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What is the solar top?

Dec. 06, 2023
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  • A solar panel–also called solar cell panels, solar electric panels, or photo-voltaic (PV) modules–is a group of cells that make energy from sunlight–all mounted together in a framework, called a panel. Homeowners then install these panels on top of their roof.   
  • A solar roof goes a step further by using materials in the roof’s construction that can absorb sunlight directly rather than installing panels on top of an existing roof. The term “solar roof” may refer to an entire roof or just a section.

Most people today have some familiarity with solar panels, whether on camping equipment or on rooftops. Believe it or not, the first rooftop solar panels, connected directly to a building’s roof, were installed in the late 1800s.

The first solar roof appeared almost a century later, in 1973. Innovators at the University of Delaware integrated solar cells into the roof instead of putting them on top.  

Since then, the solar energy industry has evolved considerably. Now that we understand it as a viable, sustainable energy source, today’s consumers seek the best ways to leverage solar and other renewable sources to meet ever-increasing energy demands.

The comparison below explains some features of solar roofs vs solar panels that can help you harness a virtually endless energy supply from the Southern California sun. It also offers some tips to help you decide which option best suits your needs.

What is a Solar Roof?

Simply put, the difference between a solar roof and solar panels is the relationship of whole (roof) to part (panel). Solar roofs are constructed with integrated materials that convert sunlight into electrical power, rather than placing panels on top. The integrated solar energy cells may be part of a building’s initial construction, or function as a later, post-construction upgrade. 

Homeowners may upgrade to a solar roof if they discover the original structure needs replacing, or simply because they want to save money on utility bills while simultaneously increasing their home’s value. 

While solar panel installations can look like obvious additions, solar roofs appear as seamless elements of architectural design. Homeowners concerned with improving solar energy’s aesthetics proved to be a factor in driving the industry’s growth. 

Although typically thin, solar roofs are quite durable and resilient against harsh weather. In and around San Diego, they also tend to shine, as they’re commonly made of materials like gallium, indium, selenide, and copper. Several different types of solar roofs are listed below. 

Types of Solar Roofs

  • Solar Metal Roofing

A solar metal roof looks just like those on metal buildings. They contain several layers with a solar cell layer–including tempered glass–on top. With invisible wiring or connection hardware and a variety of available colors, you can select a metal roof that complements your home’s appearance. 

  • Interlocked Solar Panel Roofing

This roof type features sections of solar panels that replace traditional roofs of asphalt shingles or clay tiles. Without roofing materials beneath, the solar panels interlock to keep out air, water, and debris.  

  • Solar Shingles

Solar shingles, which look similar to other roofing shingles, are a popular choice. Their hidden wiring and connections give them a sleek appearance. Monocrystalline shingles–made from silicon–offer the highest efficiency. 

The initial cost of installing a solar roof will likely be much more expensive than installing solar panels to cover a comparable size. 

The advantages of a solar roof include significant added home value, lower electricity bills, and rebates and/or credits. Added together, these benefits can easily outweigh your installation investment.

Solar Panel Advantages

Solar panels, which are more well known, have more practical advantages and lower costs than solar roofs. 

  • Adjustability
    Panels can be angled to maximize insolation and energy efficiency.
     
  • Portability
    Solar panels can be removed and reinstalled, although this option is not usually advisable, especially if the installation company lacks sufficient experience.
  • Affordability
    Solar panel installations are typically less expensive than solar roofs, if no roof work is required. However, if you know your roof will require repairs in the near future, plan on scheduling them before installing solar panels. 

How to Choose Between a Solar Roof vs Solar Panels

One of the main reasons homeowners choose a solar roof instead of solar panels–once they have confirmed that solar panels will work on their roof–is their aesthetic appeal. 

While choosing between solar roofs vs solar panels can be difficult, answering the questions using the table below can help you make the best selection. 

COMPARING SOLAR ROOFS TO SOLAR PANELS Solar
Roof Solar
PanelsWill you need roof repair soon (i.e. less than 1-3 years)?

Is portability of your solar system a consideration?

Is it important that your solar system does not look like an add-on?

Is energy efficiency (maximum energy for the least roof coverage) your primary concern? 

Is durability the most important consideration? 

Is minimizing the overall cost of your installation most important?

Do you have metal siding on your home?

These suggestions weigh the strengths and weaknesses of both options to help you decide when to consider installing a solar roof, solar panels, or both. 

Before committing to any kind of solar installation, make sure to consult with an experienced company that can give you specific, detailed answers about using solar energy sources. You need a company that can obviously perform the installation to the highest standards, but will also be there to support you in the future.

