The best solar panels for you aren’t always the most efficient options
If you’re looking for the best solar panels in 2018 for your new solar installation, you might be drawn to superlatives like “most efficient” or “highest wattage”, but likely the best panels for you aren’t a premium, high-efficiency option (though it could be, more on that below). Instead, it’s the one that fits your needs the best.
For most of us, the most cost-effective option is usually the one that fits our needs the best. However, there are certain situations where a specialized panel might make more sense. Let’s take a look at some of the best residential solar panels on the market today.
The Best Solar Panels
The best solar panels strike a balance between cost and quality. However, there are situations where you might need a certain type of panel. Maybe you’re looking for an especially durable panel for your long winters. Or extremely efficient panels for your small, cramped roof. Or maybe you feel most comfortable with a long-term warranty.
Whatever your need is, we’ve got you covered! We’ve listed out the best solar panels for each of the categories below:
- Best Overall: Trina Solar
- Best Premium Panel: Panasonic
- Best for Inclement Weather: Canadian Solar
- Most Environmentally-Friendly: Sunpower
Take a look and see what each one offers. And if you want to learn a few tips to find the best solar panel for you, jump down to the end!
Best Overall: Trina Solar
Trina Solar is a mainstay in the solar panel industry. Their products are well-known for quality, durability, and affordability. They find a great balance between quality and cost, which is why they’re our top buy in the ‘best deal’ category.
Trina was founded in 1997 and was one of China’s first companies dedicated to solar. Fast forward to today and they have over 15,000 employees and have shipped a cumulative 32 GW of solar panels.
They manufacture both mono- and polycrystalline solar panels, with their ALLMAX series directed towards homeowners. With efficiency from 17.4% to 19.1% (depending on the cell type), Trina’s panels are on the medium to high side compared to other similar ‘standard’ panels on the market.
Trina’s panels come with a 10 year parts warranty as well as a guarantee that their panels will produce 80% of the nameplate power in the 25th year – both in line with other panels of similar cost.
Of course, Trina Solar isn’t the only solar panel manufacturer that’s able to balance quality and cost. There are many other solar companies out there, like Hanwha Q Cell, Jinko Solar, and Canadian Solar that offer great cost-effectiveness. You’d likely be happy with any of these. However, the solid specs and competitive price of Trina’s ALLMAX panels land them our ‘best deal’ award.
Best Premium Panel: Panasonic
What exactly is a premium panel, you ask? Premium panels generally enjoy:
- Higher than average efficiency, typically between 19% and 22%
- Beefier components built to better handle extreme weather
- Better warranties, generally a 25 year product warranty (as opposed to 10-12 years for ‘standard’ panel) and a 25 year production guarantee around 87% or so
Of course, with these premium components, premium panels also command higher price tags, so you need to weigh the benefits against that additional cost before making any decisions.
If you do decide to install premium panels though, you can’t go wrong with Panasonic’s ultra-premium HIT+ panels. At 20.3%, they’re one of the top 3 most efficient solar panels on the market right now. They produce an incredible 340 watts per panel, compared to a standard panel’s 275 or so watts.
On top of that, they enjoy an extremely low temperature coefficient of -0.258%/ °C, almost half of most solar panels, meaning they’ll produce more electricity in hot weather. And your roof can get pretty darn hot in the summer.
How do they produce such a premium panel? Panasonic uses smaller solar cells than most other manufacturers, so they can jam 96 cells in a single panel, as opposed to the more common 60 cells. With these smaller cells, they waste less precious space on the face of the solar panel, leading to more production. And these smaller cells are also less prone to wear and damage than the larger solar cells most solar panels use, leading to greater energy production years down the road.
These premium components allows Panasonic to offer a 25 year parts guarantee as well as an incredible 90.76% guaranteed production after 25 years – much higher than Trina Solar’s above.
Best for Inclement Weather: Canadian Solar
Solar panels are tough pieces of equipment. And since they’re left on your roof 24/7 for next couple decades, they have to be. Your solar panels need to handle extreme heat, extreme cold, hail, snow, rain, dust, and anything else mother nature can throw at it.
All solar panels go through rigorous testing to make sure they’re up to the task, but some companies take their solar panels to the next step, manufacturing some truly Herculean panels.
Sunpower (see below) makes some of the strongest solar panels on the planet. However, they’re also quite expensive. If you’re looking for solar panels that can handle some serious weather, but don’t break the bank, check out Canadian Solar.
