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If you’re new to the world of solar power, it can be daunting to take that first step. Massive leaps in innovation have pushed the industry forward, creating more accessible options for consumers than ever before. Thanks to increased adoption and economies of scale, solar technology is now an affordable, accessible, eco-friendly choice. But with so many options, it’s hard to know where to begin.
The first step in switching to solar is identifying what type of solar panels you need. There are many different types of photovoltaic solar panels on the market today, each with unique benefits, downsides, and characteristics. Here’s a rundown of the three major types to help you make the right choice for your family’s energy needs.
Monocrystalline Solar Panels
Monocrystalline photovoltaic panels are the most established option on the market and set the gold standard for solar panels. Due to their sleek, seamless look, they’re a desirable commodity for those who want to go solar without sacrificing their home’s aesthetics.
Monocrystalline PV panels get their name from the design: they constitute one continuous crystal shaped from highly durable silicone.
Manufacturers achieve this uninterrupted internal structure by shaping pure silicon into bars. Then, they shave the edges of the cell off, smoothing and rounding it into the desired shape. While time-consuming, this process can boost solar cell electricity production!
One downside of monocrystalline panels is that the production process generates a hefty amount of waste. Sometimes up to 50% of materials are discarded to produce a singular solar cell. For some eco-minded people switching to solar energy, that may be a turn-off. However, because these panels boast higher efficiency than polycrystalline or thin film options, many believe the trade-off is worthwhile in the long run.
Due to their design, monocrystalline panels are one of the most resource-intensive on the market today. They are also quite time-intensive to build. For these reasons, monocrystalline panels are typically more costly than other types.
While size, features, and the manufacturer can influence price, a single panel typically ranges from $300 to $600. However, for many applications, the higher upfront investment will result in more significant savings on energy over time.
The power capacity of monocrystalline panels may also justify their higher price tag. This type of panel has the highest rated power capacity of the bunch due to the single-crystal construction, which provides a higher output rating. Many monocrystalline panels on the market today can achieve up to 400 watts of rated power.
Monocrystalline panels have a higher efficacy when compared to panels developed with multiple crystal segments. High-rated options like the EcoFlow 400W Rigid Solar Panels with the monocrystalline construction have a conversion efficiency of 23% — significantly higher than the industry standard of 15-20%. Conversion efficiency measures the amount of sunlight captured that’s turned into electricity.
Polycrystalline Solar Panels
Another common type of solar panel on the market today is the polycrystalline panel. This variety isn’t as aesthetically desirable or efficient as its monocrystalline counterpart. Because of its construction, it doesn’t have the signature all-black look of a monocrystalline panel. That said, it’s more affordable and still gets the job done.
Polycrystalline panels are recognizable by their rectangular shape and blue finish. Because they contain many silicon crystals in every cell, they have a speckled, twinkling appearance when the sun reflects off them.
Polycrystalline panels are sometimes called multi-crystalline panels because of their construction. These PV panels use silicone, similar to monocrystalline cells. However, they consist of many polycrystalline fragments melted together, giving them their characteristic checkerboard appearance.
During construction, manufacturers melt raw silicon and pour it into square molds. The molds remove the additional step required with monocrystalline cells to cut their ends. Polycrystalline panels come out of the molds in their final shape.
In the last step, manufacturers will assemble smaller individual squares into one larger panel. This process creates less waste and has a smaller footprint for material use, making them a more environmentally-friendly choice than monocrystalline panels — at least up front.
Since the manufacturing uses smaller pieces of crystal, polycrystalline panels are typically less resource-intensive and, therefore, more affordable than other options on the market. They also take less time to produce than monocrystalline modules. Currently, it’s possible to find polycrystalline PV panels for as low as $100, with $300 being the high end of their typical cost.
Historically, polycrystalline modules haven’t had as high of a power capacity as their monocrystalline counterparts. However, recent solar technology advances have improved the power capacity of polycrystalline panels.
