LAST UPDATED: 8 OCTOBER 2020
Where Can I Put My Panels: The Many and Varied Places You Can Mount Solar Panels
*Note: technically a thermal system has collectors, not panels, but for simplicity this article will use panels to refer to both PV panels and thermal collectors.
Properly mounting your panels is essential for maximizing the productivity and longevity of your PV or thermal system. Luckily there are a variety of mounting options to suit most properties. The majority of residential systems mount their panels on the roof, but ground or wall mounts are popular as well. More exotic offerings, such as pole mounts and solar fences, are less common but nevertheless suitable in certain situations. Ultimately, you can mount your panels anywhere they're exposed to sunshine, but in order to get the most out of your system you'll want to consider your available space, aesthetics, and cost.
First and foremost, you'll want to make sure your chosen area is big enough to fit the number of panels you want your system to have. It's possible to split a system's panels into two or more areas, however such systems are more complex to install so installation costs may be higher. Your chosen area should be free from any objects that could cast shade on your panels (e.g. trees, chimneys, or other buildings) and facing south. Though east or west facing panels will receive sunshine in the morning or afternoon, respectively, the rest of the time they'll be less productive. See this article for more on orienting your panels.
Second, you'll want to consider the visual impact of your panels. This is purely subjective. If you hate the look of solar panels then you probably don't want to mount them somewhere where you're forced to look at them everyday! Conversely, if you'd like to show off your system then a highly visible location is preferable. For the colour conscious, different panel colours are available.
Third and finally is the consideration of cost. Different mounting options incur different costs, not only for the parts but also for the installation. Panels mounted on the ground or a flat roof tend to be easier to install than systems mounted on steep roofs or walls requiring scaffolding and fall arrest gear. This is less of an issue if you're installing the system yourself, but if you're working at heights then you'll want to make sure you're confident in the required safety procedures.
Below you'll find info on all the mounting options, including their specific features and requirements, from most to least common.
POPULAR PLACES YOU CAN PLACE YOUR PANELS
Roof Mounts. By far the most common, you've likely seen systems with roof mounted panels sprinkled sporadically throughout suburban areas near you. Roof mounts can provide a large amount of space for mounting your panels without taking up any yard area. Not all roofs are suitable for solar panels though. Some roofs may not be big enough for the number of panels you want, may not be oriented towards the sun, are shaded by trees or other obstacles, or may have design elements, such as gables, skylights or turrets, that restrict where you can mount the panels.
Roof mounted panels are fastened to a racking system that is anchored to the roof of the building. There are two ways to anchor the racking to the roof: ballast or fasteners. Ballast anchored systems use a heavy weight, usually concrete blocks, to keep the solar panels in place. You can only use ballast anchored systems on flat roofs and with panels placed at a low angle. Ballast anchored systems aren't screwed into anything so you don't have to worry about weatherproofing any screws or fasteners drilled into your roof, however they add a significant weight to the roof so need to be approved by a structural engineer.
If you roof is sloped or you want to tilt your panels at a higher angle then your solar racking system will be anchored to the roof structure with screws or other fasteners. There are a variety of suitable fasteners, ranging from simple screws to devices designed to maintain a weatherproof seal. Some structures, such as an unoccupied and unheated shed, don't require much weatherproofing so the solar racking can be directly mounted to the structure with screws and little regard given to sealing the screw holes. Other buildings, such as a home or office building, require anchors that will neither degrade the integrity of the roofing materials nor be pervious to rain and snow. Engineer-approved products with integrated weathertight flashings or sealing membranes are available for all types of roofs.
Ground Mounts. Common in rural areas, ground mounted panels are a popular choice for larger properties and larger systems. They can be easily oriented for optimal energy generation, are not limited by the size of a roof, and are easily accessible. Because it's usually possible to mount small systems on the roof, ground mounted systems tend to be on the larger side. It's not uncommon to see upwards of 64 PV panels on a single ground mount.
Ground mounted panels are fastened to a racking system that is anchored to a solid foundation. The foundation is usually made up of screw piles or poured concrete footings or piers. Another approach is to make a platform with landscape tiles and add ballast blocks for sufficient weight. Even large concrete highway dividers have been used as a base for ground mounted panels. The important part is to ensure your foundation is strong and stable enough to prevent your panels from moving or blowing over in high winds.
Building the foundation is an additional cost for ground mounted systems, however it is usually offset by cheaper installation. Roof and wall mounts often require lifting equipment or scaffolding, plus installation takes more time when installers are required to wear fall arrest gear.
An exotic form of a ground mount is a solar carport whereupon your panels are used to create a protected area for cars or RV’s. At their simplest, a solar carport is a ground mount with a heightened foundation to create space to park a vehicle underneath. If facing the sun they can be single slope, or double slopped if perpendicular to the sun.
Wall Mounts. Excellent at maximizing energy during winter, when the sun is low in the sky, wall mounted panels are less common than their roof and ground mounted counterparts. Nevertheless they provide a solid alternative for buildings without a sun-facing roof or enough space for ground mounted panels.
Wall mounted panels can be tilted close to vertical which, in high latitudes, is excellent for maximizing winter energy collection when demand for heating is highest. A system optimized for winter energy generation can generate more energy in the colder months than in the summer, even though there are less hours of sunlight.
A common variation to your standard wall mount is to build an awning that projects the solar panels off the wall. In addition to providing a tilt that prioritizes year round energy generation, your solar panels can be used to shade a patio or protect a walkway from rain and snow. This is a great way to achieve more with your system. You can be shaded from the harsh sun and all the while use it to generate energy!
A less common wall mount variation is to mount your panels on a fence. A solar fence is easily accommodated on most suburban properties and can provide a welcome variation to an otherwise repetitive fence. As with a standard wall mount, vertical mounting has the advantage of maximizing winter energy. Usually the solar panels can be fastened directly to the fence and don't require additional racking hardware.
Pole Mounts. Small systems can be mounted on a single pole. These are typically two or four panels, though larger poles are available. Pole mounts are popular on properties that are heavily shaded by trees or other buildings. The poles can boost the panels above whatever is creating the shade. Pole mounted panels can also have their tilt and orientation adjusted to maximize energy generation throughout the year, either manually or automatically with a solar tracker. However, in most cases it’s more economical to invest in additional panels than by solar tracking hardware.
That covers the standard places you can mount your panels, however there are also specialized solar products for integrating panels into architectural designs. Solar roof tiles can be used instead of regular roof tiles. More cost competitive if you're replacing a roof or constructing a roof from scratch, in most other situations they cost more than the alternative solar panels. Another specialized product is glass panels incorporated with solar cells. These are designed into a building as exterior glazing, usually only on tall commercial office towers. These types of specialized solar products are more expensive than standard solar panels for equivalent solar energy but they provide more design flexibility.
Have you got an idea where you'd like to mount your panels? Maybe you've got something special in mind? Get in touch and we'll see if we can turn your solar idea into reality.
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