The Best Solar Panel
With studies citing the importance of overbuilding solar power and publications like the LA Times heralding the early signs of a cost-efficient solar-powered future, there’s been no better time to leap on the solar panel bandwagon. But where do you start?
The best solar panel isn’t decided by mechanics and specs alone. You need an authorized installer to insure the warranty of the panels and, potentially, your roof. Solar installers handle everything from evaluating your home’s solar potential and coordinating your local incentives, to installing the panels and monitoring their efficiency. So we set out to find companies we could trust to install and monitor the best panel for us.
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How we chose the best solar panels
Service in states where solar is important
Installing solar panels is a huge financial investment that may not pay off for a decade or two. We sought out companies that could help make the process as painless as possible. 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.) As states continue to commit to clean energy goals, the amount of areas where solar power is available is increasing, but rather than focusing on companies that service the most states, we looked at solar installers that simply service at least 10 of the top 16 solar panel states.
High-efficiency, high-quality panels
We prioritized companies offering high-efficiency, high-quality residential solar panels with robust warranties. 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 (that is, the more sunlight it can convert into electricity), the fewer you’ll need, and the longer they’ll last.
Efficiency and quality go hand-in-hand. Cheaper panels offer less than 15% efficiency, carry a shorter lifespan, and lose a greater percentage of their efficiency over time. The best panels offer 20%+ efficiency, weather resiliency (wind, snow, hail, fire), and lengthy warranties (10 years and up).
Great customer service
We wanted companies with amazing customer service to guide you not only through the panel’s performance, but through quotes, purchase, installation, billing (if you’re leasing), warranties, and unanticipated repairs. We started by scouring user reviews and complaints on Better Business Bureau (BBB), SolarReviews.com, and EnergySage. We found patterns as we analyzed every review on these sites, zeroing in on common complaints and praises that revealed how each company treats their customers and handles issues.
While a big company promises panel innovation and financial security, the big guns in solar also suffer issues typical of large service providers — namely, poor customer service and slow assistance when you need it most. Local installers are generally much stronger in customer service and respond faster to panel monitoring and repair requests. But a local installer only services a certain community, making it difficult for us to recommend it for everyone.
Our top picks combine the best of both worlds, with big-name reliability and a local connection for great customer service.
What we didn’t consider: price
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, in fact) is from associated soft costs, such as installation and hardware. This cost is largely affected by your roof’s 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. 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.
The 3 best solar panels
Most efficient panels on the market
Considerate local installers
Available in the greatest number of states
Delays in service
Why we chose it
Most efficient panels
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 gridlines 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.
Considerate local installers
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. A network of certified local installers services at least 25 states, including all the majority of the most solar-friendly states. This means you get the benefits of a local installer — speedier installation 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.
As of June 2019, SunPower and its wide affiliate network were providing solar service to 25 states, most of which had their own dedicated webpage on the SunPower site. However, depending on your ZIP codeyou might be able to receive SunPower service from a neighboring state if it’s not offered in yours; this is particularly convenient for the New England region.
States serviced: AZ, CA, CO, CT, DE, DC, FL, HI, KS, LA, MD, MA , MI, NV, NJ, NM, NY, NC, OR, PA, SC, TX, UT, VA, WA
Points to consider
Delays in service
Customers had mostly great things to say about SunPower, whose reviews are listed on SolarReviews under the names of their various local installers. The few customer complaints we saw were related to the quote process. SunPower will send out a specialist (either from an authorized dealer or from SunPower directly) to evaluate your home for free. Some reviewers experienced delays in communication and scheduling.
May require more panels
Why we chose it
RGS Energy isn’t available to everyone, but homeowners have found its services more conscientious and personal as a result of its smaller size. RGS earned a 4.29/5 on both EnergySage and SolarReviews from more than 100 reviewers combined, with customers also claiming the company is more reasonably priced than competitors. If you happen to live in one of those solar-friendly states, you can rely on RGS Energy for the installation — and lifetime — of your panels. Having been in business for 40 years, RGS Energy’s longevity proves that it’s competitive with the larger companies.
RGS Energy offers service to CA, CO, CT, HI, MD, MA, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, and VT
RGS offers a wide range of standard panels, variously produced through partnerships with Silfab, Jinko, LG, and Solarworld. Ranging from 13-18% energy efficiency, none of them are as efficient as those from SunPower or Tesla-acquired SolarCity, which generate power with an efficiency of 20%+. Still, the reduced efficiency coupled with RGS’ competing crowd of suppliers means substantially cheaper product. Any concerns with loss in quality can be at least partially assuaged by RGS’ superior customer service reputation.
Points to consider
May require more panels
If you’re looking for a competitive price, RGS offers a lot. The cheaper panels come hand-in-hand with a better-than-average company ethic. That said, your final bill may be larger than expected because you’ll need to purchase more of them. Homes require more panels of lower efficiency to do the workload of one upscale panel. While increased panel count may raise the cost, RGS is likely still your best-priced option.
Combine with existing home systems
Available in 16 states
Mixed consumer feedback
Why we chose it
Combine with existing home systems
After just six years in business, Vivint Solar has quickly risen to become a popular residential solar company. One reason for their growth: Installing solar panels through Vivint is an easy way to integrate solar into a central home system. If you’ve equipped your house with security or home automation devices from Vivint, or plan to, staying with them for solar promises one app, one control panel, one bill.
Points to consider
Mixed consumer feedback
Another young entrant in the solar space, Vivint isn’t BBB-accredited. It’s the only company of our lineup that doesn’t hit this typical measuring stick. Accreditation means the BBB has determined a business meets accreditation standards, such as “a commitment to make a good faith effort to resolve any consumer complaints.” Vivint hasn’t hit this mark, but it hasn’t completely missed it either, at least not in real-world terms. Customer reviews are more mixed than negative: Vivint received a 2.97/5 from 411 customers on SolarReviews. We found praise for knowledgeable and informative representatives and complaints about discrepancies and delays equally common.
Another solar panel company to keep an eye on
SolarCity’s solar panels are on par with our top picks for efficiency. But with the turbulence of Tesla’s acquisition of SolarCity in the final quarter of 2017, the company’s solidity remains to be proved; by June 2019 there wasn’t much positive speculation about the company’s future. But as of August 2019, there have been signs of life: A Tesla Solar relaunch and new panel rental option. If Musk can make magic happen here, you’ll see SolarCity Tesla shoot back up to the top of our list. For now, though, it’s still a question mark.
Guide to solar panels
How to find the right solar panels for you
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 a good 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.
Solar panel FAQ
When it comes to financing solar panels, the most obvious option is to purchase them yourself. But 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 buy out 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.
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 currently holds the No. 1 spot for its quick payback time (an estimated four 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 can 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. It has no solar rebates, tax credits, or incentives, and because its energy is already very cheap, you’re unlikely to save a significant amount of money.
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.
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.
- New Jersey
- Rhode Island
- New York
- Washington D.C.
- New Hampshire
- New Mexico
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 one 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 energy system — even an existing one.
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 installation, solar energy DIY is an option.
The best solar panels: Summed up
* Depending on your ZIP code you can can receive service from an authorized SunPower affiliate even if they don’t operate in your state, but this varies based on region.
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