What is a solar array?

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    If you’re interested in going solar, the amount of lingo and technical jargon can be overwhelming. Luckily, the concepts behind most of this terminology are pretty simple to understand.

    Keep reading to find out what a solar array is, how they work and how to find the right spot for one on your property.

    Key insights

    • A solar array is an interconnected system of solar panels that work together to harness the power of the sun and convert it into electricity.
    • The configuration and size of your solar array will depend on various factors, including your energy needs and how much space you have available.
    • A solar energy company can help you choose and install your solar array if you don’t have the time or experience for this kind of project.

    Understanding solar arrays

    A solar array, sometimes referred to as a photovoltaic (PV) array, is a system of multiple solar panels linked together to generate electricity from sunlight. The word "array" denotes an organized, often gridlike, collection of individual components working together as a unit.

    While a single solar panel can generate electricity on its own, the power it generates is almost never enough to power a home or business. As a result, multiple solar panels are typically linked together in an array to produce larger amounts of electricity.

    » CALCULATE: How many kWh does a solar panel produce?

    How does a solar array work?

    Each solar panel in an array is made up of multiple solar cells. These solar cells are made out of semiconductive materials — usually silicon — which generate electricity when they are exposed to sunlight via the photovoltaic effect, a process that converts light into electricity.

    The solar panels in an array are wired together in series or parallel circuits (or a combination of the two), but the exact configuration depends on a number of factors, including the available sunlight, the orientation and tilt of the panels, the available space for the array and the amount of electricity you’re looking to produce.

    A functioning solar energy system consists of more than just solar panels.

    Once the solar array generates the electricity, it is typically sent to an inverter, which converts the direct current (DC) electricity produced by the panels into alternating current (AC) electricity, which is the type of electricity most commonly used in homes and businesses.

    » LEARN: How do solar panels work?

    How many panels are usually in a solar array?

    The average 2,000-square-foot house in the U.S. needs an array of about 19 solar panels, but the number of panels in your array will depend on the wattage of the panels you choose and how much energy you want to produce.

    For example, you would need 10 300-watt solar panels to create a relatively small 3kW solar array, but you’d need 34 of the same panels to create a 10kW array capable of powering a large home.

    To give you a sense of scale, we should mention that residential solar arrays can include anywhere from a few panels to several dozen panels, whereas a commercial array for a business might have hundreds or even thousands of panels. At the extreme end of the scale, utility-scale solar farms can have millions of panels spread over acres of land.

    » MORE: How many solar panels do I need for my house?

    How much do solar arrays cost?

    The average cost of installing a solar array ranges from $17,430 ​​to $23,870 after federal tax credits, but solar array costs can vary significantly based on several factors, including:

    • The size of the array
    • The type and quality of your solar panels
    • The complexity of your installation
    • Your location

    We should also mention that you don’t have to pay this entire cost upfront. Solar loans, leases and power purchase agreements (PPAs) can all make going solar more affordable. Just do your research to ensure you pick the right one if you’re looking to maximize your return on investment.

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      Where should you put a solar array?

      Most solar arrays are mounted on the roofs of the properties they supply power to, but you can also mount solar panels on the ground.

      Unsure if your property has a good spot for solar panels? Below are some key factors to keep in mind when choosing where to put your solar array.

      Which direction will your array face?

      Your first and foremost consideration should be the direction your solar panels face. If you live in the U.S., your panels should face south to capture the most sunlight throughout the day as the sun moves from east to west.

      Is there shade on your property?

      Solar panels need unobstructed access to sunlight to perform at peak efficiency. Any shade on your solar array (whether it's from trees, other buildings, or even chimneys and roof gables) can significantly reduce its performance.

      It's also important to look for potential shading issues not just at the time of installation but throughout the year as the sun changes its position in the sky.

      Is your roof up to the task?

      If you want to put your solar array on your roof, it needs to be large enough to accommodate your panels and structurally sound enough to handle the weight of the array. The layout of your roof matters, too — larger, unbroken spaces are generally better for installing solar panels.

