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Tracking Solar Panels vs Fixed: Pros, Cons & Differences

Tracking vs Fixed Solar Panels

Solar panels are slowly but steadily taking over the world. Tech giants like NASA, Tesla, and world governments are making huge investments in this emerging technology. If you’re interested in solar panels but don’t know which ones to pick, this guide is for you! Today, we’ll break down the two major types of panels—tracking and fixed—and help you make the right choice.

Both options have their pros and cons, of course. We’ll start by taking a close look at fixed solar panels: how they work, the power output, and more. Next, we’ll dive into the concept of tracking panels, talk about their advantages and disadvantages, and come up with a verdict. So, which panels offer the greatest bang for the buck? Read on and find out!

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Fixed Solar Panels

solar panel on the garden
Image Credit: Piqsels

Fixed solar panels are static. When the sun sets or moves from the east to the west, the efficiency of these panels drops dramatically. The most common examples of fixed solar panels are the ones that you see installed on roofs. These take very little effort and time to set up but have proven to be quite efficient and long-lasting, even in harsh climatic conditions.

Fixed panels can also be mounted on the ground—it’s up to you to decide. For residential use, they’re the perfect pick, thanks to the lower price and low-maintenance nature. You won’t have to replace any trackers when they break down or pay extra for additional wires or anything like that. How do they work, though? Let’s find that out next!

How Do Fixed Panels Work?

The concept behind fixed panels hasn’t really changed over the years. Every single panel has built-in PV cells. Whenever the sun hits one of these panels, these cells absorb the solar energy and turn it into DC. Next, the generated/absorbed current finds its way into the inverter that does just that—converts it into AC electricity. Finally, this alternating current flows through the grid to power up every single house connected to that grid.

That’s exactly how tracking solar panels work as well, by the way. It’s just that you’re “stuck” with fixed panels. Once you pick a spot and install them, they won’t move an inch unless you detach them and move to another spot. But, since they’re a lot less expensive and don’t take nearly as much effort to install, fixed panels are still in large demand.

Energy Production/Output

The average solar panel will generate 250–400 watts an hour. The exact output depends on a long list of factors, including the size of the panels, their position, capacity, and, of course, the climate. In contrast to popular belief, solar panels do absorb solar energy even when it’s cloudy and raining. However, the power output is dramatically lower. So, yes, a solar farm will be a lot more efficient and will pay for itself faster if you live in a sunny area.

Let’s say you get 5–6 hours of sun per day. That will result in 1.2–2.4K watts-hours. The important thing to remember here is that in the same conditions, tracking solar panels will always be more efficient. Even if the sun is up 12 hours a day, the panels will still greatly benefit from the tracking system adjusting them for ideal exposure.

solar panels on hill side
Image Credit: Piqsels

What’s the Best Use for Fixed Panels?

If you’re excited about the idea of having solar panels on your property (like on top of the roof), fixed solar panels will be a great place to start. As mentioned, they are quite reasonably priced, only take a day or two to install, and do a decent job of providing a moderate-sized house with pure solar energy.

  • Best suited for residential use
  • Available at an affordable price
  • Fast, hassle-free installation
  • Low-maintenance
  • Average energy production/efficiency
  • Not that great in limited spaces

solar power divider Tracking Solar Panels

solar light and panels
Image Credit: Piqsels

Just like the name suggests, tracking panels follow the sun’s movements (very accurately). That allows them to be more efficient and produce more pure energy compared to static panels. For example, dual axis tracking systems generate 50% more solar energy per day. Next, the so-called active trackers are fully automatic: you don’t need to do any manual adjustments or “fine-tuning” for them to work. The panels move and tilt on their own.

In the Norwest, where the sun moves constantly, tracking solar panels deliver an incredible performance. With that said, this technology has one big disadvantage. While tracking panels do, indeed, ensure an optimized solar input and serve for many years, they do cost a lot. For most homeowners in the US, it will be wise to just install a couple of extra fixed panels instead of buying expensive tracking panels.

How Do Tracking Solar Panels Work?

Tracking solar panels have only one job: to adjust to the position of the sun and make sure the panels always get as much solar energy as possible. Tracking systems are available both for ground-mounted and rooftop panels. You connect them to the racking of the individual panels, and that is how they move. Along with that, you can choose between manual, passive, and active trackers. Manual trackers are the cheapest ones.

