🌎⚡️ The best solar panel you can buy.
How to research, buy, and install power from the sun
The best solar panel you can buy.
The best solar panel you can buy is the most efficient, reliable, and affordable panel for your budget, installed by the most reputable solar company in your area.
Putting solar panels on your roof and batteries in your garage will not only make you the coolest kid on the block, but make your home more resilient against losing power and add a beating heart to your whole new electrified home (I think your fuse box is the brain, your heat pump is obviously your lungs, and your EV chargers is…your legs? Sure. Your induction stove could be your, well, let’s see…stomach acid? You know what? Let’s move on).
How do solar panels work, anyways?
Solar or “photovoltaic” (PV, if you know) panels turn sunlight’s photos (“photo”) into electric voltage (“voltaic”).
It’s pretty cool:
Solar panels on your roof convert sunlight into Direct Current (DC) electricity
An “inverter” converts the DC into Alternating Current (AC)
Your home consumes this AC electricity through your electrical panel
Your home is also connected to the electric grid through your electric meter, so (if your state and/or utility allows for it, it’s complicated and evov) you can sell any excess electricity, and continue getting grid power when the sun isn’t shining
Nerds have been strapping PV panels to their roof since the members of Fleetwood Mac were monogamous, but in the last decade alone the combination of better tech and far lower costs means some version of solar is accessible to just about everybody.
As we build out a vastly larger, more connected, and more flexible grid, your home solar and batteries (and EV batteries!) could also become a valuable resource during peak demand, supporting those whose own setup isn’t as durable, and helping the world adapt to and mitigate the climate crisis.
Please enjoy our guide to solar panels, made in partnership with our friends at Rewiring America.
The big question: Are solar panels worth it?
You’re damn skippy they are. Thanks in part to some key 2009-ish legislation, solar is no longer some fanciful luxury purchase.
Great. How do I buy some?
Easy, tiger. First, let’s find out if your roof’s ready for solar.
Since solar panels can last 25+ years, you should definitely find out if your roof is going to need replacing soon, so you won’t have to remove the panels.
In fact, many solar installers won’t even work on an older roof. There are some roofers, however, that also install solar, so there are potential cost savings to do them both at the same time.
Solar PV panels can also increase the life of a roof. Since the lifespan of solar is a bit unknown but already surpassing expectations, consider getting a longer life roof to avoid uninstall/reinstall costs.
Once you’re feeling good about your roof, it’s time to go shopping. First, let’s understand the components we’re dealing with.
Buying solar panels is a little bit like buying a car, in that there’s a plethora of options in price and performance. The best solar panels can turn over 22% of incoming sunlight into electricity.
Energy Sage has a helpful Buyer’s Guide here that lets you sort solar panels by efficiency, search by brand, and download spec sheets. You can also compare updated lists of the best solar panels:
To give you a sense of scale, the average residential PV panel is a little over 5 feet long and 3 feet wide and weighs about 40 pounds. So, more than a bread box.
Using a mid-range power output of 290W per panel, it’ll require 17 panels to output around 5,000W.
The number of panels you install will depend on your energy usage, the space available on your property, and your budget. Your selected installer will help you decide the best location for your installation, but we’ve got some tools below to give you a rough idea of what you’re working with.
Your utility charges you based on the number of kWh you use. A 5 kW system in sunny Las Vegas, NV could produce almost 8,000 kWh of energy in a year, while it would be closer to 5,000 kWh a year in rainy Seattle, WA. The average U.S. household uses 10,649 kWh a year.
How do you finance a PV system?
There are three main ways to finance rooftop solar.
For the first two options where you don’t own the panels, you should clarify with the installer:
The maintenance and service responsibilities (including who’s responsible for the inverter)
Whether the payments increase over time
And what your options are if you sell your home before the agreement is over
Financing options to consider:
Solar lease: A solar developer installs and she — not you — owns the PV on your roof, so you don’t have to pay the upfront installation cost.
Instead, you pay a monthly payment, which ideally replaces your monthly electric bill (unless you need more power than the panels provide and buy it from the grid).
