Many choices factor into a solar array’s overall appearance. The most forward-facing elements are the modules themselves, but racking and mounting hardware play a major role in a rooftop system’s aesthetics. From positioning modules closer to the roofline, matching popular solar panel frame colors, keeping wires tucked away and finishing projects with attractive endcaps and skirts, racking choice is just as important as what color the modules are.
There are different aesthetic options based on roof type, but all residential solar systems can make use of skirts, clamps and wire management systems for a nice, finished look.
Asphalt/composition shingle mounting specifics
Manufacturer Pegasus Solar makes mounting products for tile and comp/asphalt shingle roofs and knows how important color consistency is. The company sourced an assortment of PV modules and color-matched its mounting products to blend with the panels.
“I think aesthetics are where it really is down to the details,” said Kai Stephan, CEO of Pegasus Solar. “If I have a black clamp but the bolt’s silver and it’s a 1-in.-wide gap between modules, that’s what you’re going to notice. By bringing that down so it is truly all black, even the edges of the clamps, so you have this really thin gap between modules, it just makes the entire thing look more uniform and really boosts the aesthetics of your system.”
For shingled roofs, there’s a range of L-foot mounts with varying flashing options. The staple among solar mounts is sheet flashing that slides underneath shingles, allowing an L-foot to be attached. Flashing is often found in a black or mill finish. Over-the-shingle, or top-mounts, are gaining traction in solar installations. They’re low-profile mounts that use minimal flashing, like chemical bonding with adhesives or rubber pucks, and install directly through the shingle. When installed correctly, flashing should not draw attention to the roofline.
Tile roof racking choices
Tile rooftops are a tricky work environment since the roof surface can break or slide out of place, and nobody wants broken tiles sticking out from under their array. Luckily, there are replacement tile mounts that come in the commonly used shapes of W, S and flat tiles. Some replacement models will color match tiles while others are simply black. As the name suggests, tiles are removed and the replacement tiles and mounts are slid in place, ultimately concealed underneath the array.
Other companies offer roof hooks that are fastened directly to the underlayment beneath the tiles. A tile is removed, the roof hook is installed and the tile is then replaced, leaving the mounting point exposed. Depending on the type of roof hook, tile could need to be cut to make room for the mount, but it will be concealed under the array upon completion.
Standing-seam metal roof options
There are a lot more color options available for standing-seam metal rooftops themselves, but when it comes to solar mounts, manufacturers produce the same mill and black finishes found on panel frames.
S-5! specializes in standing seam attachment solutions across several industries, including solar, carrying direct-attach mounts compatible with exposed-fastened and standing-seam metal roof types. S-5! founder and CEO Rob Haddock believes using mounts that attach directly to the seam is the most aesthetically pleasing option on metal roofs.
Unlike tiles and asphalt shingle roofs, the seam on the metal rooftops can act as a rail. Adding a rail to the 2-in. tall seams can make an array taller than necessary, Haddock said, but it’s important to find that balance, giving panels enough spacing from the roof and from each other for proper airflow.
“There is a point of no return, where you could hang that module on a skyhook from a tree and with air circulating all the way around it,” Haddock said. “You’re not going to get any better production or efficiency than when the backsheet is 4 to 5 in. off the surface of the roof.”
Skirts, rails and clamps
To conceal the underbody of an array further, installers can add skirts to the front edge of their systems.
“One of the biggest things that a skirt does is provide a sleek, refined-looking edge to the part of the system that is typically most visible to both homeowners and passersby,” said Connor Morrison, residential product manager at Unirac. “They can help hide less-aesthetic features, such as attachments and wires, under the system and help make the system look like it’s ‘floating’ on the roof.”
He added that rail-less systems are gaining popularity and skirts along with them. If it’s being installed on a rail-based system, the skirt can be placed at any time during construction — or even retrofit. On rail-less projects, skirts like Unirac’s SM Trim, are installed in early stages because they are a structural element. Depending on the environment they’re installed in, skirts can keep debris that’s fallen onto the rooftop trapped underneath an array, which may cause airflow changes. But skirts aren’t causing any more airflow issues than a rail traditionally does.
“The rail impedes some airflow, but if dimensionally the skirting is no lower than the rail, then it doesn’t impede airflow any more than the rail would,” Haddock said.
Rails have an advantage over rail-less systems because they are more adaptable to uneven roof surfaces. This may lead to awkwardly measured rails, sometimes causing a length of racking to be exposed at the edge of the array. That’s where endcaps come into play, capping off the end of a rail for a more uniform look.
End- and mid-clamps, which slide along a rail’s channel and hold panels in place and provide necessary module-to-module spacing, also have a part in the overall aesthetics picture. Clamps are small components with big responsibility in terms of system layout and, despite their miniscule appearance, can clash with a panel frame if not color matched.
Wire management for the win
Another aesthetic — and functional — decision made on pitched rooftop projects is wire management. In addition to looking sloppy, hanging wires can cause short circuits after wearing down from abrasion from the roof surface.
“If I’m the one who’s actually owning this system for 25 years, I don’t want a wire to short out and I lose production, and then for the installer having to do another truck roll because a failed inspection is very costly,” Pegasus Solar’s Stephan said.
Pegasus Solar released its Pegasus Rail System in March, a racking system that has a wiring channel built in to conceal cable runs; and Unirac has its SOLARTRAY, which is a wiring tray that clips onto the rail. Rail-based projects in general can use the rail as an attachment point for zip ties and wire clips. However, for rail-less systems, wire management options are mostly limited to the panel frame.
To compensate for rail-less systems’ lack of natural wire coverup, Marc Gies, director of solar business at S-5!, suggests taking the time to pre-plan wire routes, something that can be done off-roof. Then, when installers are on site, they can set up a staging area to clip hanging wires in a position where they can connect to the next panel when laid. S-5!’s trapezoidal roof attachment does give installers the option to run cable through a channel that the mount creates.
“It’s just automatically more aesthetically pleasing,” Gies said. “The wires are out of the way when you’re up on the roof putting it together and it makes that an easier process because there’s no thinking involved. Everything’s within reach and preset, so every time a module goes in place that person knows where that clip is, where that connecter is, and can connect them.”
Residential solar systems are meant to reside on a rooftop for at least two decades. Making the right calls when it comes to their mounting hardware will help ensure that they do — and look good.
“People want their homes to look pretty, so use black components, lower the profile of your module to the roof by direct module attachment so that it just looks less obtrusive and do the right job with wire management so that wires are concealed,” Haddock said.