Types of solar panels: which one is the best choice?

Updated

There are a lot of things to consider when you’re looking to install a solar panel system, one of which being what kind of solar panels to get. 

Most of the solar panels on the market today for residential solar energy systems can fit into three categories: monocrystalline solar panels, polycrystalline solar panels, and thin film solar panels. 

Each of these types of solar cells causes the solar panels to have different characteristics. How can you tell which is the best type of solar panel for you? 

In this article, we’ll explore the differences between the three types of solar panels to help you decide which ones should go on your roof.

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    types of solar panels: thin film, monocrystalline, and polycrystalline

    The main types of solar panels on the market are thin film, monocrystalline, and polycrystalline.

    What are the different types of solar panels?

    Although there are tons of different solar panels that exist, most will fit into one of these three types:

    • Monocrystalline solar panels
    • Polycrystalline solar panels
    • Thin film solar panels 

    Each type has a distinct set of features that makes them better suited for certain solar projects. Let’s take a closer look at each.

    What are monocrystalline solar panels?

    monocrystalline solar panel

    Monocrystalline solar panels are the most common for residential solar installations.

    Overview

    Pros Cons
    High efficiency Higher cost
    Aesthetics  

    Monocrystalline solar panels are the most popular solar panels used in rooftop solar installations today. 

    One of the reasons people tend to choose monocrystalline solar panels is because of how they look. The solar cells within monocrystalline panels are a single, flat black color, which makes them popular among homeowners. 

    You can identify a monocrystalline panel by the shape of the silicon wafers, which are shaped like squares with the corners cut off. 

    Construction

    Monocrystalline solar panels get their name from how they are made. Each of the individual solar cells contain a silicon wafer that is made of a single crystal of silicon. The single crystal is formed using the Czochralski method, in which a ‘seed’ crystal is placed into a vat of molten pure silicon at a high temperature. 

    The seed is then drawn up and the molten silicon forms around it, creating one crystal. The large crystal, also called an ingot, is then sliced into thin wafers that are used to make the solar cells. 

    Usually, a monocrystalline panel will contain either 60 or 72 solar cells, depending on the size of the panel. Most residential installations use 60-cell monocrystalline silicon panels. 

    Performance

    Monocrystalline solar panels usually have the highest efficiency and power capacity out of all types of solar panels. Monocrystalline panel efficiencies can range from 17% to 22%.

    Because monocrystalline solar cells are made out of a single crystal of silicon, electrons are able to flow easier through the cell, which makes the PV cell efficiency higher than other types of solar panels. 

    The higher efficiency of monocrystalline solar panels means that they require less space to reach a given power capacity. So, monocrystalline solar panels will usually have a higher power output rating than either polycrystalline or thin film modules. 

    In other words, you would need less monocrystalline solar panels in your solar power system to generate the same amount of power that, say, a greater number of polycrystalline solar panels would. This makes monocrystalline solar panels ideal for people with limited roof space.

    Cost

    Because of the way that monocrystalline panels are manufactured, they end up costing more than other kinds of solar panels. Their high efficiency and power ratings also bump up the price. Most premium solar panels, like the SunPower X-series and the LG NeON panels, are monocrystalline. 

    According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, monocrystalline solar panels sell for about $0.05 per watt higher than polycrystalline modules. As solar technology and manufacturing has improved, the price difference between polycrystalline and monocrystalline panels has shrunk. 

    See how much solar panels will cost for your home

    What are polycrystalline solar panels?

    polycrystalline solar panel

    Polycrystalline solar panels are popular for designing a solar system on a budget. 

    Overview

    Pros Cons
    Low cost Lower efficiency
      Aesthetics

    Polycrystalline panels, sometimes referred to as multicrystalline panels, are popular among homeowners looking to install solar panels on a budget. 

    Usually, polycrystalline silicon solar cells won’t have the corners cut off of them, so you won’t see the large white spaces on the front of the panel that you see on monocrystalline panels. 

    The way they are manufactured causes the panels to have a blue color, which some people consider to be an eyesore. The manufacturing process also makes them less efficient than monocrystalline panels.  

    Construction

    Polycrystalline solar cells are manufactured like monocrystalline panels - a seed crystal is placed into molten silica. However, instead of pulling out the silicon seed crystal, the whole vat of silicon cools. This cooling process causes multiple crystals to form. 

    The multiple crystals are what cause the panels to have that ‘marbled’ blue appearance. Just like monocrystalline panels, polycrystalline panels will contain either 60 or 72 cells.

    Performance

    The multiple silicon crystals in each solar cell makes it harder for electrons to flow. This crystal structure makes the efficiency rate of polycrystalline panels lower than monocrystalline panels. Polycrystalline panel efficiency ratings will typically range from 15% to 17%.

    However, thanks to new technologies, polycrystalline panels are now much closer in efficiency to monocrystalline solar panels than they have been in the past. 

