Solar Panel Types And Cost

Today, we will be talking bout the Solar Panel Types And Cost. If you’ve already begun shopping the different types of solar panels, you’ve probably noticed that they don’t all look exactly alike. But it’s not just cosmetic, solar panels don’t all perform the same way. Each of them have different capabilities with energy efficiency levels and total installation costs. The 3 most popular types of solar panels you can have installed include:

Solar Panel Types And Cost

  • Solar Shingles
  • Polycrystalline Solar Panels
  • Monocrystalline Solar Panels
  • Thin Film Solar Panels

Wondering which types of solar panels are best for you? Much will depend on your budget and the cost to install solar energy, roof space, access to sunlight, and the desired energy efficiency you are hoping for.

Let’s look at the major types of panels and what you need to know to be a smart solar energy shopper.

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Solar Roof Shingles

The newest type of solar panel installation option is the growing trend of installing solar roof shingles. They are the modern answer to having a beautiful roof that can mimic architectural asphalt shingle roofs but with the added benefit of a home that is equipped with a solar energy system.

Solar shingles are as durable as regular asphalt shingles and protect your roof and home just as well. For each solar shingle installed, they can produce anywhere from 13 to 63 watts of energy. They can withstand any weather elements, but it can be expensive when comparing the costs to install solar shingles.

solar shingle roofs

Polycrystalline Solar Panels

Solar panels are made up of crystalline cells. A typical home rooftop solar panel contains up to 40 solar cells. There are two main types of solar panel cells: polycrystalline and monocrystalline. It’s good to understand the difference between the two because your choice will determine cost and the amount of roof space your solar installation requires.

Polycrystalline types of solar panels were developed first. These cells can be recognized within a solar panel for their rectangular shape, created when silicon is melted and poured into a mold. The industry manufactures polycrystalline solar very effectively, as little silicon is wasted in the process. This contributes to the competitive pricing of installing polycrystalline solar panels or even solar leasing costs.

But polycrystalline cells are not as heat tolerant or efficient as the monocrystalline cells More specifically, they don’t make as much electricity from the sun that shines on them. This can affect things like the amount of electricity you can sell from solar energy.

different types of Solar panels on top of a roof.

Monocrystalline Solar Panels

Monocrystalline solar panel cells tend to achieve higher levels of efficiency because they are made of more pure silicon. (You’ll notice a uniformity to their coloring.) Their cylindrical shape also helps these cells achieve higher efficiency. When choosing between a monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panel system, it will be important to find your solar sun number score to find out how much potential your system will have with your location and amount of sunlight it receives.

To make them, solar manufacturers carve silicon ingot into wafers. In the process, they smooth and round the cell edges. Because their form and content helps them produce more electricity, you need fewer of them.

But monocrystalline cells also cost more to manufacture than polycrystalline solar panels, so they are more expensive to purchase. On the other hand, they tend to last longer, and they often come with long warranties. Both of the aforementioned types of solar panels can be installed on your roof or by installing solar panel mounts in a designated area of your land.

Thin Film Solar Panels

You’ve probably heard of thin film types of solar panels, too. They are newer and less frequently used for homes. But they are growing in popularity.

The thin film gets its name from how it’s produced—layers of semiconductor materials (silicon, cadium telluride, and copper indium gallium selenide) rolled out as a film on a surface. Thin film solar tends be less efficient than crystalline solar panels, and it requires a lot of roof space. It also tends to degrade more quickly, so companies may offer shorter warranties to homeowners.

But thin film is also inexpensive and more flexible than crystalline solar cells. It can be manufactured into shingles. So for those who don’t like the aesthetics of solar panels, thin film is a good alternative. There may be local solar rebate incentives for installing these types of solar panel

Keep in mind that solar manufacturing is a very competitive field. Researchers keep coming up with ways to make solar cells more efficient. The latest technologies use solar inks, dyes, mirrors, and plastics. Take a look at this chart by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to see how far and how fast solar cell efficiencies have grown.

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Choosing a Solar Inverter Type

You’ll also want think carefully about which kind of solar inverter works best with your solar energy system and roof. Solar inverters convert the DC electricity that comes from the solar panels into AC electricity that is usable in your house. Choosing a solar inverter can get a little confusing, it may be best to simply talk to local solar installation contractors about your specific needs.

There are three basic kinds of inverters:

  • Power Optimizers
  • Microinverters
  • Central or String

String inverters are the most common inverters found in home solar systems. And not surprisingly, they also happen to cost the least. They are ideal for well-lit roofs with little shade and a flat plane. The term “string” refers to the way the solar panels are situated when they are connected to this kind of inverter. The panels are arranged in strings connected parallel to each other and then tied to the inverter.

String inverters are an older technology compared to power optimizers and microinverters. Often described as module level power electronics (MLPE), they represent a newer innovation that offers certain advantages where string inverters fail. Specifically, MLPE’s can maintain high efficiencies on roofs that have multiple levels or partial shade.

