Debby Tewa grew up without electricity on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. Today, as a contractor to the Sandia National Laboratories Sandia Tribal Energy Program, she provides technical advice about maintaining photovoltaic (PV) units to people who live remotely as she once did. According to Tewa, most PV units in remote locations serve as the primary power source, though some homes and commercial facilities use them for supplemental power.

Installing PV units in remote locations makes a lot of sense, considering that, in Arizona, for example, it costs approximately $28,000 per mile to string overhead power lines. Tewa recommends that PV installation be done by an electrical contractor, but believes it is crucial that contractors installing PV units provide the education necessary to maintain the unit. Here are some of the maintenance tips she believes every PV installer should pass along to the end-user:

Baby those batteries. Batteries can be a “high-maintenance” component of PV units. “Even the maintenance-free [battery] requires some maintenance in terms of looking at terminal connections, wiring, and making sure there's no debris on the battery,” she says. Tewa also advises end-users to add distilled water to lead-acid batteries about four times a year. But make sure to tell them to wear safety goggles, rubber aprons, and gloves when performing this task. They should also be aware of the danger of smoking near the battery bank and taught to tape the ends of the wrenches used to perform battery maintenance — to avoid shorting out any of the connections.

Properly manage your load. “Some appliances can't be energized by solar power, so the contractor has to make sure that the customer understands how their appliances might affect the system, especially if they're going to be off-grid residential,” Tewa says. She recommends that those using PV units create an “energy budget” to manage their load and use energy-efficient appliances and compact fluorescent light bulbs to further limit the amount of power they consume.

Keep those panels clean. Fortunately, the solar panels themselves require very little maintenance. Still, dirt can limit the amount of light hitting the solar panels and reduce the power generated, so Tewa says panels should occasionally be washed off with soap or water, but “if there's a good rainy season the rain can wash the dust away.”