Sunflowers are thus named because their blooms track the path of the sun during the day. Solar tracking is useful to plants, because it allows them to maximize the energy they get from the sun. Similarly, attaching a solar tracker to your solar panel helps you maximize your electricity. Installing a solar tracker increases the efficiency of a solar panel by 30 to 50 percent. You can buy solar panel assemblies with trackers built in, or you can build your own if you have mechanical or electronic aptitude.
How a Solar Tracker Works
Fixed solar panels only work at maximum efficiency when the rays of the sun hit them directly. A solar tracker includes a device that tracks the angle of the sun throughout the day and couples this with a solar panel mount that can rotate. To use your solar tracker, you will need to mount your solar panel oriented north to south so that it can rotate east to west with the sun. Depending on your latitude and the season, you might also need to angle your solar panels toward the south or north.
The Necessary Components of a Solar Tracker
There are as many designs for homemade solar trackers as there are resourceful individuals to design them, but all share certain basic components. First you need a sensor that tracks the sun, or you need to calculate the timing for tracking the sun’s path. Second, the assembly needs a motor or mechanical means to drive the solar panel along its track. Finally, a solar tracker needs a “brain” of some sort to coordinate the movement.
Approaches to Building a Solar Tracker
The simplest designs for solar tracker systems are purely mechanical, using a carefully timed clockwork mechanism or the heat of the sun to drive a primitive hydraulic system, although the latter design uses Freon, which requires special permits because of its environmental impacts. For more complicated systems, there are several options for the necessary components. To detect sunlight, LED sensors can be purchased or you can build your own sensor using photovoltaic cells. The solar panel can be rotated on anything from a stripped down TV antenna rotator to a pair of old bicycle tires and an actuator. You can set up an analog system as your “brain,” or you can use a simple computer to run your solar tracker.
Considerations When Designing and Building Your Solar Tracker
A primary consideration in making versus buying a solar tracker is the complexity of the project. Building a homemade solar tracker requires the ability to fabricate components and most plans require some level of electronics experience; this is generally not a beginner project. When you are constructing the solar tracker, you will want to make sure that the components are fabricated well enough to stand up to extended use and that all the electronics are weatherproofed. You may also want to take into account local conditions such as frequent high winds or heavy winter snowpack. Finally, electronic solar trackers will require a source of electricity.
About the Author
Based in Wenatchee, Wash., Andrea Becker specializes in biology, ecology and environmental sciences. She has written peer-reviewed articles in the "Journal of Wildlife Management," policy documents,and educational materials. She holds a Master of Science in wildlife management from Iowa State University. She was once charged by a grizzly bear while on the job.