By Glenda Taylor | Published Jun 30, 2022 4:59 AM
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As utility costs continue to skyrocket, it’s helpful to find ways to save money on electric bills. One way is using solar energy through solar panels. More than just a top choice for those looking to reduce their carbon footprint, solar power is also a convenient way to charge devices when an outlet is far away.
Although most solar panels must be connected to a solar generator or a 12-volt (V) battery to use the generated energy, a few models come with built-in charging ports. Additionally, with the right solar panel system, users can run some household appliances in the event of a power outage at home.
Whether consumers are looking to replace an older panel in an existing system, pair a new panel with a solar generator, or build their own comprehensive system, we’ve got top picks that might be right for the job. Ahead, learn what to look for when shopping for solar panels and find out why the following panels are among the best solar panels for home use and remote energy needs.
There are three primary types of solar panels: monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin film. All solar panels capture the sun’s rays and convert them into electricity, but each type differs slightly.
Monocrystalline panels are manufactured from a single (mono) silicon crystal, and they’re easy to identify because they’re dark black. This single-crystal technology is highly efficient and compact, meaning smaller monocrystalline panels can produce more energy than other types of panels of a similar size. Unfortunately, monocrystalline panels are also more expensive than other types.
Within the monocrystalline category are a couple of varieties, including passivated emitter and rear contact (PERC) cells that increase the panel’s efficiency, and bifacial solar cells that capture sunlight on both sides of the panel.
The main difference between monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels is that the latter is made from multiple silicon crystals, rather than a large single crystal. This type of panel is less expensive to produce, so it also costs less to purchase.
Another factor that sets these panels apart is their color: Polycrystalline solar panels come with a blue surface rather than a black one. Unfortunately, they’re slightly less efficient, so more of these panels are necessary to generate the same amount of electricity as monocrystalline panels.
The relatively new kids on the block—thin-film solar panels—do not contain silicon crystals. Instead, they feature a thin layer of a photovoltaic substance such as amorphous silicon or cadmium telluride that is affixed to a solid sheet material. Thin-film panels are lighter in weight and beneficial for creating portable panels.
However, this type of solar panel isn’t all that efficient, and its use is generally reserved for the commercial solar installation industry. Thin-film panels are considered to be more visually pleasing, however, because the other two types of panels have lines running through them, while thin-film panels typically feature a flat, unblemished surface.
A solar panel’s wattage can be a top consideration for most buyers, and the best solar panels can vary in strength based on users’ needs. Panels available for charging digital devices and running small appliances such as blenders, fans, and RV refrigerators usually offer an average of 100 to 150 watts.
However, keep in mind that solar panels—unless they’re standalone—must be connected to a battery or to a generator that stores the energy until something is plugged in. The more efficient the solar panel, the more quickly it will charge a battery or generator. This means less time waiting for power to be available to use.
When comparing solar panels, note that the more-efficient ones can convert a higher percentage of sunshine into electricity—this is called the panel’s solar cell efficiency. Not all sellers list their panel’s solar cell efficiency, but there are typical ranges for panel types.
Efficiency can increase by situating the panel in the best direction for solar panels, typically facing south. It also depends on the panel’s open-circuit voltage (VOC). When selecting a panel, make sure the listed VOC does not exceed the maximum voltage input for the generator or charge controller that will be used.
Also known as its ability to tolerate heat, a solar panel’s temperature coefficient indicates its relationship between power production and outdoor temperature. It’s the amount of reduced power output for every degree of temperature increase. Therefore, the hotter it is outside, the less efficient a solar panel will be.
Although thin-film panels are the underdogs in many aspects, they’re on top when it comes to temperature coefficient. Thin-film panels experience an output loss of just 0.2 percent. Compare that with monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels that experience output losses of between 0.3 to 0.5 percent.
Temperature coefficient is worth considering if the panels are to be used in a hot climate where summer temperatures are frequently at or above 90 degrees, but unfortunately, the makers of user-friendly solar panels rarely list the products’ temperature coefficients.
