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Between the heavy-hitting hydro bills and staggering greenhouse gas emissions, there’s a growing list of reasons to move away from traditional electricity and invest in solar panels for your home. Plus, the cost to install solar has dropped by half in the US over the past five years, and is expected to continue to fall in Canada, according to Canada Energy Regulator.
These factors make it a great time to start reaping the benefits of solar panels for your home. Not sure where to start? This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about residential solar panel systems.
What are solar panels and how do they work in homes?
Solar panels use technology called photovoltaics (PV), which is the conversion of sunlight into electricity. It starts with a PV cell that’s made with a semiconductor material such as silicon. When hit by the sun, the semiconductor absorbs the light and transfers the energy to electrons. With the help of other layers in the PV cell, the current is extracted from the semiconductor. A quick throwback to high-school science class: Electricity is the flow of electrons (negatively charged particles) between atoms.
The electrical current then flows through the metal grid on the solar cell to an inverter, where it’s converted from a direct current (DC) to an alternating current (AC) and fed into an electrical grid connected to your home.
How many solar panels do you need for a house?
While a single PV cell is small (a solo cell produces about one to two watts of power), you’ll find them connected together to make what’s called a module. A single solar panel can contain one or more modules and, in total, a solar panel system for home typically comprises about 30 modules in total.
Types of solar panels
When it comes to picking the right solar panel system for your home, there are three options that are most popular. The variance stems from the silicon crystals that are used in the solar cells, but it also means differences in cost, solar panel efficiency and more.
Monocrystalline solar panels
If you see solar panels with black octagonal cells, they’re most likely monocrystalline. As the name suggests, that means that it’s made from a single crystal of silicon. The main advantage here is the top-notch spectral response (basically, high sensitivity), which means better energy production.
To put it in context, monocrystalline solar panels typically convert sunlight at an efficiency of 16 to 24 per cent. Solar cells made with multiple crystals (more on that below!) hover around 14 to 20 per cent efficiency. So, if you have a small surface area to work with, you can generate more power with monocrystalline solar panels (plus, many prefer the slick, dark aesthetic for their homes). The catch is that they can cost as much as double the price, but the wins in energy production could save you more cash in the long run.
Polycrystalline solar panels
You can guess this one from the name: polycrystalline solar panels (sometimes called multicrystalline) are made from fragments of silicon melted together. Most often, these panels will have a blue hue and feature square-shaped cells.
As mentioned above, the downside of polycrystalline solar panels is that their output isn’t as efficient as monocrystalline, but if you have a big enough rooftop to accommodate several panels, you might be able to still produce enough energy for your needs. And in that case, you can stand to save some money, seeing that polycrystalline panels cost less to manufacture.
The polycrystalline manufacturing process itself also has a smaller ecological footprint than for monocrystalline because there is less material loss. It’s a trade-off to consider: a lighter impact on the environment to produce, but less energy efficiency when operating.
Thin-film solar panels
While monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels are considered the traditional types, there’s a third design that’s emerging: thin-film solar panels. Their cells are created using very thin layers of photovoltaic materials (cadmium telluride is the most popular) on a backing plate such as glass, plastic or metal.
Their thin design means these solar panels can be flexible, which is great for something like an RV or a boat. Unfortunately, with about seven to 18 per cent efficiency, they have significantly less power potential compared to traditional crystalline panels. Though they cost less to manufacture and install, you’d need quite a bit of rooftop surface area to generate enough power to get enough bang for your buck with current thin-film technology.
What are the benefits of putting solar panels on your home?
Whether you’re motivated by your bank-account balance or ecological footprint—or both—there are many benefits of solar panels that you can tap into.
Tapping into the power of the sun and reducing your energy bills is an undeniable advantage of having solar panels on your home.
How much money do solar panels save homeowners?
How much you save will depend on your current energy consumption and your solar potential, but Efficiency Nova Scotia, for example, estimates that a solar panel system can knock an average of $1,750 off your energy bills per year.