      Depending on your roof’s condition, you might even consider installing solar shingles instead of a traditional solar panel array.

      Are you in compliance with local restrictions and regulations?

      Some areas have specific rules and regulations regarding the installation of solar panels. Be sure to check local zoning laws, homeowners association rules, building codes and permit requirements before you install your solar panels.

      Can you get to your array if need be?

      While this won’t affect energy production, it's important to ensure that your solar array is installed in a location that is safe and accessible for maintenance and repairs. (Solar panel maintenance usually isn’t much of a burden, but it’s a lot more challenging if your solar panels are hard to get to.)

      It’s worth mentioning that you don’t need to tackle all of this on your own. A professional solar installer can conduct a site assessment to determine the ideal location for your solar array and help you throughout the installation process.

      “I contacted Sunpower to obtain a consultation to possibly add solar panels to our home. … The salesperson appeared knowledgeable and willing to help me find a solution that worked for me,” reported Chris, a ConsumerAffairs reviewer from Texas.

      “He designed a solar array that would generate about 90% of our annual energy usage, explained payment options, and helped me understand the federal tax benefit. I confirmed the benefit with our accountant and signed the agreement shortly thereafter. Installation was painless. … We have gone through 4-5 months of energy bills since installation, and we're seeing the projected benefits.”


      Can you expand a solar array later on?

      You can potentially add to your solar array down the road, but before you do, you should reevaluate the different aspects of your installation. Ask yourself:

      • Do I have space for additional solar panels?
      • Can my roof handle the extra weight?
      • Is my existing solar equipment capable of handling the added output?
      • Can I find new panels that are the same type or color as my old panels?
      • Are there any new rules or incentives that I need to know about?

      If you anticipate needing a larger solar array later on, it might be wise to design your initial installation with expansion in mind, too. For example, you may consider choosing an oversized inverter that can handle the added capacity so that you don’t have to replace it later.

      Can you have more than one solar array?

      It's entirely possible to have more than one solar array, but it's important to remember that each array and its associated equipment will need to be properly designed, installed and maintained. Any interconnections with the electrical grid will also need to comply with local regulations and utility company policies. Consider working with a reputable solar professional who can help you navigate these issues.

      How big is a solar array?

      Solar array sizes can vary significantly, but here are some general guidelines to give you a sense of what to expect:

      1. Residential solar arrays are typically between 3 and 10 kilowatts (kW) in capacity, with 6 kW being a common size for the average home. A 6kW system normally includes around 18 to 20 panels, and a standard residential solar panel is about 65 inches by 39 inches, meaning the whole system would take up roughly 315 to 350 square feet of space.
      2. Commercial solar arrays: Commercial systems are generally much larger, ranging from 25 kW up to several megawatts (MW). The physical size of a commercial array will vary accordingly, but a 100kW system would likely take up roughly 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space.
      3. Utility-scale solar arrays: These are the largest types of solar installations and are often referred to as solar farms or solar parks. They can be anywhere from a few megawatts to over a gigawatt (GW) in capacity, covering areas that can range from a few acres to several square miles.

      Remember, these are just rough estimates. The actual size of a solar array can vary based on several factors, including the efficiency of the solar panels, the available sunlight, the tilt and orientation and the specific energy needs of the property.

      » MORE: Solar panel size and weight: a guide

      What if you don’t have room for a solar array?

      If you're interested in solar power but don't have enough room for a solar array on your property, there are still several options you might consider:

      • Community solar programs let you share benefits from an off-site solar farm. Your investment is credited to your utility bill, offering a tangible way to support renewable energy without on-site installation.
      • Green power programs are offered by some utility companies, allowing you to purchase electricity from renewable sources.
      • A solar canopy or carport can provide both shelter and electricity for people with open driveways or similar areas.
      • Solar windows or balcony systems are theoretically feasible for apartment dwellers needing smaller-scale options, but the technology for solar windows might need some more time to develop.

      As a reminder, always consider local regulations and incentives; these can significantly affect the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of these options.

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