An introduction to solar panels

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You can’t have failed to notice the number of new, shiny solar panels appearing on south-facing roofs across the country. Solar power is here to stay, and as the technology advances, solar panels are becoming more and more efficient.
It’s green, too, and saves money long term. Are you thinking of installing your own? If so, here's what you need to know...

 

What are solar panels?

Put simply, solar panels are flat plates that sit on a sunny roof and use either:
 
  • photovoltaic (PV) cells to turn sunlight into electricity  
  • a solar thermal system that lets sunlight heat water
 
Electricity generated by Solar PV then feeds into your own mains supply, and hot water generated by a solar thermal system feeds into your hot water tank. The technology is developing all the time, making solar panels more and more efficient.

The difference between solar PV and solar thermal 

Solar PV 

Photovoltaic (PV) cells in flat plate panels convert the sun’s radiation to electricity. A PV cell itself uses a semiconducting material, generally silicon, with two electrically different layers, rather like a wafer biscuit. When sunlight strikes the PV cell, it excites the silicon electrons and creates an electric field across the different layers. This causes electricity to flow.
 
Solar Thermal system
Flat plate panels on the roof contain solar fluid – a mixture of water and antifreeze – that absorbs radiation from the sun. A sensor detects when the solar fluid is warmer than the water in your hot water tank. Then, the warm solar fluid is pumped into a coiled heat exchanger in your hot water tank. This heats up the water ready to use.

What are the benefits of solar technology? 

  • You’ll cut your electricity and heating bills. Sunlight is free, so once you’ve covered the cost of the installation of your solar PV panels or solar thermal system your bills will be reduced
  • You can be paid for the electricity your panels generate. The government has a ‘Feed- In Tariff’ scheme where they pay you for generating electricity, even if you’re using it
  • Your system may produce more electricity than you can use. In this case you can sell your electricity to the National Grid
  • You’ll cut your carbon footprint. Solar electricity and solar thermal is renewable, low-carbon energy, saving tonnes of carbon dioxide over the lifetime of your system
  • Solar technology will look great on your Energy Performance Certificate if you come to sell or rent your home, and may increase its value.

What to consider before you buy solar panels

  • Do you own your home? If you do, no problem. If you own it as a leasehold, you’ll need to get permission from the freeholder. If you rent, you’ll need agreement from your landlord to install solar – good luck!
  • Is your home a flat? If you live under the eaves in a top floor flat and the roof is yours, no problem (but see leasehold above). Solar probably isn’t right for you if you live in a mid-floor or basement flat.
  • Does your roof face south? Perfect. Although roofs facing other ways aren’t necessarily out of the question for some schemes.
  • Is your roof shaded? If you’re shaded by tall trees or other buildings, solar probably won’t work.
  • How big is your roof? The bigger the better as you can fit more panels on, but even a small roof can have some modest panels
  • Is your home a listed building or do you live in a conservation area? Planning regulations and covenants may cause problems
  • Can you afford solar? There’s an upfront cost in installing solar, but if you’re planning on staying in your home long term, you’ll make the money back over several years.
  • Choose a reputable installer Like the early years of double glazing, there are cowboys out there. In your local area, knock on a few doors that have solar on the roof and ask the owners for recommendations.

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