A typical 60-cell polycrystalline panel can now produce between 240-300 watts. The power capacity is still not on par with monocrystalline per cell. Still, this improvement bodes well for the future of polycrystalline solar technology.
Polycrystalline panels are between 15-17% efficient. They’re in a lower tier than monocrystalline options when it comes to efficiency. They also have a shorter lifespan. Because there are many individual crystals in each cell, there is less freedom for electrons to move around. All this means that they don’t generate as much electricity or for as long.
While they can’t boast the high efficiency of monocrystalline panels, they’re still a decent option to get the most bang for your buck in the short term. Because their construction is less resource-intensive than monocrystalline models, they can be a cost-effective option for those trying to switch to solar on a budget.
Thin-Film Solar Panels
Researchers at the University of Delaware first developed thin-film solar cells in the 1970s at the Institute of Energy Conversion. While today, thin-film solar panels are not as efficient or powerful as the other common types, they maintain an important place in the solar industry. Their unique construction, low profile, and flexibility make them suitable for various applications.
Thin-film panels apply sheets of photovoltaic material mounted atop a substrate. Believe it or not, they’re approximately 350 times thinner than monocrystalline and polycrystalline modules.
Unlike other types of PV panels, thin-film uses various materials in their construction, including silicon, copper indium gallium selenide, and cadmium telluride. The silicon used in thin-film panels differs from that used in monocrystalline and polycrystalline modules. Instead of being solid, it is a non-crystalline type of silicon.
In construction, manufacturers put a layer of glass on top to capture sunlight. Beneath it, there is a semiconductor layer between two layers of transparent conduit.
The thing that sets thin-film panels apart from the pack is their flexibility. Unlike the rigid PV panels suited for rooftop installations, the ultra-thin construction of thin-film panels means they can bend and fit the surface that you fix them to without breaking. Because of this flexible construction, these panels are often mounted on RVs or other vehicles with curved surfaces or incorporated into wearable or handheld devices.
Thin-film panels are typically on the higher end of the price spectrum and usually cost $1 to $1.50 per watt. The EcoFlow 100W Flexible Solar Panel is a great example. It’s lightweight, weatherproof, and affordable. You can mount it to the roof of a van or use it to expand an existing rooftop setup without requiring more flat surface area.
Thin-film panels are available in a variety of sizes. This variety is one feature that draws people to thin-film panels, as it allows for their use in many different locations. However, the lack of standard sizing also makes it harder to quantify their power capacity. The size of the panel will largely determine the power capacity.
That said, thin-film panels generally have a lower power capacity than monocrystalline and polycrystalline modules of the same size. While this is a downside for some buyers, the flexible application of these panels means it’s possible to harness solar energy in places that aren’t accessible to panels with rigid construction.
The efficiency of a thin-film solar panel is significantly lower than other crystalline panels. On average, efficiency gets up to around 11%. Because of this, you would need a large amount of surface area to generate a substantial amount of solar energy using thin-film panels alone.
It’s also worth noting that thin-film tends to degrade faster than other types of panels because of their flexibility and thin construction. Unfortunately, this often means that products are not under warranty for as long. Before purchasing thin-film solar panels, ask the manufacturer or installation company about their warranty policy to ensure you can get the most out of your investment.
Key Differences in Solar Panels: Design, Cost & Efficiency
While each panel type has many similarities, it’s their differences that will help you make the decision of which option is best for you. We put each type of panel head-to-head to compare how each one fares in terms of design, cost, and efficiency so you can choose which one will benefit you the most.
How each of the three types of solar panels are designed varies by model. Right off the bat, monocrystalline panels are designed to be much smaller than other options because they’re more efficient per area.
In contrast, thin-film panels require a larger surface to offer efficiency. Monocrystalline panels are black and more uniform with sharp corners, while polycrystalline has a checkerboard look due to the crystal fragments melted together to form the shape.
Thin-film panels also stand out with a uniform surface comprised of layers of solar photovoltaic material. Depending on the material composition, they can look blue, black, or grey.
