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A solar system can provide electricity for over two decades, saving homeowners thousands of dollars in power bills over time. Getting familiarized with the main types of solar panels is a useful first step when deciding on a solar panel system. This way, you can pick the best option for your home or business.
No matter which type of solar panel you choose for your project, make sure it’s a high-quality product with a solid manufacturer warranty. Getting a professional installation is also critical, since even the best solar panels can malfunction when wired incorrectly. Poor workmanship can also create a fire risk, and the warranty will be voided if solar panels are not used as indicated by the manufacturer. Check out some of the best solar companies that we recommend.
If you’re ready to get a quote for a home solar installation, you can use this tool or fill out the free form below to get connected to a certified professional in your area.
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3 Main Types of Solar Panels
You will find that solar panels come in many sizes, ranging from large commercial modules that are nearly 7 feet tall to compact and portable panels that fit in your pocket. However, the vast majority can be classified into three main types: monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin-film. Each uses materials that produce electric power when they receive sunlight, but the specific materials used in the panels are different.
Like in any design decision, each type of solar panel has pros and cons, which are summarized below:
Type of Solar Panel
+ Highest efficiency, which means more kilowatt-hours per square foot covered
+ Long lifespan (25 years or more)
– Most expensive type of solar panel
+ Balanced cost and efficiency: intermediate between monocrystalline and thin-film solar panels
+ Long lifespan (25 years or more)
– Lower efficiency than mono panels
– High temperatures can lower their productivity and durability
+ High temperatures only have a small impact on their productivity
+ Lower weight than mono and poly solar panels
+ Lowest cost per panel
+ There are flexible and adhesive thin-film panels available
– Lowest efficiency, which means fewer kilowatt-hours per square foot covered
– Generally less durable than mono and poly solar panels
Polycrystalline and monocrystalline panels both use solar cells made of silicon crystals, but with a different physical structure. On the other hand, thin-film solar panels use non-crystalline silicon or other photovoltaic materials.
Monocrystalline Solar Panels
Monocrystalline solar panels have the highest efficiency ratings in the industry. These solar panels can normally convert over 20% of sunlight into electricity, and the most efficient panels now exceed 22% efficiency. Mono panels are an excellent choice when you have limited roof space, since they will generate more electricity per square foot.
Mono solar panels are also characterized by their black photovoltaic cells, and many homeowners prefer this appearance over the lighter blue tone of poly solar panels. The main downside of these panels is their high cost, but in return, they give you more electricity per panel you purchase.
Polycrystalline Solar Panels
Polycrystalline solar panels have a lower efficiency than monocrystalline silicon panels — typically below 17% — but they are also more affordable. High efficiency really only becomes critical when your roof has limited space for solar panels and you need to make the most of the available area. When space is not a limitation, you can simply install a few additional polycrystalline panels to compensate for their lower efficiency.
Contrary to popular belief, lower efficiency does not mean lower quality when comparing solar panels. In the case of polycrystalline panels, this is just a consequence of their material property: They have multiple silicon crystals per cell, as opposed to a single crystal that carries electrons more efficiently. You can find high-quality solar panels of both types, mono and poly, with solid warranties from their manufacturers.
Thin-Film Solar Panels
Thin-film solar panels are not divided into cells like polycrystalline and monocrystalline modules. Instead, their entire surface has layers of photovoltaic material. Since these panels use material layers instead of rigid cells, they can be manufactured to be flexible and lightweight. There are also adhesive thin-film panels, which can be used on windows and other vertical surfaces. These panels are also popular for RV solar energy systems.
However, thin-film panels generally have a lower efficiency than the other two types, which means you need to cover a larger area to produce as much power as mono and poly panels. For this reason, thin-film panels are more suitable for large commercial and industrial rooftops, or ground-mounted solar farms. They are not normally recommended for homes, since they need too much space to be productive.
Key Differences: Design, Cost & Efficiency
When comparing solar panels, the purchase decision is often based on appearance, cost and efficiency. While all types of solar panels perform the same function, there are important differences between them in these three areas:
How Different Types of Solar Panels Look
The appearance of solar panels can be described based on their color and number of cells.
- Monocrystalline solar panels have black cells with cropped corners, and most panels have 60 or 72 silicon solar cells. The latest designs use 120 or 144 half-cells that boost efficiency, but panel dimensions are roughly the same.
- Polycrystalline solar panels have blue cells with sharp corners. Like mono panels, they are normally available with 60 or 72 cells (or 120 or 144 half-cells in newer models).
- Thin-film solar panels have a uniform surface with layers of photovoltaic material, instead of separate solar cells. Their color depends on the material composition, and you can find black, blue or even gray thin-film panels.
Cost of Each Solar Panel Type
The specific price of a home solar system will depend on the panel brand and model, as well as local labor costs. Also keep in mind that your total installed cost of solar will include components like the inverter, racking, wiring and circuit breakers. However, the cost of solar panels themselves can be ranked as follows:
- Monocrystalline: Highest price
- Polycrystalline: Intermediate price
- Thin-film: Lowest price
This is the general pricing trend you can expect, but there may be exceptions.
Efficiency and Power Ratings
The efficiency and power output of solar panels is closely related, since a higher efficiency means more watts with the available sunshine. However, you also need to consider the dimensions of solar panels, since a larger product has more area to collect sunlight.
Assuming you compare solar panels of similar sizes, you can expect the following ranking when it comes to efficiency and wattage:
- Monocrystalline: Top efficiency, typically over 19%
- Polycrystalline: Medium efficiency, typically 15-17%
- Thin-film: Lowest efficiency, typically below 15%
Solar manufacturers are constantly investing in research, and all three types of solar panels have been improving over time thanks to new technology. There are now thin-film panels that can match the efficiency of mono and poly panels in laboratory conditions. However, they are not widely available as commercial products yet.
What Are The Different Types of Solar Panels Made Of?
The appearance and efficiency rating of solar panels depends on their material composition. While having high efficiency is favorable, this metric is overestimated in some cases. There are high-quality solar panels of all three types, and you can get excellent results with polycrystalline and thin-film panels when space is abundant.
As mentioned above, polycrystalline and monocrystalline panels are both made of crystalline silicon wafers. However, the microscopic structure of those crystals is different in each type of panel:
- Monocrystalline solar cells are made from PV cells that are cut from a single crystal of pure silicon (hence the prefix “mono”). This is an advanced manufacturing process, which is a key reason why mono solar panels have higher prices.
- Polycrystalline solar cells are made from multiple crystalline silicon fragments that are melted together during the manufacturing process, and they are also called multicrystalline for this reason. Their manufacturing process is simpler, since there is no need to carefully grow a single crystal of silicon. This leads to a lower cost, but also a lower efficiency.
- Thin-film solar panels don’t use silicon crystal cells. Instead, they use thin layers of photovoltaic material. The most common chemical compositions are copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS), cadmium telluride (CdTe) and amorphous silicon (a-Si).
Choosing the Right Panel for Your Solar Installation
Monocrystalline solar panels are often considered the “best” due to their superior efficiency, but any of the three types of solar panels can achieve great performance when used in the right applications. Efficiency is only one of several performance metrics, and there are cases where polycrystalline panels offer a better return per dollar invested. Thin-film panels may not have the best efficiency, but their low weight and reduced thickness make them viable in applications where the other types are impractical.
If you’re a homeowner who wants to maximize electricity production with limited roof space, monocrystalline panels are the recommended option. The same applies if you have plenty of space but want your solar panel system to be as compact as possible. Finally, mono panels are recommended if you prefer the black color of their solar cells.
When space is not a limitation for your home solar system, you can also consider polycrystalline solar panels. They are also recommended when you want to keep the budget as low as possible: Assuming equally sized systems with the same number of panels, the total cost will be less with polycrystalline options.
Thin-film solar panels are not generally recommended for residential roofs. Since their efficiency is low, you need to cover a much larger area with more panels to achieve a significant output. However, thin-film panels are excellent for recreational vehicles and camping, as they are lighter and more portable. You can also find thin-film solar panels with flexible or adhesive designs, which can be used in surfaces that are not suitable for the other two types.
So, which type of solar panel is best for your home? To find out for sure, you’ll need to talk to a solar installer near you. Most of the best solar companies offer free consultations that can tell homeowners what type of panels they should buy and how much they will cost.
To get started, you can use this tool or fill out the form below and get connected to a pre-screened solar installer in your area.
All EcoWatch solar companies are pre-vetted for your convenience.
Leonardo David is an electromechanical engineer, MBA, energy consultant and technical writer. His energy-efficiency and solar consulting experience covers sectors including banking, textile manufacturing, plastics processing, pharmaceutics, education, food processing, fast food, real estate and retail. He has also been writing articles about energy and engineering topics since 2015.
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