3 Types of Solar Panels: Which Should You Buy?

Tori Barrington

Types of Panels
Key Points (TL;DR)
  • Crystalline panels are made from silicon, but thin film panels are made from a variety of materials.
  • Monocrystalline solar panels are the most popular panel for residential systems.
  • Thin film solar panels are the least efficient and the least expensive.
  • Polycrystalline solar panels are more affected by the heat than thin film or monocrystalline panels.
  • Monocrystalline solar panels are the most efficient and most expensive.
  • You can tell the difference between panels based on their appearance. Monocrystalline cells are black rounded-edged squares, polycrystalline cells are blue squares, and thin film panels are extremely thin.
  • Q&A
    Which type of solar panel is best? Overall, monocrystalline panels are the best. They operate at higher efficiencies and remain more efficient in high temperatures than polycrystalline or thin film panels.
    How can you tell the difference between monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels? Monocrystalline panels have cells that are black and look like squares with rounded edges.

    Polycrystalline panels have blue cells that are square-shaped.

    Which type of panel is the cheapest? Due to its low cost manufacturing and solar panel installation process, thin film panels are the least expensive option.
    Which type of solar panel is the most efficient? Monocrystalline panels are the most efficient. Their efficiency ranges on average between 15% and 20%, but it is possible for them to reach over 20%.

    How does a solar panel work?

    Each type of solar panel is slightly different in the way it is manufactured, which affects its efficiency. To understand why its production process increases or decreases its efficiency, it is important to understand how solar panels work.

    Solar panels are made up of several different PV (photovoltaic) cells, sometimes referred to as solar cells. This means that the cells can absorb sunlight and convert it into electricity. Each solar cell is made from a semiconductor material, which allows it to conduct electricity.

    When the sunlight shines on the solar cells in the form of solar energy, electrons are cut loose and the electric field formed by the semiconductor material allows the electrons to drift within the cell, creating an electric current.

    The electricity that is generated is not the kind used in your home, so the electric current flows to an inverter. The inverter converts the energy into usable electricity, or solar power.

    Keep this process in mind when learning about the materials that make up the different types of solar panels.

    The 3 Types of Solar Panels

    When deciding which brand and model of solar panels you want for your home, you need to first understand the three basic types of solar panels: monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin film.

    Before we take a deep-dive into each type of solar panel, here is a quick comparison of the three:

    Material Appearance Efficiency Cost
    Monocrystalline Pure silicon crystal Black, rounded-edge square 20% Most expensive
    Polycrystalline Silicon fragments Blue, square 13% - 16% Less expensive
    Thin Film Variety: a-Si, CdTe, or CIGS Blue or black, very thin 11% Cheapest

    Monocrystalline Solar Panels

    Monocrystalline Example

    Material

    A monocrystalline solar panel is made from silicon, because this material acts as a semiconductor and is durable, affordable, and efficient.

    When a crystal of silicon is placed in molten silicon, it forms a single crystal, which is then sliced into wafers to create the solar cells.

    Monocrystalline panels are one of two types of crystalline solar panels. They are called mono panels because they come from one silicon crystal.

    Appearance

    You can recognize a monocrystalline panel from its color and cell shape.

    The single crystal formed in the panel production process causes the light that bounces off of the panel to appear black.

    The individual cells on a monocrystalline panel look like squares with the corners cut off.

    Performance

    Because these panels are made from a single crystal, the electrons that come loose in the process have more room to move around, resulting in higher efficiency.

    Monocrystalline panels are the most efficient panel, ranging in efficiency from 15% to 20%. Recent developments in technology have even seen panels at 23% efficiency.

    Solar panels become less efficient at higher temperatures, but monocrystalline cells are less affected by the heat compared to the other types of panels.

    Cost

    The manufacturing process requires a lot of energy, thus making it an expensive procedure. Because these panels are expensive to produce and are the most efficient in action, they are the most expensive to purchase.

    Polycrystalline Solar Panels

    Polycrystalline Example

    Material

    A polycrystalline solar panel is also made from silicon, but instead of forming a single crystal, the process allows for the silicon to break into fragments and cool into a new mold. The wafers are then sliced from this new fragmented mold.

    Polycrystalline panels are the other type of crystalline panel, and they are called poly panels because they come from many silicon fragments.

    Appearance

    A polycrystalline panel can also be identified by its color and the shape of its cells.

    These panels appear blue due to the fragmented crystals used in the formation process and an anti-reflective coating used to increase efficiency.

    Polycrystalline solar cells are shaped like squares.

    Performance

    The fragments used in polycrystalline solar panels prevent electrons from moving as much, so they are less efficient than monocrystalline panels. They vary from 13% to 16% efficiency.

    The efficiency of the polycrystalline solar cells decreases in the heat, even more so than the efficiency of monocrystalline cells.

    Cost

    Production of these panels is less energy-intensive, making them less expensive to manufacture. Low production costs combined with their less efficient performance makes polycrystalline panels cheaper.

    Thin Film Solar Panels

    Thin Film Example

    Material

    Rather than being made from silicon like the other two types of panels, a thin film solar panel can be composed from several different materials, including CdTe (cadmium telluride), amorphous silicon (a-Si), and Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS).

    These photovoltaic materials are placed between a sheet of sheet of conductive material, like aluminum, and a sheet of protective material, like glass or plastic.

    Appearance

    The most distinct feature of a thin film panel is its thin appearance. Each cell layer is only one micron thick, which is 350 times thinner than monocrystalline and polycrystalline cells.

    The thin nature of thin film panels makes them extremely flexible and able to fit many different locations and roof styles.

    The cells can be blue or black depending on the material that is used.

    Performance

    Thin film solar panels are the least efficient of the three, with an average of 11% efficiency. However, they have been known to reach higher efficiencies in testing.

    The thin nature of these cells allows them to vent heat, so they can remain more efficient in high temperatures than panels made of silicon.

    Cost

    Thin film solar panels are the cheapest of the three types of panels. The manufacturing process is simple, and they are easier to install due to their lightweight, thin, and flexible design.

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    Which solar panels should you choose?

    Monocrystalline Solar Panels

    Because monocrystalline panels are more efficient, they convert more sunlight into energy per square foot. If you do not have a lot of roof space, few monocrystalline panels will generate more electricity than few of any other types of panel.

    Even though monocrystalline panels are the most expensive, you will get more results for your money.

    Because these panels function at a higher efficiency in hot temperatures, you should also consider monocrystalline solar panels if you live in a warmer climate.

    Monocrystalline panels are the most popular residential solar panels.

    Polycrystalline Solar Panels

    Polycrystalline panels are less efficient, but they are also less expensive.

    If you want the efficiency of monocrystalline panels but cannot afford to buy them because of their high cost, you could purchase more polycrystalline solar panels at a cheaper cost. Several of these panels would result in a higher efficiency in the overall system than only a few monocrystalline panels.

    Many polycrystalline panels are the way to go if you have the roof space and are on a tighter budget.

    Thin Film Solar Panels

    If your roof is an unusual style or shape, thin film solar panels are a good option due to their flexible and lightweight nature.

    You may also consider purchasing thin film solar panels if you cannot afford to allocate as much money towards solar, since thin film panels are the cheapest. However, due to their low efficiency, it would be difficult to purchase enough panels to cover your electricity usage.

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