Types of solar panels
Which is right for your solar setup?
There are three main types of solar panels used for home arrays: monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin-film. Each type has different drawbacks and benefits. The panel type you choose for your home depends on your budget, your power needs and how you want your home’s roof to look (as well as which solar company you work with).
- Monocrystalline solar panels are more expensive, but they’re also more efficient than other types.
- Polycrystalline solar panels provide a good mix of affordability and efficiency.
- Thin-film solar panels are the least expensive option, but they’re better for small projects than for whole-home power.
Solar panel materials
As a general rule, solar panel “type” depends on the materials and technologies used in the construction.
Monocrystalline solar panels
Monocrystalline (“mono”) solar panels are made from a single silicon crystal, making them highly efficient. These panels can generate more power per square foot than other panel types. They also work better in high-heat climates or shaded areas.
Because single crystal panels are harder to make, monocrystalline panels are also more expensive. Still, monocrystalline panels are more widely available than other kinds.
Many homeowners also appreciate that monocrystalline panels have a uniform black appearance that’s more aesthetically pleasing than other solar panels.
Polycrystalline solar panels
Polycrystalline (“poly”) solar panels are made from multiple silicon crystals and are slightly less efficient than monocrystalline panels. However, they’re less expensive because they’re easier to make. Overall, these panels balance efficiency and affordability, making them an ideal choice for many homes.
In terms of aesthetics, polycrystalline solar panels have a blue appearance due to their manufacturing process. This may not be the look you're going for, especially if it clashes with your trim color.
Thin-film solar panels are cheaper than mono and poly panels, but they’re typically not efficient enough to power an entire solar energy system.
Thin-film solar panels
Thin-film solar panels (not to be confused with flexible solar panels) are made from layers of photovoltaic material, such as amorphous silicon.
These panels are lightweight and flexible, making them easier to install in various locations. They’re also more affordable than mono and poly panels.
Thin-film panels are significantly less efficient than the other two types, so they require a larger area to generate the same amount of power.
According to Andrew Meyer, co-founder of Swell Energy, an energy tech company, they're typically better for small projects, like powering an outdoor light.
Other solar panel types
You can also choose between two other solar panel styles: PERC and bifacial. These differ in terms of construction rather than material.
PERC solar panels are monocrystalline or polycrystalline panels with an added layer of material on the backside. This layer bounces the unused sunlight back across the array, creating more energy than a typical panel produces.
More energy production means fewer panels, which can be ideal for homeowners with limited space or who want to save money on panels. These panels are a little more expensive, but the need for fewer panels can make up for the higher cost.
Bifacial panels have solar cells on both sides. They’re also mounted at an angle so they take in light on two sides. Bifacial panels are more durable because the placement makes them less prone to damage from hail or heavy loads of snow.
This layout boosts energy production, but there are some downsides. Bifacial panels are more expensive, and you have to pay more for mounts and other special equipment. Plus, because these panels are mounted laterally, they’re more susceptible to high winds. Bifacial panels can also be hard to come by — they’re manufactured by just a few companies.
Solar panel costs
According to Meyer, the co-founder of Swell Energy, the average homebuyer can expect to pay $16,000 for solar panels, but costs for a home solar energy system can range anywhere from $3,500 to $35,000. The cost typically depends on the type of solar panel and brand.
» READ MORE: Cost of solar panels
Monocrystalline panels are the most expensive option because they’re the hardest to manufacture, with an average cost of 75 cents to $1.50 per watt. Polycrystalline panels cost between 70 cents and $1 per watt. Thin-film panels are the most affordable of the three main types of solar panels because they’re made out of thin conductive material that’s easy to manufacture, coming in at an average cost of 30 cents to 70 cents per watt or less.
PERCs are the least expensive of the less common types of solar panels, at 32 cents to 65 cents per watt; bifacial panels cost 85 cents to $1.60 per watt.
In addition to the cost of the panels, homeowners should also consider installation costs (for example, if you choose solar panels or shingles) and other charges. Extra charges may include the cost of labor, permits and any necessary electrical upgrades and may range from $1 to $3 per watt.
|Panel type||Cost per watt (on average)|
|Monocrystalline||$0.75 to $1.50|
|Polycrystalline||$0.70 to $1|
|Thin-film||$0.30 to $0.70|
|PERC||$0.32 to $0.65|
|Bifacial||$0.85 to $1.60|
Solar panel life span
Most solar panels last at least 25 to 30 years, and many companies guarantee them for that time. "They'll most likely still work for longer, but they won't be as efficient. Monocrystalline typically last the longest, but polycrystalline panels are also a good option,” Meyer, the co-founder of Swell Energy, said.
» READ MORE: How long do solar panels last?
When shopping, look for warranties that cover performance and equipment — this way, if your panel starts producing less energy because of a defect, you're covered. Look for warranties that guarantee 90% of the panel's original efficiency after 10 years and 80% efficiency after 25 years or longer. “Make sure you work with a trusted provider who will ensure your panels are high-quality and will last as long as possible," Meyer advised.
Solar panel efficiency
Efficiency is how well a solar panel converts solar energy into power your home can use, usually expressed as a percentage. Most solar panels have an efficiency rating of 15% to 20%, which means 15% to 20% of the light that hits the solar panel is turned into energy your home can use. The higher the percentage, the more power the panel can create.
Bifacial panels usually come in at 19% to 20% efficiency. Monocrystalline panels often have a rating over 20%, and PERCs may offer an efficiency of 25% or more. With polycrystalline panels, you can expect an efficiency around 15% to 17%.
Thin-film panel ratings depend on the conductor used in making the panel. Conductors can range between an efficiency of 6% and 15%.
How many solar panels do I need?
How many solar panels you need depends on how much power your home uses, the panels you buy and how much sun you get per day. Using a solar power calculator can take a lot of the guesswork out of determining how many panels you need.
What type of solar panel is best?
Monocrystalline is often the best solar panel choice for homeowners. These panels are more efficient than polycrystalline or thin-film panels — and, because they’re a more typical choice, they’re easier to find. On the other hand, polycrystalline is more affordable and still provides decent efficiency if you're on a budget.
Can you power a whole house with solar energy?
You can, as long as you get a significant amount of direct sunlight (or peak sunlight hours) on your roof per day. You can find out how many hours of direct sunlight your area gets by looking up “peak hours of daylight in [state]” to get a good idea of how well solar would power your home. Remember, trees around your home can block direct sunlight, making the panels less efficient.
For most homeowners, polycrystalline or monocrystalline panels are the way to go. They're efficient, but most importantly, they’re easy to source. The solar energy company you choose may not offer PERC or bifacial panels — fewer manufacturers produce them, so they can be hard to find. Be sure to consult with reputable companies about your panel options, costs and warranties before signing a contract.
- Article sources
- ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. To learn more about the content on our site, visit our FAQ page. Specific sources for this article include:
- U. S. Department of Energy, "Homeowner’s Guide to Going Solar." Accessed Feb. 18, 2023.
- Center for Sustainable Energy, “How much does a typical residential solar electric system cost?” Accessed Feb. 18, 2023.
- American Solar Energy Society, “Monocrystalline vs Polycrystalline Solar Panels.” Accessed Feb. 18, 2023.
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