Solar Panel Racking (All you need to know about mounting)

Solar panel racking is a vital component of your PV set up. These systems provide your panels with the necessary angles and stability they require to get the job done.

The best part about these mounting systems is that they come in almost any form suited to your needs — from compact, rail-free roof racking systems to large ballasted ground-mounted ones.

But how do you maintain your solar roof racking? How long do they last? And will these mounting systems damage your roof?

This article answers these questions and more.

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Different Types Of Solar Panel Racking

There are three main variations of solar panel racking:

  • Roof-mounted racks
  • Ground-mounted racks
  • Pole-mounted racks

Let’s have a look at each variation and their possible sub-variations in a little more depth:


Roof-Mounted Racks

Roof mounted solar panels — solar panel racking.
Source: Solar & Inverter Warehouse

These PV arrays are attached to the roof of a building. Roof-mounted systems have several variations, including:

  • Flat roof mounting
  • Sloped roof mounting

Flat Roof Mounting

Flat roof mounting systems use concrete foundations to provide the solar panels with stability and maneuverability.

These setups can withstand external forces (heavy winds) while allowing the user to optimize the tilt of their panels.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many residential homes with large, flat roofs. So these setups are more prominent in the commercial sector.

Advantages
  • Stability — the concrete structures provide the panels with plenty of support against harsh external forces.
  • Unused space — this system is the perfect excuse to fill up empty roof space (green roofs fulfill a similar purpose).
  • Flexibility — users can easily alter and optimize the angle of their panels.
  • Material Cost — the material cost for this setup isn’t too high.
  • Location — roof-mounted solar panels (especially flat roof ones) tend to be free from objects that’ll shade them.
Disadvantages
  • Engineering this setup may require some structural engineering and/or roof reinforcement to withstand the additional weight.

Sloped Roof Mounting (Rail-Free)

Rail-free roof mounting consists of pre-assembled components that attach directly to the roof and modules. No cumbersome rails and no-in-field cutting requires.

Advantages
  • Lighter — this roof-mounted variation is far less heavy than rail-mounted systems. There is also better load distribution.
  • Flexibility — panels can be mounted around roof obstacles and small roof areas without cutting rails. This allows for a more flexible, modular system with fewer complications.
  • Cost-effective the compact design of the components reduces transportation and storage costs.
Disadvantages
  • Roof considerations this method requires a degree of roof penetration. There’s the chance that a roof can be damaged in the process.
  • Installation requirements — a setup such as this will require a professional installation service. This will increase installation costs.
  • Orientation restrictions most roofs have a single pitch that can’t be altered. This can restrict the desired tilt of the panels, affecting the output of the system.

Sloped Roof Mounting (Railed)

Railed roof mounting consists of solar panels attached to a line/line of rails which are fastened to the rooftop through a set of assemblies, screws, and bolts.

Advantages
  • Unused space — this system is also great for filling up unused roof space.
  • Location — there’s a higher chance of roof-mounted solar panels being free from objects that’ll shade them.
Disadvantages
  • Heavier — these setups are far heavier than their rail-free counterparts.
  • Flexibility — the rail system doesn’t lend itself to simple, modular installations.

Ground Mounted Racks

Ground-mounted solar panels — solar panel racking.
Source: Prairie Sun Solar

This solar panel racking mounts a row or multiple rows of PV modules to the ground.

Advantages
  • Temperature — both direct sunlight and ambient heat contribute to an increase in temperature; always purchase panels that can withstand high temperatures. Fortunately, ground-mounted PV modules use natural airflow to cool themselves down; air circulates underneath and around the solar panels to reduce their temperature.
  • Installation — Installation is easier and safer. You may need a small ladder for larger arrays, but you won’t be climbing too high.
  • Maintenance — easier access to maintenance and troubleshooting.
  • No roofing alterations are necessary — you won’t have to worry about altering your roof to accommodate these structures.
  • Flexible positioning — It’s far easier to alter the position of ground-mounted panels for maximum output.
Disadvantages
  • Theft — these panels are easily accessible. Unfortunately, this makes them susceptible to damage, vandalism, and even theft.
  • Ground alteration — earth construction work is often necessary. Trenching, foundations, and concrete are all part of the process.
  • Debris — dirt, and debris can collect around the bottom of these mounting systems.
  • Inter-row shading —rows of ground-mounted solar panels can end up shading one another if they aren’t spaced properly.

Pole Mounted Racks

Solar tracking system - solar panel racking.
Source: Buffalo Solar

PV modules in these solar panel racking systems are mounted on the top or side of a pole structure.

Advantages
  • Temperature — this setup makes use of natural airflow to cool the panels down; air circulates underneath and around the solar panels to reduce their temperature.
  • Accessibility & safety — while a ladder may be necessary (depending on the height of the pole) to access the panels for maintenance and troubleshooting, this setup is still easier and safer to access than most rooftop installations.
  • Easily adjustable — it’s relatively easy to adjust the orientation/tilt of the panels. This system also opens itself up to dual-axis tracking
  • Footprint — a single pole reduces the size of the structure’s footprint.
Disadvantages
  •  Theft — these panels are easily accessible. Unfortunately, this makes them susceptible to damage, vandalism, and even theft.
  • Construction — this setup can require a fair amount of construction; foundations, trenching, concrete, steel, etc.

Tracking System Mounted Racks

Source: Netshield Technologies

Pole-mounted solar panels can also be used with a solar tracking system.

These solar tracking systems adjust the direction of a solar array according to the position of the sun — they help keep panels perpendicular to the sun so that more sunlight can make contact with the surface of the panels.

There are two variations of mounted tracking systems: single-axis and dual-axis.

