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Solar power produces clean energy, runs efficiently and requires little maintenance. However there may come a time when the system is not working the way it used to, or not at all. Before calling technical help, see if you can fix the problem yourself with this solar power RV installation troubleshooting guide. The information below may also prove useful for tech support if you decide to call them.
For convenience’s sake, we have divided this article into four parts, each covering problems and solutions for solar panels, batteries, inverters and charge controllers.
RV Solar Panel Troubleshooting
The panels is the most visible part of any solar system, and it’s usually where many of the issues occur. These are the most likely problems you will come across.
- Electrical problems
- Bird droppings
- Potential Induced Degradation (PID)
- Hot spots
- Micro cracks
- Snail trails
- Roofing Structural Defects
Oxidation, loose wiring, faulty cables and damaged wiring can disrupt energy production. At the very least you’ll notice a drop in power input, at the worst the panel stops working altogether. Frayed wires might also damage the panels and other components like the inverter and battery. Directly loading to the solar panel can damage the system too.
If you installed the system, check the connections for loose wiring. Look also for worn out cables or if one of the connectors has gotten loose. Replace and reconnect the wiring if you are handy with electronics. The key words here are if you know how. Do not attempt to fix electrical wiring unless you really know what you’re doing. Call a professional if you’re not sure what to do.
Droppings and Debris
Bird droppings can block the panels and keep it from absorbing the sun’s energy. You can clean the panel regularly (and you should), but that can be a challenge if you regularly drive through dusty locations..
Fortunately there are several solutions. Put up a bird mesh on your roof.. This makes it hard for a bird to create a nest and hopefully will discourage them from setting up one on your solar panels. Roof spikes will certainly keep them off, though they are unsightly. You may also put up fake predatory birds on your roof to scare the real ones away.
For debris, hosing with water is sufficient (and in some cases, soapy water). There are also professional solar panel cleaning services available. Do not apply too much force because it might break the panels.
Potential Induced Degradation (PID)
Differences in voltage between the solar panel and grounding system can cause PID, The main power circuit generates a voltage discharge that reduces power production and wears down the panels. If not fixed this could cause permanent damage.
This is an electrical issue. If you’re good with electrical wires then you can try and fix the problem and replace faulty wiring. If not, we suggest calling a solar power technician to have a look at your system and repair it.
Hot spots are serious problems that can render solar panels inoperable. Poor soldering and accumulated debris can cause this. But the most common culprit is an overheating panel. If left untreated, hot spots can decrease a solar panel’s lifespan or permanently damage it. In many cases hot spots cannot be repaired.
Because solar power systems need the sun to produce energy, some find the idea of overheating panels ridiculous. But it is true. All solar panels are designed to work within certain temperature ranges. If the temperature gets too hot, the panels can’t function properly.
If there are hot spots in your solar panel, replacement will be cheaper than repair. To prevent hot spots, use your panels only within the acceptable temperature range. This information will be in your solar panel user guide. If it’s too hot, move your RV under shade and wait for the sun to cool a little.
Micro cracks are tiny cracks in the cells, too small for the human eye to see but big enough to cause damage. Improper handling of the panels, production defect, thermal conditions and changing weather can all lead to these miniscule tears. Some develop naturally due to the solar pane’s age and wear and tear.
The most common cause is improper handling during shipping. That’s why you have to be careful if you’re installing portable solar panels. Micro cracks don’t happen often, but when they do, you probably won’t notice until the tear have gotten bigger. By that time the best solution is to replace the damaged panel.
Snail trails are brownish discoloration marks that appear on solar panels. Causes include moisture, manufacturing defect and faulty silver paste. The snail trails do not seem to affect performance directly. But if they are located near micro cracks or hot spots, power production will be affected.
Because snail trails have many possible causes, it is best to call a technician to identify the source. If it doesn’t affect performance or isn’t near cracks or hot spots, you may be tempted to ignore it. But researchers still aren’t sure what the long term effects are and if snail trails contribute to micro cracks / hot spots. It is better to be safe and have an expert look into it.
Rain will not damage solar panels, but if water seeps into the cell it will lead to corrosion. This can cause permanent damage. At the very least you’ll have to call a technician to fix or replace the corroded cells.
