How to Choose the Best Solar Panels

Guest post by Reviews.com

Solar panels are the best way to get your power for free. And while they're built to last for 25 years or more, it'll take some time to recoup your investment — and not every manufacturer or installer will be around as long. An engineer and a solar expert confirmed our findings: The best panels have efficiency ratings that pack a powerful punch and come from manufacturers with a proven track record.

Reviews.com, a small group of obsessive consumers, dedicated months to finding which solar panels were worth it, and which ones were a waste of money. They evaluated 188 contenders and found 5 top picks. (See here for a comprehensive article about their top picks: http://www.reviews.com/solar-panels/)

Their ‘best overall’ choice is SolarWorld, which is the largest US manufacturer and a giant in the arena. It's been producing panels for 40 years in both Germany and the United States and has nine panels that hit our benchmarks, including one with the highest efficiency rating out of all the panels they looked at.

While they couldn’t reach anyone by phone (just a friendly, targeted voicemail system), its email response time was fantastic and they were able to get most of our questions answered via its concise, well-laid-out website.

It has nine panels that hit their benchmarks, including the Sunmodule Plus SW 285-300 Mono (5-busbar), which at 17.89 percent, had the highest efficiency rating out of all the panels they looked at. It’s not surprising: SolarWorld is at the forefront of technology innovation, announcing in 2015 that it had achieved a record-breaking 21.7 percent efficiency solar cell.

A solid contender, Canadian Solar landed in their runner-up slot and there’s no stopping its growth: in January 2016 it landed a $70 million investment from the International Finance Corporation to fund its module production facility in Vietnam and beyond. Its personable customer service staff made the company a standout, directly connecting them with a region-specific salesperson who had technical chops, but wasn’t after the hard sell. Canadian Solar has a lineup of 10 panels, all with killer wattage and efficiency.

Carbon footprints on your mind? An electric bill that just won’t quit? Solar energy is an increasingly popular antidote to both, but decking out a home with a solar array is going to sting a little: between panels and soft costs like installation labor, mounting hardware, and electronic components, you can expect to shell out between $15,000 and $40,000. Yowch! Even if you receive a financial government incentive, it typically takes 15 to 25 years to break even. We’re officially in long-term investment territory.

The bulk of your investment is going to come from installation costs. And that $25,000 range of possibility comes from a number of unique features on your home. Angle, sun exposure, and lifetime of your roof all influence installation. Getting a personalized estimate for your home, from a few different installers, is the only way to know how much solar energy could cost you.

Once you’ve picked an installer, you’ll want to compare panel options. Good solar panels are powerful and efficient, and the best solar panels are manufactured by companies like SolarWorld, Canadian Solar, Axitec, Centrosolar, and Kyocera Solar — that is to say, reliable brands that aren’t going anywhere.

Reviews.com was started in 2013 by a small group of obsessive consumers with a passion for the truth, and the desire to find the best. They are your research partner so you can make a purchase you won’t regret.