Power Purchase Agreement (PPA): Here too a solar developer installs and owns the PV on your roof (not you).
Instead of a monthly lease payment, you pay your installer for the electricity you use at a fixed rate, which should be lower than from your utility. Ask the installer to calculate projected rates and savings, and consider whether your utility’s rates will increase in the future.
Buy with a Loan: In this case, you do own the PV on your roof, and the loan for the upfront purchase and installation cost is paid back like any other loan.
A “home equity loan” would be one where your home is used as collateral, while an “unsecured loan” might have only the solar equipment itself as the collateral.
You could consider taking out two loans, as suggested by Clean Energy Credit Union:
A bridge loan with a 12-18 month term, to cover the time until you get your 30% federal tax credit back
A second loan with a 12-20 year term, to cover the operational life of the solar panels themselves. Your monthly loan payment plus your remaining utility bill could be less than what you previously paid for electricity
TLDR; we’re not going to recommend specific solar panels here.
Well, most installers work with specific brands of solar panels and inverters, so you should absolutely know what you’re talking about, but also understand what you can control, and what you can’t.
Recommending a solar installer is ALSO complicated goal, especially considering availability is different in every state, and the IRA’s complicated rules for “Made in America”, among others.
If it isn’t evident by the volume of detail in this article, you’ve got some research to do. But we’ve done plenty research and after cross-referencing, well, everything, you’ll enjoy a good experience with most of the following installers:
Solar Panel Options for Renters
Obviously if you don’t own your roof, putting solar up there is a bit more difficult. We feel you.
Here’s what you can do:
Check with your utility to see if they have a 100% renewable plan you can switch to, something like Solar Choice or Renewable Choice
If you aren’t directly responsible for your utilities, ask your landlord, or bring it up at your next HOA meeting (and bring snacks)
Enroll in a local Community Solar project where you can subscribe to solar panels that feed their power to the grid, earning credits to offset your utility bill. What’s one more subscription?
Are solar panels a good investment?
For sure. Here’s a few reasons why:
Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SREC’s)
Reduced electricity bills
Increased property values
Let’s dive into the first two.
Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SREC’s)
When your trusty new solar cells generate electricity, they also generate a financial instrument called a “Solar Renewable Energy Credit”, which can be sold like a stock on the stock market.
Utility companies buy SRECs to try to meet those delightful new state-mandated clean energy standards (called “renewable portfolio standards”), and corporations also buy them to offset their carbon footprint.
Some states let you sell the SRECs from your rooftop solar. If you’re buying Solar PV outright, ask your installer who gets the SRECs.
If it’s you, consider not selling them (aka “retiring” them) to force polluters to purchase and install more solar.
If you’re getting a lease or power purchase agreement (PPA), make sure you know who controls the SRECs. Typically in lease deals, the solar company will sell the system’s SRECs for income as part of their financing model.
Solar United Neighbors put together a helpful guide on SRECs here.
“How does net metering even work”, you might ask?
Well, if your PV system generates more electricity than you can use, many states let you sell that power back to your utility and receive credit on your electric bill. Cool!
It’s called “net metering” (or “feed-in tariff”) and it varies wiiiiiiidely by state. Check with your solar installer about the net metering rules for your location, and how it affects the size of your PV system.
Big Questions To Ask
Can you even imagine this guy trying to install his own solar panels?
How long do solar panels last?
Solar panels typically have a production warranty of 20-25 years, which means they’ll produce the rated power for that long (though they might perform even longer for our new AI overlords). Panels also have a separate “workmanship” or product warranty that can range from 10-25 years and covers defects.
You’ll want to do your homework though and check whether warranties are from the manufacturer or system installer. System installers often provide installation warranties covering their work that can vary widely in length.
Inverters have a separate warranty and can range from 5-25 years.
How many solar panels do I need?
I don’t know, I don’t even know where you live, Jason! Yeesh.
To understand how much power your rooftop could generate, you’ll want to check out some very cool tools. Here are some we recommend:
Google’s Project Sunroof - This is a great tool but ALSO I am annoyed because it’s a really great name and I wish I’d come up with it?
