10 Types of Solar Panels & Systems for the Home

Learn the 10 different types of solar panels and solar systems you can use for your home, plus how to calculate whether it's worth investing in solar energy. This is your ultimate guide to solar energy for the home.
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Close up photo of solar panels

When you think about it, all forms of energy are essentially solar systems.  Coal is a result of plant matter.  Oil ultimately comes from algae.  Natural gas comes from both.  In fact, plants and algae are the foundation of the food chain and are a result in part of solar energy via photosynthesis.  For more details on this, see our extensive parts of a flower illustration and article.

But, we want to get away from fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas because of their by-products.  At least some of us do.  I now bike to work most days and our likely next round of vehicles will be electric.  In fact, if most people biked to work (very easy now with electric bikes which is what I use), drove electric cars and invested in a solar system for household energy (where viable), the amount of greenhouse gasses worldwide would plummet.  Of course, we need to get corporations in line as well, but every little bit helps.

A. Greenhouse gas emission sources in the U.S. (chart)

Chart setting out the causes of greenhouse gases in the U.S. by percentage

Source: EPA

As you can see, both households and transportation contribute a combined 38% to the greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere.

A viable solution for reducing household greenhouse gases is implementing a solar system that will produce cleaner electricity for the home (to power e-bikes and electric cars).

The only problem is that picking the right solar system is not as simple as it may seem. There are many moving parts you need to get right, including the choice of equipment, securing the finances, hiring installers. Still, do not fret because we got your covered. Here is how to navigate your options and a minefield of decisions.

B. Off Grid vs. Grid-Connected Solar Systems

There are two main types of solar systems for your home.

  • stand-alone, off-grid and
  • grid-connected.

1. Off-grid

Cord plug for drawing electricity

The first one is not attached to the conventional power framework and it operates on batteries. Thanks to this particular element, the system can balance excess production and demand. Usually, there is also a generator that shields against shortfalls in the wake of battery failure. Generally, this kind of system is used in remote locations, where extending a power line is a financial and logistical hassle.

2. Grid-connected

Power line tower

Secondly, the grid-connected solar system contains solar panels and the inverter. The former component harnesses solar energy, while the latter converts it into a form you can use for the household (alternating current electricity). There are also setups that involve extra features, such as monitors for keeping close tabs on consumption. Likewise, solutions like Tesla Powerwall battery are announced and soon more and more people will integrate batteries into their grid-connected systems.

Of course, one can go an extra mile and include a handful of other features right from the get-go. Namely, there are many types of eco-friendly homes that push the boundaries of what is possible to achieve with ingenious design and vision. Some of the most striking examples are prefabricated homes built off-site and zero carbon houses that minimize the environmental footprint. Provided that you can afford it, such an investment is associated with a wealth of benefits.

C. 4 main types of solar systems for your home

Once you decide solar energy is right for you, you need to consider which types of solar systems you’ll implement.  There are 4 main types.  They are as follows:

1. Solar collectors (aka solar panels):

These are the most well known – the solar panels placed on roofs to collect and store the sun’s rays.

2. Solar hot water

Yes, there are solar systems that harness the sun’s energy to heat water.  It takes a tremendous amount of energy to heat water so using a lower carbon footprint source such as solar energy is a good consideration.  There are 2 types of solar hot water systems:

a. Active:  Absorbs heat and transfers it directly to the water source in your house.  This is the better system, but it’s more costly.  It’s better for areas that don’t get much sun during various times of the year.

b. Passive:  funnels solar energy to the water source.  Uses regular plumbing systems to move water from the solar collectors to faucets.  It’s a simpler system but less efficient.

Solar hot water systems require a solar collector and water storage tank.  The collector absorbs solar energy and heats the water in the tank.

3. Solar space heating

The basic concept behind heating your home with solar power is the same concept that keeps greenhouses warm.  Of course, the implementation is more involved, but the concept is the same.  Again, there are two options.

Chief Executive Officer, Visionscape Sanitation Solution, John Irvine, in this interview with Yetunde Oladeinde, speak on the organization’s mandate vis-à-vis the Lagos waste challenge, the experience in the last 18 months, achievements and the plan to develop a sustainable waste management system in the state. – Read More

a. Passive:  This is a simple version which uses south-facing windows and insulation to collect and hold heat for the home.  It then releases the heat as needed.  The problem with this option is your home could overheat.

b. Active:  Active solar heating involves collectors that collect, hold and distribute heat.  There are two active systems:

  1. Liquid systems: Pumps and valves transfer heated water to radiators, floorboards and walls.  It may be water or some other form of liquid such as non-toxic coolants.
  2. Air systems: With this system, an air collector is used to heat pressurized air that’s distributed throughout your house.

Solar space heating works best with plenty of large windows and very good insulation.

4. Photovoltaics (PV)

Photovoltaics, aka solar cells, are very good but also very expensive.

With photovoltaics, the cells convert the sun’s energy into electricity with a silicon semiconductor.  That electricity can be used as your home’s electricity source.

But it doesn’t end here.  Get this, there are several different types of solar panels to consider.

D. Types of Solar Panels

Chart setting out the different types of solar panels and cells for your home solar system

Chart setting out the different types of solar panels and cells for your home solar system. Source: GreenMatch

E. Will investing in solar energy pay off for you?  4 criteria to consider

For example, I live in a place where we don’t get all that much peak sun hours compared to places like Arizona.  I live in Vancouver, BC which is very rainy and cloudy all year. But amount of sun is only one part of the equation.  Here are the 5 criteria to consider when deciding whether to invest in solar energy.

