Types of Solar Panels
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You’ll likely work with a professional solar installer to select the best solar panels for your home, but it’s good to inform yourself about the different types of panels available. Our team has spent more than 300 hours researching the solar industry and compiled this guide to different types of solar panels. We’ll cover variations in design, materials, efficiency ratings, and more.
Solar Panel Materials
Committing to going solar can be easy, but navigating the installation process may feel overwhelming. Doing some research can help you better understand solar technology and decide what system to install.
Solar panels are made up of dozens of photovoltaic cells (also called PV cells) that absorb the sun’s energy and convert it into direct current (DC) electricity. Most home solar systems include an inverter, which changes the DC electricity to alternating current (AC) electricity—the kind needed to power your home. Solar batteries can store unused energy for use at night or during an outage.
Though there are many brands and styles of solar panels, there are only three main types: monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin-film. Moncrystalline and polycrystalline panels are used for residential installations, while thin-film panels are more common for small solar projects, such as powering an RV or shed.
Monocrystalline Solar Panels
Monocrystalline solar panels—or mono panels—are made from a single silicon crystal. These are the most common type of solar panels for residential systems because they’re more efficient and better suited for roofs with limited space.
There are two kinds of monocrystalline panels: passivated emitter and rear contact (PERC) panels and bifacial panels. PERC panels have a conductive layer added to the backside of cells to increase energy absorptions, whereas bifacial panels can absorb light on both sides and at a higher rate than PERC panels. For this reason, PERC panels are most commonly used for rooftop installations while bifacial panels are typically reserved for ground-mounted systems that leave both sides of the panels exposed.
Bifacial panels are also used on awnings, canopies, and rack-mounted installations on white commercial roofs with high albedo, or the fraction of light that a surface reflects.
Monocrystalline Solar Panel Design
Monocrystalline panels are mostly solid black but have some white space throughout. The black design makes them less noticeable on a rooftop.
Monocrystalline Solar Panel Materials
Monocrystalline solar cells are manufactured using the Czochralski method, in which a seed crystal of silicon is placed into a molten vat of pure silicon at a high temperature. That creates a single silicon crystal, or ingot, that’s divided into thinner wafers. Those wafers make up the solar panels.
Polycrystalline Solar Panels
Polycrystalline panels are made using earlier solar technology, so they’re more affordable than the newer monocrystalline variety. However, because the technology is older, polycrystalline panels are not as efficient as their modern counterpart.
Polycrystalline Solar Panel Design
Polycrystalline panels have a blue hue that’s somewhat marbled in appearance, so there are some variations in color and consistency among panels. Homeowners who don’t want to distract from their curb appeal should opt for monocrystalline over polycrystalline panels.
Polycrystalline Solar Panel Materials
Polycrystalline panels are made of silicon solar cells, the same as monocrystalline panels. The difference is in the cooling process for polycrystalline panels, which creates multiple crystals rather than just one.
Thin-Film Solar Panels
Thin-film solar cells are less efficient than monocrystalline and polycrystalline varieties, so they’re more often used in large industrial solar installations in which space is not a constraint. Thin-film panels can also be a good option for small solar projects, such as powering a boat, and small commercial buildings, such as warehouses, with thin metal roofs.
Thin-Film Solar Panel Design
Thin-film panels have the sleekest appearance among the three panel types. They’re completely black, flat, and flexible in shape and size, so they blend easily on roofs. They also don’t require the scaffolding that monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels often do.
However, thin-film panels are not very efficient. You’d need many more—perhaps even enough to cover your entire rooftop—to generate enough power for a home. That means higher overall costs and increased instances of panel issues, failures, and degradation over time, which is why they’re not used for residential installations.
Thin-Film Solar Panel Materials
Thin-film panels are created by placing a thin layer of a photovoltaic substance, such as amorphous silicon or cadmium telluride, onto a solid surface, often glass. The photovoltaic substance used in the manufacturing process creates different thin-film panels, including some that are highly flexible.
Compare the Major Types of Solar Panels
Type of Solar Panel
How Solar Panels Work
If you’re looking for more information about how solar panels work, the video below describes the process of how solar panels convert sunlight into electricity to power your home.
Solar Panel Costs
Monocrystalline panels are more costly to produce because they use a single silicon crystal, whereas polycrystalline panels can be made using using leftover crystal fragments. Since production costs are lower and the manufacturing process is simpler, polycrystalline panels are much less expensive than monocrystalline panels. The cheapest type of solar panel is thin-film because of their ultra-light and thin construction.