Solar panels can still operate in cold climates because it’s not the sun’s heat that generates electricity but its light. Even in regions that see a lot of snow—as long as the snow is brushed off the surface of the panels—they will continue to produce electricity. Interestingly, when the sun comes out and reflects off the white snow, it creates additional light that can benefit solar panels. This is called the “albedo effect.”
Regions that experience a lot of sunny days are good options for solar panel use. Rainy and cloudy climates reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the panels, so less energy is produced. However, solar panels will still produce some power on cloudy days, just not as much.
Solar panels don’t come with moving parts, so they’re relatively durable. Of course, they’re not indestructible, so dropping something heavy on a panel could break it. Polycrystalline and monocrystalline panels are thicker and more durable than thin-film panels.
During the developmental phase of solar panel design, manufacturers subject the panels to rigorous tests, then use the results to improve the products. Some of the tests include the following:
Today’s solar panels include smaller and more efficient options, and they offer an eco-sensitive way to charge devices and run appliances. The following solar panels vary in efficiency and power output, making them well suited for a variety of charging needs. Each is among the top options in its category.
Those looking for a reliable solar panel to charge a 12V battery setup may need to look no further than the Renogy Solar Starter Kit. The kit comes with a 100-watt monocrystalline solar panel that is 42.2-inch by 19.6-inch by 1.38-inch, making it well suited for mounting on an RV roof or an off-grid shed roof.
The solar panel comes with a 21 percent solar cell efficiency rating, and perhaps best of all, it comes with its own charge controller. Users will still need a 12V battery plus an inverter if AC power is desired, and they can start transforming sunlight into electricity. The kit is expandable with the purchase of additional panels, and it’s also Bluetooth-compatible.(The Bluetooth module is not included.)
Get the Renogy solar panels starter kit on Amazon or at The Home Depot.
Looking for a solar panel to take camping or out boating that doesn’t cost a fortune? Check out the Newpowa 100W 12V Polycrystalline Solar Panel, which is capable of generating enough power to charge digital devices. This is a panel-only purchase, so users will need a small solar generator to use the power. Alternatively, the panel can be attached to a 12V battery setup but will need a charge controller and inverter (not included).
The Newpowa solar panel is 26.57-inch by 35.83-inch by 1.18-inch. It comes with a junction box and cables for connecting a controller. This is a polycrystalline solar panel so that it won’t charge a battery or generator as quickly as a monocrystalline panel. However, it will still reliably power digital devices, such as smartphones and tablets. Best of all, it comes at an attractive price point.
Get the Newpowa solar panel on Amazon or Newpowa.
Mounting a solar panel takes time and makes it a semipermanent feature. However, the Goal Zero Boulder Solar Panel’s kickstand allows users to set the panel anywhere without attaching it to a board, roof, or another object. The kickstand is adjustable, so users can fine-tune the angle to match the sun in the sky. The Goal Zero frame is also designed to accommodate mounting hardware (not included) for those who prefer a mounted panel.
The Goal Zero panel features a monocrystalline solar cell. It is 26.75-inch by 40-inch by 1.75-inch, and at just 20 pounds, it’s also a bit lighter in weight than similar-size panels, so there is no need to sacrifice power for portability. Users will need their own generator or battery setup.
Get the Goal Zero solar panel at Amazon, The Home Depot, or GoalZero.
Having a generator is optimal for charging devices at any time because the generator stores power that can be used later—at night or on cloudy days. But hauling a generator around can get cumbersome, and that’s where the Jackery SolarSaga 100W Solar Panel shines. Like other panels, the Jackery can be connected to a generator or battery setup, but it can also be used in a pinch to charge devices because it features built-in USB ports.
Just fold out the attached kickstand and angle the panel toward the sun—plug in your device and let it charge. The panel comes with one USB-A port and one USB-C port. It’s portable, weighing in at a mere 5.5 pounds and measuring 22.83 inches by 19.69 inches by 2.36 inches. Plus, it comes with a handle for carrying.
Get the Jackery solar panel at Amazon, The Home Depot, or Lowe’s.