Another key difference among the options is price. Polycrystalline panels are the cheapest, while both monocrystalline and thin-film panels are more expensive. Polycrystalline are cheaper and quicker to make, so they’re more affordable and fall in the range of $0.90 to $1.00 per watt produced.
Monocrystalline panels require more intensive materials and production, so they’re much more costly and cost in the range of $1.00 – $1.50 per watt produced. However, due to their increased efficiency, this higher cost up-front translates to more savings down the road.
Thin-film panels are also a high-end option, costing you around the same amount as monocrystalline panels, around $1.00 – $1.50 per watt produced.
While this tends to reflect general trends in pricing, there may be exceptions, especially if you find panel options on sale. Whatever panel you end up choosing, make sure you look into what government incentives are available!
The efficiency of solar panels greatly impacts cost, especially for monocrystalline and polycrystalline options. Monocrystalline panels cost more because they work more efficiently (around 20%), while polycrystalline panels are a more affordable option because they won’t work quite as well (efficiency is typically between 10-15%).
Thin-film panels, however, typically have efficiency ratings between 7-18% yet are still costly.
If you’re looking to save money on initial installation costs, polycrystalline can be a good option, but if you want the most energy-efficient choice, that would be monocrystalline panels, as they’ll save you more on electricity costs over time.
Thin-film panels are best used to augment monocrystalline or polycrystalline arrays by affixing them to curved or irregular surfaces where rigid panels aren’t an option. While they do offer a lower efficiency, when you’re dealing with abnormal or irregular surfaces, they allow you to maximize your surface area.
Each panel type is constantly being researched and improved upon over time, and options today are more efficient, affordable, and aesthetically pleasing than ever. While thin-film options are still working toward efficiencies closer to those of poly and mono panels, their performance will certainly improve as more innovations are developed.
What Factors Should You Consider When Choosing a Solar Panel?
In addition to costs, efficiency, and design, you should also consider how factors such as temperature coefficient, durability, and degradation will impact the type of panel you choose. Understanding these factors can help guide your decision to select the best type of panel for you.
The percent decrease in your solar panel’s productivity for each degree (Celcius) increase in temperature over 25ºC (77ºF) is known as the temperature coefficient. The lower the coefficient, the less productive they’ll be as the temperature rises over this baseline level.
For instance, let’s say your solar panel has a temperature coefficient of -0.3%/ºC. In that case, your solar panels would become 0.3% less efficient for each increase of the temperature of one degree Celsius over 25ºC (77ºF).
The coefficient for monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels is around -0.3 and -0.5%/ºC. For thin-film panels, the temperature coefficient is only around -0.2%/ºC.
What does this mean? Thin-film solar panels will remain more efficient in hotter weather than either type of crystalline panel; however, most areas won’t be significantly impacted.
It’s important for your solar panels to be able to withstand the conditions they’ll be exposed to. Regarding durability and weather resistance, crystalline panels are the most withstanding, while thin-film panels are more likely to sustain damage from bad weather, especially hail. And between mono and poly, you can trust monocrystalline panels to be highly durable in nearly all weather conditions. Polycrystalline panels are still durable to weather, but they tend to have more sensitivity to heat.
You can often find special features or ratings to help determine whether the panels you’re considering are fire-, hail-, and hurricane-resistant.
When we say degradation, we’re specifically talking about Light-Induced Degradation (LID), which happens when solar panels drop in performance temporarily in their first few hours exposed to the sun. While the phenomenon is still being studied, here’s what we understand: Monocrystalline panels tend to have more LID than polycrystalline ones. Thin-film solar panels also experience a high level of LID, perhaps the highest of all panel types.
Which Solar Panel Type is Best For You?
Before you make a purchase, it’s essential to identify your unique needs and any circumstances that may influence the type of panel you choose. Here are a few ways each type of panel can shine, whether you want to build a Smart Home Ecosystem or get off-grid solar power to take on the road.
