Optimum Tilt of Solar Panels

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2018-06-22
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To get the most from solar panels, you need to point them in the direction that captures the most sun. But there are a number of variables in figuring out the best direction. This page is designed to help you find the best placement for your solar panels in your situation.

This advice applies to any type of panel that gets energy from the sun; photovoltaic, solar hot water, etc. We assume that the panel is fixed, or has a tilt that can be adjusted seasonally. (Panels that track the movement of the sun throughout the day can receive 10% (in winter) to 40% (in summer) more energy than fixed panels. This page doesn’t discuss tracking panels.)

Solar panels should always face true south if you are in the northern hemisphere, or true north if you are in the southern hemisphere. True north is not the same as magnetic north. If you are using a compass to orient your panels, you need to correct for the difference, which varies from place to place. Search the web for “magnetic declination” to find the correction for your location.

The next question is, at what angle from horizontal should the panels be tilted? Books and articles on solar energy often give the advice that the tilt should be equal to your latitude, plus 15 degrees in winter, or minus 15 degrees in summer. It turns out that you can do better than this - about 4% better.

Fixed or Adjustable?

It is simplest to mount your solar panels at a fixed tilt and just leave them there. But because the sun is higher in the summer and lower in the winter, you can capture more energy during the whole year by adjusting the tilt of the panels according to the season. The following table shows the effect of adjusting the angle, using a system at 40° latitude as an example. (The comparison would be a little different for different latitudes.) Each option is compared with the energy received by the best possible tracker that always keeps the panel pointed directly at the sun.

Fixed Adj. 2 seasons Adj. 4 seasons 2-axis tracker % of optimum 71.1% 75.2% 75.7% 100%

In short, adjusting the tilt twice a year gives you a meaningful boost in energy. Adjusting four times a year produces only a little more, but could be important if you need to optimize production in spring and fall. You can jump to the section on the best fixed tilt angle, or skip to the sections on two-season or four-season adjusting.

The graph below shows the effect of adjusting the tilt. The turquoise line shows the amount of solar energy you would get each day if the panel is fixed at the full year angle. The red line shows how much you would get by adjusting the tilt four times a year as described below. For comparison, the green line shows the energy you would get from two-axis tracking, which always points the panel directly at the sun. (The violet line is the solar energy per day if the panel is fixed at the winter angle, discussed below.) These figures are calculated for 40° latitude.
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Fixed Tilt

If your solar panels will have a fixed tilt angle, and you want to get the most energy over the whole year, then this section is for you. A fixed angle is convenient, but note that there are some disadvantages. As mentioned above, you’ll get less power than if you adjusted the angle. Also, if you live where there is snow, adjusting the panels to a steeper angle in winter makes it more likely that they will shed snow. A panel covered in snow produces little or no power.

Use one of these formulas to find the best angle from the horizontal at which the panel should be tilted: