The Best Solar Panels
Whether you’ve got carbon footprints on your mind or are looking to slice your energy bill— installing a solar energy system is easier than it's ever been. The most straightforward way to get solar energy is through an installer. They will evaluate your home’s solar potential and set you up with a personalized system. We vetted some of the biggest names servicing the most solar-friendly states for their panel quality, installation options, and customer service.
Manufactures the most efficient panels on the market and provides great customer service and expertise through a network of local installers.
- October 13, 2017 - We’ve completely overhauled this review to present the pathway to solar through installers rather than directly reviewing the panels themselves.
The Best Solar Panels
In our original review in March 2016, we looked at mechanics and specs in order to find the best solar panel money could buy. We discovered the problem with this approach is that you usually can’t buy these panels direct from the manufacturer and have any contractor, or yourself, install them. And even if you do get your hands on your own solar panels, using an unauthorized installer typically voids the warranty of the panels (and possibly your roof’s warranty, too). The most straightforward path to solar panels is actually through an installer. They handle evaluating your home and solar potential, manufacturing/purchasing the panels, installing and monitoring them, and offer their own warranties.
In a landscape where utility companies are rallying against solar and countless companies are filing for insolvency, you want the reliability and security of a national company that’s in it for the long haul. The problem with the big players? They often fall down on customer service and support for maintenance and repairs. Local installers are generally much stronger in these areas with reliable customer service and faster responses for panel monitoring and repairs. Plus, they tend to offer the same equipment and services as larger companies at lower costs. But a local installer only services a certain community, and therefore we can’t recommend it for everyone.
Our top pick, SunPower, captures the best of both worlds. It provides the financial stability of a national company that’s been around for over 30 years and manufactures the most efficient panels on the market. It also outsources all its installations to authorized local dealers. Installers in SunPower’s dealer network undergo different levels of rigorous quality and service evaluations (their Master Dealers are certified by invitation only). As a result, SunPower’s customer reviews are exceptional as people reap the rewards of big business production and small business service — it’s easily our favorite.
How We Found the Best Solar Panels
Installing solar panels is a big decision with a lot of factors. It’s a huge financial investment that requires modifying your home and may not pay off for a decade or two. We sought out companies that could help make the process as painless as possible. Rather than focusing on the specifics of individual panel mechanics, we wanted companies we could trust to get the best panel for us. Solar installers will handle everything from evaluating your home’s solar potential and coordinating your local incentives, to installing the panels and monitoring their efficiency.
We compiled the 13 most highly-regarded nationwide residential installers from online solar marketplace EnergySage, online magazine SolarPowerWorld’s Top 500, and SolarReviews.com (basically Yelp for solar installers.) We didn’t review smaller local installers, but you can easily check what’s available in your area with EnergySage, a solar resource funded by the Department of Energy.
We focused on companies that service states where solar matters most.
While solar might be an appealing option to make your home more eco-friendly, depending on where you live, it may not actually yield financial savings. Initially, we thought this would just be a matter of sun-soaked states reaping all the rewards, but we were surprised to learn that sunshine isn’t the be-all and end-all of solar. Different states provide different tax credits, electricity costs, performance rates, and rates of return, all of which greatly affect the financial viability of going solar. Solar Power Rocks ranks each state’s “solar-friendliness” according to these factors and more. There are 16 “top solar states” that rank A and B for their solar-friendliness.
Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Oregon, New York, Maryland, Connecticut, Vermont, Washington D.C., New Hampshire, Minnesota, Colorado, Delaware, New Mexico, Hawaii, California.
Massachusetts currently holds the number one spot for its quick payback time (an estimated 4 years), tax-free solar sales, solar rebates and tax credits, and existing electricity prices. Simply put, the state's policies are as good as you could expect— making it the easiest state to get solar and the quickest to pay off that big investment. By comparison, Mississippi falls at the very bottom of the list as the worst state to switch to solar energy in. They have no solar rebates, tax credits, or incentives, and because their energy is already very cheap, you’re unlikely to save a significant amount of money.
