There are many unique ways to design and install a solar energy system for your property in order to power your home with solar power. If you’re considering a ground-mounted solar panel installation, you might be considering a solar tracking system so that your panels follow the sun across the sky. In this article, we’ll explain what a solar tracker is, the different types available, and how to decide if a tracking system is right for you.
Key takeaways about solar trackers
A solar tracker system helps maximize your solar production by following the sun throughout the day.
Solar trackers are usually reserved for large-scale ground mounted solar systems.
Solar trackers are typically used in commercial installations or other large ground-mounted arrays.
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What’s in this article
What are solar trackers and how do they work?
A solar tracking system (also called a sun tracker or sun tracking system) maximizes your solar system’s electricity production by moving your panels to follow the sun throughout the day, optimizing the angle at which your panels receive solar radiation. Solar trackers are typically used for ground-mounted solar panels and large, free-standing solar installations like solar trees – they’re not used in most residential solar projects.
When solar panels are exposed to sunlight, the angle at which the sun’s rays meet the surface of the solar panel (known as the “angle of incidence”) determines how well the panel can convert the incoming light into electricity. The narrower the angle of incidence, the more energy a photovoltaic panel can produce. Solar trackers help to minimize this angle by working to orient panels so that light strikes them perpendicular to their surface.
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Single-axis vs. dual-axis solar trackers
There are two types of solar tracking systems based on their movement: single-axis and dual-axis.
Single-axis solar trackers
A single-axis tracker moves your panels on one axis of movement, usually aligned with north and south. These setups allow your panels to arc from east to west and track the sun as it rises and sets, increasing the output of your system without adding more solar panels.
Despite their high upfront installation costs and recurring maintenance costs, single-axis solar trackers can increase your solar system’s efficiency enough to quickly make up for these expenses. It’s important to install a single-axis tracking system on flat land in an area that is generally warm and dry.
Pros and cons of single-axis solar trackers ProsCons Typically lower costNot as energy-efficient More reliableNot as technologically advanced Longer lifespanMay become unstable with higher wind speeds
Dual-axis solar trackers
A dual-axis tracker allows your panels to move on two axes, aligned both north-south and east-west. This type of system is designed to maximize your solar energy collection throughout the year by using algorithms and sensors that track seasonal variations in the height of the sun in addition to normal daily motion. Typically, dual-axis trackers (made by companies like AllEarth Renewables) are a much less popular option for solar installations, even among large, utility-scale projects.
Dual-axis trackers might be appropriate for some commercial properties – they can produce up to 45 percent more energy than typical static panels, helping businesses produce enough power to fuel their operations despite limited rooftop space for solar panels. Utility-scale installations usually don’t need dual-axis setups because they’re located on large plots of land without the tight space constraints of a commercial roof space.
Pros and cons of dual-axis solar trackers ProsCons More energy efficientNot as reliable More accurateShorter lifespan Usually more expensive
Active, manual, and passive solar trackers
Aside from single-axis and dual-axis solar tracking, we can categorize solar trackers based on whether they’re active, manual, or passive. The key takeaways: active solar trackers use a motor to move, manual solar trackers require manually moving them, and passive solar trackers use the sun to move.
Active solar trackers
Most tracking systems out there are active systems, meaning they use energy to run a motor or other mechanical device that tilts the attached solar panels the right way. In general, active solar trackers are more well-suited for large and complex installations.
Pros and cons of active solar trackers ProsCons More accurate Needs energy to operate mechanics More efficientMore expensive than passive trackers Likely requires more maintenance
Manual solar trackers
Manual solar trackers allow you to physically adjust your panels throughout the day in line with how the sun is moving. This type of tracker can be beneficial as they have lower maintenance costs than active or passive trackers. However, they usually aren’t very practical since they require someone to regularly move the panels to align with the movement of the sun throughout the day.Pros and cons of manual solar trackers
Pros and cons of manual solar trackers ProsCons Less maintenance Require someone to manually move them Lower cost
Passive solar trackers
Passive solar trackers also track the sun, but without any added energy source. At a high level, they move by using the heat from the sun to warm a gas. When that gas expands, it causes a mechanical movement of the solar modules. As the sun moves and the gas cools, it compresses again and the panels move back.
You can use passive trackers for simple PV systems – but not for much else, given their lower accuracy. Passive solar trackers are also not as efficient in cold temperatures because the liquid inside the tracker usually takes time to heat up.
Pros and cons of passive solar trackers ProsCons Relies on heat to operate, not energyLess accurate Not as expensive as active trackersLess efficient Do not work at low temperatures
Other components of solar trackers
Solar trackers have various other components that help them operate including an actuator, which is the motor that controls the solar tracking system. In addition to the solar tracking equipment, you’ll also need the photovoltaic (PV) equipment which includes inverters, racking and frames (which your solar tracker attaches to), and the PV panels with solar cells that drive energy production.
Benefits and drawbacks of solar trackers
As with any addition to a solar panel system, there are pros and cons to solar trackers.
