Flexible solar panels are the perfect solution when looking for energy sources for an RV, caravan, or boat. The flexible nature makes it easy to attach them to the curved surface of a vehicle, and installation is much faster than if you were working with traditional, rigid panels. However, one question you may wonder about is whether you can attach the solar panels directly to the surface of your vehicle – or will you need to create an air gap?
Flexible solar panels need an air gap. Although they use solar energy to create electricity, they can stop working if your flexible solar panels overheat. An air gap lowers the surface temperature, reduces the risk of overheating, and helps extend the lifespan of your panels.
In this article, I’ll help you understand why air gaps are so crucial for flexible solar panels in further detail. I’ll also explain how you can create an air gap between your panels and your vehicle, and help you understand some other concerns associated with flexible solar panels, so you know what to expect.
Why Air Gaps Are Important
Given that flexible solar panels are meant to convert energy from the sun, it would be understandable for you to think that they’re designed to function in high-heat environments. However, the reality is actually the opposite.
Flexible solar panels can overheat relatively easily. The reason for this is that, when functioning, solar panels are hotter than the environment around them.
A general yardstick for the difference in heat between solar panels and the air around them is that your solar panels are about 2.22°C (36°F) hotter than the air around them. While this may not be much when it is relatively cool outside, it becomes a significant problem at high temperatures.
In general, solar panels of all types – including flexible solar panels – perform optimally at an environmental temperature of about 25°C (77°F). While they do not stop working at higher temperatures, they can produce less power and be less effective. For every 1°C (33.8°F) rise over the optimum environmental temperature, your panels produce about 0.5% less electricity.
The higher the temperature, the lower the efficiency.
So, it’s easy to understand why overheated flexible solar panels are a problem. There are several causes behind why your panels can overheat, including damage from exposure to sunlight and UV rays and lack of airflow.
The lack of airflow is especially an issue with flexible panels because they are designed to match the curvature of the objects they are attached to. While this makes them easier to attach, it also means less airflow between the panels and the surface they are bonded to.
Damage from sunlight and UV rays is a challenging issue to fix – after all, there’s no point in placing your solar panels indoors. It defeats the purpose of buying the panels.
However, the airflow problem can be solved. Increased airflow lowers the temperature of your flexible solar panels, which – as mentioned above – makes them more effective.
And the way to increase the airflow around your flexible solar panels is to create an air gap between them and the surface they are attached to.
How To Create an Air Gap Under Flexible Solar Panels
The easiest way to create an air gap under your flexible solar panels, the simplest way to do so is to attach the panels to spacers instead of attaching them directly to the surface of your vehicle. For a better idea of how to do so, take a look at the YouTube video below:
Alternatively, you can install a layer of material between your flexible solar panels and your vehicle surface. There are several materials you can try, including cardboard and polycarbonate sheets. You can see how to use polycarbonate sheets to create an air gap for your flexible solar panels in the YouTube video below:
Many companies sell flexible solar panels with an air gap creation system included, which means you won’t need to buy additional materials to create an air gap between the panels and your vehicle.
Other sellers, such as Renogy, suggest you do not need to create an air gap for their solar panels. However, even these brands admit that building in an air gap can include the efficiency of your panels, which is why we always recommend adding one where possible.
Other Concerns Associated With Flexible Solar Panels
Overheating is not the issue that is associated with flexible solar panels. Some other concerns include:
- Fragility: Flexible panels are significantly thinner than rigid panels and therefore are more fragile. If you only have experience using rigid panels, you should be extremely careful when working with flexible solar panels for the first time.
- Lifespan: Even when handled impeccably, flexible panels have a much shorter lifespan than their rigid compatriots. Because they are made of polymer, not glass, they are more susceptible to degradation. Flexible panels have a lifespan of 15-25 years, while rigid panels can last for over 30 years and often have a lifespan of as long as 40 years.
- Lower Efficiency: Even when installed with an air gap, flexible solar panels have a lower efficiency than rigid panels and produce less power.
- More Prone to Damage: While it may seem like flexible panels are more durable due to the lack of glass, it is actually the opposite. The glass covering for rigid panels is relatively durable and offers good protection. On the other hand, flexible panels are made of a thin plastic, which is easily scratched by environmental factors like trees. This is a major concern when traveling with them attached to the roof of your vehicle.
- Toxicity: Depending on which flexible solar panels you buy, they can be toxic and potentially dangerous to both your health and the environment. Unfortunately, flexible panels with CIGS and CdTe cells are highly toxic – and these are also the most effective flexible panels on the market. So, if you have either of these panels, be extremely careful when handling and disposing of them.
While flexible solar panels can work without an air gap, building in a gap for airflow will help extend the lifespan of your panels and increase their efficiency. Without an air gap, your solar panels are at greater risk of overheating, significantly affecting their efficiency and reducing the amount of power they generate.
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