Through solar monitoring, system owners can access their system’s performance anytime, anywhere. Photovoltaic (PV) panels run silently in the background as they generate free energy from the sun’s rays. This silent operation makes it difficult to tell how much energy is being produced or whether the PV system is even working at all. Determining this requires carefully analyzing utility statements – some of which only get sent out a few times a year.
Inspecting monthly or quarterly electricity bills is impractical for the average homeowner. This is especially true with technology like solar PV that is heralded for being “maintenance-free.” Small business owners are often in the same boat. They realize solar is a great way to control costs – but not if those savings required directing time and attention to utility bills instead of to their actual businesses.
This problem only compounds as the size of the PV installation grows. For example, manually checking energy production levels across a large-scale solar farm is essentially impossible. This is because each individual panel generates variable output every second, with some of the largest solar facilities featuring many thousands of modules.
Faced with these challenges, PV power producers (and the installers who work with them) are increasingly turning to solar monitoring technology.
What Is Solar Monitoring?
Solar panel monitoring software basically “monitors” the energy production levels of PV systems. The process requires connecting solar installations to:
- Sensors that can detect solar power output in real time.
- Receivers that can transmit this data via router to Web-based dashboards, solar monitoring apps, or even to the utility-scale distributed energy resource management systems (DERMS) that grid operators use to monitor and stabilize the electricity network.
Many modern solar monitoring systems come with notification support that alerts PV system owners whenever there are deviations in energy generation. With any solar installation, it’s natural to see fluctuations in power output throughout the day – or as the seasons change. Having solar activity monitoring in place provides users with a baseline against which to compare production levels across similar time frames (e.g. July of this year vs. July of last year).
The emergence of machine learning technology now enables some monitoring platforms to automatically factor in real-time weather and cloud cover data when accounting for potential dips in output. Some solar panel monitoring software can also compare production levels of similarly-sized PV systems in the region to determine how closely one’s own installation is performing.
The Benefits of Solar Monitoring Software
For most homeowners and businesses, solar is an investment whose returns are measured in:
- Money saved – in the form of reduced grid reliance and lower utility bills
- Carbon offsets – thanks to fossil fuel avoidance and less pollution
And as with any investment, the goal is to maximize these returns over the useful lifetime of the PV system, with most panels coming with at least 25 years of warranty protection.
Accomplishing this means occasionally repairing solar panels or some of the other PV system components whenever necessary. And monitoring helps achieve this by automatically sending alerts whenever the system detects sudden and unexplainable dips in power output. The user can then bring in a technician for any necessary repairs or replacements.
However, protecting one’s solar investment also means using preventative maintenance to keep their PV system in optimal working order. Because scheduled maintenance is done yearly, minor issues can go undetected for as long as 12 months. This doesn’t mean that the PV system is necessarily broken. But long stretches of reduced output mean the user won’t generate the financial and environmental returns they were expecting.
Here again, solar activity monitoring can help.
Monitoring helps users quickly identify performance dips as they happen. And this allows them to bring in technicians to optimize their installations and help them reclaim lost utility bills and carbon savings.
How Do Solar Monitoring Systems Work?
Most solar PV monitoring solutions are sector-specific, with different tools available for residential and commercial customers vs. industrial and utility-scale power producers.
With most platforms, however:
- The monitoring software is connected to the PV system’s inverter(s) using wireless sensors and receivers that communicate with the home or business’s WiFi router.
- The monitoring system collects real-time solar production data throughout the day – allowing the owner to track output and verify that their PV system is performing as it should.
As solar activity monitoring software evolves, however, newly developed features continue to expand with the technology can do.
Modern Solar Monitoring Capabilities
Below are just some of the most recent features and add-ons that frequently come standard with many modern solar monitoring systems.
1. Email and Text Auto-Alerts
Auto notifications eliminate the need for PV system owners to regularly check performance statistics. Instead, alerts are instantly sent to the user whenever deviations in solar output are detected. Some monitoring solutions can also be configured to send performance alerts to installers. Doing so is a wise investment for PV contractors who offer service agreements or performance guarantees to their clients.
2. Performance Tracking
For those who do like to check the numbers, newer solar panel monitoring platforms come with performance tracking that shows historic data:
how many kilowatt-hours were generated daily, weekly, annually – or even throughout the entire PV system’s operational lifetime?
3. Panel-Level Monitoring
Most solar monitoring solutions are configured to track system-wide performance, but some newer software platforms come with panel-specific monitoring capabilities. This level of granular control makes it easier to identify the exact cause and location of potential issues. Just keep in mind that panel-level monitoring requires installing microinverters for each individual module in the solar installation.
4. Anytime-Anywhere Access
Many of the earliest solar monitoring software solutions were only accessible via locally connected computers. As a result, one had to be on-site to check their PV system’s performance stats.
However, most of today’s monitoring platforms now come with cloud access, allowing users to check their numbers from any Web browser. Many software solutions also come with dedicated smartphone apps.
5. Solar Consumption Data
Solar monitoring technology was originally created to track production data – i.e. how much clean energy a PV system generates across a given timeframe. But for optimal savings, it’s important users know how much of this solar energy they’re using on the spot, storing in on-site batteries, or sending into the grid.
