The Ultimate Guide to Solar Panels
All of the energy on the Earth comes from the sun. In most cases, we get that energy indirectly. Plants use the sun’s power to grow, and we use the plants or the animals that eat them to get power, often after they have spent a few million years turning into oil.
That’s not very efficient, so there are plenty of people who prefer to cut out the middle man and get their power directly from the sun. There are a couple of different ways to do that, but the only one that the average person can use on their own is a nice set of solar panels.
How Solar Panels Work
Solar panels aren’t nearly as complicated as most people think. The oldest ones are more than a century old, while the modern design has been around since the 1950’s. Most solar panels are made up of a large number of small cells, which are only a few inches long. A single cell won’t generate much power, although they do produce enough to power a calculator or other small device. When a bunch of the cells get hooked together, they can easily provide enough power to keep a whole house running in a reasonably sunny environment.
A solar power cell is made up of two layers of a material that conducts electricity. There have been a few different materials over the years, but almost every model cell uses impure silicon.
The impurities in the top layer give it a negative electric charge, while the bottom layer’s impurities give it a positive charge. The different charges create an electric field that allows electrons to go from the top layer to the bottom, but not back up again.
When light hits the cell, it pushes electrons out of position. It’s easiest to picture this like a set of marbles. Imagine that the electrons in the panel are little marbles, while the sunlight is a big shooter marble. When the big one crashes into the little ones, they get pushed back.
The electrons in the top layer can go down without any problems, but opposite charges attract, so some of the electrons at the bottom will want to go to the top layer. Attaching the cell to a circuit will give them an alternative path that they can take to get back to the top, which creates an electric current. The electrons will keep moving as long as there is light to give the system a steady influx of energy. That movement produces usable electric energy for the owner of the panels.
Most solar power systems work on the same principles, but there are a lot of different types out there. Most people install solar power either choose to mount the panels on the roof of their house or to build a separate frame to hold them, but there are plenty of people who have tried weird and unique alternatives. Regardless of the exact form that the installation takes, they are all designed to get as much sunlight as they can for as much of the day as possible. After all, even the biggest system in the world is useless if it never gets any light.
On the Roof
Rooftop systems are probably the most popular solar power option. Most people like them because they don’t take up space in their yard. They will cover most of the average home’s roof, but most people aren’t using their roof space for anything else, so that doesn’t matter. They’re also very quick and easy to install, since the project does not take much more than bolting the panels onto the roof and running a few wires into the right position.
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The downside to a rooftop system is that the roof isn’t always the best place to put a set of solar panels. Even if there are no trees or other objects that block some of the light that falls towards the roof, there are things that can make the panels less efficient. The angle of a solar panel is very important for determining how much sun it gets.
If the panel gets mounted on a roof, it has to stay at the same angle as the roof itself. That’s fine if the roof has the right degree of tilt to keep the solar panels productive, but the odds of having a perfect roof for solar are low. The direction that the roof faces can also be a problem. The optimal angle depends on the home’s precise position, but solar panels usually do best when they are pointed towards the equator. Panels that are pointing the opposite direction lose a lot of their value, although panels that are in an intermediate position can usually work.
On a Frame
People who don’t want to install the panels on their roof usually build a special frame to support them. Frame-mounted systems are often more efficient than their rooftop counterparts because they are almost always in the optimal position. The frames are a new construction, so they can face in whichever direction provides the most light. Naturally, they can also be built in whatever part of the property gets the most light and has the least shade. Many of the more advanced frames can even tilt the panels to make sure that they are at the best angle for every part of the day, but even the simpler ones can be tilted during construction to get a good angle.
The frames may win on efficiency, but there are reasons that they haven’t taken over the entire solar market. A powerful system will take up a huge amount of space on the property, and a lot of people don’t like looking at a big set of solar panels in their yard. The cost can also be a factor. The panels can’t take advantage of an existing structure for support, so the owner needs to pay for the entire frame. That construction also takes longer than putting them on the roof, especially if the workers need to run wire over a long distance to bridge the gap between the frame and the home.
