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Teacher Notes

The Effect of Tilt Angle on Solar Panels

Students become familiar with the concept of solar insolation: radiant energy that strikes the
planet. They explore the relationship between the angle of solar radiation falling on a solar panel
and the production of voltage by the panel. Next, they pose their own question related to the
effect of solar insolation, tilt angle, and voltage output.
Supporting concepts include the effect of axial tilt and seasonal change on solar insolation.
Independent variable:

The angle at which the solar panel is tilted relative to the ground (tilt angle)
Dependent variables:

Voltage output

Procedural Overview
To understand the effect of shade on voltage output in a solar panel, students:
Construct a circuit to include the voltage sensor and the solar panel
Use a protractor to set the tilt angle of the solar panel
Differentiate between angles of insolation and tilt angles for the solar panel
Measure the output voltage at various tilt angles
Determine the tilt angle that results in the greatest voltage output
Modify the driving question to further test the relationship between the tilt angle and voltage
output, and conduct an inquiry to test their driving question.

Correlation to the National Science Education Standards

This lab correlates to the following portions of the National Science Education Standards:
Abilities Necessary to Do Scientific Inquiry
Understandings about Scientific Inquiry
Structure and Properties of Matter
Interactions of Matter and Energy
Energy in the Earth System
Abilities of Technological Design
Note: See the Introduction section, "Correlations to National Science Standards," for additional correlations to
the National Science Teaching and Content Standards.

The Effect of Tilt Angle on Solar Panels

Time Requirement
Preparation time

10 minutes

Pre-lab discussion and activity

10 minutes

Lab activity

25 minutes

Materials and Equipment

For each student or group:
Data collection system

Lamp with 60-W or brighter light bulb

Voltage sensor

Ring stand

Solar photovoltaic panel

Three-finger clamp

Patch cords with 2-mm probes (2), red and black


4-mm plug to alligator clip adapters (2), red


and black

Add these important safety precautions to your normal laboratory procedures:

Follow all classroom and laboratory safety procedures.

Use safety goggles.
Keep the lamp at least 15 cm from the surface of the solar panel so that it does not melt the
The lamps will get very hot; do not touch the bulb area.

The surfaces of the world receive different amounts of sunlight because the Earth is spherical
and because of the tilt of the Earths axis. Sunlight that strikes the planet is called insolation
(incoming solar radiation). The great distance of the sun to the Earth results in rays from the
sun that are essentially parallel to one another as they strike the surface of the Earth. But from
our perspective, standing on Earth, the sun appears closer to or farther from the horizon,
depending on the time of day, ones latitude, and the season. The angle that the insolation makes
with the horizon can be called the angle of insolation and is measured from the horizon to the
sun. The astrolabe, an old mariners tool, has been used in the distant past to measure this
Along the equator, the suns path across the sky appears high in the sky most of the year, and
directly overhead (90 angle of insolation) at noon on the spring and fall equinoxes. As latitude
increases, the suns path appears closer to the horizon (a much smaller angle of insolation).
Throughout the year, the suns position at noon above the horizon depends primarily on latitude,
and migrates to the north or south of the celestial equator. The angle of insolation changes
constantly with this variation in the suns position.


Teacher Notes

Knowing the angle of insolation helps to position the solar panel so it is exposed to the most
direct rays of the sun for the longest period of time, thus increasing the amount of voltage output
it can produce.
Flat panel photovoltaic systems (PV) sit in a fixed position, and are often mounted on a roof. The
tilt angle is the angle the solar panel makes with the horizontal, that is, the ground level, or the
horizon. To find the best tilt angle to position the solar panel, subtract the latitude from 90. If
the roof is pitched, subtract the pitch of the roof from the tilt angle to find the additional tilt at
which to pitch the solar panel.
Example: If you live at 30 N latitude, the angle of insolation would be 90-30=60. If the roof is

pitched at 35, then the solar panel could be pitched an additional 25 on the roof to meet the
most advantageous tilt angle. (The following diagram identifies the angles referred to but is not
to scale.)

Angle of Insolation

Tilt Angle
Roof pitch

Solar concentrators are PV systems that can be curved in such a way that some part of the
system is facing the most direct rays of the sun throughout the day. More expensive systems
have motors attached to drive mechanisms for repositioning the panels throughout the day. The
cost of these systems currently prevents them from being used residentially and favors the flat
PV system, as long as it can be positioned favorably.

