What are the Best Solar Panels for Home Use?
Going solar can be expensive, so be sure to get the right panels for your home electricity needs
With so many manufacturers to choose from, it can be daunting to find the solar panels that perfectly fit your needs. How do you know which are the best solar panels for home use? They’re the ones that best balance efficiency, reputation, and cost. Let’s run through all the factors to consider when choosing the right panels for your home.
Do I need to buy expensive premium panels?
Oftentimes, this is the first question on homeowners’ minds when deciding what panels to purchase. Here’s the simple answer: no!
Just like the automobile industry, we can break solar panel manufacturers into 3 groups:
- Budget option – Think Kia and Hyundai. They’re low cost, with quality not quite on par with other well-known brands. In the solar world, these budget options are the brands you see when you search on Amazon. They don’t have a stand-alone website and there’s little information on the company anywhere online. Unless you’re building a small, off-grid system for your RV and are only risking a small amount of money, stay away from these!
- Standard option – These are the brands everyone knows, like Toyota and Honda. In the solar world, popular companies manufacturing standard panels include Trina Solar, Yingli, Canadian Solar, and Hanwha. These solar panels provide consistent energy production, decent warranties (usually 12 years for parts, 25 years for production), and competitive prices. Most of the panels we see on rooftops fall under the ‘standard’ option.
- Premium option – These are the cars your CEO drives: Lexus, Mercedes, and BMW. High-quality, high-cost. They are absolutely not necessary, but certainly come with perks. Premium solar panels like Sunpower and Panasonic offer higher production, longer warranties, and/or beefier components, but at a significantly higher cost – sometimes 2x as much as standard panels!
For the vast majority of us, purchasing and installing ‘standard’ quality panels will work perfectly. Yes, premium panels produce more energy and, yes, their warranties are longer, but the benefits rarely outweigh the additional cost.
Consider this: since premium panels produce more electricity, you actually get away with installing fewer panels than if you choose ‘standard’ panels. However, with their higher cost, you usually end up spending more – even with fewer panels!
When roof space is an issue, most homeowners simply decide to install fewer panels and deal with the lower production rather than upgrade to premium panels. In the end, it typically works out better financially.
What’s the best efficiency/wattage?
To make installing easier, residential solar panels all generally fall around 3 feet wide by 5 feet long (maybe an inch or two difference between different manufacturers). Solar panels designed for big, open commercial buildings are physically bigger, but what installer wants to carry a giant panel with one hand up a ladder onto a home’s slanted roof? As a former installer myself, not me!
Instead of physical size, the difference among residential solar panels is their efficiency, and by extension, wattage. The more efficient a solar panel is (that is, the percentage of sunlight that hits the panel which it can turn into usable electricity), the higher its wattage. The higher the wattage, the more electricity it will produce.
Premium solar panels like we discussed above, beyond longer warranties and other benefits, also typically see higher wattage due to their ‘premium’ components (like ultra-pure monocrystalline silicon).
You might be thinking that you should just buy the most efficient solar panels you can afford, but in reality that’s not always the smartest way to go about it. Like we said, higher efficiency equals higher cost, but the two do not increase equally. The price is usually simply too high to justify the increased production.
Residential panels typically fall between around 260 watts to 320 watts, with the majority around 265 watts. Most rooftops have ample space for solar, and 265 watt panels are efficient enough for the majority of homeowners – providing the perfect balance of energy production and cost.
To give you some context around panel size, let’s run through an example: if we installed a 5,700 watt system (the average residential installation size as of 2017, p.5), we’d need:
- Twenty-two 265 watt panels
- Nineteen 300 watt panels
- Eighteen 320 watt panels
So you’d need 4 less panels if you were to install ultra-efficient 320 watt panels instead of standard 265 watt panels. Is it worth it? Like we said, it depends on cost. If all panels across the world cost the same amount of money, of course! However, higher efficiency panels command higher prices.