4 criteria to consider:

How much peak sun do you get:  You need sufficient sun to generate solar energy.  One way to find out is to check out the Google Project Sunroof page which calculates your peak sun hours and whether it’s worth investing in a solar system.  Don’t assume that if you live in California that it’s a sure thing.  If your home is under shade much of the day, that can impact how much solar energy your system can collect.

How much energy do you use:  You must find out how much energy you use (Kilowatt hours) to decide whether a solar system can provide you enough power as well as to determine how many panels you’ll need to collect sufficient energy.  FYI, in 2016 the average household in the USA used 10,766 Kilowatt hours (kWh) which is 897 kWh per month.

Incentives:  What are the government incentives such as tax rebates etc. available in your jurisdiction if you invest in solar energy. Note, this only makes sense to consider if cost is your primary motive for switching to solar energy.  It may well be a stronger driving factor is wanting to reduce your carbon footprint and you’re willing to pay for it.

Regulations:  Before plowing thousands of dollars into solar panels or other solar collection systems, it’s worth looking into whether there are any restrictions to these systems in your area.

F. Numbers game

Piggy bank used as a metaphor for saving money from investing in a solar system

Speaking of investing, it is crucial to understand the basic math behind solar system implementation. Namely, the financial avail you can count on is not immediate. Yet, investing only $15k can lead to returns of $115k in a 20-year timespan. You could say that solar it is actually a low-risk combo of energy cost savings and additional income (you can sell the surplus of juice to the grid). Let us also not forget that you have a chance to escape grid dependency and inherent volatility of energy prices.

Furthermore, when it comes to financing in general, we have to realize that the climate is becoming more and more favorable for homeowners and businesses. In Australia, for instance, the government provides solar rebates and credits through the Renewable Energy Target (RET) scheme. The aim is to increase the share of solar energy in the nation’s electricity pool with small-scale and larger, commercial-grade systems.

In the US, the government approved the federal spending bill and a more robust solar panel tax credit. The mechanism, also known as investment tax credit (ITC), was first established by an Energy Policy Act of 2005. With recent policy updates, it rendered solar systems even more affordable by trimming the costs of installation (30% is deducted from federal taxes). The savings for homeowners and solar companies are substantial— they go as high as $5,000.

G. Pieces of the green puzzle

Photo of solar panels on a roof

Once you are in the know in terms of benefits, grasp a multitude of key factors that should guide your ultimate decision. Just to name a few, these are the size of the roof, weather conditions in the area, available sunlight, system size, and local permits. It is also necessary to take into account solar panel efficiency, comparing it to the industry average of 16-18%.

I would advise you to first inspect the site and determine whether a system would produce enough energy to cover or supplement your energy goals. Naturally, in this stage, you have to evaluate your energy consumption, family size, and lifestyle needs. Take a look at your previous bills and review how many kWh you consume on an average day.

The figures vary from town to town and country to country. An average family in Australia consumes between 12kWh and 18kWh, meaning that an efficient 5kW solar system is an optimal solution that offsets electricity usage. What is more, it pays for itself after a few years, thanks to impressive production capacity. In addition, a 5kW system is a minimum size in case you want to add batteries.

H. For good measure

Photograph of solar panels on the roof of a suburban home

Now is the time to throw additional variables into the mix. After all, the amount of electricity that a panel produces is dependent on its efficiency, temperature coefficient, power tolerance, and power rating. Having unobstructed, direct sunlight for the better part of the day is paramount. Geographical location and tilt of the roof also play a role— they affect the Photovoltaic system’s performance.

Here, you ought to measure twice and cut once: see how many solar panels you can fit at all. For example, a solar panel that has a 1.5kW rating occupies 12 square meters. The tricky part is that there are so many different roof designs that come with their pros and cons. And if you encounter space or other practical limitations, you can decide to forgo the roof option altogether and place panels on the specialized mounts on the ground.

Once that is sorted out, establish what type of inverter best matches your consumption patterns.

String inverters are a more affordable option. The way they work is that all panels direct energy to a single inverter. Provided that there are optimal conditions for production, this is a sound choice for your system. On the other hand, module-level power electronics (MLPEs) are more expensive and also more efficient. Each panel is connected to its own inverter and that yields better results when the site conditions are less than ideal.

I. Final considerations

The cost of solar technology is dropping across the globe, but you should still factor in your budget.

Depending on manufacturer quality, durability, and production level, panels fall into three basic categories: economy, standard, and premium. Here, you need to look beyond what you pay upfront and think about the benefits that kick in down the road. Run the numbers and calculate the exact ROI. If it ends up being 15-20% or more, it is probably worth using equity from the mortgage.

The rule of thumb is: you get what you pay for. So, beware of cheaper systems that do nothing more than reduce initial expenditures a bit. Seek trusted brands that boast top-notch quality. Also, you might want to check out eco-friendly smart home products that take your green efforts to the whole new level.There is just one final step to make— choosing your installers. It is a good idea to take your time and do proper research. Pay close attention to certification, track record, workmanship warranties, and licenses. Try to find reviews and testimonies from other customers and ask around for referrals. See if it makes more sense to go for large national providers or small local companies. At last, feel free to ask any questions you may have before the installation commences.

Get as much energy as you can for your money

To come on top and steer clear of common pitfalls, you need to cover all your bases. Shop around for best deals and weigh all key factors that affect ROI before taking the plunge. Ponder your long-term needs, budget, geographical realities, and site conditions. Take advantage of available financial incentives.

Focus on what you stand to gain over a long haul. Solutions like reasonably-priced solar systems are a great choice for most homeowners, an investment that pays dividends. They ensure maximum efficiency and allow you to gain achieve energy independence.

So, it is time to tap into renewable sources of energy and build a pristine green way of living. Do something good for the environment and your budget— it is a clear win-win.