It’s true that solar panels won’t be producing at capacity when they aren’t receiving direct sunlight. However, a cloudy season doesn’t totally eliminate the value of solar energy. The annual output of your solar panels can still be enough to keep you off the grid if you equip your system with a solar battery to store up during the sunny summers. Standard grade solar panels actually operate more efficiently in slightly cooler temperatures, as they produce about 1 percent less electricity for every 4°F temperature increase above 77°F.
So rather than just focusing on companies that service the most states, we looked at solar installers that service at least 10 of the top 16 solar panel states.
We looked for companies offering high-efficiency panels.
Residential solar panels, though all silicon-based, come in three types with varying efficiencies: monocrystalline (most efficient), polycrystalline, and thin film panels (least efficient). The number of panels you’ll need will depend on your roof and energy needs, as well as the panel you select — typically, you’re looking at around 30 panels. The more efficient your panel, the fewer you’ll need.
Each solar company either produces their own panels, like SunPower, or partners with solar panel manufacturers like Solarworld, Panasonic, or LG. We looked at how effective the conversion of solar radiation into electricity is for each panel manufacturer. The most efficient panels on the market are just above 20%. This percentage refers to how much of the sunlight’s energy that hits the panels can actually be converted into electricity.
Why are panels so ‘inefficient’? Basically, physics. It’s impossible to harvest 100% of the sun’s light with photovoltaics. The percentage we can convert now, coupled with the number of panels typically on a roof, is more than enough for powering an average household.
The percentage of efficiency doesn’t affect the amount of energy you’ll be creating—that’s wattage. When you purchase your panels, you’ll choose panels with a set wattage of power they’ll generate. The difference is in the size of the panel it takes to harness that energy. For example, if both a small and large panel both output 320 watts, they’re outputting the same amount of energy but the smaller panel is doing it at a better rate (higher efficiency). Panels with 20% efficiency mean fewer panels and less required roof space than 15% efficiency panels because you can get the same energy from fewer materials. More efficient panels also mean easier installation: fewer wiring connections, trenches to dig, and racks to install. We valued panels with higher efficiency because they would lower those soft costs and leave a smaller imprint.
Efficiency and quality go hand-in-hand. The most efficient panels are also the highest quality, so while it can be tempting to go with cheaper lower-end panels, with less than 15% efficiency, you’ll be risking durability. Cheaper panels tend to have shorter warranties, perform poorly in high temperatures, and will lose efficiency at a faster rate over time. All solar panels will lose some percentage of efficiency over time, but near the end of their 25 year life time will usually still be functioning at about 80-90% of their original efficiency.
We also looked at panel weather resiliency and product warranties. The best panels can hold up under wind, snow, hail, and fire. Most promise to withstand wind and snow, but some, like SolarWorld’s panels, can’t handle any extreme weather. The standard product warranty is ten years, but this seems disappointingly short given the typical life of a solar panel is 25 years. The best warranties should guarantee their panels’ durability and efficacy for the duration of their lifetime. While those factors weren’t deal breakers, weather resiliency and generous warranties were often features of higher-rated panels that would likely need fewer repairs.
Great customer service was vital.
The truth is, solar isn’t perfect, and chances are you’re going to need some help along the way, or down the road, with your panels. Interaction with your solar company can include quotes, purchase, installation, billing (if you’re leasing), warranties, and unanticipated repairs. While a big company generates benefits in certain areas, like panel innovation and financial security, the big guns in solar suffer issues typical of large service providers -- namely, poor customer service and slow assistance when you need it most. Big solar companies tend to suffer from delays in service and miscommunications as things trickle through corporate phone trees to limited service representatives. But whether it’s just during initial setup, on a monthly basis for billing, or in the aftermath of that big storm, it’s important to trust that the company you're giving major money to will be able (and willing) to assist you in a jam. We wanted companies with amazing customer service to guide you through solar from evaluation and setup through to maintenance and repairs.
We started by scouring user reviews and complaints on Better Business Bureau (BBB), SolarReviews.com, and EnergySage. Most companies received an average of 200 mixed reviews, but some, like SolarCity, peaked with over 600 complaints on BBB — which told us customers were especially passionate about their (mostly negative) experiences. We found patterns as we scoured through every review on these sites, and found common complaints and praises that gave us insight into how each company treats their customers and handles issues. Some complaints were taken with a grain of salt, though, such as app monitoring issues due to user error and comments that reflected frustrations inherent with financial fine prints and leases.