At Canadian Solar’s residential solar panels can handle over 10% more snow load than almost all other panels and just under 70% more wind load. That’s on par with or more than Sunpower’s stats for wind and snow load, at a much lower price.
Similar to other standard panels, Canadian Solar’s residential panels are around 17% efficient and come with a 10 year product warranty and 25 year/80.7% production guarantee. So if you’re worried about snow and high winds, but don’t want to spend the extra money on premium panels, Canadian Solar certainly fits the bill.
Most Environmentally-Friendly Panel: Sunpower
Honorable mentions: None
You’re probably wondering how one solar panel could be more environmentally friendly than another. After all, don’t they all create electricity with zero pollution and via a renewable energy source?
While that’s all true, the materials used in solar panels aren’t renewable. They use glass, aluminum, silicon, copper, and rare earth metals to convert sunlight to electricity. And while today’s solar panels are generally expected to last 25+ years, the forward-thinking in the industry are already discussing the issue of how to properly dispose of the millions of solar panel currently in use.
Premium solar panel manufacturer Sunpower is already tackling this issue and has become the first solar manufacturer to become Cradle to Cradle Certified Silver. This certification ensures solar panel materials are sourced in a manner that is safe for the environment and people, that products are manufactured with responsible, sustainable methods and recycled properly at the end of their lifecycle.
Both Sunpower’s E-Series and X-Series panels are Cradle to Cradle Certified Silver, and if you’re looking for premium solar panels, you can’t get better than Sunpower’s X-Series panels. These are the crème de la crème of solar panels.
First off, at 22.8% efficient, they’re officially the most efficient residential solar panel on the market today. This gives you more energy production per square foot on your roof, meaning less panels and less space needed – perfect for small, compact roofs.
Secondly, their solar panels are built with a solid copper back, so their electrical connections can withstand years of extreme weather without damage.
Lastly, Sunpower backs up these panels with a 25 year product warranty as well as a 25 year/92% production guarantee – possibly the highest in the entire industry.
All this adds up though, and you can expect to pay quite a bit more for Sunpower panels. Still, they’re a high-quality product from a company that takes steps to keep our planet cleaner. That’s a win-win to us.
Is Higher Efficiency Better?
Like we mentioned, many homeowners wonder whether the best solar panels are the most efficient solar panels. But here’s a question for you: Are you looking for the best solar panels on the market, from a technical standpoint, or the best solar panels for your own life?
We live in a world where technology is constantly improving and the solar industry is no different. Manufacturers are constantly putting out new, cutting-edge solar panels that pump out shocking amounts of energy, typically at shocking prices.
We all have friends that need the latest $1,000 iPhone (maybe you are that friend), but most of us are happy to have a smartphone that’s a model or two away from new. Think iPhone 8 instead of X. For most of us, these somewhat dated phones strikes a balance between performance and cost.
Solar panels are no different. Sure, there’s the ‘best’ solar panel on the market. The one that’s in the news for breaking records for efficiency or production. But then there’s the options most of us have. Those that aren’t quite as fast or don’t have the extra fancy bits, but strike a good value and meet our needs.
On top of that, a phone is just a phone. You use it, it depreciates and breaks, then you get a new one. Solar installations though are an investment. And because of that, finding the best solar panels for you, ie those with the greatest cost-effectiveness, becomes even more important.
You might think that a higher efficiency solar panel makes more financial sense. After all, each panel can produce more electricity than a standard panel, so you’ll need less to produce the same amount of electricity. However, most of the time the cost savings don’t justify the higher cost of the panels and it’ll take longer to see a return on your investment.
In certain situations, premium high efficiency solar panels might make sense though. If your roof is very small or constrained and you don’t have the space to install enough panels, choosing a high efficiency option would allow you to produce more electricity.
Alternately, if you’re that friend who needs to buy the latest iPhone the day it comes out, you might get a kick out of watching your premium panels pump out vast amounts of electricity. Just don’t expect it to be the most sound financial decision.
The Best Solar Panels Balance Quality and Cost
For most applications, the best solar panels find a good balance between quality and cost. By this we mean:
- Decent efficiency – No, we’re not looking for the most efficient solar panel on the market today, like Sunpower’s excellent X-Series. Instead, we’re looking for around 17% to 18% efficient. While these solar panels do produce about 20% less electricity than their premium brethren, the much lower price makes them a more cost-effective option.
