Are you thinking about installing a solar power system? Before you get quotes for a solar power installation, learn about the most important element in a solar power system: the solar panels.
The panels we talk about here are photovoltaic solar panels (solar PV panels or solar electricity modules) which generate solar electricity. These are either monocrystalline or polycrystalline solar panels.
There are other panels (solar thermal collectors or solar hot water panels) which you can use to heat water in your home. The two types use different technologies.
What’s the Difference?
- A solar power system that generates electricity uses sunlight and converts this into DC electricity.
- A solar hot water system uses the heat from the sun to heat water.
The panels in a solar energy system are the key components in the system. You should buy only reputable brands. In the Australian solar market, these brands are highly recommended:
- Jinko Solar
- DELTA Energy Systems
- Trina Solar
- enphase ENERGY
- Canadian Solar
You should also get your solar power system installed by a solar installer or solar company accredited by the CEC (Clean Energy Council). A reputable solar installation expert will make sure the panels are correctly installed, with the optimal tilt angle and orientation for your home. This will maximise the output efficiency of your solar system and your solar energy consumption.
How Do You Compare Solar Panels?
There are many solar companies which will tell you that their panels are the best in the solar marketplace. But how do you define best?
Some panels might be the best because they’re easy to install. Others might come with a fantastic product warranty. And some might have better efficiency. It’s unlikely that any solar panel is the best at everything!
Choosing the best brand of solar panel will depend on your home, space available, location, size and type of system (on-grid, off-grid, or hybrid). And your potential level of solar energy use.
Here are some aspects of solar panels that you can compare. You should consider these before making a final buying decision.
The efficiency of a solar panel describes how much of the sunlight collected by the panel is converted into electrical energy or solar electricity. This is usually expressed as a percentage. It’s important when considering system size.
Why is solar panel efficiency important?
The higher the efficiency of a panel, the more electricity you will generate from natural sunlight. There will be less energy lost in the system.
In practical terms, you can get more electricity from panels with a higher efficiency rating in less space. You will need more space to accommodate less efficient panels, to produce the same amount of electricity. Is your roof space limited? Then solar panel efficiency could be your #1 priority.
What is a good efficiency rating?
Most good quality panels on the Australian solar market will achieve an efficiency of 15-20%. Some high-efficiency panels might achieve up to 22%. But the average is around 15-18%.
TIP: Don’t just assume that high-efficiency solar panels are the best choice for you. High efficiency comes at a price. Panels with an efficiency rating of 22% cost a lot more than panels rated at 15-20%. But the long-term savings are higher!
Decide what’s most important for you: higher efficiency and savings or lower initial installation costs.
The cost of solar cell technology has steadily decreased. Now. it’s even more cost-effective than ever to install a home solar system.
You can compare the cost of different solar panel options using one metric. How many dollars does it cost to produce 1 watt of electricity (dollar/watt)? Or the amount of electricity each dollar of solar panel produces.
As a cost guide, compare just the panels, not including the inverter, cabling or other solar power system components. Even good quality solar panels can vary from $0.67/watt to $1.60/watt (GST not included).
Remember, you get what you pay for. And take into account the installation cost. Quality should be your #1 priority because a solar power system is a long-term investment. Cheap might seem attractive at the beginning – not so much when you have to replace components after just a few years.
Don’t choose based on just price. Look at panel efficiency, solar payback period, the brand reputation, design, and warranty offered.
3. Quality and Product Warranty
It isn’t easy to compare quality just from a quote provided by a solar company. One of the best ways is to use independent comparison reports by consumer groups like CHOICE in Australia. These are usually in-depth reports without bias.
You can also read online solar panel reviews written by people who have already installed solar systems in their homes. This will give you an idea of their real-life experience with specific brands. It’s important to compare reviews of solar panel installations in your location and not other areas where typical energy usage may be different.
Comparing solar panel compliance with CEC standards and product warranties is easier. These vary between brands so it pays to do your research. The warranty provided by a solar panel manufacturer is a good indication of quality.
Check for the following:
- That the solar panels are approved for use in Australia
- Any warranty should cover a minimum of 10 years
- The conditions for claiming under warranty (do you have to return the panel or is it dealt with on-site?)
TIP: A 10-year product warranty on a solar panel is different from the standard ‘performance guarantee’ which solar panel manufacturers provide.
Look out for any warranty which requires you to sign up for an expensive maintenance contract to maintain your warranty validly.
4. Country of Origin
Don’t get hung up on where the solar panel is manufactured. The country of origin is not a good indicator of overall quality.
If a specific brand has been active in the Australian solar market for some years, their products are likely of decent quality.
Don’t forget that some of the world’s top brands manufacture their products in other countries. Think Apple and BMW. They manufacture top quality products in China and Brazil, so the country of origin should not put you off choosing a specific brand of panel.
5. Panel Specifications
You’ll find that the specifications of solar panels vary from brand to brand. But here are some of the key things you should look for when comparing different panels:
- Power tolerance: there’s a difference between a panel rated at 300W exactly and 300W ±10%
- Voltage rating: a minimum of 100V DC
- Temperature coefficient: -0.3%/°C to -0.5%/°C is the normal range. The lower the number the better. A value of -0.3/°C means that for every 1°C above 25°C – the efficiency of the panel decreases by 0.3%. This is important if you live in a hot area.
- OEM or not? Has the solar panel been simply rebranded or is it from the original equipment manufacturer?
6. Aesthetic Appeal
Nowadays, you can choose from a vast range of panel materials and designs. Thin-film panels look great but take up more space, and have lower efficiency ratings.
Some solar companies will integrate the panels into your roof for a seamless and low-profile finish. But aesthetics cost! You’ll pay much more for anything other than regular solar panels.
Remember, your solar photovoltaic panels will be on your roof (typically). You won’t be spending much time looking at them. It’s more important that they’re good quality, efficient, and give you years of hassle-free solar electricity production.
You’ll be impressed more by the savings on your electricity bills than any solar panel aesthetics! And today’s solar technology makes a home solar system a smart investment!