Let’s take a look at what panels cost, and what you should spend on your solar panels.
How much should I spend?
According to a 2017 report from the National Renewable Energy Lab (p.13), the average solar panel cost $0.35 per watt directly from the manufacturer to the first buyer (ie the distributor or large national installer). After shipping and handling costs, sales tax, and other supply chain costs, that price increases to $0.65 per watt for large installers and $0.73 per watt for smaller installers. At this rate, you’re looking at:
- $172 per 265 watt panel, or
- $3,705 in panel costs for a 5.7kW installation with a national installer
Keep in mind that these are average costs. If you’re installing premium panels, your total panel costs will be much higher. That should come as no surprise – it’s the way the world works. Even still, this gives you a basis of what to expect.
If you’re spending more than $175 per panel for your installation, it certainly raises some red flags. Ask your installer why the panels cost more than the typical installation. Are they a premium option? If so, ask how they’re different and how long it will take to recoup this additional investment through energy savings.
If they’re not a premium option and your installer can’t provide a good answer as to why they’re more expensive, it might be time to look for another installer!
What are the best brands?
Here we come to what we all want to know! There are dozens of solar panel manufacturers out there and, if they’re a well-known and respected company, you can pretty much rest assured you’ll be okay installing their panels. We recently published an article on the world’s biggest solar panel manufacturers and most of them both produce residential solar panels and work in the US. These companies include:
- Trina Solar
- Hanwha Q-Cell
- Canadian Solar
- Yingli Solar
- Jinko Solar
Each of these companies produces millions of solar panels each year, and back up their products with decent warranties and good reviews. They keep costs low by producing huge amounts of product and having razor-thin margins. If you work with a national solar installer, chances are your installation will include panels from one of the companies above.
Some smaller installers exclusively install premium solar panels from companies like Sunpower. While these panels and their superlatives (Best in the world, most efficient on the market, etc) certainly are enticing, be sure to keep a level head and absolutely positive that the additional electricity production you’ll see is greater than the additional price of the solar panels themselves.
Any special considerations for intense weather?
In the past, intense weather like heavy snow was certainly a concern for solar installations. Companies like Canadian Solar made a name for themselves by producing extra beefy panels that could withstand extreme conditions.
The International Electric Code (IEC) states that all solar panels must be able to handle 5,400Pa (Pascals, a unit of pressure) laid directly onto the glass. (5,400 Pascals onto a standard residential solar panel is equal to about 212 pounds.)
Beyond snow load, manufacturers also measure wind load to ensure your solar panels don’t fly off your roof in a storm.
Let’s look at the snow and wind load ratings from a few different manufacturers:
- Canadian Solar Standard Residential Panel: 6000 Pa snow load; 4000Pa wind load
- Sunpower E Series Residential Panel: 5400 Pa snow load; 2400Pa wind load
- Trina Solar Standard Residential Panel: 5400 Pa snow load, 2400 wind load
As you can see, the ‘premium’ Sunpower panels are rated the exact same as the ‘standard’ Trina panels. As expected, Canadian Solar panels actually see higher durability than both of them, so if you live in an area with long, extreme winters, it certainly pays to read over your solar panels’ spec sheets!
Best solar panels for home use are the standard options
Okay, we’re at the end here and I’m ready to go out on a limb and make this statement: for the vast majority of us, the best solar panels for home use are just the standard options. Standard panels from well-known brands like Trina, Yingli, Hanwha, and Canadian Solar are the best, safest bet if you want a reliable system that saves you money.
There’s a reason these companies are all so popular. They’re efficient, durable, cost-effective, and work great in most situations.
Buying premium panels is like buying a muscle car: overbuilt and certainly more than you need, but fun to have. If you go this route, do your homework to make sure they’re worth the high cost. If you’ve got plenty of roof space, chances are these panels just aren’t worth the higher price.
Do you agree with our assessment? Let us know your own thoughts in the comments below!