Sunnova, for example, received a large numbers of complaints that spoke about their monitoring system failing. Basically, the panels weren’t working for months and neither the company nor the customer knew. On the plus side, many reviews claimed their customer service was informative and professional. SolarCity, on the other hand, was praised for their monitoring system and advanced app, but tanked when it came to false sales bids and misleading estimates.
Our top pick combines the best of both worlds, with big name reliability and a local connection for great customer service.
We didn’t factor in price.
The fact is that the price of panels doesn’t vary much from company to company. The bulk of the cost of your solar array (upwards of 70 percent!) is from associated soft costs, such as installation and hardware. This cost is affected by a number of factors regarding your roof, such as angle, sun exposure, and lifespan, but you can expect to shell out between $15,000 and $40,000. Even if you receive a financial government incentive, it can be anywhere from 6 to 25 years (depending on your location and panel efficiency) to break even. We’re officially in long-term investment territory. Getting a personalized estimate for your home, from a few different installers, is the only way to know how much solar energy could cost you in your situation.
Our Top Pick for the Best Solar Panel (Installer)
SunPower manufactures the most efficient panels on the market — and installs them using a local network with some of the best customer service in the industry.
Its panels operate at an impressive 20.4 – 21.5% efficiency and EnergySage rated them Premium Plus, meaning they’re not only above average, but also the best of other Premium-rated panels. They’re more effective than any other panel at converting the sun’s radiation into electricity, can handle high temperatures better, and are more durable against snow, wind, hail, and fire. They’re also dark, sleek, and low profile — no chunky white grid lines here — and you’ll need fewer on your roof. SunPower backs its panels with a 25-year warranty, which covers their typical lifespan, unlike the industry standard 10 years.
A network of certified local installers services 41 states (double the number of the next most prolific company, SolarCity), including all 16 of the most solar-friendly states. This means you get the benefits of a local installer — speedier process and better customer service.
When checking for authorized SunPower installers, pay close attention to their level of certification: Master, Elite, or Authorized Dealer. Master Dealers are hand-selected by the company and receive advanced training, Elite Dealers receive less extensive training and Authorized Dealers, while well-vetted, don’t receive any SunPower training. Authorized Dealers are present in nearly every major city, but go with a Master or Elite Dealer if they’re available in your area. Sunnova also sources local installers, but its partners aren’t vetted to the same degree as SunPower’s.
Customers had mostly great things to say about SunPower, it scored a 5/5 from the 263 reviews on SolarReviews. An impressive feat next to SolarCity’s 2.4/5 from 103 reviews. The few customer complaints we saw were related to the quote process. SunPower will send out a specialist (either from an authorized dealer or SunPower directly) to evaluate your home for free. Some reviewers had delays in communication and scheduling, others said the panels were too expensive. Once you order your panels, a local installer takes it from there. This part of the process was especially well-reviewed, and has earned SunPower a reputation for quick and clean installs, which we attribute to its unique partnership with local installers. Though some users complained that repairs took a few weeks to resolve, this was pretty quick compared to complaints against companies, like Sunrun, that delayed closer to six months in resolving repair and monitoring issues.
AZ, AR, CA, CO, CT, DE, DC, FL, GA, HI, ID, KS, LA, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, MS, MT, NE, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, NC, OH, OK, OR, PA, RI, SC, TN, TX, UT, VT, VA, WA, WI, WY
Others to Consider:
Tesla’s recent acquisition of SolarCity promises innovation and stability. Tesla-branded (but Panasonic-made) panels will be manufactured soon, but in the meantime SolarCity offers Panasonic or Trina panels. The Panasonic panels are rated Premium Plus by EnergySage, and have an efficiency of about 20.9% — just about even with SunPower’s. Trina panels are a cheaper option, but come with a Standard rating from EnergySage and about 14.1-15.9% efficiency. SolarCity simply falls down when it comes to customer service ratings. They handle selling and installing in-house and patterns emerged from reviews of misleading sales bids and billing discrepancies. On BBB they have around 660 complaints and a 2.4/5 on SolarReviews. Vivint’s not that far behind with 500 BBB complaints, but our top pick, SunPower, only has around 50 complaints. SolarCity customers claim they’ve been misevaluated on their solar potential and over-promised on their savings. Positive reviews speak to the quality of the panel and their monitoring system — their monitoring app currently has 4/5 stars on the app store. In short, it seems SolarCity’s panels are great, but their customer service isn’t. If you choose SolarCity, look closely at your bills, and verify every quote you get with a few different sales people.
