Installing solar panels for home energy production is becoming more popular because it gives homeowners the ability to generate their own green, clean electricity from a renewable resource. A residential solar power system allows a homeowner to power their home with the electricity their solar panels generate, which lowers the amount of energy they use from the grid. Additionally, since solar panels don’t release greenhouse gasses or carbon emissions, they are very environmentally friendly, especially compared to energy sources that rely on fossil fuels.
With this article, we want to provide a helpful guide to the basics of solar panels for home use. We’ll discuss what solar panels are, how they work, the different types of solar panels, what solar looks like, why you should invest in solar, and then answer frequently asked questions about the technology.
What Are Solar Panels?
Solar panels, also known as photovoltaic (PV) panels, convert light from the sun into electricity. When exposed to sunlight, electrons in the solar panel move around, and this movement can be turned into electricity, known as solar power or solar energy.
Since solar panels are powered by the sun, they only work during the day and don’t produce electricity when the sun isn’t out. At night, your home draws power from the electricity grid operated by your local utility company, or from your battery storage system, if you have one installed. Very few homes in the U.S. are completely off-the-grid, even when they have solar power.
How Solar Panels Work
The short answer is that materials known as semiconductors allow solar panels to generate an electric current when exposed to sunlight. The science behind generating electricity with solar panels is called the photovoltaic effect, which was first discovered in 1839 by Edmond Becquerel.
The process looks like this:
- Photovoltaic cells in the solar panels absorb energy from sunlight.
- The sun’s energy causes electrons to move around in the cells, creating direct current (DC) electricity.
- Wiring captures that DC electricity from the surrounding cells, and moves it out of the solar panel.
The amount of electricity solar panels produce from sunlight is referred to as solar efficiency. The average efficiency rating of modern solar panels is between 15 and 20 percent, while high-end models can be over 20 percent efficient.
Once the DC electricity has been captured, it is then converted to usable alternating current (AC) electricity with the help of inverter technology. AC electricity, which is used by most home appliances, flows through the electrical panel and is distributed throughout the home to power electronic devices.
Any excess electricity produced by the solar panels is either stored in a battery or fed back into the electric grid.
For a simplified explanation of how solar panels work, check out Explain Like I’m 5: Solar Panels.
3 Types of Solar Panels
There are three major types of solar panels: monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin-film. Both monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels are made from crystallized silicon, whereas thin-film panels are made of thin films of semiconductors deposited on glass, plastic, or metal.
Each type of panel has its unique attributes, advantages, and disadvantages. The type of solar panel used for your solar power system will depend on several factors specific to your home.
The following are some of the distinguishing features of the solar panel types, along with the pros and cons of each:
- Monocrystalline: The most efficient, high-performing panel you can install on your home. Its black color is aesthetically pleasing, but this panel type is typically the most expensive.
- Polycrystalline: Less efficient than monocrystalline, but it also costs less, making this blue-colored panel a frequent choice for the budget-conscious.
- Thin-film: The lowest performance efficiency of the three, but it’s more portable, lighter in weight, and has greater aesthetic appeal.
What Do Solar Panels Look Like?
You may have seen black and blue solar panels, and wondered what the difference is.
Monocrystalline panels are made of high-quality crystals, and during the manufacturing process, the silicon is formed into one (mono) large crystal, which appears black to the human eye. Because of the properties of this single crystal structure, they are more energy-efficient. Thin-film solar panels, similar to monocrystalline panels, are also black and do not vary in color.
Polycrystalline panels are made of many smaller and separate crystals, and that structure produces a confetti-type appearance that appears blue to the human eye.
The actual look of your solar panels will vary depending on how and where they are arranged on your roof. They’re installed in what’s called a solar array, or a collection of multiple panels that generates electricity as a system. The shape and design of your arrays can depend on the size of your roof, the shading your roof receives, and where the panels should be arranged to produce the most electricity.
The number of solar panels you need also depends on many factors, including the size of your electricity bill, the physical location of the arrays, and the direction in which they face.
Types of Home Solar Power Systems
There are three different types of home solar power systems: grid-tied, hybrid, and off-grid.
- Grid-Tied: The most common system type, where rooftop solar panels produce DC power that is then converted into AC power with the help of an inverter. The home remains connected (or tied) to the grid, and if the solar panels don’t produce enough electricity to power the home, it can draw extra power from the grid.
- Hybrid: Includes a battery that stores excess energy produced by solar panels. When the solar panels can’t provide all of the electricity that a home needs, the home can either pull extra electricity from the battery or pull electricity from the grid. In some cases, the home can even charge the battery with grid power when it would be beneficial to do so, such as taking advantage of Time Of Use rates.
- Off-grid: A home that is not connected to the public electric grid, so all power needs must be met through solar panels, batteries, and other sources of self-generated power.
Why You Should Invest in Solar Panels
There are five main reasons why you should consider installing home solar panels:
- Provides clean, renewable energy: Solar energy produces no pollution, and the sun’s power does not harm the environment.
- Personal freedom and control over electricity: When you produce your own electricity, you have more control over where your energy comes from, what you can do with it, and how much it costs. In addition, battery storage can help you avoid power outages and blackouts, which provides peace of mind during a storm.
- Savings on your electric bill: Because your solar panels generate much of the electricity your home consumes, you could reduce your utility bills.
- Tax incentives: The federal solar tax credit can help you with the upfront costs of the installation, and some states have similar solar incentives.
- Proven technology: Current solar panel technology will continue generating electricity for 25 years or more, and solar panels are built to withstand extreme weather conditions.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How do I start planning for a home solar power system?
A: Start by reviewing your electricity bills, and assess your needs based on your energy usage, the age and size of your roof, nearby shade trees, and more. You can use Palmetto’s free Solar Design and Savings Estimate tool to assist with this.
Q: How much do residential solar panel systems typically cost?
A: The exact solar panel cost and long term savings of your system may vary depending on several factors, including:
- The size of your system
- Your current energy usage
- Your current electricity rates
- Any incentives in your area
- The size and layout of your roof
- Preference for cash or loan financing
Q: What are the tax credit incentives?
A: As a homeowner who owns a solar power system, you will be eligible for all applicable federal and state tax credits. The Federal Solar Tax Credit currently gives you a tax credit equal to 30% of the total cost of your system. Local tax credits vary from state to state, but can also help you save money on your installation.
Q: What are the options for financing solar panels for home energy?
A: Many Palmetto customers purchase their solar power systems through a solar loan, and we offer a wide range of financing options. Your Palmetto solar expert will provide clear and helpful guidance to ensure you purchase a solar power system that aligns with your family’s budget.
Q: How long does it take to install a residential solar power system?
A: The actual installation will only take a few days of work on average. However, getting to that stage can take weeks, and sometimes months, depending upon the financing for your panels, as well as the permitting and regulatory requirements of your city, county, and state governments. Watch our 3-step “Timeline to Solar Savings” video to learn more:
Q: What is net metering?
A: Net metering is a solar incentive program where you can earn bill credits from your utility company if your solar panels produce more electricity than you use in your home, and feed that extra electricity back into the grid. You can then use those bill credits to cover the future cost of electricity you use from the grid.
Q: Is there any maintenance required?
A: Solar panels require very little maintenance, as they are made of durable materials like tempered glass and aluminum, and have no moving parts. Most solar panel manufacturers include solar warranties of up to 25 years. However, panels do occasionally require service or maintenance to keep them operating at peak efficiency, as outlined in our Solar Power Maintenance and Service Guide.