Pros and cons of using a solar tracker ProsCons Help you generate more electricity with your solar panelsMore expensive Especially beneficial with a variable electricity planRequire more maintenance than fixed solar panels Fewer panels are required for a system with a solar trackerCan only use with ground mounted arrays
Pros of solar trackers
At a high level, here are the advantages of solar trackers:
Solar panels on tracking systems generate more electricity since they follow the position of the sun
More electricity production is especially helpful if you’re on a variable electricity rate plan (like time-of-use)
More power generation means you need fewer panels, so you don’t need as much space for your solar setup
The biggest benefit of a solar tracking system is that it offers a boost in electricity production. Generally, a solar panel system with a single-axis solar tracker installed sees a performance gain of 25 to 35 percent. A dual-axis tracker bumps performance up by another five to 10 percent.
If you live in a high latitude where the sun’s position in the sky varies dramatically between summer and winter months, a dual-axis tracking system may be a good way to maximize your solar production and collect enough power for your home or property. The best orientation and angle for your solar panels depend entirely on where you are on the globe. Learn more about your location and the best angle for your solar panels.
Cons of solar trackers
However, there are some disadvantages of having a solar tracking system:
Solar tracking systems cost more money than standard fixed solar panel systems. This is because of both the additional parts needed and added labor to prepare a site for trackers.
Oftentimes, solar trackers require more maintenance than fixed-mount solar panels (which need almost no maintenance to begin with)
Trackers are often too large and heavy to be used on rooftops, so you’ll have to install a ground-mounted system
Tracking systems tend to have higher installation and maintenance costs. A solar tracker will cost more money upfront than a fixed solar panel system because it is a more complex technology and has moving parts. This also leads to the second area of increased cost for solar tracking systems: maintenance. With a more complex system comes more maintenance, which means higher costs over time.
For residential installs, it often isn’t worth the investment to add solar trackers. However, for commercial installs, such as businesses with limited roof space but a higher power output, the increased efficiency that comes with a solar tracker might be worth the investment.
Another disadvantage of a solar tracker is that they are typically too heavy to be used in rooftop solar projects. If you want a solar panel system that has tracking features, be prepared to install a ground-mounted array.
Is a solar tracking system right for you?
A rooftop installation offers lower costs and doesn’t require dedicated yard space, making it the optimum solution for most homeowners looking to harness renewable energy. As a result, most home solar systems don’t include solar trackers – and they’re probably not worth it. If you have a south-facing roof, your solar panels will already be oriented to capture maximum sunlight, which reduces the need for a tracking system. To get the most out of your solar system, consider purchasing the most efficient solar panels available today.
Solar trackers offer the greatest value proposition in high latitude locations due to the yearly movement of the sun. So, solar customers in Alaska and some northern parts of the contiguous U.S. may want to look into including trackers with their system. However, for the majority of U.S. residents, the sun’s movement won’t impact your panel production to the point where a tracking system offers significant financial benefits. Most customers are better off installing a rooftop array on a south-facing surface, or a fixed ground mounted system facing south.
Solar tracking systems are also often used in large commercial projects, typically over one megawatt (MW) in size. For commercial-scale solar arrays, the long-term benefit of increased production over time is enough to make the initial cost and maintenance fees worth it. Additionally, commercial-scale solar projects are typically ground mounted, making solar trackers a possibility.
Are solar trackers worth it?
For most residential installs, a solar tracker is typically not worth the investment. The cost of solar panels has dropped considerably over the past 10 years, and it’s likely to drop even further. Investing in equipment to continually adjust the orientation of your solar panels ultimately is more money upfront and requires more energy, which just takes away from your household. However, solar trackers can be worth it for commercial builds.
Frequently asked questions about solar tracking systems
What is the best solar tracker?
This depends entirely on the situation. In some cases, a dual-axis active tracker may be ideal, but with some builds a single-axis active solar tracker, or a passive solar tracker, might be the best option. In 2019, NEXTracker was the most popular solar tracker seller.
Are solar trackers expensive?
Typically, solar systems that include trackers cost between 40 to 100 percent more than a build without them. The price you pay will depend on which type of tracker you purchase and the complexity of your installation, but all solar trackers are made up of moving parts which can increase maintenance costs.
How does a solar tracker work?
A solar tracker works by adjusting the angle of solar panels to optimize solar panel performance according to the time of day or year.
What is the most efficient solar tracker?
This depends on several factors: the type of solar tracker, where it’s located, and the size of the solar panel system it is operating.
Is there a solar panel that follows the sun?
Solar panels don’t follow the sun on their own, but with the addition of a solar tracker, you can optimize your system to follow the sun and obtain maximum power output.
What is a disadvantage of using a tracking solar panel?
The biggest disadvantage to solar trackers is the cost. The initial cost can be expensive, and the maintenance costs can also add up. For many commercial builds, though, this is an acceptable cost given that trackers can make solar panels up to 45 percent more efficient.
Start your solar journey today
Whether you want a ground-mounted solar array with solar trackers or a rooftop system, it’s always important to compare your options before moving forward. The EnergySage Marketplace lets you get quotes for ground-mounted and rooftop solar projects from qualified, pre-vetted installers in your area. If you’re interested in a tracking system, simply leave a note on your profile that you would like quotes including solar trackers.