Baker Electric Home Energy has served the Southern California area for over 15 years and provided clean energy solutions to more than 17,000 of your neighbors. Our way of doing business, The Baker Way®, which includes delivering extraordinary service and building customer confidence, is exemplified by being awarded the Torch Award for 2021. For more information on whether to go with solar roofs vs solar panels, contact us.  

The image in your mind when you think of solar panels is probably pretty standard: flat black or blue slabs arranged on a rooftop. But look closely at the roofs of some houses and you might notice a surprise.

Tesla gave the solar system a new look. Instead of solar panels that sit in your front yard or stand out on the roof, the company decided to turn every shingle into a solar panel. The Tesla Solar Roof replaces an existing roof and captures sunlight to help power your home in a clean and streamlined manner. Tesla's product is one of a small but growing market of solar shingles, which offer a different look and installation setup compared to traditional solar panels.

There are some significant downsides, namely that the Tesla Solar Roof is quite expensive. (Tesla doesn't operate a public relations department to field requests for comment.) 

Can solar panels save you money?

Interested in understanding the impact solar can have on your home? Enter some basic information below, and we’ll instantly provide a free estimate of your energy savings.

For homeowners interested in solar energy, that raises the question: Should you go with the standard solar panel system or try the less intrusive -- but pricey -- Tesla Solar Roof? To help you with your buying questions, I've compiled a list of the biggest differences between the two solar options. Read on.

Johner Images/Getty Images

Solar panels

Solar panels should be relatively familiar by now, as they have been gaining popularity and have become more affordable in recent years. An array can be located on your roof or set to stand in your yard, depending on what works best for you. While there are a variety of different brands and types of panels, they all offer a clean energy alternative to fossil fuel sources like coal or natural gas. These panels can be expensive, and some are more difficult to install than others. But for the most part, you can expect cheaper energy bills, a smaller carbon footprint and increased property value. 

Read more: 5 thing to consider before you buy solar panels

Tesla

Tesla Solar Roof

Instead of using panels, the Tesla Solar Roof turns your entire roof into your solar array. The Tesla Solar Roof uses tempered glass panels that replace your standard shingles, providing the same protection you'd expect from a traditional roof while also capturing solar energy. The Tesla Solar Roof is novel, but less proven and harder to transfer to another home if you move because they are custom made for each roof. 

Solar panels or a Tesla Solar Roof?

Pricing

Price is tricky when it comes to solar systems because a lot depends on what your house and property can handle. There's the cost of solar panels and the infrastructure needed to support them, and then there's the installation fee -- and you have to account for the capacity of the system. You can get tax credits and other incentives for installing these systems, so that'll help ease the price somewhat. Industry data shows that the typical solar panel system costs somewhere between $3 and $4 per watt -- so a 5 kW system might run you $15,000 to $20,000. 

Conventional solar panels are cheaper than the Tesla Solar Roof. Tesla has also faced some challenges keeping the price down, which has been an issue for some people. Estimates suggest a price per watt (before adding a battery) of nearly $5 for the Tesla Solar Roof -- which would be $25,000 for a 5 kW system. 

Installation

The installation process for solar energy systems can be complicated. In general, traditional solar panels are easier because they can be installed in different places depending on the layout of your property -- either on your roof or on the ground. The Tesla Solar Roof can only be installed on your roof, obviously, and is a bit more of a to-do since it requires replacing your entire roof. There are fewer contractors familiar with the Tesla Solar Roof system than conventional panels, so this can create challenges in finding a capable installer.

Solar power capabilities

Both the Tesla Solar Roof and traditional solar panels will have a similar ability to meet your power needs, although your ability to scale your solar power system to your electricity needs might be more limited with the Tesla Solar Roof compared to panels. It will likely be easier to expand a setup with traditional solar panels in the future if you find your electricity needs have increased. Solar panels are generally more efficient than the solar roof.

Mobility and longevity

One downside of the Tesla Solar Roof is the fact that it really can't move with you. Because it is custom-fit to the roof of your home, you can't pack it up and install it on another home. Conventional solar panels offer a bit more flexibility here, as you could potentially take your solar system with you -- though you may want to leave it to benefit from the boost in property value that they provide. 

Read more: Want something smaller than a whole-home solar system? See our picks for the best portable solar panels and solar generators.

Winner for most: Solar panels

For now, conventional solar panels are the safer bet if you are looking to make the switch to solar power. They are a proven product. They are also typically cheaper and offer a bit more flexibility in terms of how you install them. 

Tesla's Solar Roof shows a lot of promise, but the custom tiles can be cost-prohibitive and early troubles with the product make it hard to recommend at this stage. Future versions of the Tesla Solar Roof may improve and make good on the promising concept. For now, stick with what works so you can save on your energy bill and shrink your carbon footprint.

What is the solar top?

Solar Panels vs. Tesla Solar Roof: Here's the Difference

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