Solar panels: everything you need to know

Solar panels main image

With soaring energy costs ahead of us and the climate emergency making itself known, many of us are looking at our energy consumption. But what about where it comes from? That, too, is a growing consideration for a lot of people.

Solar panels are an increasingly popular solution, both for new builds and retrofitted to older homes. Some people are also adding them to a new garden office – another project that’s gaining popularity.

And it’s easy to see why. Solar panels – unlike many traditional ways of generating energy – are also much kinder to the planet. They don’t produce any waste after you’ve installed them, and the sun is literally a free, so far endlessly renewable energy source.

In fact, more and more countries really encourage you to install these systems.

Whether you want to save on energy costs or be kinder to the planet (or both), they’re a viable option for many.

So, shall we take a closer look at all the details?

Paul Newman house
Photography: Paul Newman, energy expert at Housetastic.

Tell me right away – how much can I save?

Let’s start with the big question. While the panels won’t bring your energy costs down to zero, they can definitely make a dent in how much you’ll have to pay.

The actual price depends on a few factors. The size of your system is one of them. But whether you’re home during the day also influences how much you can save.

Ava Kelly, energy saving expert at Love Energy Savings, says you could save up to £405 a year.

Brian Brian Davenport, owner and co-founder at The Solar Centre, says something similar. “A typical household with a 4.2 kilowatt-peak system can knock between £275 and £485 a year off bills,” he says.

And according to William Hobbs at Myjobquote.co.uk, you could even save up to £1000.

Are all solar panels the same?

Good thing you’re asking – the answer is no. There are three types you can choose from: monocrystalline, thin film, and polycrystalline.

Monocrystalline solar panels are the most expensive ones, but they are also extremely efficient. Plus, as William, they look incredibly sleek as they are black and come in an octagonal shape.

“Polycrystalline panels tend to be more affordable,” he also says. “And they reduce the
waste of materials in production – making them a more eco-friendly option.” With a square, blue mosaic look, they also are what we all think of when we hear the words solar panels. They’re also less effective than other materials, which is something to keep in mind.

Finally, thin film solutions are the least effective of the three, but the most versatile. They come, as the name suggest, as a thin film.

These solar panels are black, which means they blend well with roofing materials, and the sheet form and material mean they are very flexible. You can actually wrap them around objects, so you can really personalise their use.

Installation
Photography: iStock.com / Avalon_Studio.

Okay, so only the material differs?

The answer is, once again, no. There is also a difference in how your system works.

You’ll find two main types: solar thermal and solar photovoltaic panels.

The first takes sun rays and converts them into heat, which is why these systems are usually used to warm your home. They can produce electricity, too, but it’s less common.

A photovoltaic system of solar panels, on the other hand, converts heat from the sun directly into electricity.

It’s best to speak to an expert before settling on one system or the other. Talk through what you want and need, and they’ll help you find the perfect solution.

What do I need to know about installing solar panels?

You can fit solar panels on any home, but if your roof faces south you’ll generate the most electricity. “It’s still worth installing solar panels on east or west-facing roofs, as the loss in output is only minor,” says Brian.

“However, if you have a north-facing roof, or if you’re house is largely shaded from the sun, solar panels may not be the best choice.”

You should also make sure that your roof is structurally sound and able to carry the system. A structural engineer can help with this, and many companies selling solar panels will work with one to make this process easier.

Finally, you’ll need to keep some space in your loft for the inverter. This is what changes the direct current electricity generated by your panels into alternating current, which is the standard flow needed to power your home.

But don’t worry – Brian tells me the inverter is typically the size of a microwave, so you’ll surely find a place for it.

And there’s more good news. Solar panels can usually be installed under permitted development rights, which means you don’t need to apply for planning permission with your council.

However, always double check with your local authority, as there might be more rules in place, or example if you live in a conservation area that’s subject to an Article 4 Direction. Plus, solar panels often need to meet specific criteria to fall under permitted development – so, once again, always double check before you install them.

Do they even work properly in Britain?

It’s a common joke that you’ll have to take cold showers when it’s cloudy, but that’s not the case. You’re unlikely to run your whole home off solar energy, so hot water won’t be an issue.

But even on overcast days, solar panels work quite well. Not as effective as during blue skies, but they’re still getting their job done. And why not? After all, it’s not like the sun has gone away – it’s just a little weaker.

Funnily enough, rain can actually make your panels work better in the long run. Why, I hear you ask?

Well, it leads nicely onto the next point.

Solar panel cleaning
Photography: iStock.com / levkr.

Solar panel maintenance

Here’s some good news: your solar panels usually don’t need a lot of upkeep. Repairs are rare.

The most important thing is to keep them clean, because too much dirt impacts their efficiency.

That’s where rain comes in: it washes away dust and dirt. So you don’t have to clean your panels any other way. Most of them are self cleaning, too. This means they have a special coating that ensures raindrops won’t stick to the surface.

However, bird droppings and even pollen can be a bit too persistent for rain. If you need specific cleaning, there are plenty of companies out there who’ll get your solar panels back into shape – and it can cost you as little as £25.

“It’s also essential to ensure nearby tree branches are not growing too close to the panels over the years,” Brian adds. “Overhanging leafy branches will affect your panels’ output.”

How much will it cost me to install these systems?

This is something often quoted as a downside. Let’s not beat around the bush: the upfront cost is pretty high. We’re talking an average of £6400.

The final cost does depend on the system and the type of panels you choose as well as the size, but you should estimate at least £5000 – ideally more. Solar panels can cost up to and more than £10,000.

There may be some government help available. There used to be the Renewable Heat Incentive, but this closed to applications earlier this year. And in his spring statement, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak scrapped VAT on energy efficiency measures, including solar panels, for the next five years.

But do check with the government to see what’s possible. Your local council may also be able to help.

Bear in mind that it’s a good idea to make your interest in solar panels known now. Waiting lists for installation can be longer than you might expect, particularly for batteries.

Oh, and don’t forget: you’re able to sell any surplus energy your solar panels generate back to the national grid. It might not make you rich, but it’s a good piece of information to keep in mind when deciding whether you should install solar panels.

Featured image: Photography: Paul Newman, energy expert at Housetastic.

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