Everything You Need to Know About Solar Panels

As the U.S. solar industry continues to grow at breakneck speeds, you may wonder: Have I waited too long to get in on the action? With residential electricity costs on the rise – 34 percent from 2005 to 2015 – many are curious about the savings solar energy can bring. Whether you're considering a switch to solar for the first time or mulling the decision over once again, there are several things to keep in mind before switching to this green source of renewable energy.

In this guide, we'll provide you all the necessary terminology you need to know to be an informed consumer. We'll also review how solar panels work, what they could cost, and how you could save money through reduced energy costs and tax incentives. It's time to bask in the sun and start thinking about how you can save money living a solar-powered lifestyle.

Jump To A Section

A (Brief) History of Solar Panels

Solar panels may be hot right now, but they've been heating up for the last 178 years. The technology that allows solar panels to turn energy from the sun into the lights and electricity we use every day (more on that later) was first discovered in 1839 by a French physicist named Antoine-César Becquerel. By experimenting on solar electrodes in an electrolyte solution, he saw voltage develop when light from the sun hit the solution – thus, the first photovoltaic effect was discovered.

Fast-forward a few decades and Charles Fritts created the first real solar cell in 1883 by using selenium (a ​semiconductor) with a thin layer of gold to create junctions. More than 100 years after Antoine-César Becquerel's experiments, American scientists Gerald Pearson, Calvin Fuller, and Daryl Chapin created the first silicon solar cells capable of producing up to a 6 percent energy conversion when met with direct sunlight.

So How Do They Work?

A Look At How Solar Panels Work

Solar panels are usually used in the same sentence as “clean energy” and “renewable energy,” but how do they really work? Ultimately, these panels create something called a photovoltaic effect – which utilizes photovoltaic cells to capture particles of light and separate electrons from atoms to create a flow of electricity. Most solar panels (which can be large or small) are composed primarily of silicon and use a layer of phosphorus with extra negative electrons to create a charge for the positive electrons being absorbed by the sun. Other elements like metal conductive plates help turn this energy into usable electricity.

By utilizing two types of semiconductors, n-type and p-type silicon, electrons produced by the sun's light are harnessed and turned into a stream of electricity. The p-type semiconductor makes up the bottom part of a solar panel and functions by adding atoms like boron and gallium that act as holes, allowing the electrons absorbed by the top layer to pass through, establishing electricity. The front and back sheets on either side of the panel protect the more sensitive elements of solar panels from moisture and other extreme temperatures.

Once those rays are captured, your solar panels convert direct current (DC) energy into alternating current (AC) energy, which is used at home by sending it through an inverter.

This energy allows “photons, or particles of light, to knock electrons free from atoms, generating a flow of electricity.”

So, in short, these are the components that make up solar panels:

The Anatomy of a Solar Panel

Words You Need to Know

Don't know what some of the words mean when you're talking about the specifics of solar power? Here are the most important terms to know, as suggested by the United States Department of Energy's SunShot Initiative:

  • Photovoltaic (PV) refers to the conversion of light into energy.
  • Photovoltaic cells, frequently called solar cells, are the smallest semiconductor element that makes up a photovoltaic module.
  • Photovoltaic modules are a combination of cells and other components – interconnections and terminals – to generate power from absorbed sunlight.
  • A photovoltaic array is a system of photovoltaic modules and can be as small as a single module combined into a single support or mount.
  • Alternating current and direct current, or AC and DC, are two types of electrical currents. A converter can change AC to DC, and vice versa.
  • An array current is the electrical current produced by the photovoltaic array when sunlight is introduced.
  • Grid-connected systems are PV systems that provide power back into a residential grid.
  • Hybrid systems involve solar electric systems combined with other solutions, such as gas generators.
  • A kilowatt, abbreviated as kW, equals 1,000 watts. Most residential power consumption is measured as kilowatt-hours (kWh).

What Are the Different Types of Solar Panels?

There are three main options when looking at solar panels for either your home or business. Here's a brief rundown of what you should know.

The three types of solar panels are thin-film, polycrystalline, and monocrystalline.

Your three options include monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin-film – each with its own pros and cons.