The best prevention is to laminate the cells or better yet get a laminated soar panel. Fortunately most solar panels have anti-corrosion built in the structure. Even so it’s a good idea to inspect the cells after heavy downpour just to be sure.
Roofing Structural Defects
Sometimes the problem isn’t with the solar panel but the roof. Installing a solar panel does not compromise a roof’s integrity. However, residential and RV roofs can deteriorate and crack. Heavy damage could affect the solar panels’ stability and performance.
Check your roof regularly and repair cracks or other damages. Seal any cracks and fix any damage immediately. Solar panels are detachable so you can put them back on after fixing your roof.
Be careful when removing solar panels on rooftops. Never do this during rainy weather and there should be someone helping you or is watching from the ground. Wear a helmet and a harness if you decide to go up the roof.
How to Diagnose Solar Panel Problems
A lot of potential problems with solar panels can be fixed with proper diagnosis. Even if you are not the DIY type and would rather let a technician do the work, it helps to know basic diagnostics since the tech is probably going to ask you these questions. Here are 5 steps you can do.
Install a Solar Power System Monitor
A solar power system diagnostics monitor is the simplest and easiest solution. These devices monitor your system’s performance and notifies you of any changes. A solar monitoring system provides several benefits:
- Issue alerts if solar energy production drops below the average
- Analyzes the weather and compares past data to determine performance
- Data analytics is accessible from your mobile device or computer
- Provides real time monitoring while running quietly
- No need to remember to do checkups: the monitor does it for you
If you don’t have a solar system monitor, you should definitely get one. It saves you the effort of trying to remember to check each component. You can go about your day as normal, and if something is amiss, the monitor alerts you right way.
Check Your Solar Meter. Solar meters keep track of your system’s energy production. With this tool you can compare how much you saved this month compared to the previous and if there is any notable change in performance. If you want a solar power system, a solar meter is a must.
Check the Breaker Switch. The breaker switch is the small container that controls electrical flow in your RV. A system overload, damage or glitch can cause the breaker switch to trip. This prevents solar power from reaching your appliances. Usually you just need to turn it back on to resume power. If the breaker switch is damaged however, it will need replacement.
Check the Inverter Lights. Green lights mean everything is running smoothly. Yellow or red lights indicate there is something wrong. If there is an issue, go over each component (refer to this guide). Call professional help if you are unable to resolve the problem.
Remove Any Obstructions. Solar panels need a clear, unobstructed view of the sun. Any sort of blockage will affect performance. You can’t do anything if it’s cloudy, but for other obstacles there are solutions.
- Trees and branches: for homes, cut the branches and remove the foliage. For RVs, move your RV so the trees don’t block the panels.
- Remove all debris on the panel. We already covered this so we’ll not go over it again. Just clean regularly to avoid buildup.
- Check under the panels for debris, dust and even bird droppings or nests. Mice or other vermin might set up house there without you knowing it. With regular cleaning this can be avoided.
Solar Panel Maintenance. Solar panels are low maintenance. You just need to clean the panels to get rid of dust and debris. And if it rains every now and then that should be enough to wash away the dirt. As long as the panels are installed correctly, there really is not much you have to do.
RV Battery Troubleshooting
The battery serves as storage for all the energy your solar panels produce. Usually these run without a hitch. But problems can occur so check out these troubleshooting tips to see what’s up.
By far the most common problem is solar battery drain. Batteries can drain quickly if you run a lot of appliances and devices. But why is your battery level dropping fast even when you’re not using much of anything?
Here are the most common causes:
Deep cycling batteries to kickstart engines: do not use deep cycle batteries to jumpstart engines, refrigerators or other powerful machinery, unless it is designed to do so. Regular solar batteries do not have the power to produce these sudden bursts of energy. Doing this just a few times can be enough to permanently damage a battery.
The solution is, don’t do it. If you need that much power, buy a high powered solar battery or a generator. Save regular battery packs for small appliances and electronic devices.
Storing batteries in extreme temperatures: do not store batteries in temperatures higher than 29 C / 95 F or whatever is indicated in the user guide. This comes as a surprise for a lot of new solar users as these batteries store the sun’s energy. But solar components like batteries are meant to function only within specific temperature limits. Going over it could damage the battery.