But you’ll have to readjust them manually. Keeping an eye on the sun constantly and physically tuning the panels is a lot of work. Passive trackers, in turn, come packed with a liquid that vaporizes under the effect of solar radiation, and that’s how the tilting mechanism works. Finally, active trackers include hydraulic cylinders that are 100% autonomous. Unfortunately, they do tend to break.

Energy Production/Output

Tracking solar panels are more efficient—that’s their biggest appeal. For instance, if you install a single-axis tracker, it will generate 25–35% more solar energy compared to a fixed solar panel. Single-axis trackers follow the sun’s exact position as it’s moving to the west. As for dual axis tracking systems, they adjust to the sun’s position not only according to east/west but also to north/south.

On average, these systems boost energy production by 40–45%. In some rare cases, they can provide a 70–80% increase. Double-axis trackers are the most expensive option on the market. On the bright side, they are an optimal solution if you’re limited in space, as they have the highest power output.

solar lamp
Image Credit: Piqsels

What’s the Best Use for Tracking Panels?

If you have a very small roof and/or limited space in the yard, go with tracking solar panels. They’re also a better choice for full-fledged farms. Finally, if you live in a city/area with TOU (Time of Use) electricity rates, tracking systems will come in very handy. Under TOU, the rates are low during off-peak times (late night and early morning) and high during the day. With tracking panels, you can use this to your advantage.

  • Ensure maximum energy output
  • Added efficiency with Time of Use rates
  • A great choice for full-scale farms
  • Available in different configurations
  • Not particularly cheap
  • Rather hard to install and service

solar power divider

Are Tracking Solar Panels More Expensive?

Yes, they are, and the price difference is quite significant. Let’s take a set of ground-mounted solar panels, good for 4kW. The price on such a setup will be roughly around $13K. As for the tracking system, it will cost you $500–1K per panel. So, even if you have just four panels installed, the trackers will set you back an extra $2–4K. A single-axis tracker will cost more, driving the estimated price for the whole thing to $20K.

And if you opt for a dual-axis system—the most advanced option on the table—that will double the price, coming in at $25–26K. Tracking panels are almost unreasonably expensive, and that makes them an unnecessary, pointless purchase for the average US citizen looking to switch to solar panels. Depending on the configuration, fixed solar panels can be twice as affordable!

Which Panels Are Harder to Install/Operate?

Tracking panels take more effort to install. And while you can hire a team of professionals to do that for you, it won’t be cheap. Furthermore, maintenance takes more time and knowledge. Last, tracking systems don’t last forever: they wear out and break down, which, again, means extra expenses on your side. In solar farms, tracking systems are serviced by experienced specialists that know their way around the equipment. Please do keep this in mind.

And one more thing: depending on the size of your solar farm and the actual panels, you might have to do some extra digging (for the wires) and grading. Now, tracking solar panels do have higher annual energy savings. However, the estimated payback period is much higher, too. Expect it to be 20–45% longer.

solar panels near palm trees
Image Credit: Jeremy Bezanger, Unsplash

What is the Right Option for You?

For the average homeowner, fixed rooftop solar panels are the most beneficial option. They are (relatively) cheap and don’t take much hassle to install. If you’ve been thinking about going solar this year, fixed panels will be right up your alley. For such a setup, a solar tracker won’t be worth the extra cost. As long as the roof is facing south and the panels are properly installed, a tracker will just get in the way.

With that said, if you live up north (in Alaska, for example), where the sun is constantly moving, tracking solar panels will be a more preferable pick. Fixed panels won’t do you much good in such an environment—they simply won’t be able to power up your house 365 days a year. Industrial solar farms also choose tracking panels over fixed ones, as their efficiency makes up for the steep price tag.

When to go with Tracking Solar Panels When to go with Fixed Solar Panels
You have limited space for the panels You’re on a somewhat tight budget
You live in a high-latitude location You’re only looking to power your own house
You run a utility-scale solar farm Ease of installation is the top priority
You’re looking for long-term benefits You live in a low-latitude area
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Solar farms are the next big thing. However, while they’re already in large demand, this technology still has a long way to go. Now, if you run a large-scale commercial farm, tracking solar panels will be the right investment. They are almost twice as efficient as fixed panels and will be a better investment in the long run, thanks to increased production.

At the same time, fixed panels are significantly cheaper, easier to install, and will be just the right pick for residential use. So, if you’re just looking for a set of solar panels to install on your roof and absorb the sun’s energy, there will be very little reason to buy tracking panels. Essentially, that will be money going down the drain!

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Featured Image Credit: Image Credit: (L) Piqsels | (R) schropferoval, Pixabay


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