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Which type of solar panel is best for you?

Feb. 04, 2024

Want solar panels that don't stand out too much against your roof? Pay close attention here. Variations in materials and production cause differences in appearance between each type of solar panel. Some look better than others on a traditional black shingle roof.

Monocrystalline solar panels: Black

If you see black solar panels on a roof, it's most likely a monocrystalline panel. Monocrystalline cells appear black because light interacts with the pure silicon crystal.

While the solar cells are black, monocrystalline solar panels have a variety of colors for their back sheets and frames. The back sheet of the solar panel will most often be black, silver, or white, while the metal frames are typically black or silver.

Monocrystalline panels with black frames tend to blend in best with most roofs.

Polycrystalline solar panels: Blue

Polycrystalline solar cells tend to have a bluish hue due to the light reflecting off the silicon fragments in the cell in a different way than it reflects off a pure monocrystalline silicon wafer.

Polycrystalline panels also come in different colors for back sheets and frames. Most often, the frames of polycrystalline panels are silver, and the back sheets are either silver or white.

Thin-film solar panels: Low-profile

Thin-film solar panels have a low profile and are often slimmer than other types of solar panels. They can come in both blue and black hues depending on their composition. Sometimes, they're barely visible from the ground.

Thin-film solar cells are roughly 350 times thinner than the crystalline wafers used in monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels. However, an entire thin-film panel may be similar in thickness to a monocrystalline or polycrystalline solar panel if it includes a thick frame. There are adhesive thin-film solar panels that lie close to the surface of a roof. But more durable thin-film panels have frames up to 50 millimeters thick.

If you’ve considered adding solar panels to your home, you’ve probably also considered the amount of money and energy you could save by doing so. The potential savings is important, of course, but it isn’t the only thing to keep in mind when it comes to making the switch—you also need to decide what type of solar panels are right for you.

Because there are several types to choose from, it isn’t as easy as simply scheduling an installation appointment.

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How to Decide What Type of Solar Panels to Get

The first thing to do when figuring out which type of solar panel is right for your home is to acquaint yourself with the choices at hand as well as how many solar panels you want and a list of solar panel installation companies.

According to Energy Sage, a U.S. Department of Energy-endorsed online resource that allows consumers to comparison shop for solar energy, there are three main types of solar panels available for residential use. They are: monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin-film.

A fourth option, solar roofing shingles, is a newer and more expensive technology—but certainly a suitable (and enticing) choice for those with the budget to cover the initial costs.

Monocrystalline Solar Panels

When you picture rooftop solar panels, you probably picture monocrystalline simply because they are very commonly used. And while all solar panels offer some level of energy efficiency, monocrystalline is considered the most efficient of the bunch. How efficient? Up to 20%, Energy Sage reports, meaning that 20% of the sunshine that hits a monocrystalline panel is converted into usable energy. Monocrystalline panels are also:

  • Made of an individual pure silicon crystal (in other words, the silicon comes from one source)
  • Cylinder-shaped
  • Uniform in color
  • Durable and long-lasting (some come with warranties up to 30 years)
  • Able to generate between 300 and 400 (sometimes even more) watts of power each

The downside? Monocrystalline often requires a larger upfront investment than some other types of solar panels. This is because they are more expensive to make—a cost that, naturally, gets passed on to the consumer.

And if 20% isn’t quite efficient enough for you? No worries—under the monocrystalline umbrella falls an additional type of solar panel called the PERC (passivated emitter and rear cell). While use of this technology is still ramping up, experts say it offers even more efficiency than traditional monocrystalline panels (thanks to an added layer of silicon material on the panel’s back side) and isn’t particularly cost prohibitive to manufacture.

Polycrystalline Solar Panels

Polycrystalline panels, on the other hand, are less expensive to make and therefore less expensive for the customer. The cost difference is attributed to the manufacturing process—rather than the individual silicon crystals used to make monocrystalline, polycrystalline panels are made from many different pieces of silicon that are separated into fragments and melted together.

Polycrystalline is also somewhat less efficient than monocrystalline, producing around 250 watts of power each rather than 300-plus. Physically, though, they look similar to their monocrystalline counterparts and last almost as long (warranties are in the 25-year range, but vary by brand).

