Thanks to rapid expansion in the solar industry, homeowners thinking of getting panels have far more solar products to choose from than they did even just a few years back. The task of choosing among them has also become easier thanks to the availability of excellent reviews about solar panels, solar installers, and solar inverters.
However, it is much harder to find good information about a smaller but also an essential part of the solar setup: solar panel racking and mounting systems. So what are they? And is there a difference between the most popular brands, IronRidge, Unirac, and Quick Mount? In this article, we take a look at solar panel mounts, compare the pros and cons of roof mounts vs. ground-mount systems, and also look at solar trackers.
What is a solar panel mount?
Solar panel mounts and racks are equipment that secure solar panels in place. Mounting also allows the panels to be adjusted for optimal tilt — based on latitude, seasons or even time of day — to ensure maximum solar production. The most common locations for mounting are roof mounts and ground-mounts. The latter can be made up of standard ground mounts, or top-of-pole mounts and side-of-pole mounts. RVs, boats, and even RV boats are other locations where panels are sometimes mounted.
The most common technique of module mounting is to use a solar panel mounting bracket. It is heavy duty equipment, usually made from stainless steel or aluminum. All solar racking and mounting products, whether for the rooftop or ground, must meet strict guidelines. Whichever you choose, you don’t need to worry about panels flying off your property! In terms of cost, racking and mounts typically make up 9% of the final cost of your solar installation.
Ironridge vs Quick Mount vs Unirac: which is best?
Each option has no weaknesses, just different strengths. Whatever brand you choose to go with will offer similar high quality and reliability.
IronRidge, Quick Mount and Unirac all offer different and very innovative ways of mounting and racking solar panels. These differences in approach result in direct comparisons becoming a bit of apple versus oranges scenario.
In any case, here is a comparison of each company and some of their products:
IronRidge was founded in the mid-1990s supporting mostly small off-grid projects. Today, IronRidge are known for their uniquely shaped XR rail series and their budget ground-mount frame. The reason it’s a ‘budget’ frame is because Ironridge only send you rails and some joints; you need to buy your own schedule 40 steel pipe and have the frame installed yourself.
Quick Mount sell just about every solar mounting product available. They are known for having ‘quick to install’ products, hence their name.
Unirac sell mounts for flat roofs and fixed-tilt ground-mount frames. In the case of the ground mounts, the tilt of the frame can be moved to increase energy output in different seasons. Unirac’s solar mounts each come with different tilts, this allows the direction of the solar array to be decided independent of the angle of the roof.
Is a rooftop solar system better?
Rooftop solar isn’t necessarily better than a ground-mounted system. However, there is one big reason why rooftop-mounted solar is much more popular: it tends to be much cheaper! A rooftop installation requires less mounting equipment, reducing equipment costs. It's also easier and faster to install, which reduces labor/installation costs.
Additionally, the roof offers a convenient flat surface that can’t be put to other uses, as opposed to the space you lose from your backyard for a ground-mounted system. But rooftop solar isn’t ideal for everybody...
Do I need a solar ground-mount system?
A problem with rooftop solar is that it’s heavily constrained by the characteristics of your roof. Homeowners who install ground-mounted solar panels do so for one of 3 reasons:
Insufficient roof space;
Their roof faces north (which is bad for panel output); and
To optimize the performance of their system.
Every home and homeowner is different, and each reason is completely valid. Your roof also has to be large enough to fit all the panels you need. Solar panels produce the most energy when they’re facing south; depending on the orientation of your house, this isn’t always an option. On a roof, there might be further limitations like an unsuitable tile or shade from surrounding buildings.
Finally, on a roof, it can be hard to achieve the optimal tilt required for solar production based on latitude, let alone achieve the flexibility required for any sort of tracking. (I discuss tracking in more detail below). Ground-mount systems prevail in the areas where rooftop solar fails.
Types of ground-mount solar systems:
Ground mount solar systems can face any way you wish and some even come with a solar tracker to maximize power production. There are 3 types of ground-mount systems.
Single-axis tilt: The panels are attached to a horizontally-laid pole so they can pivot up and down to follow the sun through the day.
Dual-axis tilt: Very similar to a single-axis tilt but instead of one pole, dual-axis mounts have a second vertical pole which also allows the panels to move side to side. Dual-axis tilt mounts move throughout the day and throughout different seasons to capture the most light.
Regular ground mounts: Panels are fixed in their mounts and don’t move on their own. Some high-end models may allow you to manually tilt the panels to different angles for each season.
How much does a solar tracker cost?
Since some solar trackers can increase output by up to 40%, manufacturers charge an arm and a leg for them. Some dual-axis solar trackers can cost up to $28,000 — often more than the actual solar system! While an additional 40% in production is great, it doesn’t justify the 100% price increase. Like all emerging technology, it’s expensive, and early adopters do so more for the ‘coolness’ factor and not as a financial investment. In practical terms, it would be smarter to spend the extra money to simply install more panels. Solar trackers need to come down in price by about 50% to be financially viable.
A better option would be to opt for a solar panel mounting system from the companies discussed earlier IronRidge, Quick Mount and Unirac. Instead of a 100% premium, their solar panel mounting systems will only add a maximum of 15% to the cost of your installation. Read more: Are solar axis trackers worth the additional investment?
How much do solar panels cost?
An average residential solar system costs about $15,000–$18,000 gross. After the federal solar tax credit, that works out to $10,500–$13,800. While that may seem like a lot of money, it’s nothing compared to the huge financial savings over the life of your solar system. Many states offer additional solar incentives that add to the financial benefits you get from the installation. Enter your zip code below for the estimated cost and savings for installing solar panels on your home.