Those looking for a complete solar system with plenty of power to charge devices and run household appliances may want to check out the Bluetti Portable Power Station with its 2,000-watt panels. The set of three high-quality monocrystalline panels can be mounted on a shed or cabin roof, angled toward the sun using the attached kickstands, or hung from their attached loops in a southern-facing window.
This is a plug-and-play setup designed for users who don’t want to worry about hooking anything up. Everything is ready to go: Just position the solar panels and plug the cables into the generator to start charging. Although this is a pricey option, it can be used to power household appliances, such as refrigerators, coffeemakers, and more, in the event of a power outage.
Get the Bluetti solar panels on Amazon.
Buyers who want a flexible and efficient monocrystalline solar panel may wish to consider the Renogy 100 Watt 12V Flexible Solar Panel. The Renogy panel can flex up to 248 degrees without damage, making it well suited for mounting to the curved hull of a boat or on top of an RV.
The panel is 48 inches by 21.6 inches and is made with cutting-edge polymers that allow it to bend, and it’s only 0.10 of an inch thick. It comes with a junction box and cables for connecting to a generator or battery setup, and it features six metal-reinforced mounting holes for securing the panel in place. This is a panel-only purchase and does not come with a generator or battery setup.
Get the Renogy flexible solar panel on Amazon or at Lowe’s.
Get 160 watts of charging power in this monocrystalline panel that folds for portability and compact storage. The Ecoflow 160 Watt Solar Panel is 26.8 inches by 61.8 inches when fully extended, but it folds to a compressed 16.5 inches by 26.8 inches when not in use.
The solar panel’s carrying case also serves as an adjustable stand for positioning the panel at the best angle for solar panels. This is, however, only a solar panel, so users will need to supply either a generator or a battery setup to store the energy. The panel is waterproof and comes with mounting holes along the edges that can be used to strap the panel in place on a roof or other object.
Get the EcoFlow solar panel on Amazon or at The Home Depot.
The solar panels on our lineup help generate non-carbon-producing electricity to power everything from digital devices to household appliances. Our best overall pick, the Renogy 100 solar panel starter kit, is a monocrystalline panel, and it comes with a charge controller and the cables necessary to hook it up to a generator or battery setup, so users don’t have to guess which charge controller to buy.
Our budget pick, the Newpowa solar panel, doesn’t transform light into electricity quite as quickly as the monocrystalline options. Still, it’s well suited for charging digital devices, and it comes at an attractive price point.
Solar panels come in a wide array of efficiency levels, sizes, mounting options, and required operator proficiency. Most panels can be paired with battery setups or generators, although some may require the use of adapters to connect with certain brands of generators.
We considered how most typical buyers would likely use the panel because power needs vary. We also considered how the panel’s efficiency in transforming sunlight into electricity and whether it was a good value for the price. We based our selections partly on brand reputation. Still, we didn’t automatically eliminate smaller or niche manufacturers if their panels offered comparable benefits.
We hunted for panels that offered something extra to consumers such as a kickstand for support orienting on the fly, the flexibility for installing on contoured surfaces, and the inclusion of a charge controller for those making their own battery setup.
No matter which panel buyers choose, they’re reducing their carbon footprint if they use a solar panel rather than plugging devices into a home outlet to charge. Solar panels also come with additional benefits.
Making a move to solar energy is a smart and sustainable choice, but understanding all the ins and outs of solar energy can be confusing. Fortunately, a degree in electrical engineering isn’t necessary. Those looking to invest in their first solar panel will probably have some questions.
Look for a panel that provides enough power to meet your charging needs. Most DIY-type panels will charge digital devices, and some more powerful ones will transform enough electricity to charge appliances.
A professionally installed solar panel setup is probably the best option for those looking to supplement their home’s existing electrical system.
Currently, monocrystalline solar panels are the most efficient.
Solar panels are designed for minimal maintenance, but be sure to clear away snow, trim branches blocking the panels, and wipe off any dirt to ensure the highest amount of sunlight reaches the solar cells.
Rebates are generally available only for whole-house solar panels installed by professionals. Check with your local building authority to find out whether there are any financial incentives in your community. Sometimes the best-value solar panels are recycled models, so refurbished panels can be a good option if the budget is tight.
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