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Thin-Film Solar Panels

Thin-film solar panels have a few advantages over monocrystalline and polycrystalline ones. First of all, they are comparatively lightweight. They are also malleable (the others are rigid), making them easier to install than the thicker, heavier varieties.

They are also far more affordable to manufacture than other types of solar panels and also more affordable to install.

Amorphous Silicon (a-Si) Thin-Film

Amorphous solar panels are silicon-based, like the others, but in this case, the silicone portion is just the first of three very thin layers (the second layer is heat-conductive; the top layer is protective).

Amorphous panels also do well in warmer climates because they can withstand intense heat and are more adept at generating energy on darker days (meaning the sun doesn’t have to be shining bright in a clear blue sky for them to do their job).

Unfortunately, amorphous panels don’t last as long as other types of solar panels—according to the American Solar Energy Society, you’ll only get between 10 and 20 years out of them. Furthermore, they are only around 7% efficient.

Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) Thin-Film

Produced with cadmium, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration considers a toxic heavy metal, cadmium telluride thin-film is the second most used solar cell type in the world after crystalline cells.  However, CdTes aren’t the best in terms of efficiency,

Copper Gallium Indium Diselenide (CIGS) Thin-Film

Also produced with cadmium, Copper gallium indium diselenide (CIGS) thin-film is above-average in efficiency but is very expensive. The cells place Copper, Indium, Gallium, and Selenide layers on top of each other to efficiently convert sunlight into energy.

(PERC) Passivated Emitter and Read Cell Panels

PERC (passivated emitter and rear cell) panels are a newer type of solar technology designed to be more efficient than traditional monocrystalline panels. While this technology is still ramping up, PERC panels feature silicon material on the panel’s backside to achieve higher energy conversion efficiency. They also aren’t particularly cost-prohibitive to manufacture.

Solar Panel Types by Efficiency

Monocrystalline solar panels are the front runner as the most efficient panels with 20% and up. Polycrystalline solar panels are a close competitor with 15% – 17% efficiency. While CIGS thin-film has 13% – 15% efficiency, CdTe thin-film has 9% – 11% efficiency, and a-Si thin-film has 6% – 8% efficiency.

Solar Panel Types by Cost

Although monocrystalline solar panels are the most efficient, they are also the most expensive type of solar panels, with the average cost being $1 to $1.50 per watt. Polycrystalline solar panels are next in line as the most expensive, costing $0.70 to $1 per watt. While CIGS thin-film costs $0.60 to $0.70 per watt, CdTe thin-film costs $0.50 to $0.60 per watt, and a-Si thin-film is the least expensive at $0.43 to $0.50 per watt.

Solar Panel Type by Power Output

Most residential solar panels on today’s market are rated to produce between 250 and 400 watts per hour. Monocrystalline solar panels can generate between 320 watts and 375 watts of power capacity, while polycrystalline solar panels generate ratings between 240 watts and 300 watts. Thin-film panels don’t come in uniform sizes, so there is no standard measure of power capacity. However, thin-film solar panels have a lower power output comparatively. 

Solar Panel Type by Appearance 

One benefit of thin-film solar panels is their sleek appearance. Labeled the most attractive of the three solar panel types, the panel’s all-black thin design allows them to lie flat against roofs, so they blend in seamlessly.

Like thin-film solar panels, monocrystalline panels have a sleek, solid black aesthetic. However, the panel’s solar cells are shaped in a unique way that causes quite a bit of white space on the panel, making them more pronounced than thin-film solar panels.

In the last place for appearance, polycrystalline solar panels look less seamless than thin-film and monocrystalline. Each polycrystalline cell is manufactured with a blue, marbled look, making each panel look substantially different from the next, making them more distinctive.

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Other Factors to Consider When Comparing Panel Types

In addition to efficiency, cost, power output and cost, there are several other factors to consider when determining which panel type is right for you. For instance, the weather in your area should undoubtedly be a consideration. 

Hail Rating

Although most solar panels are protected by a thick layer of tempered glass that can tolerate severe impacts, a hail storm can present significant problems for your solar panels. Therefore, they are tested for hail impacts. 

On average, solar panels are certified to withstand hail of up to 1 inch falling at approximately 50 mph. Monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels are ideal for areas that experience heavy hail. At the same time, thin-film solar panels are not ideal for hail since they have a thin design. 

Hurricane Rating

Hurricanes are inevitable in some locations, so solar panels must withstand high winds and rain. While there is no formal solar classification rating for hurricanes, most solar panels can withstand up to 140 mph winds and are secured via fasteners, through-bolting modules, or a three-frame rail system to ensure safety through a hurricane or tropical storm. 

Temperature

The temperature outside can determine how efficiently solar panels generate energy. Solar panels work best at about 77°F. If the peak temperature of your solar panels gets higher than 149°F, solar panel efficiency can decline.

Fire Rating

In the event of a fire, solar panels are required to match the fire rating of the roof where they are installed to ensure they do not accelerate the spread of flames. Therefore, solar panels now carry the same fire classification rating as roofs, such as:

  • Class A: severe fire test exposure

  • Class B: moderate fire test exposure

  • Class C: light fire test exposure

How Do Solar Panels Work?

Before deciphering which solar panel type is right for your home, you should know how solar panels work and what to expect when you utilize them. The first thing to know is that solar panels harness the sun’s power and are an endless energy source that can perform all necessary functions. Solar panels are also able to create this energy in a manner that can save not only the planet but also your money.

Solar Roofing Shingles

Efficiency and price aside, some homeowners are hesitant to go solar for purely aesthetic reasons. In other words, they just don’t like the look of solar panels. If this is you, consider solar shingles.

Solar shingles allow you to get many of the benefits of solar panels without disrupting the look and feel of your roof. They are manufactured using the same technology as solar panels, and they are available at a variety of price points (depending on the brand).

Sadly, the cons are not insignificant. First and foremost, price is a huge concern—shingles are almost always more costly (especially if you go with a brand like Tesla, which launched a line of solar roofing shingles in 2019). Not only that, solar shingles are in short supply. So, even if you have the budget and the desire to add them to your roof, you might not be able to track them down.

Efficiency-wise, solar shingles are also only between 14% and 18% efficient, which isn’t bad compared to the less efficient amorphous panels but, on the lower end, doesn’t really seem all that great next to the monocrystalline ones.

Furthermore, solar shingles won’t necessarily work on every type of roof. Most are made to replace asphalt roofing tiles only (with some exceptions). The most cost-effective route? Coordinating overall roof replacement with the addition of solar shingles, which has a higher upfront cost, but is more likely to even out in the long run.

Which Type of Solar Panel Is Best?

Due to a wide selection of capabilities, quality, price points and features, shopping for the perfect solar panels for your home can be overwhelming. However, with some help, you can typically find the panel type that suits your home’s needs. 

For instance, monocrystalline solar panels have proven to be the best solar panel type due to their 20% and up solar efficiency, although they may be the most expensive per-watt solar-type. The second most popular solar panel type is polycrystalline, which is also made of crystals but is less durable, efficient and costly to produce and purchase. Finally, thin-film solar panels are the least efficient, least expensive type and are more common in commercial applications.

Should I Get Solar Panels?

You are now familiar with your solar panel choices, but is it even a good investment? That depends. Before getting your hopes up, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do I have the right roof for solar panels? Roofs on older homes are often incompatible with solar panels, and things like skylights can also be problematic. Consult with a roofer and solar panel installer to find out for sure.
  • Does My HOA allow it? If you live in a neighborhood with an HOA, the rules may or may not allow you to install solar panels.
  • Do I have the money to cover the costs? Solar panels should save you money over time, but there is still an upfront investment. If you can’t afford it, the future savings might not be worth it.
  • How long am I going to live in this house? If you are planning to sell your house anytime in the foreseeable future, it might be better to let the future homeowners decide for themselves whether or not to get solar panels. Otherwise, you might find yourself investing a lot of money for a benefit you don’t get a chance to enjoy (it can take years to recoup your investment).
  • How much do I spend each month on electricity? Households with low energy costs aren’t going to benefit as much from solar panels as a household with large electrical bills, so be sure to run the numbers before making a decision.

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