This real-time consumption data is particularly important for PV system owners enrolled in programs like net energy metering (NEM) or feed-in tariffs. Both incentives reward users for any excess solar electricity they feed into the utility grid.
Types of Solar Monitoring Systems
Although all solar monitoring platforms are designed for the same purpose, they’re often categorized into three different groups (or types of providers).
1. Monitoring from Inverter Manufacturers
Manufacturers like SMA Solar, Enphase, and SolarEdge all offer native solar monitoring support for their inverters. This service is typically free when using that manufacturer’s specific inverter technology.
2. Monitoring from Installers and Panel Producers
Some of the largest solar installers and panel manufacturers now offer monitoring support – including SunPower. In addition, those who own Tesla electric vehicles (EV’s) or its PowerWall storage solutions can now track PV power production levels through the company’s dedicated smartphone app.
3. Monitoring from Third-Party Providers
The final group of solar monitoring providers is standalone software and hardware developers – most of whom neither manufacturer nor install solar PV technology themselves. These third-party providers specialize in-home energy monitoring systems in which the trackers and sensors are connected to the property’s main breaker panel.
Some of these third-party solutions use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to determine what portion of the electricity flowing through a user’s home is coming from the grid versus the PV system’s solar panels. Curb, Sense, and Emporia all fall into this category.
There’s technically a 4th category of solar activity monitoring.
Many utilities use DERMS software to collect real-time production levels from all the distributed energy resources connected to the grid – including intermittent ones like rooftop solar installations and privately owned wind turbines. These utilities often use AI-powered DERMS technology to help them track and manage terabytes of real-time production data across the grid to help make the entire electricity network more reliable.
At this scale, monitoring isn’t about detecting issues in any given panel or PV system. It’s about managing and optimizing the electricity grid as a whole.
Potential Limitations of Solar Monitoring Software
Solar panel monitoring was created to help PV system owners detect problems. But what if the monitoring platform itself faces issues?
For example, IT glitches are commonplace in today’s hyper-digital world, with everything from phones to computers to “smart” toasters needing the occasional reboot or update. And the same is true with solar monitoring. The technology provides peace of mind, freeing users from the responsibility of regularly tracking performance stats. But it’s still important that users check in once in a while to make sure production levels are being captured accurately.
An even bigger concern is the impending 3G Network Shutdown.
Many of the routers, sensors, and receivers used to capture and send solar production data to rely on 2G and 3G bandwidth. But throughout 2021 and 2022, these devices will all lose connectivity as major US telecom carriers phase out support for older cellular technologies in favor of the newer 4G and 5G standards. In fact, any residential, commercial, or industrial solar monitoring technology dependent on legacy routers will need to be upgraded at some point before 2023 to continue collecting and sharing production data.
Steps to Troubleshooting a Solar PV System
What exactly should a PV system owner do if their solar monitoring software alerts them to a potential problem in the installation? It ultimately depends on the issue – and how the solar monitoring platform is configured.
If the monitoring solution tracks performance at the panel level, it’s relatively easy to pinpoint the location of the problem. There might even be an error message indicating the exact type of problem – whether it’s a broken panel or slipped wires.
If the monitoring solution tracks performance at the system level, identifying the location of the problem becomes more challenging. And installation owners may need to go through the DIY checklist below to pinpoint potential sources of the issue:
- For most power-related problems, the best place to start is with the breaker switches in the electrical panel. More specifically, users should check to see if their own fuses are in the “off” position when they shouldn’t be.
- Next, the user should check the inverter boxes. Steady green lights typically mean that the inverter is performing correctly. Red, yellow, or flashing lights normally indicate that the inverter is experiencing some kind of problem.
- The final step involves checking the panels themselves for debris, fallen branches, dust accumulation, or excessive pollen buildup. Although washing panels can be a DIY job, be sure to read our longer article on why you should always bring in a professional cleaner that specializes in solar PV technology.
If none of the above steps are enough to isolate the issue, the PV system owner will need to bring in a licensed professional to perform more detailed diagnostics. The average user should never attempt repairs, replacements, or optimizations on their own since doing so involves working with high-voltage electrical equipment. In addition to safety concerns, troubleshooting one’s own PV system could void warranty protections for the individual components in the system. And there’s also the very real possibility that maintenance performed by amateurs will only make the problem worse.
This is why solar installation owners should always bring in a licensed and trained technician to source the problem, make any necessary repairs, and help restore the PV system to its full production capacity.
An Easier, Faster, and Cheaper Way to Repair Solar PV Systems
Whether the goal is to save money or protect the planet, solar monitoring is an increasingly essential component of modern PV systems. However, monitoring itself can’t automatically fix issues. The technology can only detect them. And PV system owners still need to bring in professionals who can diagnose system-wide problems and implement the most appropriate solutions.
However, finding the right technicians for the job can prove challenging. There is no guarantee that the repair team brought in to troubleshoot the system is experienced and competent in the technology-specific to that customer’s solar installation.
And this is where 365 Pronto can help.
Our software platform can analyze a PV system’s exact DNA – based on variables like location, size, components, and even local weather conditions. It then uses this DNA profile to instantly match each solar installation with the most appropriate service repair teams, regardless of the underlying problem – whether it’s a faulty inverter, dislodged panel, or glitchy monitoring software.