Microinverters convert power from DC to AC within each panel. Sometimes a solar panel comes with the microinverter embedded, and other times the inverter is added separately. Microinverters offer high efficiencies because a panel on a shaded part of the roof doesn’t block energy flow from a solar conversion occurring within a panel on a sunny portion. This is a benefit of each panel operating autonomously.

Like microinverters, power optimizers are embedded in the solar cell. So they also perform well where roofs are partially in shade. But the electricity from an optimizer goes through an additional step, one not undertaken by the other kinds of solar cells. When power leaves the power optimizer cell, it undergoes a conditioning, which leads to higher efficiencies for the cells.

Microinverters represent the most expensive of the three conversion technologies. Power optimizers are less costly than microinverters, but more costly than string inverters.

Solar Panel Technology

Today’s solar panels can be traced to an accidental discovery at a Bell Telephone Lab over half a century ago when they realized exactly how solar panels work. A researcher noticed a photovoltaic reaction in a bar of silicon. The New York Times in 1954 called it “the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams— the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.”

Solar technology has advanced tremendously since then. But if you look “under the hood” of most solar cells, you’ll find they find they contain the same basic element that was in the Bell Lab discovery: silicon.

Silicon is not only in solar tech. It is one of the most important elements of the computer age. Who hasn’t heard of Silicon Valley? Silicon is a semi-conductor material used in most microelectronic technology. We use silicon as a semi-conductor because it is very abundant on the planet. Silica (a form of silicon) is a main component of sand.

One of the very cool things about silicon is that it grows into nice, even crystals in a lab. Manufacturers then process the crystals into computer chips. In fact, you may have heard the term “crystalline silicon” to describe the technology within today’s most commonly used solar panels. All three types of solar panels have the capability of lowing your energy bill with added features such solar water heating, solar home heating and cooling, and even by heating your pool with solar energy.

Tracked Mounting vs Fixed Mounting for Solar Panels

You will need to think not only about the type of solar panel that best suits you, but also how you want it mounted. Most likely you’ll go with a flat mount—most homeowners do because they have pitched roofs. But if you have a flat roof or if your panels will be installed in your yard rather than your roof, you may choose to mount them on trackers.

What’s the advantage of trackers? They move your solar panels so that they can follow the sun, usually via a motorized mechanism. This makes the panels significantly more efficient—as much as 25 to 35 percent—especially if a roof is shaded during part of the day.

But again, with increased efficiency comes increased cost. Trackers can add several thousands of dollars to the cost of a residential solar installation.

What are the pros and cons of DIY solar panels? 

Before we jump into the 11 steps for a DIY solar panel installation, I think it’s worth going over the pros and cons. 

After all, a DIY solar is a big and costly commitment. It’s best to figure out whether or not DIY solar is right for you before you’re too heavily invested in the process!

pros and cons of diy solar systems

Pro: Cost savings 

At the risk of stating the obvious, the biggest reason people opt for a DIY solar panel installation is to save money on the upfront installation cost. 

Solar panel systems have dropped in price — by over 70% in the last decade alone — but they still represent a significant financial investment for most homeowners. 

Right now, the average cost of solar panel installation by a professional solar company is around $3.00 per watt. For a typical 5 kW (5,000 watt) solar panel system, that works out to $15,000.

On the other hand, you should be able to buy a 5 kW DIY solar panel kit for under $2.00 per watt. Assuming you perform all of the work by yourself (i.e. no contractors for any of the tasks), the total cost of the 5 kW DIY solar project would cost no more than $10,000.

That works out to a potential savings of over $5,000 by choosing DIY over a professional solar installation. 

Of course, the exact cost difference between the two is affected by many variables. Factors that can affect costs include system size, your location, your choice of brands, your roof layout, your state and local incentives, and more. And you’d also want to take into account 26% solar tax credit would apply for both a professional installation and a DIY job, reducing the cost and thus the price differential between the two methods of going solar. 

That said, there is without question a substantial price difference between buying a DIY solar panel kit, and hiring a solar company to complete the installation for you. 

Pro: DIY satisfaction

If you’re someone who really enjoys a big and challenging DIY project, then a solar installation might be what you’re looking for. 

You will have to draw on many different skill sets, such as the ability to negotiate municipal processes, financial planning, proficiency with power tools, electrical work, and even tax accounting.  

And there are many stages to the solar installation — researching, planning, shopping, permitting, installation, electric wiring, and monitoring. 

This is a project that will keep you busy for a while. 

Con: It’s a lot of time and effort 

I know, in the point immediately above this one I framed the challenging nature of a solar installation as a positive. Yes, it can be rewarding — but only if you’re actively seeking a difficult and time-consuming DIY challenge. 

If, however, your idea of a DIY project doesn’t expand far beyond assembling some Scandinavian flatpack furniture, then you might want to steer clear of taking on solar. It is a very time-consuming project. From conception to commissioning, a DIY solar installation for a home usually takes between one to four months.

Con: Risk of roof damage or leaks 

This is perhaps the biggest financial risk when it comes to a DIY solar installation.

Unless you have a flat roof, your solar installation will involve drilling a large number of holes into your roof. Drilling into the wrong spot on the roof can cause structural damage, while incorrect sealing and flashing can cause a roof leakage and/or mold issues. 

