Solar Panels – What You Need To Know

If you’re preparing to get quotes for solar power, this guide provides detailed and valuable information on the star component of a system installation – the solar panels.

Before we delve into the wonderful world of PV modules and which are the best solar panels to choose – we need to make sure we are talking about the right product. So let’s get any confusion out of the way for starters. The information on this website is focused on photovoltaic solar panels; also known as “solar PV” or “solar electricity” modules.

There’s another type of solar panel used for heating water (as opposed to generating electricity). This type is called a “solar hot water panel” or “solar thermal collector” and is a completely different beast.

Here’s an example of a roof with both types of panels on it:

Types of solar panels - electricity and hot water.

If you are confused about the difference between the two, before you read any further you may want to watch this short video where I explain in more detail:

If after watching the video you have decided solar hot water is your thing, then you probably want to be at my other website 100% dedicated to solar hot water systems.

So now we’ve sorted out the difference, let’s jump in and discuss what you need to know about solar panels!

Solar panels are the most critical part of any solar power system. Choosing the best panel brand or module type to buy for your circumstances is just as important as ensuring the solar panels are installed by a competent accredited installer, at the best angle and pointing in the optimal direction.

Unfortunately, most salespeople aren’t going to be much help when it comes to choosing the best solar panel brand! Why? Because, despite my best efforts to persuade them otherwise, most of them will use the sales strategy of insisting that their solar panels are the best quality and everyone else is selling crap modules.

They can’t all be right! So what’s the truth? How do you make a real solar panel comparison and a purchase choice that is best for your circumstances? Let’s find out…

Choosing The Best Solar Panels – Points To Consider

When shopping around to get the best value from your solar panel rebate, one of the points that will set different installers apart is the type and brand of PV module they recommend to use in the installation.

So how do you assess what the best solar panels are for you? Here are some of the factors you should weigh up in making your choice:

1. Solar Panel Efficiency

When I talk about efficiency, I am referring to the ratio (as a percentage) of the solar energy that hits the panel surface to the electrical energy generated by the module.

For example, if a solar panel captured half the energy in the sunlight, then the module’s conversion efficiency would be 50%. In real-world conditions, conventional solar panel efficiencies range from about 15% up to just over 21%.

Why is a high efficiency good? Well, the higher the efficiency, the more watts of electricity you will get per square meter of panel. So, the higher the efficiency – the smaller that solar panel becomes for the same electrical output and the less roof space required.

A disadvantage of high efficiency panels is that they tend to be more costly. 

So if roof space is at a premium, or you just want super-duper PV technology, look into higher efficiency modules as your best choice; but be prepared to pay a bit more. Otherwise, as long as the solar panel efficiency is over 15%, don’t worry about conversion efficiency. 

2. Solar Panel Cost

When weighing up how much solar panels cost, the obvious calculation you need to make is: How many watts of power are you getting per dollar of module, or alternatively, dollars per watt?

Good quality solar panels cost from 67c to $1.60 a watt currently; and that’s inclusive of GST. This is just for the panels and doesn’t include other system components or installation.

As a general rule and like most things in life, you tend to get what you pay for – so be cautious about choosing solar panels solely on price, as low cost could translate to poor performance and reliability. However, there are often bargains on good quality products to be had, special deals and some suppliers are just more competitive. Just ensure you’re comparing apples to apples in terms of warranty, service, product quality and so on.

If you are ever offered a really cheap solar power system deal – be wary. This video is worth watching:

3. PV Module Quality And Warranty

It is not easy to determine the quality of solar panels, inverters and installation service from a quote – and as mentioned, salespeople tend to be biased. The first thing I would do to rate a panel brand is to look at the thousands of solar panel reviews I have collected from Australian customers over the last 11 years. By reading reviews you can get a good idea of how various modules perform in local conditions. The reviews are only from Australians who have had the panels installed for at least 12 months. 

You can also take a look at our solar panel comparison table to view specifications and pricing of various popular brands and models currently available in Australia side-by-side. There’s also my chart of brands of solar panels I trust for my recommendations from the choice of modules currently available in Australia.

The next thing to understand is warranty statements and conformance to quality standards can provide a pretty good indication of a solar panel’s quality.

Pay particular attention to the fine print concerning issues including where you might have to send your modules if there is a problem or if it can all be dealt with on-site (much more preferable), whether they are fully standards-compliant and approved for use in Australia, plus the history and experience of the company supplying you. Will the company be around in 10 or 20 years if something goes wrong?

As an absolute minimum, insist on at least a 10 year manufacturer’s warranty (also called product warranty) on the solar panels, which covers defects in workmanship and materials. Be aware this is a different guarantee to the 25 or 30 year “performance guarantee” that every module out there carries. Without getting into details, the performance guarantee is iffy because it may be easy for a company to wriggle out of. The manufacturer’s guarantee is the one  you need to look at and it needs to be at least 10 years. This blog post covers solar panel warranties in detail.

Finally, make sure the warranty isn’t tied to an expensive service contract. You don’t want to be compelled to shell out $500 a year for a bloke to hose down your solar panels just to keep your warranty. By the way, this sort of warranty stipulation is likely unenforceable under Australian Consumer Law!

4. Manufacturing – Country Of Origin

Some people insist the best solar panels are made in Germany and all Chinese solar panels are crap. Follow that previous link for a deeper discussion on this, but frankly I find that talk borderline xenophobic.

You may have reasons for not buying Chinese products and I’m not going to get into a debate on the topic. However, as far as quality is concerned, some Chinese brands are just fine, great even. Some are crap, but if you think “Chinese” is synonymous with “low quality”, what do you think about your iPad or your Macbook Pro? Yep, made in China …and they’re both pretty high-quality, sophisticated devices.

5. Solar Panel Specifications

Like most products, solar panels can have different specifications indicating their technical attributes. This can be a rather confusing area, but some specifications to take particular note of when making your choice:

  • The power tolerance  (i.e. are you getting 300W or 300W +/-10%?) Some are much better than others.
  • The voltage rating and coefficient of temperature. Panels should be rated to 100V DC minimum for safety. A good temperature coefficient rating can indicate a solar panel that performs slightly better in higher temperatures.
  • Who is the original manufacturer? Some companies buy solar panels and self brand them. You should find out who the original manufacturer is and how will the company will support you.

6. Aesthetics (How The Solar Panels Look)

Some people choose the look of certain types of solar panels to others – this is just down to personal preference. As a general rule, thin film panels look more uniform and some feel these look best, although they take up much more space due to their lower conversion efficiencies – and aren’t widely installed in Australia nowadays.

Some suppliers can integrate the panels into your roof, others can supply solar roof tiles. And if you’ve got a whacky, curved roof, you can even get flexible solar panels! However the sleek aesthetics of building integrated solar power (BIPV) comes at a price of course.

As a general rule, choosing a more “utilitarian” look will be cheaper as super slick integrated systems can cost considerably more.

Next up I’ll go through the different types of solar panel technology currently available. If you would like a simple answer to the question “how do solar panels work?” before we get into the different technologies, then that link should satisfy your inner geek.

Otherwise let’s move on – or if you’re ready to get pricing on a system, you can get up to 3 solar quotes via my service from Australian installers I have personally pre-vetted and trust that I will match to your requirements and location.

 

>> Next: What Types Of Solar PV Panels Are There To Choose From? >>

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