What happens to solar panels in a hurricane?

Updated

Stormy solar panels
PAUL HACKETT/REUTERS

In short: Hurricanes produce more wind than almost any other natural phenomenon on earth, and they can damage anything and everything in their path. But modern solar panels are built strong enough to withstand storm and hail damage and securely attached to your roof to hold during even the highest winds. If you have professionally-installed solar panels and homeowners’ insurance, you can rest assured that damage is unlikely and you’re probably covered in case it occurs.

Hurricanes are nature’s wildest storms, with winds whipping around at up to 160 miles per hour or more. All that wind can blow trees down, destroy mobile homes, and whip debris around, causing major problems.

But how do solar panels fare in a hurricane? Surprisingly well, it turns out.

Solar is built strong

Solar panel crash test

Solar panels are like any other product. The good ones are built to last, while the cheap ones can be pretty flimsy. The above image comes from a promotional video for SolarWorld’s excellent panels, which undergo extensive testing. The video shows the panels withstanding hail at 262 mph, and even a truck parking on top of them.

If a weaker solar panel is battered around by wind-blown debris in a hurricane, you might see some damage, and it might not be pretty…

Broken solar panel

But you’re more likely to find that your panels survive impacts just fine, as was the case when solar panels at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s testing facility were subjected to a wild hail storm. Of the more than 3,000 panels located at the facility, only one was damaged.

Municipalities require strong solar installations

Places that can experience extreme weather and wind events like Florida and Texas have done a pretty good job of passing rules to ensure solar systems can survive the worst. Most places in Florida require solar installations to withstand winds of 160 mph minimum, and in a place like Houston, Texas, where Hurricane Harvey caused massive destruction, that number is 110 mph (PDF).

And the solar industry has a vested interest in ensuring its installations are over-engineered enough that there aren’t widespread problems with panels tearing chunks of homeowners’ roofs off.

Roof-mounted solar systems are positioned within a few inches of the roof, and wind blowing between the panels and the roof can cause a huge amount of what engineers call “uplift.” Those systems are designed to withstand huge amounts of uplift force, with huge lag bolts that are screwed directly into the roof beams and sealed with extra care, as in the case of this EcoFasten Solar roof mount:

EcoFasten solar

With those bolts and solidly-constructed solar racks, the panels on your roof can withstand huge uplift forces.

Solar in past storms

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of rooftop solar panels durability is the record of panel damages in past storms. Though the state of New Jersey is a very popular place for home solar power, the high winds and blowing debris of Superstorm Sandy caused very few problems for solar owners.

The same was true of Hurricane Michael in 2016. Time and time again, solar panels weather the storm as good or better than other structures.

Now again in 2018, Hurricane Florence spilled coal ash and left some fossil-fuel plants shut down for weeks by damage and flooding, but solar panels owned by Duke Energy were back to generating power the day after the storm.

So now you know not to be afraid. What do you have to do to prepare?

Find out how many solar panels you need to power your home

What to know before the storm

Hurricane Harvey news

Before a hurricane, you might be worried about battening down the hatches and waterproofing everything in sight. And if you’re a micro-grid operator in Haiti, you might even think about pulling all your panels from their racks and waiting to re-install until after the storm.

But for regular homeowners, there isn’t much to do. Like we said above, panels and racks are built strong, and the mounts should be watertight for decades, storms or no. Don’t try to remove the panels yourself, and don’t try to cover them with anything, either.

Solar panels will not cause your roof to fly off your house, unless the roof itself was already going to fly off, either because of insane winds or poor building techniques. Your best bet is to keep your flashlight handy and prepare for the storm as normal. If there’s damage, you’re probably covered.

Note: storm damage is the reason installers won’t do rooftop solar panels for mobile homes.

Most homeowners’ insurance covers solar panels

If your solar panel system becomes damaged by the storm, you’re in good hands. Most homeowners’ insurance policies cover solar panels as a structural component of the home (though you may want to adjust your limits to account for the extra home value they represent).

It’s a good idea to take photos of your solar system, just like you would your other significant investments in order to create a good inventory for your insurance company if you do experience damage.

If you are on a solar PPA or lease, you’re likely covered

A solar PPA or lease is also called “third-party ownership,” under which you allow a solar company to place its panels on your roof and they sell you the electricity produced by the panels.

In this case, the panels don’t belong to you, so the business that installed them has a great interest in keeping them working. Most solar PPA providers will have insurance coverage for the panels, and maybe even for damage to your property as a result of their storm-blown solar installation. Check your PPA contract and read the fine print to find out!

After the storm

Storm clean-up

First, if your solar panels are damaged in a hurricane (or any other way), don’t go anywhere near them or try to repair them yourself. The high voltages that travel through them can kill you with a quickness, and though every system should have an automatic shutoff in case of damage or voltage spike, you should be safe and contact your utility company right away.

In the rare case that your system is damaged, they can probably be repaired or replaced quickly, and again, you’re probably covered by your homeowners’ insurance policy.

Even if your system doesn’t appear damaged, your utility company may require an inspection before it can be reconnected to the grid. Obviously, if your system survived the storm well without auto-shutdown, you’re probably good to keep it running while you assess the damage to your home and neighborhood.

Our friends at Vinyasun have some additional advice for what to do before, during, and after a hurricane.

If the power goes out

If utility power goes down as a result of the storm, most home solar systems will shut down as well. There are ways to keep your solar system running in the event of a power outage, and with some planning, it’s possible that you’ll be the only house in your neighborhood with a cold beer after a storm. Be ready for friendly neighbors.

Here’s hoping that if any of you are facing a hurricane, you make it through unscathed, with your home, loved ones, and solar panels unharmed and ready to return to normal life!

 - Author of Solar Reviews

Ben Zientara

Solar Policy Analyst and Researcher

Ben is a writer, researcher, and data analysis expert who has worked for clients in the sustainability, public administration, and clean energy sectors.

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