There are many different types of solar power systems and a virtually infinite number of applications. But the core component in all solar energy systems is the solar panel.
Panels come in various types: rigid or flexible, permanent or portable. They can power anything, from batteries and emergency home backup generators to off-grid RVs or whole households.
Having all these options means you can create an energy system specifically designed for your unique needs. However, sorting through all the choices on the market can be intimidating.
Our complete guide to solar panels will get you off to a running start.
What Is Solar Power/Energy?
Natural, freely available clean energy is all around us. Wind, water, and sunlight generate green renewable power that humans are finally learning to harvest sustainably.
Solar power or solar energy describes the energy produced by the sun. The sun gives off light, and light is a form of energy. Sunlight travels to earth in light waves. You can’t touch them, but light waves are made of matter — tiny particles called photons. Photons carry energy; that’s why you feel warm in the sunlight. Plants also use photons for food via a process called photosynthesis.
The concept behind solar energy systems is to convert the energy carried by photons into electricity. Solar panels allow you to do just that.
What Are the Benefits of Solar Panels?
Solar power is seeing rapid adoption by consumers because it has so many benefits and very few drawbacks. With enough solar panels, you can forego reliance on aging infrastructure and eliminate electricity bills with sufficient investment in a solar power array.
Solar energy systems also require very little maintenance, so there are few — if any — expenses beyond the upfront costs — which you can typically defray with financing. Not only that, but if you have a grid-tied solar system, many electricity providers offer you the option to sell them any excess power you generate but don’t use through an arrangement called net metering.
Beyond the financial benefits of reduced utility bills, many people like the independence that solar energy offers. Generating your own electricity means you no longer have to depend on the public power grid, eliminating concerns about power outages due to extreme weather events or aging infrastructure. Solar also frees you from the whims of rising energy costs, letting you save and even make money.
How Do Solar Panels work?
In some ways, solar panels work similarly to plants by absorbing photons from the sun and converting their energy into another form — in this case, electricity.
A single solar panel comprises several smaller cells; each cell collects and converts photons. A panel also consists of several layers of photovoltaic materials that facilitate energy collection and conversion. Common elements include silicon, boron, and phosphorous. The more photovoltaic (PV) cells and panels you have, the more energy you’ll generate.
After generating electricity from a solar power array, you’ll need to use it by tying it directly into a home power grid or storing it in a solar battery or portable power station for later consumption.
It’s important to note that portable power stations cannot make or generate power independently. Energy must come from an external source like solar panels or a home electrical socket. A portable power station connected to solar panels is often called a solar generator.
What Are the Different Types of Solar Panels?
When shopping for solar panels, you’ll see them arranged by several different classifiers.
The first typically pertains to installation. Generally, solar panels fall under either “portable” or “permanent” installations. Permanent rooftop installations using rigid solar panels are standard for commercial buildings and houses. Portable installations are more common for recreational use, such as camping or RVs.
Solar panels come in different structural classifications: flexible, portable, or rigid. Most standard rooftop installations are rigid. They’re permanently mounted to a roof or other surface. Portable solar panels are more compact and can fold down into smaller sizes, making them easy to take anywhere. Flexible solar panels are typically made from plastic and laminate, weigh significantly less than rigid panels, and lend themselves to installation on curved or irregular surfaces. Flexible solar panels usually produce less solar power, are less durable, and degrade faster. However, they can be an invaluable part of some solar installations — particularly for boats and RVs.
Solar panels are also classified by rated power output, measured in watts (w). Someone looking to power their house might be interested in 400W rigid solar panels. The higher the wattage, the more power the panels produce.
How to Size
The size, rated power, and the number of panels you purchase all impact how much electricity you can generate. Before buying a solar power system, you need to determine how much electricity you want to produce.
To calculate how many watts of power you need, look at your monthly electric bills or the power consumption requirements of whatever appliances you want to run.
The average US household uses 886kWh of electricity per month or about 30kWh per day. This average can be a good starting point for figuring out how many solar panels you need. Of course, the power consumption of a 1000 sq. ft home and a 2000 sq. ft home can vary drastically. It will also typically vary with the number of occupants.