Monocrystalline Panels
Verdict: The most efficient solar panel option
Polycrystalline Panels
Verdict: The best value for your money
Thin-Film Panels
Verdict: The least efficient but most portable

How Much Do Solar Panels Cost?

The answer to how much solar panels cost depends entirely on the system you want to install. While full purchase and installation can cost most homeowners anywhere from $14,000 to over $28,000, here are factors you should keep in mind when considering the cost of solar panels.

  • The solar panels you want to invest in: Polycrystalline panels tend to be the best value per dollar
  • The wattage your home needs to run effectively: The cost of solar panels is determined by the wattage they represent, not necessarily their physical size
  • A DIY installation versus hiring a professional: A hired professional can make sure you have all the right permits for your state or county, in addition to making sure your panels are placed and angled for maximum energy efficiency, but they're also more expensive than doing it yourself
  • The amount of money you pay per watt: Today, solar panels can cost anywhere from $0.85 per watt to $1.25. If your home only needs 5,000 watts of energy (or 5kW), that would equate to roughly $4,200 to $6,250
  • Do you want to own or lease your solar panels? For more on that, read our breakdown below.

Ways to Buy

If you're not interested in paying for your solar panels outright, you have two options for leasing them: a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) or a solar lease. Both involve making monthly payments on the cost of your lease but don't necessarily involve owning them directly. Leasing specifically involves renting your solar equipment and making monthly payments to the company who owns them – much like leasing a car. You agree on the length of the term, and your credit helps determine the monthly cost you pay. With a PPA, however, the company that controls your agreement owns the equipment and sells the energy generated by the solar panels to you at a rate that is usually lower than what you would pay for your electricity. While paying outright for your panels will always make you the most profit in the end, there are other options for creating clean, renewable energy without the high price tag of new panels.

Outfitting Your Home

How PV systems connect to the power grid.

There are many factors you'll want to consider when outlining a personalized solar solution for your home. The size of the installation relies primarily on the kilowatt-hours, or kWh, you'll need to power your home.

As of 2016, the average U.S. household used just over 900 kWh each month, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It's important to review your energy consumption to determine just how small or large your system will need to be to meet your needs.

Roof area needed by PV module efficiency and capacity.

The location of your house, the angle of your roof, and the panels you select also play a part in determining the size of the overall installation. It's important to partner with a professional who can appropriately evaluate your roof and make the best possible recommendation for a successful step forward into a solar-powered future.

On average, most homeowners spend between $14,000 and $28,000 to outfit their home with solar power. While that represents a substantial upfront cost, there are different ways to get a solar solution without massive funding, such as a power purchase agreement (PPA) or equipment lease.

With a PPA, the energy company sells you back energy at a fixed or reduced rate, whereas leasing lets you keep the extra energy harvested. Both of these solutions require strong credit scores and may not be available in all areas. A major plus is that you aren't responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the panels and system.

Tax Rebates

Another part that can play into deciding to move to solar power is tax incentives. Using the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency, you can see the specific programs and rebates you may qualify for by installing a solar energy system. They may require that you purchase the system versus leasing or signing a PPA contract.

Though solar energy tax credits were first established in 2005, there's even more good news where these tax credits are concerned. In 2015, the U.S. Congress voted to extend the pre-existing tax credits to Americans who purchased (not leased) solar panels through 2021. Called the Solar Investment Tax Credit, the ITC provides a 30 percent tax credit to consumers and businesses that purchase solar panels for their homes and offices. You can also use this database to search for any additional tax incentives that may be offered by your state or municipality to help drive the cost of solar energy down even further!

How the solar investment tax credit could benefit you.

To find out more about tax credits, rebates, and savings in your state, visit https://energy.gov/savings.

The Brightest Possible Future

While relying on the sun for your energy needs may seem scary, advancements in the field and amazing tax incentives make it the perfect time to go green. Since its inception in 2006, the ITC has helped grow the adoption of solar panels across the country by more than 1,600 percent. This credit is not applicable toward the lease of solar panels or a power purchase agreement, however.

As always, certified professionals in your local area can review all of the programs and incentives you may be eligible for if you have a solar array installed.

