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Solar Panels & Ice Dams

Solar panels on your roof won’t cause ice dams or worsen them.  But you do need to keep them snow-free, and you’ll need to treat them like little delicate black glass flowers if you do get an ice dam.

Some long-time customers of ours called the other day.  They were considering putting solar panels on their roof, but wanted to know if they’d just be playing ice dam roulette.

I was happy to tell them they could go right on ahead and install the solar panels.  They don’t create ice dams.

Of course, ice dams can form on them, just as they can form on any other part of a roof.  The whole surface is flat, black, and heated from underneath by the hot air that builds up in the attic.  If you think about it, your entire roof is one big solar panel.  The only difference is the small glassy part you paid thousands of dollars for will save some trees and baby seals.

“I’ve got ice dams on my solar panels – help!” 

As with the rest of your roof, snow can melt on solar panels.  Of course, this melted snow can (and does) re-freeze near the edges of your panels, leaving your solar panels nearly covered in ice.  That’s not technically an ice dam, but it’s ice nevertheless, and you’ll want to de-ice those panels ASAP so that Helios can keep your TiVo box running without interruption.

Because the stakes are that high (e.g. the cost of your solar panels), you need the ice removed by people who know what they’re doing.

First, they need to use steamers – or in this case, even a low-pressure hot-water pressure washer will do the trick.  No chisels, torches, or other Fred Flintstone tools.  Ask the ice dam removal company you call whether or not they use steam (and hang up if they say “Yabba dabba doo”).

The first thing your ice removal technician should do is dial the steamer down below 200 degrees.  Although 200 degrees is no longer “technically” steam, too hot, too fast, is a recipe for disaster.  We recommend low pressure and low heat!

Finally your ice dam removal technician can now start liberating your solar panel.  They must steam slowly. Very slowly.  The proper technique is start at the edge, working towards the center of the ice.  And again…low heat!

You never want to hit that ice with hot water or steam right in the center of the solar panel.  That is simply too hot, too fast, and the effect is just like pouring hot water into a frosty glass.  The panels crack.  Moving “low & slow” is the only safe way to remove ice from solar panels.  

An inexperienced contractor might blast up the heat (especially if you said, “Hurry up – I’m paying by the hour here!”).  Next thing you know, you’ve got a multi-thousand-dollar black glass paperweight on your roof.

Removing snow from your solar panels 

The Ice Dam Guys® love trees, so we want your solar panels not only to remain intact, but also to keep soaking up the rays throughout the winter.  That’s why you should keep snow off your solar panels, as well as the off the rest of your roof.

Ice comes from melted snow.  No snow on your panels, no ice on your panels.  Pretty simple.  And…it’s much easier to remove snow from your solar panels that it is to remove ice!

But you can’t just go scraping down your solar panels with a yard rake.  You’ll scratch them up and damage them.  You don’t even want to use a roof rake, because the hard plastic cutting edge and/or the plastic wheels themselves will almost certainly scratch your solar panels.

I suggest a gas or electric blower. Just whisk the snow off there without applying any direct force to your panels.  Or you can use a soft bristle brush or broom if you don’t have a blower.  Depending on the amount of snow (and it’s density), you may have to shovel off a layer of snow first, just make sure to leave a few inches of snow protecting your glass.  Use your soft bristle broom or blower on the last few inches. 

Every home is different, and every winter is different, but it’s typically the large heavy/wet snowfalls that wreak the most havoc on solar panels.  There’s a chance you may have to clear your panels a lot during one an epic winter, but that’s a small price to pay for clean energy.  

Solar panel installation tips 

If your home is prone to ice dams there are a few things you should think about when it comes to installing solar panels.

  1. Make sure to install the panel up near the peak of the roof. Keep it away from the edge if at all possible. Ice dams almost never form near the peak of a roof. The idea behind keeping your panels near the peak of your roof is to simply keep them out of the way of us Ice Dam Guys®, should you need us.
  1. If ice dams are a major concern, don’t cover your entire roof in solar panels. You won’t leave us any place to walk, and that means we’ll have to do your next potential ice dam removal job from up on a ladder – which is more expensive for you, because it takes an ice dam removal technician longer when being forced to work from a ladder.
  1. Don’t stick long rows of solar panels together, in such a way that there’s no shingle between the panels. Spread them out a little or it’ll be very tough to remove snow and/or ice from them.  Without proper spacing, you or your technician will be forced to work from above or below them, with no option of standing between them.  Although it can be done, it’s much easier when given the option to stand between each set of solar panels.  It can sometimes be a little safer as well, and I’m sure you (and us) would prefer not to slip off your roof and belly-flop onto your frozen pool.

Other than that, solar panels are pretty straightforward to deal with during ice dam season.  May the sun gods smile on yours.

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