Lab Preparation
Before the Lab
1. Lab Sequence: The solar panel labs can be completed in any order. Each lab explores a
particular aspect of positioning and using solar panels to generate voltage. The teacher notes
for each lab contain distinct information about the structure and function of solar cells, and
the student lab provides the student with some of this information.
2. Sampling method: This lab uses manual sampling. Review the use of manual sampling,
particularly saving the last data point

before stopping data collection

The Effect of Tilt Angle on Solar Panels

3. Discussion:
a. Some students have used or seen solar cookers. Solar cookers are made of various
materials, but some of the simplest are cardboard boxes with a clear glass panel in the
lid. Depending on the design, the interior may be a dark color to absorb more light and
radiate more heat. A black cook pot is used to absorb more heat. There is usually some
sort of reflective material that can be positioned outside the box to capture as much solar
radiation as possible and reflect it into the solar cooker, maximizing the amount of
radiation the solar cooker can accumulate. If you have a solar cooker, or if students can
bring one in, students can see the connection between positioning the box and the
reflective screen, and cooking the food faster at a hotter temperature.
Another artifact of human experience students may be familiar with are reflective
screens that sun bathers use to get radiant energy to places on their bodies not directly
exposed to the rays of the sun, such as under the chin or in the small of the back.
These examples will remind students that objects can be used to direct the oncoming rays
of the sun to another location. The property of reflectivity is not important here, but
positioning the reflective material so it gathers the most light is the important piece that
relates to positioning the solar panel.
b. Discuss the placement of solar panels and find out if any students have solar panels on
the roof of their homes. If so, are the panels positioned flat on the roof, or are they lifted
up to some degree? If possible, show pictures from the Internet of solar panels set up on
roof tops at various angles, and discuss the reason for different positioning. Also, look at
pictures of solar panels placed on the ground and note the angles at which they are
4. Determine tilt angle: Demonstrate the tilt angle of a solar panel. Use a pencil with an eraser.
Hold the eraser against the surface of the solar panel, so that the pencil is perpendicular to
the surface of the solar panel. Now point the pencil at some object in the room, such as the
wall clock, keeping the solar panel perpendicular to the pencil. Discuss the changing position
of the solar panel relative to the ground. This is the tilt angle.
5. Determine angle of insolation: The position of the sun in the sky can be measured in degrees
from the horizon to the sun with a mariners astrolabe. Here is a simpler way to quickly
approximate the solar angle of insolation at your latitude for the current time of year and
a. Have students gather the following materials: protractor, 2 pencils, and a sheet of white
paper. Each student will need a partner.
b. On a sunny day, take students outside to a large unshaded patio or sidewalk. Have them
sit on the ground and face toward the sun.
c. Tell students to place the paper in front of them on the ground, and stand the pencil on
its point in the middle of the paper.
d. Without lifting the pencil from the paper, have one student move the shaft of the pencil
around until the shadow of the pencil is reduced to as small as it can possibly be. (Tell
them to minimize the shadow of their hand so they can see the shadow of their pencil
more clearly.)
e. Their partner can now use the protractor to measure the angle from the paper to the
pencil shaft, which will approximate the angle of insolation of the sun.

Note: Caution students never to look directly at the sun.


Teacher Notes
6. Using a protractor: If students have not had previous experience using a protractor, point out
features such as the reversibility of the degree numbering system, the fact that 180 is the
maximum measurement, and 90 makes a right angle. Remind them that on some models of
protractors, the bottom edge is not 0.
During the Lab
1. Ensure that students begin the experiment with the solar panel perpendicular to the table
top or desk surface. This is the 90 position. Their final position will be when the solar panel
is parallel to the surface of the table top or desk surface.
Note: A piece of tape from the stand to the back of the solar panel will hold it in place securely after it has
been clamped.

2. Make arrangements for an aide or fellow staff member to supervise students if they need to
go outside to use the direct rays of the sun for their inquiry.

Sample Data
The following screenshots display examples of data similar to what students should expect to

The Effect of Tilt Angle on Solar Panels

Answer Key
Driving Question
How does the tilt angle of the solar panel affect the voltage output of the solar panel? (Students
predict an answer to this question, so all answers are acceptable.)
Students should find that when the panel is perpendicular to the direct rays of the light source, it will produce the
most voltage.