AZ, CA, CO, CT, DE, HI, MD, MA, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, OR, PA, RI, TX, UT, VT, WA
With 40 years in business, RGS Energy is a solid option as a slightly smaller company. They service ten states in total, all of them solar-friendly. They do their own installation but because they aren’t as massive as companies like Vivint and SolarCity (both service twice as many states), customers find their service to be more attentive and personal. They earned a 4/5 on both EnergySage and SolarReviews from about 160 reviewers combined, with customers also claiming they’re more reasonably priced than competitors. They offer a wide range of standard panel options — they’re partnered with Silfab, Jinko, LG, and Solarworld. Collectively, their panels range from 13-18% efficiency. Since they’re not as efficient as panels from SunPower or SolarCity, those lower grade panels will be cheaper but you may have to purchase more of them. If you’re looking for a potentially cheaper option from a mid-sized company, you’ll feel comfortable going with RGS.
CA, CO, CT, HI, MD, MA, NH, NJ, NY, RI, VT
With just six years in business, Vivint has quickly risen to become one of the most popular residential solar companies. Possibly because they offer easy integration into whole home automation with their home security system. Unlike our other picks, Vivint isn’t BBB-accredited, meaning the BBB hasn’t determined that the business meets accreditation standards, such as “a commitment to make a good faith effort to resolve any consumer complaints.” But the reviews they do have seem otherwise average, they received a 3/5 on SolarReviews with 350 customers leaving mixed feedback. Knowledgeable and informative representatives were commonly praised, but equally common complaints were about billing discrepancies, delays in activation, and failure to communicate. If you already have a home security system with Vivint, staying with them for solar should provide for simple integration.
AZ, CA, CT, DC, FL, HI, MD, MA, NH, NJ, NM, NY, PA, SC, TX, UT
Steps to Solar
Do the math. If you’re planning on moving before you recoup your initial investment, solar panels don’t make a lot of financial sense. You can use a solar savings calculator to estimate your return, or crunch the numbers yourself to determine your monthly savings. First, divide the monthly output hours of your system by the kilowatt-hours you use per month to find what percentage of your bill solar would cover. (You can find your kilowatt-hours on your electric bill.) Then, multiply your electric bill by that percentage to see how much you could save a month — although assume it will typically be less since you won’t always have perfect solar conditions.
Research subsidies and policies. Part of evaluating your potential solar earnings is digging into current policies and your local incentives. Federal tax credits currently offer 30% through 2019, but that tax credit will decrease to 26% in 2020, then to 22% in 2021, and expires December 31, 2021. That’s not the only rebate though, the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (DSIRE) is a great resource for looking up incentives and rewards at a state level. Your local utility company may have specific policies that could affect your solar savings too — some implement higher fees for solar customers while others may pay for the excess energy you produce. Check with your HOA as well, if you have one, for any restrictions.
Consider your roof. Since the bulk of the bill comes in the form of soft costs, like installation racks and wiring, make sure your roof has 15–25 years left in it. If your roof needs to be replaced sooner than that, you could be saddled with removing, then re-installing, your panels. Also make sure to contact the company that installed your roof to check if adding solar panels may void its warranty.
Shop around for an installer. “A good installer will perform a complete financial analysis, including payback period,” says Dr. Tom Lombardo, engineer and professor. “They will also investigate local, state, and federal incentives, help the customer complete the necessary paperwork to obtain those incentives, and factor those into the financial analysis.” Alexandra Hobson, from Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), agrees: “It’s worth noting that there are many quality solar panels, regardless of their technology type. However, consumers should think beyond the panel to find an installer with a positive track record for residential projects.” The best way to find the right installer for your home is to get several personalized quotes. Be sure to fully understand the deal you’re being offered and don’t be afraid to ask for references. Shopping around can help you bargain for more competitive rates, even if you’ve decided to go with SunPower, it’s a good idea to get multiple quotes from their authorized local installer network.