Sun Number - This tool gives you a “score” to see how well-suited your address is, along with an estimated system size and the annual value of the electricity that would be generated
EnergySage’s calculator - This calculator gives you some estimates on costs and return on investment, based on your current electricity use (though you should consider if your use will increase if you #electrifyeverything!)
PVWatts calculator - This handy tool provides a more detailed analysis of potential rooftop systems — including being able to draw the area where it could go on your roof. Fun! It can be useful for evaluating designs from contractors.
How to install solar panels on a roof?
The good news is you don’t need to know the answer to this question, either, because a certified professional is going to install it, RIGHT TODD?
OK. Fine, then how will a “certified professional” that is definitely-not-me install my solar panels?
They’ll mount them. Traditionally, on your roof, with racking that is mounted to the roof through water-tight flashings, but also maybe on your garage or on the ground.
In Rewiring America’s Electrify Everything In Your Home guide, we list several questions (starting on page 76) that you’ll want to ask your solar installer about their mounting plans that can be helpful to ensure it’s installed correctly.
How do I pick a solar inverter?
Inverters take the DC output from solar panels and convert it to the AC power your home uses to charge your kids iPads so you can get literally one single chore done, once. They (inverters, not your children) are an important part of the system, and three main options are available:
String inverter (aka “central inverter”): This is a standalone box that’s usually installed at ground level and connects to a “string” of solar panels wired together.
If one panel gets shaded they all reduce their output, and if one panel fails, all panels stop producing power. It is the least expensive option, with a 5-12 year standard warranty that can sometimes be extended to 20 years for a fee.
Microinverters: Smaller inverters built into each individual solar PV panel. This means the panels are independent, which can be good for later expansion. But there are more things that can fail, and finding and replacing a broken one on the roof can be challenging.
This option is more expensive up front, but can be more efficient than a central inverter and have warranties of 25-30 years — similar to the PV panels themselves.
Power optimizers (aka module optimizers): These are similar to microinverters in that there is one on each panel, but they “condition” the DC on its way to a central inverter. Their performance and cost is between microinverters and central inverters, with 25-year warranties.
Clean Energy Reviews also provides a helpful guide for solar inverters to check out. I like to browse it like a 1995 Crutchfield catalogue, imagining the day when I can finally afford car speakers that’ll get me the girl.
One day. One day.
Do solar panels work on cloudy days?
They do! A bit. It depends. On a cloudy day, a solar panel can produce 10-25% of its typical capacity, which is less than 100%, but isn’t nothing! Obviously YMMV here depending on your panels and your definition of “cloudy day”.
How do I maintain my solar panels?
I assume you mean clean them, like how you routinely clean your gutters.
Solar PV panels need very little maintenance, but like any investment, they should be inspected periodically. Check if your solar installer performs periodic inspections to look for any loose fittings or potential roof leaks, and to do periodic cleaning.
How frequently you do need to clean your panels depends on your local conditions and how the panels are mounted — it could range from a few times a year to yearly or longer. Check with your installer on what they recommend and then go clean your gutters.
What does IRA mean for solar?
While the cost of solar PV panels has dropped a lot in recent years, it’s still an expensive purchase that can run over $10,000 — comparable to a new car.
But since you’re locking in free electricity for the 20+ year life of the panels, and also increasing the resale value of your home, think of solar as more like an investment than as a home appliance. Rooftop solar can even generate cash by selling your excess power back to the grid because it’s the FUTURE.
And there’s more good news.
With the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) installing rooftop solar and home storage is now more affordable. The IRA provides incentives to help reduce both the cost of rooftop solar and home batteries.
The new 25D Clean Energy Tax Credit is an uncapped 30% tax credit for residential renewable energy installations, including:
Geothermal heat pumps (god I really want one of these)
And some community solar ownership models
Want to cut to the chase and see what you qualify for, right now? Check out Rewiring America’s trusty IRA Calculator.
For more home electrification support, check out our other guides:
Got questions? Shoot us an email at [email protected].