More and more people are realizing the amazing benefits of solar energy and looking at making solar energy part of their homes. As more people install solar panels, there are a lot of questions about using solar panel tracking to get the most out of this investment in solar power.
Most conventional solar panel arrays that you see mounted on rooftops are static, meaning they don’t move or shift. This means that they may not get optimal sunlight in all conditions, because the sun moves across the sky throughout the day.
There will be a period of time when these fixed or static solar panels are getting optimal sun. But the window is short compared to an entire day because fixed panels, and even flexible solar panels, cannot follow the light as the sun moves.
A solar panel tracker helps by allowing the solar panel to automatically shift with sunlight. This can mean the same array of solar panels collects many more photons than it would if it were fixed to the spot. Rather than a few hours of optimal light, solar panels that follow the sun have a chance to be optimally positioned from sunrise to sunset.
And it shows in their overall solar energy generation. Sun tracking solar panels collect between 25% to 40% more energy than fixed solar trackers. The same exact solar panel is more efficient when paired with a solar panel tracking system.
But of course, the full story is not that simple. There are many advantages, but there are also drawbacks and complications. You should consider all the information when you are choosing whether to install fixed solar panels or a solar panel tracking system.
We break down some of the major advantages and disadvantages to solar tracking in order to help you compare the different setups available. This way you can decide whether solar panels that follow the sun are the right investment for you.
How do Sun Tracking Solar Panels Work?
A solar panel tracker senses the sun’s angle and moves accordingly. This means that your solar panel will be angled more towards the East in the morning, and move Westward as the sun moves across the sky and sets in the evening.
There are two major types of residential solar panel tracker: single axis and dual axis.
The single axis solar tracker can move the angle of the tracker in one direction as the day progresses. Your solar installer will help you choose the best direction for the single axis to pivot, but in general it will pivot in a roughly East to West orientation. Your solar panel will begin the day facing the sunrise, and end it facing towards the sunset
A dual axis tracker has two pivot directions. Like a single axis solar tracker it moves East to West across the sky as the sun rises and sets everyday, but it can also adjust itself in a North to South direction as the sun’s position shifts throughout the year.
If you live in high northern latitudes you will notice the sun’s angle is significantly different in June than in December. With this knowledge it is easy to see how an optimized angle at one point in the year might not be optimal in another part of the year when the sun’s position has shifted.
Both provide additional efficiency to your solar panel. Single axis solar trackers typically increase a solar panel’s efficiency by 25%-30%. Dual axis trackers can improve efficiency by up to 40%.
Solar trackers can also have either active or passive tracking systems. Active solar trackers have built in software and sensors that move the panel. Passive solar sensors have compressed liquid gas whose density changes with heat, this allows gravity to pull down the denser compressed gas to move the panel.
What are the advantages of a Sun tracking solar panel?
Solar tracking panels have a number of great benefits. They are popular because of some of the ways they improve on fixed solar panels. The main benefits include:
The main draw of solar panels that follow the sun is that they are significantly more efficient than fixed solar panels. A dual-axis solar panel tracker may be as much as 40% more efficient than a fixed solar panel. And even single-axis trackers can offer a 25% or more boost to your solar power generation.
Every additional photon collected is more energy that can be offset from polluting electrical generators like coal burning power. Having a more efficient method of harnessing solar energy is a compelling argument towards installing solar trackers.
A more efficient solar panel can mean more energy for your home from solar and less from polluting sources. But it can also mean that you don’t need as many solar panels to reach the same energy generation goals. With fewer solar panels to purchase and place, you may find that the efficiency of solar trackers is enough to justify their purchase.
Alternatively, if you have limited space and can only install a specific number of panels on your property, having a solar panel tracking system installed with those limited panels allows you to get the most energy possible in that space. Even if you can only install a few solar panels, making them more efficient allows you to go further down the road to solar self-sufficiency.
2. Variety of Models
There are many sizes, types, and models of solar panel tracking systems. Beyond single and dual axis, and even beyond active and passive tracking, there are further subtypes and many brands with different sizes and configurations.
With so much variety, it can be easy to work with your solar installer to find a type of solar panel tracker that suits the unique needs of your site. If you have unusual circumstances on your site, or specific size or height constraints you should discuss this with your solar installer. Together you can work out a solution that allows you to utilize the solar tracker that is best for your unique situation.
3. Space Savings
Solar panel tracking systems do not require much more space than a fixed solar panel. Typically, a solar tracking system will allow your solar panel to pivot within the same area that the fixed panel would fit into. You don’t need a lot of extra space for the movement of the panels.
Additionally, if you are purchasing solar panels with a tracking system, you don’t need as many panels to reach your energy generation goals. That means you can use, on average, 30% less space when you are installing sun tracking solar panels versus fixed solar panels, because you can reach your energy generation goals with fewer panels.
That extra space can mean all the difference if your site has limited space, or if the space that gets optimum sunlight is limited.
4. Energy Cost Reduction
If you’re selling energy back to your utility under a TOU (time of use) agreement, you can often create even more savings in the summer months with a solar tracker. Because the sun stays up well into “peak usage time” during long summer months, you can still be harnessing solar energy to provide to the grid during these high use times.
With enough solar panels, and a good tracking system, you may even generate more energy than your home draws. When that happens, you may reduce your utility bill to zero–or even begin drawing income from your utility provider.