Did You Know?
There are several ways to finance your solar panel investment.
The most obvious option is to purchase them yourself. This doesn’t mean you have to pay $30,000 out of pocket — there are solar loans and you can get a home equity line of credit. You’ll own the panels yourself, and so all tax incentives go to you as do any RECs (renewable energy credits). Solar panel equipment is fairly durable, and often both manufacturer and installer will have warranties, but any maintenance will be your responsibility. You’ll be saving a significantly larger percentage of electricity costs if you buy them, (40-79% vs 10-30% with a solar lease).
If you’re unable to finance solar energy yourself, are ineligible for state and federal tax credits, or don’t want to be responsible for any maintenance or repairs, a solar lease or PPA (power purchase agreement) might be for you. Leasing means you’ll host the panels on your roof and pay a fixed monthly fee (it increases once a year), no matter how much energy you’re using or producing. The solar company pays for the equipment and installation, and technically owns the solar panels. The drawback? The energy company gets all your incentives and rewards, and it can be difficult to sell your home. Either potential buyers would have to agree to take over the solar lease (and be credit-approved by the solar company) or you’d have to buyout your lease and uninstall the panels. Your savings are also less, so this may be a better option for those coming from a place of eco-motivation. A PPA is pretty identical to a solar lease. Instead of a fixed monthly payment, you’ll pay for the energy your panels produce—even if it's more than you’ll use. In cases of a PPA, you’ll want to make sure the system is designed for your household's energy use so this happens as little as possible. This could be ideal for times when your panels are producing less power than you were originally quoted, as your payments will then fall too.
Different Panel Types
Monocrystalline panels are the most efficient type. Uniformly black, they are long-lasting and perform better in low-light conditions, which makes them a little more expensive.
Polycrystalline panels are the simplest to manufacture and therefore the cheapest. They can suffer in high-temperature climates and are slightly less efficient than their monocrystalline counterparts (although typically not enough for the average homeowner to worry about). They are bright blue and really stand out on a roof.
Thin-film panels, while growing in popularity, are the least efficient of all and require more installation and hardware costs. That said, they are light and flexible enough to be transformed into individual solar-powered roof shingles — very much an indication of what to expect from solar in the future.
What’s in a solar system?
We’ve talked a lot about panels, but there are several other pieces of equipment that make up your solar energy system. The panels aren’t directly nailed onto your roof, but rather mounted onto racking equipment. The racking allows your installer to angle the panels to capture maximum sunlight and prevent roof damage.
The panels convert the sunlight into direct current (DC) power. Most homes, however, are wired to use alternating current (AC) power so the system needs an inverter to convert the energy for use. There’s a few different kinds of inverters: centralized/string inverters connect your entire solar array to your electrical panel, micro-inverters are attached to each individual panel, and power optimizers connect to individual panels too but they ‘condition’ the DC power and pass it to a centralized inverter for conversion. They each have their own pros and cons that differ based on your budget and house design— your installer will help you decide which best suits your system.
Storage for the solar energy you produce is an optional addition. Most states offer net metering where you can use the traditional power grid as backup during night time or gloomy weather. You can also add a solar battery to your system to store up that energy. Tesla’s Powerwall is a popular example, and can be paired with any solar system — even an existing one.
Can you DIY solar panels?
The short answer is yes, but it might not be worth it. Depending on how many panels you install, the savings from doing it yourself could be pretty tempting. If it’s enough to commit, you’ll need panels, inverters, and racking. However, you’ll have lower quality panels to choose from (the best panels aren’t sold to the general public), and you might not qualify for a manufacturer's warranty (most only honor warranties if the system was installed by a qualified installer). Most solar kits are designed for off-grid use, meaning you’ll depend entirely on the energy your panels create — a risk for the average homeowner. These DIY solar kits are great options for tiny homes, barns, RVs, and boats. Basically, if your energy needs are relatively low, and you feel handy enough to take on your own install, DIYing your solar energy is an easy option.