The solution obviously, is to store and use the batteries in acceptable temperature ranges. It’s all right to run batteries – especially lithium ion – under higher temperatures but only for a short time. For storage however, keep within the prescribed temperature limits.
Standing time between discharges is too long: do not let solar batteries stand too long in-between recharges. A fully discharged battery should be recharged immediately. In many cases sulfation occurs if the battery is left standing for long. Bottom line: if you discharged a battery, recharge is as soon as you can. Make it a habit so you don’t forget.
Not recharging after level drops below charging level: batteries have various charging levels. Solar lead acid batteries need to be charged before before it reaches the 50% level. Lithium ion batteries need a charge at the 40% or 20% level, depending on the design. Allowing the charge to drop below these levels could lead to rapid battery drain.
Incorrect charging: the amps have to match the battery capacity. Too much amp can result in a faster charge, but the battery will drain faster. The battery’s lifespan gets shortened as well. How badly does it get? Your battery’s life could be cut by as much as 50%.
Using different batteries on the same bank: all the batteries in your solar power system must have similar voltage. Using another type of battery leads to rapid energy loss and will permanently damage all the system. If you have to replace a battery, it must have the same specs as the one before.
Using batteries kept in storage for a long time: batteries kept in storage for prolonged periods lose power over time. The rule of thumb is to use solar batteries no older than 8 months after manufacturing. The newer the battery the better. Never buy second hand or used batteries for your solar power system.
If you’re going to invest in solar power, buy only new components, especially batteries. It is going to cost you more if that used battery dies out and damages other components in your system.
Why si the Battery Not Holding Charge?
If the battery is connected to the solar power system but can’t hold charge, the problem could be:
- The battery charge controller setting is incorrect
- The charge controller is damaged
- There is something wrong with the battery
- The system wiring is incorrect
Battery problems are usually connected to the charge controller. If that’s the case, follow these steps to diagnose the problem and fi it.
- Start by checking the settings on the charge controller.
- If the setting is correct, disconnect the battery, inverter and charge controller from the system. Using a multimeter, check the voltage of the solar panel. Even without the battery, the panel should be absorbing energy from the sun. If there is voltage, there is nothing wrong with the solar panel.
- Use the multimeter to check the voltage of the battery. Check if it is in line with what is in the documentation. If not, there is a problem with the battery and it needs to be fixed or replaced. If the inverter battery is not charging, try this guide.
How Can I Increase My Solar Battery Life?
The best way to extend solar battery life is to use it only as indicated. Lithium ion batteries are expensive but are also low maintenance. Hook it up to your system and it should run fine for years. Just don’t use them in extreme temperatures and they will be fine.
Lead acid batteries need more maintenance. Regular water refilling (varies by manufacturer) is required, and you should recharge it before the indicator drops to 50%. Here are other tips:
- Store batteries in well ventilated locations. Do not put anything flammable or combustible near it.
- Some batteries work better if fully charged. Others recommend topping off at 85%. Refer to the documentation that came with your battery.
- Small to medium capacity solar batteries cannot produce the power required by engines, refrigerators and other large kitchen appliances. You need higher capacity batteries and solar panels to run an air conditioner for example.
- If the battery is near the end of its shelf life, buy a new one immediately. Is it possible to use batteries beyond what the manufacturer recommends? To be safe on the side you should replace it. Remember that if you use the battery after the warranty ends, the manufacturer won’t be held liable should anything happen.
- A faulty battery should be replaced. Fixing damaged batteries is difficult and it’s cheaper and more convenient to just buy a replacement.
- Lithium ion batteries have a longer lifespan than lead acid and are more reliable.
Solar Battery Maintenance. Lithium ion battery need little to no maintenance. Install them in a clean location and there should be no problems. led acid batteries need regular upkeep, so refill with water as per recommendation and recharge when the indicator drops to the halfway point.
RV Inverter Troubleshooting
A solar inverter converts the sun’s energy into usable electricity to run mobile devices, kitchen appliances, TVs etc. Inverters may run into problems occasionally, but these tips should help you.
Fuse Short Circuiting. The most likely cause is running a short circuit test with the battery still plugged in. Always disconnect the battery before testing. The PV rating may be too high, in which case a controller with matching rating should be used.
Incorrect Load Disconnection. Check the battery connection. The controller is not getting the right voltage from the battery. Check the battery too because it might be damaged and need replacement.