Of course, this is subject to your local electric company’s terms and conditions, which vary quite a bit from provider to provider. Still, it is an opportunity to recover some of the costs associated with installing solar tracking systems. And it would be quite a nice change of pace to have your energy company send you a check instead of a bill.
What are the disadvantages of a sun tracking solar panel?
Despite a broad range of advantages, solar trackers are not for everyone. There are drawbacks that should be carefully considered when you are thinking about adding solar panel trackers to your home energy system.
There’s no denying it, getting into solar power generation is expensive. A fixed solar panel already represents a significant outlay for most homeowners. It’s not an expense that is taken on lightly. And though the money you spend returns eventually via energy savings, it can be difficult to come up with the money upfront to make this investment.
Solar panel trackers are even more expensive than fixed panel systems. A quality dual-axis solar tracker can nearly double the cost of your solar setup from a basic fixed panel system. And the cost goes up faster than energy generation. A 100% more expensive unit will still only generate 30-40% more energy. That means it will take longer to recoup your costs.
More affordable options do exist, so you don’t have to double your project costs to consider solar trackers. Still, the initial outlay of money can be a real barrier for some, and trading a significant cost increase for a moderate energy increase can put solar trackers out of reach for certain consumers.
2. Installation and Site Preparation
In addition to more expensive purchasing costs for sun tracking solar panels, these systems can be more complicated to install. Though they do not take up much more space than fixed trackers, the moving base for the panels may require extra digging, grading, or running of additional wiring to fit on site and stay secure through the daily movement of the panels.
And though solar panels are becoming more common on residential roofs, solar tracking is difficult to impossible to install on the pitched roofs of most homes. A flat, industrial roof may accommodate solar trackers, but they are much more likely to be suited for ground installation.
Installing solar trackers means that you’ll likely be forgoing some portion of your yard or land, rather than putting the solar panels on an inhabitable roof. You’ll need to be sure that your site is suitable for this type of installation.
And while a fixed panel system can be installed on the roof where it is out of reach to most, a solar tracking system in your yard is more accessible. That may be convenient if you need to clear snow from them in the winter, but if you have children who like to play and climb it could be disastrous.
A sun tracking solar panel has many more moving parts than a fixed system. This can mean that long-term maintenance costs may be higher, as there are more parts to wear out or become defective.
In addition to physical parts like actuators or hinges, most solar panels have internal circuitry including wires, chips, and sensors. These sense when the device should move, and help to maintain correct angles and balance. The electronic and the physical parts represent an order of magnitude more complication than a simple fixed panel.
When you choose a sun tracking solar panel, it is best to work with your installer to create a regular maintenance plan. This will keep everything in top working order.
With a fixed panel system very few components could fail or wear out. With a solar panel tracking system, it is likely that several parts will need regular care or replacement before they become worn and damage the operation of the system.
Maintenance is key. Without properly maintaining all the working parts of a solar tracker, you risk your initial investment, and any energy savings as a malfunctioning solar tracker will keep you from getting the solar power you need for your home.
4. Environmental Concerns
Solar tracking systems are great for the environment, but depending upon where you live, your environment may not be ideal for a solar tracker.
Solar panel trackers can sometimes have difficulty with snowy conditions. A dual-axis panel might be able to move more efficiently to heat up the panel and melt snow cover. However, the movement can make the panels somewhat less sturdy when covered in a thick, heavy layer of snow. Additionally, the extra weight of snow may be a point of concern for the moving parts of the tracker, or affect the delicate balance.
Solar tracking systems may also break down more readily in areas near salt water. The ocean air can be corrosive to the sensitive parts of solar tracking systems. If you live in a seaside location, you should speak with a qualified installer to see what the salt air would mean for your solar panels in terms of increased maintenance or part replacement.
How do I decide what is right for me?
Every situation is unique, and it is up to you to weigh the costs and benefits of solar tracking systems to decide what is right for your own situation.
For everyone who is considering going solar, we recommend getting connected with a qualified and well-referenced solar installer. Your solar installer can review your site and help you navigate the terrain, both literally and metaphorically.
A qualified solar installer can help point out space constraints created by shading, issues that might exist with running wires or creating a proper “base” to install your panels. By choosing someone with experience in installing solar panels in your local area, you will get someone who has expert knowledge about the kind of power generation you can get under local conditions.
And make sure you carefully consider the cost. Solar panels are a significant investment, and are only more expensive when solar tracking is added in to the mix. Make sure that you are able to afford both the initial investment, and to keep up with any recommended preventative maintenance costs.
Of course, remember that some of these costs may be offset at tax time through tax breaks. Rebates, utility cost reduction. In some cases income from selling excess solar energy to the grid may be other ways to recoup some of that investment.
You should also think about your goals with solar energy. If you have plans to go totally off-grid, then investing in a tracker may be wise in order to make sure you collect plenty of energy. Since you will not be relying on city power, and may be totally disconnected from it, you may need more energy generation than you think.
Conversely, if your goal is simply to increase the greenness of your suburban home without changing the way you use your limited yard space, or changing the aesthetic of your property, then a large moving solar panel on the ground may not suit your needs. And if you have an urban property where homes are built in the shadow of one another, you may not get enough additional sunlight from tracking to ever recoup the cost.
Your site, your goals, and your investment are all big factors in deciding whether a fixed solar array or sun tracking solar panels are the best decision for your solar energy journey. There is no one right way, and every step towards cleaner, greener energy is a good one. (Looking for info on how to build your own solar panel? Click here.)