If you purchase 400W solar panels and receive six peak hours of daily sunlight, you’d get approximately 2400Wh of electricity from one solar panel under ideal conditions. Divide your daily energy consumption by the solar panel output to determine the number of panels you need.
In this case, 30,0000 / 2400 = 12.5, or 13 solar panels. Your solar power system must include at least 13 solar panels. It’s always best to err on the side of caution and purchase more solar panels than this simple calculation indicates. Environmental factors play a huge role in determining how much power each panel generates under real-world conditions.
How to Install
Installing panels can get complicated, especially for rooftop installations. You’ll need to build a frame for your solar array or use the included mounting hardware and determine the layout. You’ll also need to connect multiple solar panels in series or parallel. It’s not beyond the reach of a determined handyperson, but it may be better left to electrical professionals.
If you have an awkwardly shaped roof — i.e., one that isn’t flat and spacious — you might consider adding flexible solar panels to your solar array. Flexible solar panels don’t require drilling holes in your roof and are especially popular for RVs and vans with curved roofs.
Portable solar panels don’t require any installation whatsoever. Just unfold and position them for maximum sun exposure with the built-in kickstand.
Ultimately, your solar panel installation depends on whether you need a portable or fixed setup and whether you want to opt for a professional installation or do it yourself.
How to Maintain
Solar panels are typically low maintenance. Most manufacturers just recommend keeping them clear of dirt and debris. Rainfall will help with that, but you may want to inspect and clean your panels quarterly.
Grid-Tied vs. Off-Grid Solar Systems
When considering switching to solar power, you’ll see that system configurations fall into two general categories: grid-tied and off-grid.
Off-grid is exactly what it sounds like: your power system is completely independent from commercial or public power grids. With an off-grid solar power system, you’ll want to produce more power than you regularly use. That way, you can store excess energy for inclement weather when you don’t generate as much electricity.
Off-grid systems are popular for RVs, campers, rural and tiny homes, and people who don’t want to rely on utility companies or the government for power. EcoFlow’s modular power kits are specifically tailored for off-grid applications.
Grid-tied systems have many of the same components as an off-grid system but tie into your local power grid. This option allows users more flexibility when generating enough power from solar isn’t an option. You can run your house partially on solar power and partially on traditional electricity. In many areas, you can even sell back any excess energy you generate to the grid through an arrangement called net metering.
How Do Solar Panels Work for RVs and Camping?
Solar power systems are a dream come true for campers and RVers alike because they provide clean, green power anywhere you go. Off-grid systems look different depending on how much electricity and portability you require. But they all have the same essential components: solar panels connected to a portable power station, solar generator, or a custom balance of system.
Some RV systems use roof-mounted rigid and flexible solar panels, while others use portable solar panels set up on the ground.
With an Ecoflow DELTA Max portable power station or solar generator — which features a 2kWh starting capacity out of the box that’s expandable to 6kWh — you can store sufficient energy to run an entire RV.
If you need more power for your motorhome or tiny home, look into modular power kits, which provide a compact but high-capacity setup.
If you don’t need that much power for a camping setup or when you’re on the move, you might prefer to use a solar generator like the River, which is compact, lightweight, and easy to carry.
How Do Solar Panels Work for Home Backup?
Many people like the appeal of using solar power setups like the Smart Home Ecosystem as a home backup for when the power goes out. A high-capacity off-grid system that can run your whole home requires a large battery that can store a lot of energy, like the EcoFlow DELTA Pro. With sufficient storage capacity even for extended power outages, you’ll never need to worry about blackouts again.
Thanks to innovative companies like Ecoflow, solar energy is becoming more popular and accessible to everyone. EcoFlow makes solar power solutions for every consumer application.
Using freely available sunlight, you can power your camping trip, RV, or even your entire house.
Solar energy is the ultimate source of clean, renewable energy. The sun shines every day, so why shouldn’t you take advantage of it?
Once you recoup your initial investment — which you can easily finance over time — solar energy will save and even earn you money.