Prepare For Winter With These System Maintenance Tips

Is Your Solar Electric System Ready For Winter?

As winter arrives with days of decreased sunlight, Backwoods Solar reminds everyone to review the maintenance and condition of your solar electric system. Better to check on your system at your convenience rather than when something goes wrong in the middle of the night in three feet of snow. Below is a checklist of items to consider.
Seasonal Angle for Solar Panels
If you have an adjustable rack mount for your solar panels, it is worth tilting them to the ideal angle to properly capture the winter sun. An appropriate angle can make a big difference in the amount of power collected, especially during the shorter, cloudier days of winter when sunshine is at a premium.

The ideal angle for your panels is easily determined. Use the latitude of your location and add 15 degrees. The result is the angle of tilt of the panels, measured up from horizontal that will yield the best harvest during the winter months. Example: Sandpoint, Idaho is at 48 degrees north. Ideal winter angle is 48 + 15 = 63 degrees.

For the folks that have vacation cabins that may only be visited once a month or so during the winter, consider a steeper angle to accommodate easier shedding of snow.
Clear the Snow Off
Seems obvious, right? Sweeping snow from solar modulesKeep a broom or brush on a telescoping handle if needed, and clear any freshly fallen snow off the panels on a routine basis. By letting the snow sit and freeze on the panels, it will take that much longer until your panels are collecting again. It’s a horrible feeling to be sitting at work, when the grey skies open up to sunshine, and you know your array is sitting at home with six inches of snow on it.
Generator Tune-up
Now is the time to do your annual maintenance. Besides the basics; oil, belts, coolant level, air filter, and spark plugs, be sure to check your owner's manual for items specific to your machine. Check on the starter battery. If the generator has not been run since the previous winter it is very likely that the starter battery may be dead or heavily discharged. Replace or recharge it before you need it.
Batteries can be kept in a relatively cold area, with a couple of considerations. The energy storage capacity of batteries in a cold climate is temporarily reduced. Instrumentation such as battery monitors can be fine-tuned to reflect a more accurate state of charge. Temperature sensors for both your charge controller and inverter/charger should also be used for optimum charging points of your batteries.

Fully charged Check Your Battery Specific Gravitybatteries, being used on a daily basis, will not freeze until the temperature drops to -70 degrees F. However, a battery at 50% state of charge can freeze in temperatures as “warm” as -10 degrees F. Don't let the batteries get too low.

The sulfuric acid in batteries that are being stored or lightly used will tend to stratify as water begins to separate out from the solution, resulting in layers more like water near the top of the battery and denser layers of sulfuric acid towards the bottom. If this occurs, it is very possible for the water layer to freeze at temperatures near 32 degrees F and crack the battery casing.          
Extended Leave
Flooded lead acid batteries respond best to daily use, so we have to make the best of a non-ideal situation when the power system will be unattended for extended periods of time. Depending on your installation and equipment there are a couple of options available. If you have an automatic generator start (AGS) function tied to your inverter/charger, and you consider your generator to be highly reliable, the inverter can be left on in search mode so that a charging source is available if the panels become covered in snow. If you do not have AGS, turn the inverter off. Turn all DC loads off. Leave the charge controller on, with the goal of supplying at least a bit of float charge to the batteries each week.

If available, ask a neighbor to check your array after any major snow storm, to brush the snow off. Additionally, if you use flooded lead acid batteries, arrange for that neighbor to check battery electrolyte level once a month if possible and add distilled water as needed. If no one can check your electrolyte level, consider reducing your bulk voltage settings to 14.0 for a 12v system, 28.0 for a 24v system, and 56.0 for a 48v system to reduce water consumption and set the equalization function to automatically occur once per month.
Tuning Gear, More Panels, Winter Behavior
The sun tends to be shy in the winter. Let’s take advantage of the days it does show up. An experienced system owner will know how their system responds to normal charging and equalizing. Consider increasing the absorb time on your charge controller for the winter months. Keep a notebook handy in your power room, and write-down the summer and winter settings that you find work best, so you know what to change them back to when the seasons change.Chilkat Lake AK
Long time off-gridders will tell you they simply change their behavior during the winter months. Leaving the coffee pot on for an hour is fine in the bountiful sunny days of summer, but the coffee maker gets turned off after 15 minutes in the winter, and the coffee goes into a thermos. Or better yet, wait until you get into work and make the coffee there! Less TV time, and more book reading cuts down on the power used. Simple conservation in several small steps can add up to a big difference in the amount of power needed during the winter.

In conclusion, it's better to take care of your system now, than to experience failures at the most miserable time imaginable. Routine maintenance and a thorough knowledge of how your system responds to your daily usage will serve you well, not only for the winter, but for the lifespan of your system as well. Stay warm and don't forget to keep your snow chains, a shovel, and a bag of sand in the trunk of your car!

If you're interested in building or improving your off-grid home, call us 208-263-4290 or contact us online for more information. Request a Catalog to browse our products at your convenience.
Backwoods Solar will be closed Wednesday, December 25th and Wednesday, January 1st to observe the Christmas and New Years holidays. We are available for sales and tech support Monday through Friday, 8:30 to 4:30 PST.

Happy Holidays from Backwoods Solar Electric Systems, Inc.
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We design and sell solar, wind and hydro electric systems around the world. We do most of our communications over the phone but if you're in our neck of the woods please stop by to see us! 


Backwoods Solar Electric Systems, Inc.
1589 Rapid Lightning Road
Sandpoint, Idaho 83864
Mon-Fri: 8:30 am - 4:30 pm (Pacific)
 (208) 263-4290.

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