Solar Panel System Components and their Use

Apart from solar panels, there are other components of the solar panel system. The accessories work in tandem to ensure the efficient generation of energy from the sun. Some of the solar energy accessories like inverters and cables are obvious, but there are other essential components.

Over the last 2 years, the solar energy industry has experienced tremendous growth across the globe. In the 1st quarter of 2020, the solar installation increase in America was at its highest, according to SEIA. But why the tremendous growth? The availability of government incentives, solar savings, and a decrease in solar panel prices have led to the surge in solar installation.

Solar energy has several benefits to the environment, economy, and society. But that is not enough if it does not make financial sense for homeowners and businesses. The cost of solar panel installation and the accompanying accessories determine the economic viability of solar energy.

Solar Panel Components

  • Solar panels
  • Inverters
  • Solar energy storage batteries
  • Racking
  • Cables
  • Meters
  • Charge regulators
  • DC/AC disconnects

a) Solar Panels

Photovoltaic modules (another name for solar panels) are the most common components in a solar system. The primary material in solar panels is silicon, which taps energy from the sun and turns it into a direct current. Because the direct current is not readily usable, a solar inverter converts the power to alternating current (AC).

Solar panels are divided into 3 generations: first, second, and third. Monocrystalline and polycrystalline are the first-generation solar panels. Thin-film photovoltaic modules fall in the second generation. Third-generation PV modules are the most recent types, like cadmium telluride solar panels.

The difference between the types of solar panels is the primary material. Monocrystalline and polycrystalline are made up of silicon cells. The difference between the two types is the composition of silicon, which also affects the modules’ appearance and efficiency. Polycrystalline solar panels have a bluish appearance. On the other hand, monocrystalline PV modules are dark in color with rounded edges.

Thin-film solar panels are made of semiconductors deposited on glass or plastic material. Although they are thin as the name suggests, their efficiency is lower than silicon cells. Cadmium PV cells have the 2 elements.

The average solar panels’ cost is approximately $3 per watt but differs from state to another because of the subsidies. The choice between the different solar panels is dependent on the size of your roof, energy consumption, aesthetic preference, budget, and climate. Your roof orientation and angle can also affect the number and type of solar modules ideal for your building.

b) Solar Inverters

Solar panels convert energy from the sun to direct current. However, home appliances require alternative current to function. Inverters come in handy in the conversion of DC to AC. The devices come in different shapes, sizes, and technologies.

There are 2 primary categories of solar inverters:

  • Off-grid inverters
  • Grid-tied inverters

Off-grid inverters work with solar energy storage batteries, while grid-tied inverters are designed to function with the utility grid. Some inverters are also compatible with fossil fuel generators.

There are 3 most common types of solar inverters:

  • String inverters
  • Micro-inverters
  • Power optimizers

solar inverters

You can connect string inverters to different PV modules because they have several strings. On the other hand, micro-inverters are found in each solar panel. In case of failure of one of the micro-inverters, it does not affect the other modules. For string inverters, all the modules are connected to a single device. As the name suggests, power optimizers optimize direct current output from the solar panels. After that, the power moves to the string inverters for conversion to alternating current.

Apart from the conversion of DC to AC power, inverters also increase the efficiency of solar panels. The devices also maintain safe operation of the system and act as indicators of any faults. For grid-tie inverters, they make energy buyback by the utility company more efficient. The cost of solar inverters is approximately $2,000, although the variances are relatively high.

c) Solar Energy Storage Batteries

Energy storage batteries act as a backup to the grid or solar panel system. The batteries store surplus power from the PV modules or the utility company. You can use the energy to run your appliances at night, on cloudy days, or when your solar system is low on supply.  

