Solar may be a hot seller right now, but many consumers may not be hearing what they need to about upkeep and maintenance during sales pitches. Electric co-ops involved in solar projects are picking up a wealth of information about what needs to be done to keep the power flowing. As they learn more, they're sharing that information with members.

"Solar has to be maintained, like any other piece of equipment," said Jeff Pratt, president of Tucker, Georgia-based Green Power Electric Membership Corp. "The more time and energy we spend on maintenance and upfront design and construction, the less it costs down the road with the production of solar energy."

Green Power EMC has helped 38 distribution co-ops procure more than 245 megawatts of solar capacity for their consumer-members, and that total is expected to exceed 839 MW of solar capacity in 2021.

In the process, Green Power EMC and many of its member co-ops have also worked to establish themselves as trusted energy advisers for members considering investing in solar arrays to meet their own energy needs. Some of that work has involved sharing lessons learned through maintenance and upkeep on large arrays that could help members avoid costly surprises.

"We actually had a lightning strike that hit the array," said Tim Roberson, a solar field technician for Miller Bros. Solar Inc., who helps maintain two large solar fields providing electricity to Georgia EMC members. "It damaged 185 modules on this one array that's got 226 modules on it."

Lightning can affect arrays, inverters and other parts in a photovoltaic solar system, reducing overall performance. When that happens, all components may need to be checked and damaged parts replaced to return the system to peak performance.

Solar arrays require regular inspections and periodic cleaning to remove grime and debris, hard water stains and other contaminants that might reduce their efficiency. Discolorations on component surfaces can be an indication of heat buildup, pointing to potential other problems that might worsen without repairs.

A walking inspection of ground-mounted arrays or ladder checks of systems mounted atop carports or pergolas might be easy, but rooftop system inspections and maintenance can present more challenges.

"It takes a set of specialized skills to be able to do some of the things that need to be done," said Romeo Reyes, president and CEO of Satilla Rural Electric Membership Corp. The Alma, Georgia-based co-op built a 1-kilowatt array outside of its headquarters to help staff gain training and experience with solar generation. Since then, they've added a 1-MW system to their portfolio, offered to members on a subscription basis.

"We've actually contracted with a company to come in and clean the array," said Reyes. "We're still trying to determine how valuable that is, how much production is going to increase by keeping the modules clean."

Some co-ops have used a "try before you buy" concept to build interest in subscription-based cooperative or community solar projects. Members are allowed to purchase blocks of solar production representing a portion of an array's total output without taking on any of the responsibilities of maintenance or assuming the upfront costs of equipment and installation.

"We built [a 2-MW array] on one of the main transportation corridors here in our service territory," said John Middleton, general manager of Okefenoke Rural Electric Membership Corp., headquartered in Nahunta, Georgia. "And we built a small 100-KW array at each of those two district offices, so our members utilizing those facilities would see the array and hopefully spur interest in it."

Members of the Okefenoke REMC staff frequently answer questions from members interested in solar power, Middleton added.

"We do have members who want a rooftop solar array," said Middleton. "We try to provide guidance and technical assistance to those members, even if we're not the provider, because we still want to be in a position to assist them."

Read More: A Solar Journey in Georgia