax credit.

Adjust the angle of your panels

The angle of the sun during the winter is different than during the summer. As a result, you may want to adjust the angle of your solar panels to make the most of them during the winter. Most people won't be able to, since solar panels are often mounted on fixed racks. 

Because the sun is lower in the sky during the winter than in the summer, you'll want your panels at a steeper angle during those months. Some sources suggest a winter angle of your latitude plus 10-15 degrees. In Chicago, for example, that would be an angle between 52 and 57 degrees. (Chicago's latitude is about 42 degrees.)  As an added perk, not only will a steeper angle help to capture more sunlight, but it will also help the snow to more easily fall from your panels. Talk to your solar panel provider about your options before you make any adjustments. You should be extremely careful not to tinker with your panels in a way that might void their warranty.

Reduce your energy usage (or prepare to pay more for electricity)

Solar panels can still capture sunlight and create energy for your home during the winter. But because there are fewer daylight hours, you can also expect your solar panels to produce less energy than they might during the summer. As a result, you may either need to reduce your energy usage or prepare to pay a higher electricity bill. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to reduce your energy usage, including:

  • Switch to energy-efficient light bulbs. They last longer and perform better. In general, a 60-watt traditional light bulb can be replaced with a 15-watt energy-efficient bulb.
  • Turn off lights and appliances you aren't using. While most of us know we're wasting energy when we leave these things on, we forget that it actually impacts our wallets.
  • Unplug small appliances you aren't using. Even when they aren't in use, they can use a small amount of electricity, which adds to your energy bill.
  • Turn down your thermostat. You can save money by turning the temperature in your home down a few degrees. Wear layered clothing to make yourself more comfortable.
  • Check your home's insulation. If your home has poor insulation, more heat will escape, which will cost you money. 

Properly insulate your batteries

You'll want to take special care of your solar batteries during the winter to ensure they continue to perform. It's important to keep your batteries at an appropriate temperature. Batteries aren't meant to work in the very low temperatures that some regions experience. As a result, you should either store your batteries indoors or ensure they are well-insulated. 

If you keep your batteries outdoors, monitor the temperature to ensure it's in the optimal range. 

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. 

Watch your battery discharge

It's also important to watch your battery discharge levels. It's not recommended that you completely discharge your solar batteries. In fact, while some batteries may be suited for discharge levels of 70% to 80%, the recommended discharge level is actually 50%. On high usage days, as you may be likely to have in the winter, keep an eye on your battery discharge and consider investing in a backup generator.

Remove heavy snow from your panels

If you live in an area that gets snow, it's natural that some will land on your solar panels. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Light snowfall is likely to melt fairly quickly. And there may actually be some benefit to snow on your solar panels since it can clean your panels as it falls off.

While some snow on your solar panels is fine, watch out for excess snow. Solar panels that are covered in snow simply won't capture sunlight in the same way. Additionally, heavy snow can result in too much weight on your solar panels, putting stress on the mounting points.

If you are going to clean snow off your solar panels, be sure to use the right tool. A rough brush or rake can damage your solar panels. Instead, use a soft snow brush that will clean the snow off without scratching the surface of your panels.

The bottom line

The good news is that your solar panels can still capture sunlight and create energy for your home during the winter months. They may simply require a bit more care and maintenance leading up to and during winter.

Keep reading to learn more about solar panels for your home: