So, you’ve decided to make the switch over to solar energy. We applaud you! Not only are you doing something that’s good for you and your finances, you’re also doing something to help make the world a more sustainable place. However, the process of converting to solar energy can be a bit intimidating. That’s why we put together this comprehensive guide. At the end of the Complete Solar Power Buyer’s Guide, you’ll have a better understanding of solar power so that you can go out and get your energy system converted.
Types of panelsOnce you’ve decided to convert to solar power, your next step will be to decide which type is best for you. So, which one should you go with? We’ll go through the three most popular types to give you a better idea of which one is right for you.
#1 MonocrystallineOriginally built in the 1950’s, monocrystalline solar panels are the panels that started it all. The way that monocrystalline solar panels are built is that each cell is cut from silicon into a cylindrical fashion. The resulting cells look like wafers. Several wafer-like cells come together to form a monocrystalline solar panel. Advantages
- Usually, companies build monocrystalline with high-quality silicon that allows these panels to have the highest efficiency rate among solar panels (up at a 21% efficiency rate).
- In addition to energy efficiency, monocrystalline are also space-efficient. Compared to the other types of panels, monocrystalline take up the least amount of space.
- They also tend to perform better in low-light conditions.
- Unfortunately, high-quality and high-performance tend to lead to higher costs. Thus, monocrystalline solar panels are the most expensive option on the market.
- Users often run into problems when their panels are covered in dirt, shade, or snow. When covered, you may find that entire circuits break down.
- These panels don’t perform the same in all weather conditions. Monocrystalline solar panels tend to perform better in warmer weather.
#2 PolycrystallineOriginally introduced in 1981, polycrystalline solar panels differ from monocrystalline panels in several ways. Although both polycrystalline and monocrystalline solar panels are created from silicon, their shapes differ. Whereas monocrystalline panels are in the shape of wafers, manufactures pour the silicon into a square mold to create polycrystalline panels. Advantages
- The process that manufacturers use to create polycrystalline solar panels is simpler, which means that the associated costs are lower as well. With less waste created, the process is more efficient.
- While polycrystalline solar panels tend to perform slightly than monocrystalline panels in higher temperatures, this difference in performance is relatively insignificant for the average homeowner.
- With a lower level of silicon purity, polycrystalline solar panels tend to be less efficient than their monocrystalline counterparts. You can expect between 13%-16% efficiency rates with polycrystalline panels as opposed to up to 21% for monocrystalline.
- Polycrystalline solar panels are less space-efficient. To produce the same amount of energy as a monocrystalline system, you’ll need to cover more surface area.
- Not as aesthetically pleasing as monocrystalline or thin film systems.
#3 Thin FilmTo form a thin-film solar panel strip, manufacturers lay one or several layers of photovoltaic material onto substrate. Also known as thin-film photovoltaic cells (TFPV), these solar systems have reached an efficiency rate of around 7%-13%. However, experts expect its efficiency rate to increase in the coming years. Advantages
- Since production for thin film solar systems is simpler than other, thin film solar systems are easy and relatively cheap to mass produce.
- With their homogenous design, thin film solar systems are a bit more attractive than other options.
- The panels are lightweight.
- Issues like shade, obstructions, and low-light conditions don’t alter their performance very much.
- Can be made flexible.
- They’re generally less efficient than both monocrystalline and polycrystalline solutions.
- Although they’re reasonably priced, they tend to take up significant amounts of space. This may be ok for some commercial situations, but it makes it tougher to install them in residential areas.
- Need to purchase a lot of additional equipment.
- Thin film systems often last for less time than other options. Thus, manufacturers tend not to offer very long warranties.
Buying Vs. Leasing Solar PanelsOnce you’ve determined the right type of solar panel for your situation, you’ll then be faced with the decision of whether to buy or lease your solar panels. Both options have their ups and downs. The primary difference is that when you purchase a solar power system yourself, you own that system forever. When you lease, a third-party retains ownership of the solar panel system and you simply make payments. The decision that you make has several implications on cost, maintenance, terms, financial offsets, and savings/returns on your solar panel investment. Let’s take a closer look at which may be right for you. When Purchasing a System is Right for You Deciding to purchase your system outright or finance it with a solar loan is the right choice for you if:
- You want to take full advantage of the financial benefits of having a solar system installed. Although some people are focused more on the environmental benefits, there are also several financial benefits that can be achieved through purchasing your system.
- You are someone who is eligible to take advantage of the various tax benefits (both state and federal).
- You are purchasing your solar power system for use in your business and can take advantage of the tax credits by claiming the solar system as a depreciable asset.
- You are interested in increasing the market value of your home.
- Your primary goal is to maximize the environmental benefits of converting to solar power rather than the financial benefits.
- You are not interested in the responsibility of maintaining and repairing your solar system yourself.
- You are not eligible to receive any state or federal tax credits for investing in a solar panel system.
- You are not interested in waiting another year to install your solar system to receive your tax credits.
DIY vs Professional Solar Panel InstallationWith the rise of the internet, there are now endless amounts of resources that show you how to do everything from installing a deck to replace the engine in your car. That goes for solar panel installation as well. There are plenty of people out there who have set out and installed their solar panels themselves with nothing more than some guides and videos. However, that route isn’t for everyone. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each.
DIY Solar PowerPros of DIY Installation While solar power installation can be complicated, there are some significant benefits. Here are a couple:
- Lower Costs: Hiring a professional solar power company to install your system can be quite expensive. However, solar kits can be less expensive if you’re technically inclined. When you install the system yourself, you don’t have to pay any installation fees. This could cut your costs by as much as a third.
- Ease of Access: Over the years, solar power has become more and more popular. As such, it’s much more available today than it once was. You now have several options to purchase your own system, both online and at in-person wholesalers. When you work with a professional installer, you may have to wait several weeks for them to come out. However, you can get started as soon as you purchase the supplies if you do it on your own.
- It’s a Complex Process: While a DIY installation may sound like a fun project, there’s a reason why professionals exist. The process can be quite complex for someone who has never done this type of work before. Despite there being several guides available online, you will likely run into problems. If you’re unable to work around those problems, you may get stuck and have to call a professional anyway. Even worse, you may have to purchase a new system if you make a serious mistake.
- Limited Use: A lot of the times, solar power systems are designed to be used off of the traditional power grid. Most energy companies won’t allow someone to connect to their grid without proper permits and permissions. For the average homeowner, not having access to the traditional grid may cause problems.
Professional Solar PowerPros of Professional Installation If you decide that you aren’t interested in installing your system on your own, you may decide to go with a professional. Here are some of the pros to hiring a professional:
- Stress-Free: Many of the top solar panel installation companies have been doing this for several years. When you hire a company who has been doing this for several years, you can trust in them that they’ll do good work and take care of all of the small details like permits and licensure. Furthermore, they can help you determine what system is best for your property.
- Better Materials and a Warranty: When you’re doing a DIY installation, you’re like trying to save money. Saving money might carry over into the types of materials that you buy. If you work with a professional installation company, you can be sure that they’re using high-quality materials that they get from distributors who might not even work with individuals. Also, you’ll have a warranty on your system in case anything goes wrong.
- More Paperwork and Regulations: If you hire a professional installation company, you’ll be required to fill out a lot of paperwork before they’re able to get started. You’ll need to provide information for permits, applications, and licensure. Although the company will help you with all of this, it can push back start times. Also, it may be pushed back even further if anything in your application process is denied.
- Higher Upfront Costs: When you hire a professional company, you’re going to pay more than you would if you did the project on your own. Your company will likely request that you pay a deposit before they will even start the project. For many people, they don’t have the cash on hand to cover the costs and may have to take out a loan.
Installation of Solar Power SystemsIf you do decide that you’re going to go with a professional contractor for your solar installation, it’s important that you find someone who knows what they’re doing and will provide good value for your money. While that may seem obvious, it can be more difficult to find a reliable contractor than you might think. That’s why you should have a few things in mind when you set out to find your contractor. Although you may come up with a few more on your own, we’ve found the following tips to be useful when searching for a quality solar contractor. #1 Look for Expertise There are a sea of fly-by-night installers out there who will tell you whatever you want to hear in order to take your money. However, there are also plenty of hard-working, honest contractors who will do excellent work. You need to find those. To tell the difference between the two, look for accreditation. For solar panel installers, the gold standard for accreditation is the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioner’s (NABCEP’s) Solar PV Installation Professional Certification. Whatever company that you’re talking to, ask them if there will be a certified practitioner on the crew that is coming out to your home. Ideally, there should be a certified member of every single crew that they send out on a project. #2 Check for Licenses and Insurance First, check with your state government to see what licenses and insurance a solar panel installation should have. Usually, a solar installation company should have licenses for general contracting, electrician, home improvement, or home performance licenses. For insurance, the minimum that they should have is general liability insurance. As the requirements vary from state to state it’s important that you get the information for your specific state. Once you’re armed with that information, you can then ensure that the company that you choose has everything that they need. #3 Check Their Track Record Online These days, reviews are easy to find. While bad reviews are often indicative of one difficult client here and there, you should look for patterns. For example, several complaints on the Better Business Bureau website tells you that the company has a track record of being dishonest with their clients. Look for companies that have several reviews, and make sure to actually read them. Ensure that they aren’t fake reviews. #4 Ask About Their Workmanship Warranty A reliable contractor will always guarantee the quality of their work with a workmanship warranty. Usually, these warranties are good for anywhere between one and ten years. Although you can often purchase a separate for the operation and maintenance of your system, it’s usually better to just work with a qualified installer who guarantees their work with a workmanship warranty. #5 Ask About Their Subcontractors With contractors, it can be difficult to determine who is actually doing the work. That’s because contractors often hire subcontractors to work on specific tasks within a job. Thus, who you hire may not actually be the one who is doing the work. However, a reliable company will be transparent with you about when and why they use subcontractors. Sometimes, a contractor will work with a subcontractor when that subcontractor brings specific expertise to the table that helps add value to the project. Other times, the contractor will bring in a subcontract to complete the entire project. It’s up to you to know what they plan to do and why they’re doing it. #6 Trust Your Instinct When you decide to convert to solar energy, it isn’t just a one-time project. You’re going to be working with the company that installs your solar panel system for a while. Thus, you should go with a company that you trust, like, and would want to work with in the long-term. Usually, listening to your first instinct about a company is enough to guide you in the right direction. #7 Get Multiple Quotes Just like any other major purchase, choosing the right solar installation requires a lot of time and research to find the best deal. In fact, the United States Depart of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) suggests that buyers should research and compare as many solar installation companies as possible to avoid paying the inflated prices that so many big installation companies charge. To save yourself some money, you should research all installation companies, both big and small. Those who go out and get at least three quotes on their installation can expect to save anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000. #8 Just Because a Company is Big, Doesn’t Mean That They Have the Best Price While bigger may be better in some areas of commerce, the solar panel installation industry isn’t necessarily one of them. That’s why we encourage consumers to explore as many options as possible, including the smaller businesses. In fact, according to a recent report from the United States government, larger installation companies often offer prices around $2,000 to $5,000 more expensive than their smaller counterparts. After getting your offers from these bigger companies, always take them to some smaller companies to see if they can beat those prices. For homeowners in the early stages of the bidding process, there are several solar installation calculators on the internet that can help you calculate the price of what your installation should cost.
Pricing of Solar Power SystemsOne of the most common questions that we hear people ask about solar energy is how much it will cost for them to have a solar system installed. While this price varies from property to property and state to state, we can give you a rough guideline of what you can expect to pay for a solar energy system. As of 2017, the average homeowner converting to solar energy can expect to pay between $2.87 and $3.85 per watt to install a solar system. For a net cost, this averages out to around $16,800 before tax credits. After tax credits (for the average 5kW system), homeowners can expect to pay between $10,045 to $13,475. That price dropped significantly between 2016 and 2017. Average by Size Of course, not every home or business is the same size. Some system will be smaller and some will be bigger, so it can be helpful to build out those averages based on the size of the system to get a better idea of the price at which you may be looking. At the moment, the average solar energy system in the United States is around 5 kilowatts (kW), and the average price per kW is around $3.16. Using that size and that price, the system would cost you $11,060 after the federal tax credit. For systems bigger than average, here are the approximate prices that you can expect to see:
- A 6kW System: $13,300
- An 8kW System: $17,700
- A 10kW System: $22,100
- Size of the System: 5 kilowatts (the national average)
- Amount of Electricity Needed: 11,000 kilowatt-hours per year (the national average)
- Inflation of Utility Rates:2%
- Percent of Electricity Needs Met by Solar System: 84% (marketplace average)
- Electricity Rate: Arizona state average as of September 2016
- Solar Panels Owned or Leased: Owned