When to Use Monocrystalline Solar Panels
As discussed, these panels are durable, long-lasting, highly efficient, and boast a hefty power capacity. They also have a sleek, signature look. However, they’re typically more expensive than other options on the market.
Because of all this, monocrystalline panels are great for people who care about style and efficiency. If you want your panels to meld seamlessly into the design of your house, the sleek design will probably appeal to you. Due to their high efficiency, you also could opt to install fewer of them — and they’ll last longer too.
Even though monocrystalline panels are pricier upfront, you can decrease the overall cost by using fewer of them and generating more electricity from available sunlight. They’re also a great option when you want to harness a lot of power with a relatively small footprint.
When to Use Polycrystalline Solar Panels
Polycrystalline panels are a mid-level option that gives you decent efficiency, rated power, and durability at a competitive price. Polycrystalline PV panels can be appealing to shoppers who want to switch to residential solar energy on a budget — even if they save you less money on electricity in the long run. Plus, they’re less resource-intensive than monocrystalline panels, making them an appealing choice for those trying to reduce their environmental footprint in the short term.
When to Use Thin-Film Panels
While not as efficient or powerful as other types, thin-film panels are unique due to their flexibility. Their applications are endless! Thin-film panels are an excellent option for RVs, tiny homes, or anywhere that doesn’t have a large amount of flat, stable surface. They’re also incredibly lightweight, making them a good option for weight-restricted buildings.
Another critical factor when deciding which type of solar panel is best for you is the installation cost. As this can increase the overall cost of converting to solar, it’s worth your careful consideration.
On average, installation costs range from $15,000 and $25,000. Typically, hotter, sunnier climates have larger solar markets because there’s greater competition. The labor cost is often more affordable than in cold places with fewer peak sun hours where solar energy isn’t as plentiful.
Keep in mind that government incentives may be able to help you save substantially on equipment and installation costs.
Want to save some cash? One option to forgo installation and labor costs is to use portable solar panels. These don’t require expert installation; you merely set them up on the foldable kickstand that doubles as a case for easy transport and no-installation use anywhere there’s sunlight.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which of the 3 Main Types of Solar Panels Are the Most Efficient?
Monocrystalline panels are the most efficient option available compared to polycrystalline and thin-film options because of the materials and process used to manufacture them, while polycrystalline panels are the second-most efficient option, and thin-film panels fall last.
What Is the Most Effective Type of Solar Panel?
While all panel types are effective at generating solar energy, monocrystalline panels are the most effective. They’re the best choice to maximize solar electricity production because they offer the most efficiency per area compared to polycrystalline and thin-film options.
What Are the Main 4 Types of Solar Panels?
The four main types of solar panels include monocrystalline, polycrystalline, thin-film, and PERC, which stands for Passive Emitter and Rear Cell. PERC panels are a newer option looking to make solar more efficient at a low cost.
Home solar power gives you autonomy over your energy in a way that the traditional electricity grid never can. Ultimately, only you can decide what type of panel will suit your needs.
However, if you need some help, consulting with an expert at a solar installation company can ensure you make the best choice. When you pick the right type of solar panels for your needs, you’ll be ready to harness the sun’s power for years.
Finding the right panels for your needs at a price that fits your budget is the first step to realizing the benefits of solar. EcoFlow offers high-quality monocrystalline solar panel options at various wattages to meet your needs, whether you want solar power for on-the-go hikes, campouts, RV trips, outdoor events, or even to power your whole home. We even offer flexible panels that can be mounted on a range of surfaces, so you don’t have to sacrifice quality for the logistics of your setup.
Remember, you need a power station or solar generator to store captured solar energy for future use. EcoFlow Solar Generators combine portable power stations and solar panels to allow you to create and store your own electricity.If solar is the right fit for your home, EcoFlow is here to help. With efficient, convenient, and competitively-priced products, you’re sure to find your perfect fit in our selection.