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A guide to solar panels

solar panels

You’ve seen them on roofs, the side of buildings and in fields from the window seat of your train but what are solar panels and how do they work? Discover more about solar panels and how you can install them at home and cut your energy bills.

What are solar panels?

Solar panels are modules that convert sunlight into electricity. Their name comes from the fact that the sun is the most reliable, and most used, source of light. 

Solar panels are a collection of smaller tiled-shaped solar (or photovoltaic) cells assembled on a panel-like structure. Each cell contains two “tiles” of semi-conducting silicon crystals which are separated by a sheet of glass and polymer resin.

How do solar panels work?

When sunlight (made up of ultraviolet, visible and infrared lights) hits the silicon crystals on the panel, they become energised and react by producing an electric current. 

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After the reaction has taken place, the current is then set a path so it can be transported to your home, stored in batteries or fed back into the National Grid.

The reason solar cells are comprised of two tiles is that for the silicon crystals to react, there needs to be an electric field, i.e. one side needs to be a positive charge and the other, negative.  

The use of solar panels extends further than the face of the earth, with astronauts using them on satellites to capture the sun’s energy to power space missions.

Types of solar panels

Advances in technology mean there will always be new, sometimes custom-made, versions of solar panels appearing on the horizon. Most solar panels in the UK are, or take elements from these types of solar panels:

  • Monocrystalline solar panels
  • Polycrystalline solar panels
  • Hybrid solar panels
  • Thin-film solar panels

Solar panel cost

Generally speaking, solar panels can be expensive to buy and to install. Even for the smallest of panels and systems, the costs involved can run into the thousands. 

According to Green Match, covering just 8㎡ of your roof with solar panels would cost between £1,500 and £3,000 with the average cost in London being around £6,200. 

Despite this, solar panel prices are lowering with many types available over the internet or in-store at homeware shops like IKEA.

How much could I save on energy bills with solar panels?

In a study by the Energy Saving Trust, you could save between £100 and £240 on your annual energy bills. At an average cost of £6,200 (based on prices in London), it will take decades to recoup your expenses. 

On the positive side, installing solar panels may increase the value of your home, which could see you turn a decent profit for adding the panels to your property.

Solar panel installation

Installing solar panels is very much a professional’s job. If fitted to your roof, you’ll need the services of a surveyor to check if your home is suitable for solar panels and scaffolding to allow the workmen to gain access and install the panels safely.  

Your installer and system should meet the standards of the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS). This certificate ensures your panels have been adequately tested and fits the criteria of the Renewable Heat Incentive. The actual installation involves attaching fixing brackets to the roof and then clamping the panels to the brackets. 

Installing solar panels at home should take a day or two and even better, they’ll need little to no maintenance over a 25-30 year period.

Unless your property is a listed building or in a conservation area, you won’t usually need planning permission to install solar panels.

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