Of course, you’ll have to factor the savings against the initial installation cost, but good news: over the past decade, the cost of setting up solar panels on your home is estimated to have dropped by about 90 per cent. Meanwhile, the cost of electricity purchased from the grid is rising. Plus, depending where you live, there may be grants you can take advantage of, such as Canada’s Greener Homes Grant that offers up to $5,000 in coverage for the installation of solar panels.
Read also: Cost of solar roofing in our roof replacement cost guide
Increase your property value
In addition to the potential for monthly savings, a solar panel system can also pad your pocketbook when it comes time to sell your home. Solar panels typically last for about 30 years, with relatively little maintenance needed, so they’re an investment that can pay off long-term.
How much do solar panels increase the value of your property?
It’s estimated that for each kilowatt-hour of solar installed, your home’s value goes up by as much as $6,000. Considering that the typical residential solar panel system offers about five kilowatt-hours, that could be $30,000 in value.
Another way to estimate the value is to base it on the value of your home. Solar panels are said to add three to four per cent to the value of your home, plus if you’re in a competitive selling market, they could be the added edge that helps your listing stand out.
Contribute to a better environment
Of course, solar panels can have environmental benefits by reducing your household’s use of fossil fuels (think: natural gas, propane, oil) for energy. When we burn fossil fuels, we produce a greenhouse gas called carbon dioxide that the Government of Canada points to as “the main cause of human-induced climate change.” Even hydropower (electricity produced using fast-running water) can hurt local ecosystems due to the dams required to control the water flow. One way to lessen our impact on the planet is to switch to green and renewable energy such as solar panels.
How to plan out a solar panel system for your home
Ready to take the next step? Here’s what you’ll need to do to learn more about solar power options for your home.
Assess your solar potential
To start, it’s helpful to consider just how much solar power your home might be able to generate. First, it depends on your roof’s position with regards to the sun. Generally speaking, a south-facing roof will get the most sun, and a slope of 15 to 40 degrees is considered optimal. Next, look to see if your roof is shaded by trees, chimneys or other buildings—all of which can reduce your solar potential.
Determine your options: rooftop vs. community solar
If your own rooftop isn’t ideal for solar panels, you might be able to consider community solar. That’s when a local group shares a ground-mounted solar panel system, typically with a subscription-style program.
Estimate your solar electricity needs
Once you have a sense of how much electricity you might be able to generate, you’ll want to have a sense of how much you need. You can gauge this from your electricity bills, where it’s typically expressed in the unit of kilowatt-hours. Add up your total for all 12 months of the year (don’t just multiply one month by 12, as you’ll likely find that your monthly usage varies widely).
You’ll then want to compare your annual usage against your area’s annual equivalent full sunlight hours. For Ontario, National Resources Canada states that the average solar panel system can produce 1,166 kilowatt-hours of electricity per kilowatt of solar panels per year. This can help you determine how many kilowatts your home’s solar panel system would need to be.
For many homes with solar panels, a 5-kilowatt system can cover about 50 to 75 per cent of the household’s energy use. You may still rely on the grid for some power, but solar panels can greatly reduce that amount.
Get quotes from solar panel installers
Once you have a baseline understanding of the pros and cons of solar panels for your home, and how they compare to other roof replacement options, it’s time to call on the pros. While some home improvement projects might be tempting to DIY, solar panel installation is a specialized skill and also requires safety training and equipment for working at the rooftop height and with electricity. Hiring an expert also avoids the risk of you accidentally voiding your system’s warranty.
With tons of benefits and increasing affordability, solar panels can take your household into a bright (and greener) future.
How to find the best solar panel installers in Canada
Smart Reno can help you find the best home renovation contractors in your area, including the right pros for your solar panel project in your area. To get started, request a free quote from Smart Reno’s qualified contractors, and talk to an expert about renovation financing.
Calculate the cost of your home renovation project with our cost estimator
This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or its affiliates.