Winter is Coming: Operating and Maintaining Commercial Solar PV Systems in Snowy Conditions
The operations and maintenance of commercial solar photovoltaic systems requires a year-round effort, but performing the necessary O&M tasks on installations located in geographies prone to harsh wintertime conditions presents unique challenges.
A well-constructed commercial solar system is highly resilient to extreme weather conditions; however, heavy snow combined with high winds could dampen the energy production of a PV array and possibly damage a system’s structure and components. A well-organized commercial solar O&M program can help avoid or rectify issues caused by the hands of Mother Nature.
As winter approaches, it’s important to make sure that all the scheduled maintenance on the system, preventive and corrective, is completed to proper specifications. Landscaping under an array should be done to remove any obstacles that would impede the free flow of snow or wind. The wire management, fasteners and torquing all need to be buttoned up, and the system must be configured to prepare for winter. For example, if the system is ground mounted with trackers, it’s necessary to adjust the trackers to the proper configuration for winter and snow conditions. Overall, the system must be in good operational condition before the start of inclement weather.
Weather forecasting and monitoring are also critical aspects of a winter O&M program. At REC Solar, we’re always monitoring the latest forecasts so that our team can prepare the system accordingly. We also check the weather conditions as they happen at the site in order to mitigate the risk of any real-time operational issues. Throughout the winter, the REC team collects detailed weather data to correlate performance with those days or weeks when large amounts of snow fell.
The placement of still and video cameras provides a real-time window into on-the-ground (or roof) conditions. There is nothing like a live visual on the system to see whether rolling a team to the installation is necessary to deal with a frozen, heavy load of snow atop the array or if the results of yesterday’s blizzard will soon melt and slide off the panels.
It’s also important to have qualified service resources, in some cases subcontractors, available in the affected regions. Keep in mind that when a big storm rolls through, the ability to react will be impacted by a number of factors, particularly road and infrastructure conditions.
Solar PV systems located in remote or rural areas can be particularly difficult to access if snow has blocked the roads or left a thick frozen layer around and on top of the arrays. Supply chains will be taxed by the intemperate conditions, and replacement modules, combiner boxes or other parts may be delayed in arriving at the job site. This issue can be alleviated by preparing in advance and holding an appropriate quantity of working inventory before the storms hit.
As with O&M challenges in general, a well-designed, well-constructed, properly load-rated PV system won’t be subject to the kind of wintertime performance and operational issues as one built with less attention to quality. For example, on a ground-mount array, the lower leading edge must have sufficient ground clearance, so that when there are high snow or wind conditions, the snow can pass smoothly underneath the array.
Flush-mount and other rooftop arrays can be challenging to maintain in wintry conditions. A large amount of snow can accumulate because the panels are installed with little or no tilt, and there’s nowhere for the snow to slide off. In this case, access to the conductors underneath the modules on a snow-covered system becomes difficult. Vigilant monitoring and tactical maintenance efforts such as snow removal are required to stay abreast of any load-related or performance issues, to lessen the risk of damage to the structure or the PV array.
When spring arrives, a winter production analysis should be performed on any alarms and alerts that have been logged. Thermal expansion and contraction caused by extreme weather can bring about racking and mounting structural issues. The array should be inspected for corrosion as well as for damage from high winds or snow load. It’s also important to scrutinize the ground for settling and possible erosion that could reveal issues with underground conductors and connections. Once the inspections and necessary remediation efforts are complete, it’s time to schedule regular springtime maintenance activities and get the system ready for the sunny, high-performance months ahead.
The seasoned REC Solar team has experience with all kinds of PV systems and weather conditions and provides a comprehensive, end-to-end service whether the summer sun is shining or the frosty days of winter are coming. We provide our customers with long-term O&M contract options, so you can rest easy by the fire knowing that your commercial solar system is in good hands.
If you have more winter, spring, summer or fall solar O&M questions for your facility, or want a free solar evaluation for your business, please contact us today!