Every now and then you come across a question that catches you by surprise, leaving you to wonder, ‘how come I’ve never thought of this?’
With solar panels still being something of a novelty, and my family and I living the Solar Way, these questions seem to be catching me by surprise quite often.
‘Should solar panels be covered when not in use?’ is one such question.
The simple answer to this is, so long as the charge controller is operating correctly, solar panels should not be covered. This allows your power storage to remain fully charged while reducing the risk of inadvertently causing damage to your solar panels through abrasion.
What Is A Charge Controller?
A charge controller is one of those critical components to a home-power system that regulates the amount of power that is fed into your energy storage unit (think whole house battery package).
Without a charge controller, power would be continually sent to your batteries without regard and would easily exceed the limits of the storage unit, causing permanent damage or even a fire.
This is why virtually every chargeable system, whether it’s your outdoor solar lights, your solar powered electric fence or your home-power system, require the means to prevent overcharge.
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Solar panels are not the only type of power production devices that utilize a charge controller. Both small scale wind and hydro require these governing devices as well.
What to do if you know the charge controller has failed
I think everyone can associate with the fact that things seem to have a way of breaking when;
A) When it’s most inconvenient.
B) When you’re not around.
C) When you least expect them to.
D) All of the above!
But if you are fortunate enough to be in a position where you can act before your batteries have been damaged, then there is something you can do.
As solar panels became more popular, it was realized by the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) that there had to be a way for firefighters to quickly disengage solar panels – as active panels could be hazardous in certain situations.
Because of this, the NEC (National Electrical Code) requires a means for the Rapid Shutdown of any household solar array.
This device allows for a person to quickly disengage the solar panels, eliminating unwanted power output.
Understanding where your rapid shutdown is and how to activate it, is a much better option than trying to cover all of your solar panels in a hurry.
Why Should My Batteries Be Fully Charged?
One unique and seldom realized aspect of batteries is that they should never be completely void of charge – to do so leads to damage to the battery itself. And as batteries tend to loose charge over time, this means that without supplemental power being added on a regular basis, your batteries are at risk.
This is yet another reason why you should not cover your solar panels.
Your charge controllers not only prevent the batteries from being overcharged, but are constantly adding power to them in order to keep your battery at the optimum conditions.
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Lead acid batteries in particular benefit from being fully charged. This can be especially seen in extreme cold.
This past polar vortex, I was very concerned about the fluid in our batteries freezing as temperatures were extremely low and our bank of batteries were located in the garage (unheated).
Fortunately, when it comes to lead acid batteries, the higher the charge inside the battery, the more resilient they are to freezing.
In our case, I simply covered the batteries with a insulating blanket and ran the backup generator every 4 hours to ensure the batteries remained at optimum charge. By doing this, we were able to avoid any expensive catastrophe.
Solar Panel Abrasion
As explained in the article ‘Do Solar Panels Work At Night?’, photovoltaics require direct sunlight in order to perform at optimum. Any sort of interference, such as dust or pollen, can reduce the capacity of your panels to produce.
The inherent risk of covering your panels is that you could inadvertently scratch your panels as the blanket you use to cover them, rubs contaminants into the protective coating of the panels themselves.
Any damage accrued this way would be challenging, if not impossible, to repair – meaning a long term reduction in power production.