Introduction to commercial solar operations and maintenance (O&M)

August 1, 2017

 

BUSINESS BRIEF


Well-maintained commercial panels can help maintain solar panel efficiencyIs your organization considering going solar and wondering what’s involved with solar panel maintenance and, in general, taking care of a commercial solar system? You probably want to know how often solar panels need to be cleaned, how to invoke a commercial solar panel warranty if needed, and more. 

The good news is that, while it’s smart to understand how to keep your system up and running, you likely won’t have to do it yourself. In fact, most industry professionals believe the best solution is to hire an experienced, credentialed solar operations and maintenance (O&M) provider to clean, monitor, maintain and (if needed) repair your system for you. 

An effective O&M program is critical to getting the most out of your commercial solar investment over the long term. O&M performed by a qualified provider optimizes solar panel efficiency and increases the likelihood a solar system will last longer, need fewer repairs and perform at or above its expected energy output over time.

Here  are some questions you might have about how to maintain solar panels. The answers that follow will help you understand what you need to know about this important topic.

What does commercial solar O&M entail?

Essentially, there are three core components of O&M:

  1. Monitoring performance is part of solar panel maintenance and operationsMonitoring and reporting: Commercial solar, in general, is a very low-maintenance technology. That said, having information that provides you with the confidence that everything is operating as expected can be very helpful. Most solar O&M providers offer remote monitoring services that can give you regular performance reports and also alert an operations center about any performance issues, repair needs or system outages so they can be addressed. Some providers offer cloud-based services that allow you to generate reports in real time rather than having to wait for an automated monthly report. 
  2. Preventive maintenance: As with any technology you purchase for your business, the best way to prevent costly problems with your commercial solar system is regular preventive maintenance like panel cleaning and annual equipment inspections. Most O&M providers contract with local vendors to come out and clean your panels for you. Frequency of cleaning can range from never (in areas where it rains often) to quarterly (in extreme circumstances). Generally, twice a year is plenty. Robotic panel cleaners are available from some panel manufacturers as well. Robots are built to fit the manufacturer’s own panels, though, so they’re not universal, and they’re typically only useful for large ground-mounted solar installations.
  3. Corrective maintenance: Corrective measures include troubleshooting, diagnostics, repairs, replacements and upgrades needed to keep the system operating at an optimal level. Though high-quality panels are extremely durable and seldom have issues, it is always a possibility, and no manufacturer is completely immune to delivering the occasional defective panel. Less-expensive panels are often prone to early wear-and-tear issues like delamination (peeling) or corrosion. Depending on the terms of your product and/or power warranty, you or your O&M provider may be able to make a claim and have the manufacturer repair or replace the equipment in question.

Why is ongoing solar O&M important?

O&M professional showing how to maintain solar panelsOngoing O&M is highly recommended in order to achieve and maintain the best possible performance and return on investment over the entire useful life of your solar system. Dirty panels can’t take in as much sunlight as clean panels. Damaged or defective panels or inverters can affect the output of an entire solar panel installation. Unreported system outages can negatively impact both revenue and productivity. You really can’t go without O&M—nor would you want to with such a significant and long-lasting capital investment.

Who is responsible for solar O&M?

The answer to this question depends on how you pay for your system. If you buy it, you are responsible for acquiring O&M services, though O&M is usually offered with purchase. If you lease your system, the system’s owner will likely provide O&M, though some types of leases allow the lessee the option of choosing their own O&M provider. With a power purchase agreement (PPA), the system owner (probably a financier) usually orchestrates O&M.

In nearly every instance, the best scenario is to hire a licensed professional solar O&M vendor to take care of your system for you. Exceptions to this would be if you or the system’s owner are fully qualified to self-perform O&M (e.g., have the appropriate licenses and experience working with large DC and AC electrical systems; are able to comply with OSHA safety regulations; employees have received training and certification from the original equipment manufacturers; etc.). If the person servicing your system doesn’t have the appropriate qualifications, it could negatively impact insurance or void your warranties.

How much does solar O&M typically cost and what affects pricing?

O&M costs are highly variable, ranging from as little as a few thousand dollars per year for a smaller, easily-accessible, single-site installation to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for utility-scale or multi-site, widely-dispersed systems.

Commercial solar panel maintenance cost drivers include your site’s proximity to service providers and regional dispatch capabilities. System size and type (rooftop, carport, ground-mounted) also have a big impact. For example, a rooftop solar array is much easier to access than a solar carport, which might need cranes or other equipment.

The price of your O&M will also depend on the service level you choose. The scope of agreements ranges from bare-bones to full-service—which adds another dimension to the calculation.

 

What should you look for in a commercial solar O&M provider?

An on-site inspection is often included in commercial solar panel maintenance costThe provider and O&M service level you choose will depend on your needs and budget. Ideally, you should consider a company that provides monitoring and performance alerts, regular and meaningful reporting, as well as cleaning and inspection services. In addition, you will want a service provider that has a team who handles escalations and emergencies and rapidly responds to maintenance and repair needs.

Not all O&M services are created equal, so know your particular requirements and ask potential providers if they can meet those needs. For example: Do you plan to install solar systems at multiple sites, perhaps located internationally? Some O&M providers are local or regional and can’t serve global organizations effectively. Will you have systems or components from multiple manufacturers? Some O&M providers are more experienced than others in dealing with equipment from any and all manufacturers (particularly lesser-known ones).

How does O&M interact with a solar warranty and/or performance guarantee?

Most solar equipment comes with a warranty, but warranty terms vary widely in what they cover and for how long. A full-service O&M agreement will include understanding and invoking the warranty as needed to file claims on your behalf (if you own the system) or the third-party owner’s behalf (if you have a solar lease or PPA), and follow-up to keep any repair or replacement costs as low as possible.

If you don’t buy the system outright, your financier might also require something called a performance guarantee. Essentially, the solar manufacturer agrees to pay for any performance shortfalls. These guarantees usually require full-scope O&M agreements to be in place. Why? Because nobody wins if the system underperforms, and effective solar O&M offers the best chance of it producing the expected amount of energy over time.

SummaryWoman reviewing her commercial solar panel warranty

Whether you purchase, lease or enter into a PPA to acquire solar energy for your organization, you should understand the importance of ongoing O&M services provided by a reputable and experienced vendor. Recognizing the value of solar O&M, understanding what’s involved, being aware of factors that affect pricing, and knowing what to look for in a commercial O&M provider will give you confidence in your decision-making process as you explore the long-term ROI of your business going solar.

Related links:

Overcoming commercial solar savings myopia: how to see long-range benefits more clearly

The key components of a commercial solar panel warranty

Commercial solar panel degradation: what you should know and keep in mind

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