Single-axis trackers track the sun from east to west — they rotate on a single point. While single-axis trackers are technically less accurate than their dual-axis cousins, they have fewer moving parts. This makes them cheaper and easier to maintain. Should something go wrong, there is less downtime.

Dual-axis trackers rotate on both the X and Y axes. This makes their tracking process more accurate. Unfortunately, this also makes them more expensive and complex to maintain. Should something go wrong, the amount of downtime will likely be longer.

Check out this fascinating prototype project video by Sustainable Every Day for more information on these trackers.


How Much Does Solar Panel Racking Cost?

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), your solar racking should cost approximately $0.10 per watt. Bear in mind this excludes the cost of installation.


How Long Does Solar Panel Racking last?

Solar mounting warranties vary considerably, from 5 to 25 years.

We understand that this estimate is nowhere near as accurate as you’d like it to be (it isn’t for us either). Still, it’s essential to understand that the wide range of materials used makes it difficult to provide you with a more precise answer.


Will Solar Panel Racking Damage My Roof?

Solar panel racking systems do have the ability to cause damage to your roof. But will they? The answer to that question depends on the following:

  • The planning and execution of the installation process — an installation company with a high-quality labor force will ensure that your system is installed correctly (without causing damage). They’ll also be able to properly evaluate the condition of your roof and its layout before they proceed with the installation.
  • Type of roof materials —  fortunately, most roofing materials can accommodate solar panel installation; asphalt shingles, tile roofs, and standing metal roofs are ideal. Glass and thatch roofs, on the other hand, are a big no-no; they are susceptible to fire damage and breakage.
  • System weight and complexity — a larger, more heavy racking system will put more strain on your roof. Whereas a smaller, lighter system will not.
  • Age of your roof — if your roof’s material is acceptable but its condition has deteriorated (holes or other types of damage are present), your roof will be more susceptible to damage.
  • Your location — those of you living in much colder regions will have to contend with ice and snow. These environmental factors can add extra weight, and therefore pressure, to your PV array and roof. If you don’t carry out any maintenance, you’ll find yourself in a world of trouble.

Ultimately

If: you use licensed, qualified professionals to install your panels, your roof is in good condition, and you carry out ongoing maintenance, your solar panel racking will not damage your roof.


How To Maintain My Solar Panel Racking?

Maintaining your solar panel racking is far more complex than simply cleaning your solar panels.

The issues that arise tend to be a lot more complex in nature. As such, they are best left to the professionals.

Fortunately, there is some general maintenance that you can perform. This, however, depends on the type of system that you have.


Roof-Mounted System Maintenance

The scope and cost of maintenance for your rooftop system depend on several factors:

  • Scale of the roof
  • Complexity of the roofs layout and PV setup
  • Slope or pitch of the roof
  • Condition of the roof
  • Overburden waiver
  • Roof warranty

What You Can Fix

If you’re are physically fit and have the necessary equipment (safety equipment included), you can carry out the following maintenance tasks yourself:

  • Debris removal
  • Snow and ice removal
  • Roof drainage maintenance

If, however, you’re financially capable of bringing in professionals, please do! It’s much safer that way.

Ice dam on a slate roof.
Ice dam on a slate roof.
Source: Wikipedia

When To Call A Professional

PV arrays can be attached to a roof deck or structure, or they may be ballasted (held in place by added weight).

These setups can open up your roof to several issues that require professional assistance. You’ll need to look out for issues such as:

  • Roofing material damage — the type of roofing material you have will effect how it handles the pressure of ballast systems.
  • Compressible insulation — Issues can arise if your roof has compressible insulation. Membrane damage and ponding of water can take place. Ponding of water occurs in depressions under the weight of ballasted systems. This can stretch the membrane, accumulate dirt and increase the likelihood of abrasion.
  • Wear on roof membrane — movement over time causes wear of the membrane; maintenance will be required to maintain the integrity of the membrane.

Ground-Mounted System Maintenance

Those of you with ground-mounted PV systems will be able to avoid some of the issues related to roof-mounted systems.

But don’t get too excited just yet; you’ll be facing your own set of issues.

What You Can Fix

Fortunately enough, you’ll be able to fix the majority of ground-mounted maintenance issues yourself (if you have the tools). These issues include:

  • Vegetation management — you’ll need to carry out trimming, mowing, herbicide use, and tree removal to maintain the area around your ground-mounted array.
  • Snow removal — an issue shared among all solar panel racking variations.
  • General cleaning — ground-mounted arrays are much closer to source of dirt, debris, mud and pollen.

Pole-Mounted System Maintenance

Pole-mounted PV arrays require far more maintenance, particularly those with tracking systems.

These setups’ complexity and components mean that trained professionals should carry out maintenance. They’ll handle the following issues:

  • Controls — the tracking controller, anemometer, and inclinometer are some of the controls that will require maintenance.
  • Monitoring — manufacturers have remote tracking platforms to optimize preventative maintenance.
  • Electrical — maintenance of various electrical connections.
  • Rack & actuator — gearbox lubrication, universal joint inspection, and drive-shart torque, among other elements, need to be looked at.
  • Battery replacement

Final Thoughts

More than ever, people are looking towards efficient and flexible systems to provide them with their energy needs.

PV mounting systems give you that and more.

Whether it be on a roof, a pole, or on the ground, these systems have helped make solar the viable, modular, and effective energy source that it is today.

It’s safe to say that solar roof racking systems have been an absolute game-changer in the world of solar.

Robert Wortrich

Robert Wortrich

Robert is a content creator and editor. His passion for researching and the environment led him to joining the Climatebiz team. When he isn’t busy writing articles or learning more about everything Green Technology-related, you’ll find him spending time with friends or hiking one of the many wonderful trails that his home – Cape Town – has to offer.

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