    Quality improvements have also helped push the standard 60-cell polycrystalline panels from 240 watts to over 300 watts. 

    Cost

    Polycrystalline solar panels are cheaper to produce than monocrystalline panels, which allowed them to make up a significant market share in residential installations between 2012 and 2016. 

    But while they’re still cheaper than monocrystalline panels, it’s not by very much. This, plus their lower performance has caused more people to choose monocrystalline solar panels over time.

    What are thin film solar panels?

    thin film solar panel

    Though an innovative technology, thin film solar panels aren’t the best option for home solar. 

    Overview

    Pros Cons
    Flexible and lightweight Extremely low efficiency
    Aesthetics Short life expectancy

    Thin film solar panels are completely different from monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels. 

    They are solid black, without the normal silicon cell outlines you see on the face of a crystalline solar panel. Usually, thin film solar panels are lightweight and flexible, making them easy to install. 

    Thin film solar cells are mostly used in large scale operations, such as utility or industrial solar installations because of their lower efficiency ratings. 

    Construction

    Thin film solar panels are made by depositing a thin layer of a photovoltaic substance onto a solid surface, like glass. Examples of these photovoltaic substances include: 

    • Amorphous silicon (a-Si)
    • Cadmium telluride (CdTe)
    • Copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS)
    • Dye-sensitized solar cells (DSC)

    Each of these materials creates a different ‘type’ of solar panel, however, they all fall under the umbrella of being thin film solar cells. 

    Because of the manufacturing process, the panels end up being lightweight and, in some cases, flexible. However, it also makes them less efficient than crystalline solar panels. 

    Some popular manufacturers of thin film panels include Sanyo, Kaneka, and First Solar. 

    Find out which solar panel type is best for your home

    Performance

    Thin film technology has a reputation for being the worst of the solar panel technologies because they have the lowest efficiency. 

    As recently as a few years ago, thin film efficiencies were in the single digits. Researchers have recently achieved 23.4% efficiency with thin film cell prototypes but thin film panels that are commercially available generally have efficiency in the 10–13% range.

    The low efficiency rating means you would need to install more thin film panels to produce the same amount of electricity as a mono or polycrystalline solar panel. 

    Because of this, thin film solar panels don’t really make sense for residential installations, where space is limited. Instead, they work better in larger scale installations, like industrial or utility solar projects, because more panels can be installed to meet energy demands. 

    Thin film panels also have shorter lifespans than other types of solar panels. Because they degrade quicker, you might have to replace them more often. 

    Cost

    Thin film solar panels have the lowest cost out of the three solar panel types because of their low performance. 

    They are also easier to install than crystalline silicon panels, which drops their price even lower. The simple installation process is another reason why thin film panels are great for large-scale commercial projects. 

    However, the price of monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels continues to get cheaper. This means a more powerful and efficient monocrystalline or polycrystalline system won’t cost you much more than a larger, less efficient thin film system. 

    What is the best solar panel type for your home?

    In general, thin film solar panels don’t make sense for residential solar installations. Although they’re cheaper, they’ll require more space, and won’t produce as much electricity as monocrystalline or polycrystalline panels.

    For most residential solar panel installations, it makes the most sense to install monocrystalline panels. Although you have to pay a higher price, you get better efficiency, and a sleeker aesthetic than you would with polycrystalline panels. 

    If you’re on a tight budget, however, polycrystalline panels might make more sense for you. 

    In our humble opinion, the choice between monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels is not the most important choice you make when buying solar panels. There are two things we regard as more important than the solar cell type when choosing solar panels for your home:

    Choosing a good brand of solar panels

    A good brand of solar panel is from a company that invests heavily in the quality of its manufacturing process, as well as in its reputation. 

    To see which brands top the rankings in 2021, check out our ranking of the best solar panels for home.

    Choosing the right solar installer

    It is extremely important that you choose a good quality local solar installation company to install the solar system for you. 

    Compare the prices and reputations of solar companies in your area here to start finding the right solar panels for your home. 

    How much can you save with solar?

    Key takeaways

    • There are three main types of solar panels: monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin film.
    • Monocrystalline solar panels are highly efficient and have a sleek design, but come at a higher price point than other solar panels.
    • Polycrystalline solar panels are cheaper than monocrystalline panels, however, they are less efficient and aren’t as aesthetically pleasing.
    • Thin film solar panels are the cheapest, but have the lowest efficiency rating and require a lot of space to meet your energy needs.
    • It is more important to consider the brand of solar panels and what solar installer you will choose than what type of solar panels you should install.
     - Author of Solar Reviews

    Andrew Sendy

    Home Solar Journalist

    Andy is deeply concerned about climate change but is also concerned about cost of living pressures on American families. He advocates for solar energy and solar battery storage only to the extent that they make financial sense for homeowners. He is not affiliated with any particular solar company in the United States.

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