It is rare to see a solar power system that isn’t on a roof or a frame, but they do exist, and they’re getting more popular. Some stores are starting to mount solar power canopies over their parking lots. They serve two purposes, in that they provide some extra energy for the store and provide shade for the parked cars. A canopy is more expensive than most other solar systems, so most people are not going to want to install one in their home, but it’s an option for people who want to put some shade in their driveway anyway.
Portable solar panels are also getting more popular, mostly with people who are tired of watching powerlessly as their batteries die. They’re also popular with people who keep losing chargers, since the panels are big enough to be easy to find in almost any environment.
That size is also their main downside, since it can be inconvenient to carry a small solar panel around. They don’t provide a huge amount of power, but they’re strong enough to charge a laptop on a sunny day, and their cost is dropping to the point where more people are starting to look at them a s a sound investment.
Rules and Regulations
Where there are governments, there are rules. In most areas, there are only two broad sets of laws that matter when it comes to solar panels. There are government incentives that encourage people to buy solar panels, and there are access laws that ensure they have the right to do so.
Most of the incentives are tax breaks. Depending on the area, a person who installs solar panels can deduct some or all of the cost from their taxes. A few jurisdictions also hand out cash rebates, although those are normally temporary offers. There are even some power companies that offer rebates, so it’s always good to do some research before buying panels. A few regions also require companies to get a percentage of their electricity from green sources, such as solar power. Most of those areas give out certificates to people who produce green power, and allow producers to sell those certificates to power companies to meet that requirement. That can make a solar system profitable very quickly, so those laws are a huge asset to people who want panels for their homes.
Access laws guarantee that a home owner’s association can’t prevent a person from installing solar panels. These laws aren’t universal, but many areas do have them. In some cases, they only apply to panels that are installed on the roof or under other specific conditions. Always remember to check the details of the laws before starting any installation project to avoid an emergency meeting with lawyers.
The Price of Power
The ticket price of a solar power system and the actual price of the system often have very little in common. Including the cost of installation, the average cost of a solar panel is a little under ten dollars per watt. That will vary based on the type of installation and the current demand for contractors, but it’s a good rule of thumb.
That price does not take any discounts or incentives into account, and those can make it significantly cheaper. To find the real cost of the system, you need to subtract all of the discounts and rebates from the cost of installation. That means that the real cost of the system has as much to do with local laws as it does with the cost of making a solar panel or the work that it takes to install one. In many cases, they can cut the price of installing a system in half, but only for people who take the time to find all of the discounts and file the paperwork to claim each and every one of them. That takes a lot of effort, but most solar installation companies will help their clients to find the discounts. After all, there’s no better way to make a sale than by handing out discounts.
You don’t need to worry if those discounts are too small to bring the price down to an acceptable level. The cost of solar panels has been dropping for years, both because the technology has been improving and because the increasing demand has increased production. The trend shows no sign of changing, so people who don’t want to pay for solar panels at the current prices only need to wait a couple of years to get them for even less.
Finding Solar Panels
Once you know what kind of installation you need and the approximate price, you can start your hunt for solar panels.
Some people like to build small installations on their own, and there are kits to make that process easier. Doing the construction on your own can eliminate a huge part of the installation cost, although some government incentives are only available to people who hire professionals to do the job.
If you’re trying to save money, be sure to compare the savings that come from doing your own labor with the tax breaks or rebates to make sure that you will actually come out ahead.
If you want to install a bigger system, or don’t want to do the work on your own, it’s best to call in help from a company that specializes in solar panels. Since the installation needs to take the local climate into account to get the best results, always choose a local company that is familiar with those conditions.
If you have the luxury of choosing between multiple installers, ask around for reviews to make sure you get one that can do a good job.
Once you do that, you only need to sign the contract and wait until you can harvest the electrical bounty of the sun.
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