If you want to go off-grid, solar energy storage batteries are a must-have. The most popular batteries are 6V and 12V. There are 3 primary types of batteries:

  • Lead-acid cells
  • Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM), e.g., Lithium-ion batteries
  • Saltwater batteries

Lithium-ion batteries are the most efficient with solar energy, but they are more expensive. The cells have a fast charge and discharge rate. Apart from that, lithium-ion batteries are highly durable compared to other options. The lead-acid batteries are the most common and oldest type. Although they come at a lower cost than the lead-ion and saltwater batteries, they require regular maintenance.

The reason lead-acid batteries are still in use is their cost-effectiveness. However, the cells have a short lifespan and also risk spills. You should also keep an eye on the battery fluid and top up when it is low.

Saltwater batteries are in the initial stages of development. The cells are environmentally friendly because they are recyclable. Saltwater batteries have no heavy metals, which is a limiting factor for lead-acid and lithium-ion.

Other types of solar energy storage batteries are NICAD (nickel-cadmium cells). They use cadmium and nickel oxide as the negative and positive anodes. The cells are also expensive, and material disposal is highly hazardous. The two factors make NICAD batteries rare.

d) Solar Racking

It is also known as the solar mounting system. Solar racking helps to hold the solar panels and their components in place. The structure is designed to fit the placement of the PV modules: ground-mounted or roof-mounted. The mounting system also helps to optimize the solar panel system’s capacity through tilting or tracking.

There are solar racking systems that track the sun’s direction and adjust to ensure maximum exposure of the panels to the sun. There are single and dual-axis solar tracking systems. The latter has higher efficiency because it is multi-directional in tracking sun rays.

When mounting solar panels on poles, you should firmly fix the racking system. Also, solar installers should consider the direction of the sun. As the solar panel holding component, racking systems should be sturdy.

Most solar mounting systems are made of aluminum. They have rails, lugs, bolts, nuts, end caps, flashings, clamps, and tilt legs. The cost of solar raking varies depending on the size of your solar panel system, material, and design.

e) Cables

What blood vessels are to the body, wires are to the solar panel system. They transmit the current from the solar modules to the inverter, power meters, and home appliances. There are standard colors for negative, positive, and grounded cables. The neutral wires are white, while black and red are used for live wires. The single-phase use black-coated cables.

Electric cables are made of aluminum or copper. Copper has a higher conductivity than aluminum and carries more current. The sizes differ depending on the output and appliances. All wires should be coated to avoid electrocution and should also withstand different weather conditions.

You should never compromise on the quality of the cables because it can be disastrous. You can get assistance from solar installers on the best wires for your home.

f) Power Meters

For a grid-tied solar panel system, you require a net-metering system that calculates the units supplied and drawn from the utility grid. The power meter is connected to the solar panel system as well as the grid system. Every time your system produces excess energy, you get credit.

The utility company can also buy back excess energy from households. Net-metering systems keep track of all the power supplied to the grid. The devices also measure the kWh from your system so that you can identify sun peak hours. You can monitor any faults in your solar panels using the power meter. Any sudden drop in output can be a sign of defects.

g) Charge Regulators

These are essential solar power system components that control the current from the solar panels to the batteries or appliances. The charge controller regulates the current flowing to the batteries when almost full and then shuts off when the battery is full.

You should consider the voltage and capacity of your PV system when buying a charge controller. The solar panels’ voltage should be compatible with the device. The charge controller should also withstand the full capacity of your solar panel system. A charge controller ensures your batteries’ optimum life through overcharge and power drain prevention from the batteries to the system, especially at night and on cloudy days.

h) AC/DC Disconnects

DC disconnects complete or cut the flow of electricity from the solar panels to the inverter. The device helps in damage prevention in case of extreme weather conditions or accidents like fire. During the regular maintenance by the utility companies, it is advisable to disconnect your solar power system.

The capacity of DC and AC disconnects varies depending on the size of your solar panel system. They range from 30amp to 800amp for residential PV modules.

A solar panel system requires various components to work efficiently. Although some may be unnecessary depending on the design, these are the most common PV system components. You should source all the devices from reputable manufacturers to avoid compromise to any part.

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