If you’re considering installing a solar panel system, you’ve probably spent some time researching financing, tax breaks, and solar installers. However, you should also educate yourself about the solar energy equipment your system needs to get up and running. While the components of a PV system are simple, the different product options and brands can make the equipment selection process fairly complex. We’ll break down all things solar power equipment in order to best prepare you to select your solar hardware. In order to go solar, you’re going to need the following equipment:
- Solar panels
- Performance monitoring
- Storage option (battery or grid connection)
The Five Main Solar Energy Equipment Types and Technologies
The primary equipment decision you’ll make is the brand and type of panels to choose for your PV system. For an easy guide to comparing and contrasting the top panel brands, check out our complete ranking of the best solar panels on the market.
Some of the factors to consider at as you weigh your options are efficiency, cost, warranty and technology type. Solar panels will generally be categorized as one of two technologies: monocrystalline and polycrystalline. Both types have the same function and are made from silicon cells, but the outward appearance and price of each is significantly different. Monocrystalline panels are more efficient and more expensive, and come with a dark blue or black tint (major manufacturers are SunPower and LG). Polycrystalline panels, the cheaper and less efficient option, are a lighter blue hue (major manufacturers are SolarWorld and Hanwha).
Generating rooftop solar energy is a simple process in which solar panels convert sunlight into direct current (DC) power that can be delivered to a home’s power system. However, most homes and businesses are wired to use alternating current (AC) power. That conversion from DC to AC is where inverters come into play, and there are several options to compare:
- String inverters: Also known as a centralized inverter, a string inverter refers to a single string technology that connects your solar array to the electrical panel of your home. String inverters are the least expensive inverter option you’ll find, but they aren’t ideal for every situation. They connect your panels to your home’s power infrastructure as a single unit, which means that if one panel in your system isn’t performing well due to a shading issue, your entire array’s performance will fall until that single panel recovers.
- Micro-inverters: Unlike string inverters, micro-inverters are attached individually to every solar panel, which maximizes production for your array. In the example given above, if a single panel is shaded or blocked by a cloud during the day, the rest of your solar system’s production won’t be affected because each panel has its own micro-inverter. Micro-inverters also offer panel-level performance monitoring in your array – a huge plus for homeowners interested in closely tracking the output of each individual solar panel. Though they are the most efficient equipment technology option, micro-inverters are also the most expensive one.
- Power optimizers: With the definitions of micro-inverter and string inverter in mind, one can think of a power optimizer as a hybrid of the two. Like micro-inverters, power optimizers are installed at each panel. However, they are a more affordable option than micro-inverters, and slightly more expensive than a string inverter system. Power optimizers are ideal for higher maintenance roofs that involve shading issues or panels that need to face alternate directions. Like micro-inverters, power optimizers offer performance monitoring for each panel in your system. Power optimizers are not inverters – they “condition” the DC power from a solar panel and then pass it onto a centralized inverter where conversion occurs. While power optimizers can improve your system’s efficiency, they don’t offer the efficiency of a micro-inverter system.
Solar Panel Racking
Homeowners are often surprised to learn that their solar panels are not nailed directly onto their roof but instead mounted onto racking equipment. Racking allows your solar installer to optimally angle solar panels for maximum performance and also helps to attach the array to your roof without causing damage. Solar panels will ideally face south at an angle of between 30 and 50 degrees.
The term “racking” refers to a rooftop installation, but there is also mounting equipment that is ideal for ground mount solar and solar carports, which can both serve the same purpose of maximizing the angle of the panels for sunlight exposure. With ground mount solar, you can choose between fixed and track mounts. Fixed mounts are stationary, placed at a set angle and orientation whereas track mounts are designed to adjust and “follow” the sun during the day as it moves across the sky.
Performance Monitoring and Tracking Systems
One of the best reasons to go solar is the experience of watching your electric bills diminish over time. Having a good performance monitoring system is a key interest for solar homeowners. This nifty piece of solar energy equipment reports the hourly electricity production of your solar system.
In addition to being a fun way to watch your panels power your home, monitoring systems allow you to recognize potential performance issues and ensure maximum electricity production. There are two forms of monitoring system: on-site monitors, where the system is installed with your panels, and remote monitors, where your system is tracked through the cloud and can be monitored online.
Many homeowners interested in solar in 2016 want to include some form of energy storage that will allow their solar panels to offer power during night time and disadvantageous weather. While many states offer net metering, which allows homeowners to use the electrical power grid as backup storage for their solar array, adding a battery to your solar system can make more sense or may be your only storage option in some cases. Solar-plus-storage, also referred to as solar batteries, are typically offered as either lead acid or lithium ion technologies (such as the Tesla Powerwall). Price and efficiency are the deciding factors between the two options – lithium ion is the current favorite with regard to popularity but is undoubtedly more expensive.
How much will your solar energy technology and equipment cost?
Although the physical hardware of a solar installation contributes the most to the overall cost of going solar, solar energy equipment and technology does not cost as much as you might think. The materials for your installation will generally only contribute 25 percent of the gross cost of a system. The reason: other soft costs that are incorporated into the overall price for solar contractors such as advertising budgets, training certifications and hours of labor.
Ultimately, the equipment in your installation is the primary factor over which you have direct control, which means that it is your biggest opportunity to impact your solar installation price (other than comparison-shopping on the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, which can reduce your costs by between $5,000 and $10,000 before incentives). In order to help you maximize your equipment decision process, we’ve outlined three situations when making the right hardware decision can have a vital impact.
Three cases when your solar equipment decision really counts
- Solar batteries in net metering states: If you live in a state that offers a net metering program, and you aren’t trying to go completely off-grid with your solar system, it probably doesn’t make sense to fork over the extra money for a solar battery. Net metering is an efficient and optimal way to store energy through the electrical grid and solar batteries are still a fairly expensive technology in 2016. Additionally, net metering is a major incentive to go solar to begin with, since you typically qualify for bill credits for any surplus energy that your solar panels produce.
- Inverters for large, south facing roofs: The reason there are various inverter options is for the scenario where a homeowner’s roof is not south facing or does not have ample space to orient solar panels exactly in the same direction. If you don’t deal with this conflict and instead have an ideally angled roof with plenty of space, there’s no need to spend more on micro-inverters. String inverters make perfect sense for these types of roofs, and power optimizers are an affordable upgrade if you’re looking for one.
- Roof vs. ground mounting: Choosing a ground mount system will add some costs to your installation, particularly if you choose a system with track mounting. If you have a rooftop that has no issues with sunlight exposure (and especially if you live in a particularly sunny state like California, Arizona or Florida), a fixed mount rooftop system will be perfectly satisfactory. Ground mounted systems, and track mounting, are meant for a very specific use case and can be an unnecessary added cost if you have an ideal roof for solar.
How to find the right solar equipment and the best local installers
Equipment decisions will significantly impact how much you’ll pay out of pocket for a solar panel system. They’ll also impact how much you can save over the lifetime of your system. To figure out what your specific system will cost, try our Solar Calculator – this tool uses your electricity consumption and factors in real-time market prices to offer an instant solar estimate. Once you’ve figured out your real cost to install solar, you can begin comparing quotes from pre-screened installers in your area and start laying out your equipment preferences.