Self Check Questions

Self Check. At noon on the vernal equinox, the sun is directly over the equator and the angle of
insolation at the equator is 90. What would the angle of insolation be at 45 north latitude at
the same time? Explain your answer.
At 45 north latitude on the vernal equinox, the angle of insolation would be 45
because of the geometry of a sphere and the parallel rays of the sun.

Analyze Data Questions

1. According to the graph of voltage versus tilt angle, what angle or
angles allow for the greatest voltage output?
The best angle or angles for voltage output is 45 for this setup.

2. Why is this so?

The reason is that the light from the lamp is also angled at 45 so the light is most direct at this angle, hitting the
solar panel at a 90 angle.

Analysis Questions
1. Describe the pattern on the graph for voltage versus tilt angle.
The data shows us that the voltage increases as the tilt angle approaches 45, where the insolation is the
greatest, and decreases as the tilt angle moves beyond 45.


Teacher Notes
2. Was there a best angle at which to set the solar panel? How does this angle compare to the
angle of 45 for the lamp light?
The optimal angle is 45 because that is also the angle of maximum insolation, since that is also the angle of the
lamp light.

How does the tilt angle of the solar panel affect the voltage output? Explain your answer using
your data.
The best tilt angle occurs when the solar panel is perpendicular to the most direct rays from the light source.

Design Your Own Experiment

In this section, the students are encouraged to develop their own inquiry based on questions that
have arisen in the course of completing the guided portion of this lab. The following sections
guide the students to develop each part of their inquiry.
Students should write their question so it includes the independent and dependent variable(s)
they will monitor. Some questions that relate to the concepts learned in this lab include:
How does tilt angle affect voltage production as latitude changes?
How does tilt angle affect voltage production if it is held constant throughout the year?
As the sun moves across the sky during the day, does the tilt angle need to change for
maximum voltage production?
If the solar panel needs to be tilted away from the direct rays of the sun, how will voltage
production be affected?
After having conducted the guided portion of this lab, students have enough information to
formulate a hypothesis that develops a cause and effect relationship between an independent
variable and dependent variables, which should answer the questions: What do you think will
happen? Why do you think so? One example of a hypothesis is shown here:
We believe that the ideal tilt angle for maximum voltage production will be less in the morning
and evening than in the middle of the day. We think this is true because we have observed
that the angle of insolation changes throughout the day.
Many inquiries can be completed with the original materials for the guided portion of this lab.
Additional materials may include:
Meter stick
Light meter, if one is available
Students may add pages of text boxes and write their procedure in the data collection system,
they can write their procedure in a lab notebook, or they can process their procedure in a
computer file and submit it to you electronically. Whatever way the procedure is prepared, it
should conform to certain guidelines and should be approved by you before the students begin
their inquiry. Also, you should make clear the safety parameters for their investigations before
they begin.

The Effect of Tilt Angle on Solar Panels

Guidelines include the following:
The procedure should be a numbered list.
Sentences should be concise, well-written, complete, and effectively communicate each step.
Both independent and dependent variables should be described, and students should indicate
how the independent variable will be changed and how the dependent variables will be
Additional controlled variables that are to remain constant should be described.
The method of displaying collected data is identified. Students choose a graph, table, digits
display or meter.
Students should record observations while they collect data.
Building a Page for Data Collection
Instructions are provided for building a page that includes a table, graph, digits display, or
meter. Students begin by selecting the Add New Page button
. From there, they can build a
page for data collection or for writing notes and observations. For data collection, they begin by
selecting the sensor. For all of the Horizon Renewable Energy labs, the voltage
sensor is the primary sensor used; the fast response temperature sensor is also
used in one lab. After selecting the sensor, the students select the type of
display they want to use: table, graph, digits display or meter.
To record observations or write notes, students choose a large text box
They will be able to enter text on the entire page. Another option is to place a data collection box,
such as a graph and two small text boxes, on the same page. Students will experiment with
different design elements until they find an arrangement that suits their purpose.
More extensive instructions are included in the Introduction and the SPARKlab Authoring
Analyze Data
Students explain how they will analyze the data, including any mathematical and graphical
analysis, such as finding the mean or the percent increase.
Students summarize the trends they found in the datawhat happened to the dependent
variable(s) when they changed the independent variable.
Students should state whether or not their hypothesis was correct. They should summarize how
a change to their independent variable will cause a change of their dependent variable(s) in a
predictable way.

Assessment of Student Investigations

Please see the Introduction for a copy of the Rubric for Assessing the Student Inquiry, and for
other tips on reviewing student work.