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As with any mechanical or electrical appliance, solar energy systems require routine, periodic maintenance, and from time to time, components may need repair or replacement. An efficient and long lasting system will depend on a periodic check of system components and carrying out any preventive maintenance as necessary. In the event of a system malfunction, effective trouble shooting and repair is necessary.
You may be able to carry out many routine inspections and maintenance tasks yourself (please see the list of basic items below). If, however, you are not the do-it-yourself type, or if there is a major problem with your system, you will need to locate a professional to do the work. This may or may not be a simple task, depending on when the system was installed. (Following the expiration of the Federal solar tax credit program in 1985, and a resulting drop in demand for solar systems, many companies that were producing, marketing, or installing solar energy systems went out of business.)
First, look in the telephone book to see if the company that installed your system is still in business. If it is not, it may have been taken over by another company. Contact other solar equipment dealers or distributors in your area to see they still carry the type of system or component you have and if they will honor the component's warranty (if it is still valid). Even if they do not, they may be willing to service your system for a fee. The Solar Energy Industries Association may also be able to assist you in locating a repair professional.
If you are still unsuccessful, and you have a liquid solar heating system, contact local plumbing or water heating companies. If your solar system is an air heating system, contact local heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractors. A licensed electrician may be able to service a solar electric system. Some may have experience with solar energy; if not, they still may be able to help solve your problem.
After finding help, get a written estimate of the cost before contracting to have the work done. For some systems, it may be more cost effective to replace or simply shut off or remove the solar system than to have it repaired.
Periodic Inspection List
Note: while solar electric/photovoltaic (PV) systems contain elements common to any electrical system, most components require troubleshooting and repair by qualified technicians. DO NOT attempt any inspections if you are not familiar with PV system components and standard safety practices when working around electrical systems. All components of the system must be properly grounded. If you are unsure that your system is properly grounded, seek qualified and experienced professional assistance before you attempt any inspection of the system.
Collector Shading: The performance of solar collectors/panels can be greatly affected by shading. Vegetation growth over time or new construction on your house or your neighbor's property may produce shading that did not occur when the collectors/panels were installed. Even the shade from something as small as an overhead wire can reduce the output of some types of PV panels. Shading of one part of even one module in a PV array can reduce the array output significantly. Visually check for shading of the collectors/panels during the day (mid-morning, noon, and mid-afternoon) on an annual basis.
Collector Soiling: Dusty or soiled collectors/modules will perform poorly. Periodic cleaning may be necessary in dry, dusty climates. Bird droppings on PV panels should be cleaned off as soon as they are noticed.
Collector Glazing and Seals: Look for cracks in the collector glazing, and check to see if seals are in good condition. Plastic glazing, if excessively yellowed, may need to be replaced.
Plumbing, Ductwork, and Wiring Connections: Look for fluid leaks at pipe connections. Check duct connections and seals; ducts should be sealed with a mastic compound. All wiring connections should be tight.
Piping, Duct, and Wiring Insulation: Look for damage or degradation of insulation covering pipes, ducts, and wiring.
Roof Penetrations: Flashing and sealant around roof penetrations should be in good condition.
Support Structures: Check all nuts and bolts attaching the collectors/panels to any support structures for tightness.
Pressure Relief Valve (on liquid solar heating collectors ): Make sure it is not stuck open or closed.
Dampers (in solar air heating systems): If possible, be sure they open and close properly.
Pumps or Blowers: You can verify that distribution pumps or blowers (fans) are operating when they should be by listening to see if they come on when the sun is shining on the collectors after mid-morning. If you can't hear a pump or blower operating, then either the controller has malfunctioned or the pump or blower has.
Heat Transfer Fluids: Anti-freeze solutions in liquid (hydronic) solar heating collectors need to be replaced periodically, a task best left to a qualified service person. If water with a high mineral content (i.e., "hard" water) is circulated in the collectors, mineral buildup in the piping may need to be removed by adding ade-scaling or mild acidic solution to the water every few years.
Storage Systems: Check storage tanks, etc for cracks, leaks, rust, or other signs of corrosion.
Credits: US Department of Energy (http://www.eere.energy.gov/consumerinfo/factsheets/a110.html)