Here’s the average price per watt for each panel type, which can give you an idea of how much solar panels will cost you. Note that you’ll need more polycrystalline panels than monocrystalline panels to power your home, and that thin-film panels should be reserved for nonresidential projects.
Average Cost Per Watt*
- Thin-film: $0.70–$1
- Polycrystalline: $0.90–$1
- Monocrystalline: $1–$1.50
*Prices according to a 2023 report from HomeAdvisor.
Solar Panel Efficiency
The more electricity a solar panel can generate, the higher its efficiency rating. High-efficiency panels can generate more electricity while taking up less space, meaning you’ll need fewer panels for your home solar system.
Changes in sunlight throughout the day can impact your panels’ efficiency, since overcast skies will obviously reduce the amount of solar energy panels can absorb. High heat levels can also negatively affect energy efficiency. Panels build up heat throughout the day, lowering the power output by up to 25% during high heat.
Both monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels are suitable for most locations that receive an average amount of sunlight and have seasonal temperature fluctuations. Thin-film panels have a lower temperature coefficient than the other two panel types, meaning they lose less power as the temperature rises. This makes thin-film panels a good option for hotter climates or areas that get more annual sunlight.
While temperature changes affect all types of panels, those with high efficiency ratings account for these fluctuations and compensate for them in terms of overall power output.
Below is a breakdown of efficiency ratings and power capacity for each solar panel type.
- Efficiency: Over 20%
- Power capacity: 300 watts and up
- Efficiency: 15%–17%
- Power capacity: 240–300 watts
- Efficiency: 6%–15%
- Power capacity: No standard measure, since thin-film panels aren’t uniform in size, but generally less output than crystalline panels
Factors To Consider When Selecting a Panel Type
Beyond sunlight exposure and heat, the following factors can impact a solar panel’s performance.
Solar panels are tested for hail impacts by dropping small steel spheres from a certain height or firing ice balls directly on panels to simulate hail.
Monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels are made of thicker materials and can therefore withstand hail hitting at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. Thin-film solar panels are less resistant to hail because they’re more lightweight and flexible.
The U.S. Department of Energy maintains a list of recommended specifications for solar panels in terms of their ability to withstand major storms, such as hurricanes. Panels that meet these specifications are designed with a locking or fastening mechanism to help prevent them from becoming windborne. Monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels are heavier and easier to modify with fastening devices than thin-film panels.
Monocrystalline solar panels are the best option for residential solar panel systems. Though more expensive than polycrystalline panels, monocrystalline panels perform better and last longer. This means that despite the higher cost, monocrystalline panels’ increased efficiency and power output may actually save you more money on electricity bills over time.
Polycrystalline panels are still a practical option for those who want to switch to solar but can’t afford higher priced monocrystalline panels. Keep in mind that if aesthetics is important to you, polycrystalline panels are the most noticeable on your roof.
We don’t recommend using thin-film panels for your residential solar system due to their low efficiency. However, they may be a good, affordable option if you want to power a shed, workshop, boat, or recreational vehicle.
Most solar panel installation companies will recommend a panel type and brand based on your home’s needs and your budget. Learn more about the solar panel companies we recommend in our guide.
FAQ About Residential Solar Power
How many solar panels are needed to run a house?
Most houses need about 30 solar panels. That estimate is based on an average energy consumption of 1,000 kilowatts per hour with 320-watt panels installed. The exact number of panels you need depends on several factors, including your average monthly energy consumption, your home’s size and available roof space, and your local climate and average sunlight.
Is it possible to run a house completely on solar power?
Yes, you can run a house completely on solar power. However, you’ll need backup generators and solar batteries that store excess energy to go completely off-grid. Off-grid systems are also larger, and thus significantly more expensive than those that are still tied to the power grid.
How long do monocrystalline solar panels last?
Monocrystalline solar panels can theoretically last 50 years, but they’re typically only covered under warranty for 25–30 years. All types of solar panels degrade at a rate of about 1% per year due to normal wear and tear, so they won’t be as effective as when they were first installed.
What are two main disadvantages to solar energy?
The main disadvantage of solar energy is that solar panels are expensive to install, with an average cost of roughly $20,000. However, solar incentives, rebates, and tax credits can significantly reduce this price, and the annual savings you’ll receive on electricity bills will eventually pay for the system and then some.
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