Before we delve into the wonderful world of solar panels - we need to make sure we are talking about the right panels. So let's get any confusion out of the way. This site is dedicated to photovoltaic solar panels also known to their friends as as "solar PV" or "solar electricity" panels.
There is another type of solar panel that is used for heating up your water (as opposed to generating electricity). This type of panel 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:
If you are confused about the difference between solar hot water and solar electricity panels then before you read any further you may want to watch this short video I made where I explain the difference:
And after that if you have decided that solar hot water is your thing then you probably want to be at my other website which is 100% dedicated to solar hot water panels and solar hot water systems.
This site is dedicated to solar panels that make electricity. So now we've established that, let's jump in!
The panels are the most critical part of any solar power system. So choosing the right brand and type is just as important as making sure they are at the best angle and pointing in the right direction.
Unfortunately most solar salespeople aren't going be a whole lot of help when it comes to choosing which panel brand you should go for! Why? Because, despite my best efforts to persuade them otherwise, most of them will use the sales strategy of insisting that theirs are the best and everyone else is selling crap.
They can't all be right! So what's the truth? How do you make an honest solar panel comparison? Let's find out...
Choosing Your Solar Panels - What Are Your Choices?
When shopping around for the best way to spend your precious solar panel rebate, one of the things that will set different installers apart is the type and brand of panel that they offer you.
So how do you assess what the best solar panels are for you? Here are some of the factors you should weigh up:
1. Solar Panel Efficiency
When I talk about efficiency I am talking about the ratio (as a percentage) of the energy in the sunlight that hits the panel surface - to the electrical energy that comes out of the panel.
For example if the solar panel captured half the energy in the sunlight, then the panel's efficiency would be 50%.
In real life conventional panel efficiencies range from about 12% 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.
This disadvantage of high efficiency panels is that they tend to cost more.
So if roof space is at a premium, or you just want super-duper technology look into higher efficiency panels. Otherwise, as long as the panel efficiency is over about 15%, don't worry about it.
When weighing up how much solar panels cost, the obvious calculation you need to make is: How many kiloWatts of electricity are you getting per dollar of panel?
As a general rule, like most things in life, you do tend to get what you pay for so be cautious about choosing solely on price. However, there are often bargains to be had, special deals and some suppliers are just more competitive. Just make sure that you are comparing apples to apples in terms of warranty, service, product quality and so on.
If you ever get offered a 'too good to be true' solar system deal then this video may help:
3. Quality and Warranty
It is not easy to determine the quality of solar PV panels, inverters and installation service from a quote. The first thing I would do to rate a panel brand is to look at the solar panel reviews that I have collected from customers over the last 4 years. These reviews are only from people who have had the panels for at least 12 months.
Next thing to realise is that the warranty statements and conformance to quality standards gives a pretty good indication of a solar panel's quality.
Pay particular attention to the fine print around things like where you might have to send your products if there is a problem, whether they are fully accredited and approved for use in Australia and the experience of the company supplying you. Will they be around in 10 or 20 years if something goes wrong?
As an absolute minimum insist on a minimum of a 10 year manufacturers warranty (also called product warranty) on the panels. Be aware that this is a different guarantee to the 25 or 30 year "performance guarantee" that every solar panel out there carries. Without getting into details - the performance guarantee is almost worthless because it is so easy to wriggle out of. The manufacturers' guarantee is the one that 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 that the warranty isn't tied to an expensive service contract every year or two. You don't want to have to shell out $500 a year for a bloke to hose down your panels just to keep your warranty!
4. Country Of Origin
Some people insist that German solar panels are the only way to get quality and that all Chinese solar panels are crap. Follow that previous link for a deeper discussion on this, but frankly I find that talk borderline racist. You may have reasons for not buying Chinese products, I'm not going to get into a geo-politico-economic debate on it. But as far as quality is concerned, some Chinese brands are just fine. Some are crap. And if you think "Chinese" means "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, wouldn't you say?
Like most products solar panels can have different specifications. Things to watch out for are:
- The power tolerance on panels (i.e. are you getting 250W or 250W +/-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 coefficient of temperature can indicate a solar panel that performs slightly better in higher temperatures.
- Who is the manufacturer? Some companies buy in panels and self brand them. Who is the real manufacturer and how will they support you?
Some people prefer the look of some panels to others. As a General rule, Thin Film panels look more uniform and some people prefer this, although they take up much more space. Some suppliers can integrate the panels into your roof, others can supply solar roof tiles. And if you've got a wacky, curved roof, you can even get flexible solar panels these days! However the sleek aesthetics of integrated solar comes at a price of course.
As a general rule a more "utilitarian" look will be cheaper and super slick integrated systems are more expensive.
Next up I'll go through the different types of solar panel technology 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!