- Reputable company – The solar industry is notoriously unpredictable. You want to make sure your solar panel manufacturer is going to be here for the long haul. The best solar panel manufacturers sport a solid history (10+ years of solar panel production) and a respected name from industry insiders. Your installer can give you the skinny on which manufacturers to trust.
- Good warranty – Yes, the premium panels have incredibly long-term warranties of 25 years, but you’re also paying for them. Standard panels typically see product warranties between 10 to 12 years and production guarantees of 80% to 83% after the 25 year. Anything under that is a red flag.
- Competitive price – This goes without saying. Exactly how much you pay for your panels depends on your installer and your area. In a 2017 report, NREL noted that most nation-wide solar installers can source solar panels at $0.65/watt, so if you’re spending more than $180 or so for a 275 watt solar panel, be sure to ask your installers about the costs. Smaller, local installers can’t buy in bulk like large companies can so their prices increase about 20%. Keep that in mind while shopping around.
Most Solar Panels are Shockingly Similar
We’re going to let you in on an industry secret. Most solar panels – except for the handful of premium options – are extremely similar. Wattages, efficiencies, warranties, cost. It’s almost like all the solar panel manufacturers got together and planned it. But hey, if something works, why not?
And actually, this makes your job pretty easy. If the solar panels your solar installer is recommending are from a well-known respected company, you can rest easy knowing they’ll work just fine on your roof. Panels from companies like Trina Solar, Hanwha Q-Cell, Jinko Solar, Canadian Solar, and Yingli Solar are all common options across the US.
Just to prove our point, skim the specs below of three solar panels from three very popular solar panel manufacturers:
|Trina Solar (Model PD05.08)||Canadian Solar (Model CS6k)||Yingli Solar (Model YGE-VG 60)|
|Efficiency||16.2 – 17.4%||16.5 – 17.1%||16.5 – 17.8%|
|Wattage||265-285 watts||270-280 watts||270 – 290 watts|
|Temp Coefficient||-0.41 %/ °C||-0.40 %/ °C||-0.41 %/ °C|
|Warranty||10 year parts/25 year production||10 year parts/25 year production||10 year parts/25 year production|
You don’t even need to really understand the data you’re looking at. What really stands out? They’re all just so similar! So what’s the best solar panel then? As long as it’s from a reputable company, the best solar panel is the one you can get the best price on!
How to Find the Best Solar Panels
All this information is nice to know, but now let’s put it to use. How do you go about finding the best solar panels? Can you just tell your solar installer what panels to buy? Do you even have a say?
First off, most homeowners don’t choose their solar panel outright. Instead, most installers have a handful of solar panels for customers to choose from. Aesthetics, price, and efficiency all play into what solar panel to purchase. And while not every installer will have 8 different panels available, even the smallest, local company should have at least a standard option and a premium, high efficiency option.
When you call your installer for an estimate, they’ll look over your electricity bills as well as your roof and discuss the system size and panel type that would meet your needs best. More often than not, a standard efficiency solar panel will do just fine.
However, if you’re short on space, they might recommend a premium solar panel if you don’t want your energy production to suffer. Or if you live in an area with heavy snow, they might recommend a more durable solar panel, like the ones from Canadian Solar above.
As with any home improvement project, your best course of action is to contact several companies for estimates. That way, you can compare costs as well as equipment specs. If one tells you that you absolutely need these premium, high-cost solar panels, but the other two don’t, they might just be trying to upsell you. Talking to multiple companies gives you the context you need to assess each company’s recommendations.
And of course, you can always jump online and research the solar panels they’re recommending. Every solar panel manufacturer produces a spec sheet for each solar panel they produce. These spec sheets tell you everything you need to know – except for cost – about the solar panels. Energy production, warranty, wind and snow loads are all easy to find. Be forewarned though, there’s a lot of industry jargon in those spec sheet as well!
Probably the most important research you can do is finding reviews of the companies and their solar panels. Again, if it’s a well-known brand, chances are you are going to be just fine.
Installers are there to help you go solar as cost-effectively as possible. They know the industry and are a valuable resource. They might recommend one of the panels we’ve looked at today:
- Best Overall: Trina Solar
- Best Premium Panel: Panasonic
- Best for Inclement Weather: Canadian Solar
- Most Environmentally-Friendly: Sunpower
Or they might have other recommendations. Either way, just remember your solar installation is an investment and that the best solar panels aren’t always about efficiency or price, they’re about cost effectiveness.