States With the Most Solar Tax Policies and Incentives

Which States Are Primed for Solar?

No matter which solar panels you decide to invest in, there's one key ingredient to a quality output that you don't exactly have a lot of control over – the sun. While there's a lot you can do to guarantee your panels are positioned to capture as much of the sun's rays as possible, some states naturally have higher recorded solar output than others. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, these were the top 10 states for solar productivity in 2016.

  1. California: California generated a combined 18,296MW of solar energy in 2016 – more than six times the amount of energy generated by the next highest state.
  2. North Carolina: With more than 7,000 solar jobs across the state, North Carolina created a cumulative 3,016MW of solar energy in 2016.
  3. Arizona: Arizona generated 430 watts of solar energy per person in 2016, equating to nearly 3,000MW combined.
  4. Nevada: Having generated nearly 2,200MW of solar energy in 2016, Nevada has 362,000 homes outfitted with solar panels.
  5. New Jersey: With over 6,000 solar jobs and nearly 2,000MW of combined energy in 2016, New Jersey ranked fifth across the country for solar efficiency.
  6. Utah: In 2016, there were 292,000 homes equipped for solar energy, generating a cumulative 1,489MW of energy.
  7. Massachusetts: The most northern state to make the list, Massachusetts generated nearly 1,490MW of energy in 2016.
  8. Georgia: In 2016, Georgia produced a combined 1,432MW of solar energy across 162,000 homes.
  9. Texas: In Texas, residents generated 43 watts of solar energy per person, equaling 1,215MW total.
  10. New York: With over 8,000 solar jobs in New York, residents were responsible for nearly 1,000MW of clean, renewable energy.

Who Makes the Best Solar Panels?

Deciding which solar panels are the best is contingent on a number of variables including cost, efficiency, and size. Still, there are some top brands and models you should feel comfortable considering when shopping around for the best solar panels for you.

Brands That Make the Best Monocrystalline Panels

Mitsubishi Electric

  • Warranty: 10-year product warranty and 25-year limited power output warranty
  • For original customers only

Yingli Solar

  • Warranty: 25-year limited power output warranty
  • For original customers only
  • Specific model to consider

Suntech Power Co.

  • Warranty: 12-year product warranty and 25-year power output warranty
  • Transferable between owners at the same locations

Brands That Make the Best Polycrystalline Panels


  • Warranty: 25-year power output warranty
  • Transferable between owners at the same locations

Yingli Solar

  • Warranty: 25-year limited power output
  • For original customers only

Suntech Power

  • Warranty: 12-year product warranty and 25-year power output warranty
  • Transferable between owners at the same locations

Brand That Makes the Best Thin Layer Solar Panels


  • Warranty: 15-year product warranty and 25-year power output warranty
  • For original customers only


The good news is there isn't much you have to do once your panels are installed, just routine maintenance like cleaning debris around your solar panels (including any leaves or tree branches that may have become lodged underneath them). While you may do this three or four times a year, you also want to consider trimming back any trees that may cast a shadow over your solar panels, blocking the full energy of the sun from striking them.

Once a year, you may also want to consider fully inspecting your panels for any structural damage and cleaning them if necessary. This process isn't overly involved and requires a soft, expandable brush (or a cloth-covered sponge) and soapy water. You may also want a tool to wipe off any excess water at the end. You should consider cleaning your panels early in the morning before the sun rises or in the evening to ensure they aren't too hot to clean. An early morning wash also means the sun will help dry them off throughout the day. While you can hire professionals to maintain your solar panels, caring for them isn't complicated and can be completed at home to save money.

Now that you know more about types of panels and the different ways to pay or lease a solar array, it's time to use Quote.com to receive a custom quote to see how much you could be saving with the sun's rays. Don't wait – start saving as much as 80 percent of your electric bill by making the switch to solar.


Top Solar Experts
Reveal the Best Solar Panels For Your Home

and Other Solar Tips!

We found the top solar experts and asked them to provide their tips for powering your house with this unlimited, reliable source of energy. With so many factors to consider, we thought you could use some advice on how to get the energy you need at a price you like.

Check out what 78 experts had to say about the best solar panels for your home.

Filter Reviews and Tips By Category