Reverse Polarity Connection. Look first at the battery connection. Next check the inverter as it could be the cause. In these cases usually the inverter has been damaged and must be replaced.
AC Load Doesn’t Work.. The AC load doesn’t work but the fault line is on. This occurs during an automatic system shutdown due to overload. Make sure your loads do not exceed the capacity of your solar inverter.
Incorrect Loading. The most common cause is a blown or defective fuse. Check the fuses and immediately replace any that has been damaged or blown. Incorrect loading can also happen if the breakers get tripped.
What Causes Solar Inverter Failure?
The most common reasons for solar inverter failure are:
- Using incorrect gauges
- Faulty line fuses
- Using the wrong cable
- Incorrect installation
- Not following the recommended usage
How to Reset an RV Inverter
- Turn the solar AC main switch off. It is on the meter board.
- Turn the solar DC isolating switch off.
- Wait for 2 minutes then turn on both switches again.
- Resetting a solar inverter can also eliminate unknown error messages that pop up occasionally.
What to Do if Inverter is Not Working?
- Check all the connections. Ensure they are tight and correct. Replace any frayed wires.
- Reset the inverter following the steps above.
- If that doesn’t work, pull the plug and disconnect the inverter from the power source. Try it with another appliance. If it doesn’t run, the power switch needs to be replaced.
Why is My Inverter Getting Hot?
Faulty connection or frayed wiring is the most common cause. A loose connection is another possible reason. Fix the connection and your inverter should run fine.
Why Does My Inverter Keep Shutting Off?
The most common cause is the high voltage coming from the inverter’s outlet. The inverter automatically turns off when the voltage gets too high. Other possible reasons:
- Insufficient sunlight: the inverter should turn on when there is enough sunlight
- Power outage: wait for the power to return
- Regulator leakage: replace the regulator
The inverter is the most sensitive part of a solar power system and the most likely to break. Even so, inverters have come far and should run fine as long as it is used properly. You can avoid overcharging by choosing the right inverter for your power requirements.
Solar Charge Controller Troubleshooting
Solar charge controllers ensure the battery stores solar power without overheating or overcharging. It is an important component of solar power systems.
Why is My Solar Charger Not Working?
Solar charge controllers usually run without issues, but problems can occur. The most likely reasons are:
- Wrong cable connection
- Cable needs to be replaced
- The charge controller is damaged
- A blown fuse
- Charge controller needs a hard reset
Check the Wiring
Charge controller problems can also pop up if there are wiring problems. Controllers have different features, but the following applies to most models.
- Inspect the wiring for any loose connections.
- Reconnect if necessary.
- Replace any frayed wires.
- Try the controller again.
How to Reset a Solar Charge Controller
- Remove all the wires on the charge controller. There are usually four, two positive and two negative.
- Mark all the wires so you’ll remember where to put them back.
- Wait 15 minutes, then put the wires back, exactly as before. The charge controller lights will now blink, indicating it is being reset.
How to Replace a Blown Fuse. If you suspect a blown fuse, disconnect the charge controller from the solar power system. Unscrew the controller and the fuse should be visible. Remove the blown fuse and replace with a new one. Screw the cover back on and try the controller again.
How Do You Test a Solar Charge Controller?
- Before running a test, here’s a checklist:
- Make sure the battery is not fully charged as it will affect the reading.
- Check the fuses and if necessary, replace them as described above.
- Ensure all the terminals and cable connections are correct.
To do the test, follow these steps:
- Hook up the solar panel to the battery without the charge controller.
- Disconnect the positive cable linking the charge controller and the battery.
- Get a multimeter. Connect the multimeter positive lead to the controller’s positive cable. Do the same with the negative lead and negative cable.
- If there is current when you don’t use the controller, the controller is probably damaged and has to be replacement.
Charge controllers are unlikely to cause problems. Usually it has something to do with the battery, wiring or the inverter. Of course that is not always the case so knowing how to troubleshoot charge controllers is important.
Solar power systems are designed to run efficiently with little maintenance. And most of the time that’s the case. But it’s always better to be prepared just in case something does go wrong. With the solar power repair guide tips provided, you should now be more confident in dealing with common solar problems on RVs and homes.