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Solar panel buying guide: Everything you need to know

Start here if you're considering solar panels for your home.

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The question of whether to get home solar panels is no small decision. There's the issue of whether the energy savings will offset the costs. You may wonder whether you need a new roof first or how long solar panels last. There are many factors to consider before buying home solar panels. Below we'll go into the basics of solar panels and answer all of your pressing questions so that you can make the right choice for your home, budget and energy goals.

How solar panels work

First, how do solar panels work? Solar panels are made of photovoltaic cells. The sun emits solar radiation, which is absorbed by the PV cells when the sun shines directly on them. The energy from the sun creates electric charges, which move according to the electrical field in the cell, directing the flow of electrical energy. Parts of the solar panel also convert energy from direct current to alternating current so it can be used in homes. Certain solar panel array components also store the energy for later use even when the sun is not up. You can learn more about how solar panels work in our guide.

The benefits of solar panels

Why would you want home solar panels? Solar panels for your home come with many benefits:

  • Savings on energy: The most direct benefit is that you can gain the opportunity to power your own home outside of the electrical grid. That will save you money, and if you generate extra power, you might even be able to get credit on your bill from the electric utility.
  • Solar is an abundant power source: According to the US Department of Energy, just one hour of noontime summer sun meets the annual US electricity demand. Even if you're in an area with a lot of rain or shade coverage, you can still save on your electricity bill.
  • Help with your home value: If you plan to sell your home down the line, having home solar panels can be a major perk to buyers and can help increase your home's value. 
  • Going green: Since solar is a renewable resource, you can minimize your carbon footprint.
  • Independence from electrical grid failures: Some areas have electrical grids that are less than reliable. If you experience frequent power outages in your area, your own solar power can keep the lights on.
  • Power your camping: Some small solar panel arrays fit right onto RVs or you can take them camping so you have electricity, no matter how remote the location.

Where to buy solar panels

Many businesses specialize in selling and installing solar panels for homes. Search online to locate solar panel suppliers and installers in your area. 

You can even shop for solar panels at major home goods stores like Home Depot. Stores like this can even set you up with professional installation to help you get a residential solar panel setup.

Many of these services also help you access financing for your solar panels for your house. It's common for people to lease solar panels and pay monthly. Many programs offer $0 down and rebates might even be available in your area through local utility companies. You might also inquire about any active tax credits, such as the 26% solar tax credit as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, which might help pay for a substantial part of the array.

Solar panel installation

You can either choose professional installation or self-install the arrays if you're handy. Pick the option that best matches your level of comfort with solar installation. If you opt for professional installation, make sure to talk to your solar panel supplier. Some suppliers offer special pricing on installation or know a subcontractor that can do it affordably.

A common concern is also whether you need a new roof before you install solar panels for your house. If your roof is older, you may need to change out your roof before you put on residential solar panels. Otherwise, the panels might not have the necessary structure in place to support the weight and may also have to remove the panels to replace the roof.

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Care and lifespan of solar panels

Many solar panels are guaranteed to last anywhere from 20 to 30 years, with 25 years being a common estimate. On top of that, they're fairly maintenance free, just requiring that you keep them free of obstructions like dirt, leaves and snow. Warranties also tend to help with professional repairs.

Solar panels have what is known as a "useful life" period. What that means is that the panels produce less energy gradually as they age. You might notice a significant drop-off in how much energy you are getting from the panels roughly 25 years after the installation. For instance, many warranties guarantee 90% of panel production for the first ten years, and 80% for the remainder of the 25-30 years. But that doesn't mean they're immediately useless, and they can still produce energy for a long time.

With the lifespan of residential solar panels in mind, it's common to wonder when you'll start making money. Many factors influence when and how you start making money from a solar array, including how many solar panels you have, how much energy you use and whether you opt to rent or buy solar panels for your house.

Read more about when your solar panels will start making you money.

One additional point to consider 

Sometimes you might want to lessen your reliance on the grid, but you aren't looking for a major home addition or remodel. Smaller solar gadgets can help you save on electricity bills. Check out small ways to go solar today.