Another factor to keep in mind is that a DIY solar installation is likely to void the warranty of your roof, so you’ll have to foot the bill for any repairs that may be needed. 

Con: Physical danger 

Heights and high voltage electricity. If you’re doing a DIY solar installation from start to finish, there’s no avoiding these two risks.

A man falls off a roof in cartoonish fashion

Falls are a hazard in DIY solar panel installation. Image source: Twitter

And the physical risks can continue after the installation. If your panels aren’t performing as they should, you may need to get back on the roof to troubleshoot the issue. 

Worst of all, if you haven’t connected the wiring properly, your rooftop system could catch fire!

Con: Inability to claim some incentives 

Many states offer incentives and rebates that dramatically reduce the cost of going solar. 

Some incentives, however, are only available when the installation is completed by a certified solar company.

Con: No support for faults or warranty claims 

You are on your own if there is ever a fault with the equipment. 

Of course, you can still contact the manufacturer directly, but it can be difficult to prove a warranty claim. Furthermore, if you perform an improper installation, you can actually void the warranty. 

The 11 steps for DIY solar panels

Let’s now dive into the 11 steps needed to take your DIY solar panel project from conception to completion. 

1. Decide on your goals 

If you haven’t already, you first need to decide what your goal is for going solar. 

The goal you’re shooting for will determine the best system type for you, how complex the installation will be, and how much the project will cost.

Homeowners usually choose between the following goals.

  • Financial savings
  • Backup power
  • Energy self sufficiency (independence from the electrical grid)

We strongly recommend that you decide on your goal right at the outset. There is an almost infinite number of options and permutations when it comes to DIY solar, so you need to be clear on what decisions you make, and why.

2. Choose the right solar system type 

The next decision is to choose the right solar power system type to match your goal.  

There are three main types of solar installations:

  • Grid-tied solar panel system
  • Hybrid solar panel system (aka grid-tied with battery storage)
  • Off-grid solar system 

All of these system types have many features in common: they all involve solar panels, inverters, mounts, and wiring. There are, however, some crucial differences, and they can impact the project’s cost and complexity. Here’s a brief summary of each. 

Grid-tied solar panel system 

A grid-tied solar panel system is a solar setup that is connected to the grid and uses it as a battery through net metering. Grid-tied solar panel systems are usually smaller than the other types and have the lowest upfront cost. 

Best for: Maximum financial savings

Pros: Lowest cost, simple design and installation

Cons: The system will shut off during a grid outage. Your system will need to pass inspection before it can be connected to the grid. 

This video shows how a grid-tied solar system works for a typical home: https://www.youtube.com/embed/A5Wb61nEoZc?rel=0

Hybrid solar panel system (aka grid-tied with battery storage) 

A hybrid solar panel system is also connected to the grid; the key difference here is the inclusion of a battery storage solution. 

As with a regular grid-tied system, a hybrid solar system can import and export power from the grid as needed. But a hybrid solar system can use the battery system for two additional uses: for backup power during a grid failure, and to take advantage of Time of Use (TOU) arbitrage

However, solar batteries — the most famous example of which is the Tesla Powerwall — are still an expensive option, so adding one to a solar system nearly always lowers the return on investment for the homeowner. In other words, the increased cost of adding a battery typically does not lead to an equivalent increase in savings. 

Best for: Backup power

Pros: Emergency power supply during grid outages

Cons: Requires a battery backup solution, and unfortunately batteries are still expensive to buy. Your system will also need to pass inspection before it can be connected to the grid.

Off-grid system

As the name suggests, an off-grid solar system operates independently of the grid. 

Since there’s no grid to fall back on, the solar system needs to be very large so that it can meet the home’s power needs 24/7, 365 days a year — even during winter and/or long stretches of overcast weather. 

To achieve this, off-grid solar systems require a large number of solar panels as well as a large  battery bank.  

Best for: Energy self sufficiency

Pros: Zero reliance on the electricity grid and no interaction with the utility company, and no inspections. 

Cons: Very expensive, and lots of space required for the large number of solar panels and accompanying battery storage. 

3. Check solar rules and regulations  

There is a wide range of rules governing solar installations. They can vary greatly between states, and even between local jurisdictions. 

You will usually need a building permit and a utility permit before you start your installation. This usually involves an on-site inspection by either a structural engineer or a licensed electrician. You will need to pass another round of inspections before your system can be activated and connected to the grid. 

Some states don’t allow a solar system to be connected to the grid unless the installation was performed by a licensed contractor. If this is the case where you live, you won’t be able to install a DIY grid-tied or hybrid solar system. 

It is important to know these rules beforehand so you can judge if a DIY solar panel installation is possible where you live; and if it is possible, if it’s still a worthwhile option to pursue. 

4. Design a system 

This is one of the most complicated parts of the DIY solar panel process. You want your system to take into account all of the following factors:

  • Your energy usage
  • Climate and the number of sun hours you’ll see each month
  • Solar panel orientation
  • Solar panel angle
  • Natural efficiency drop
  • Conversion losses
  • Shading 
  • Expandability
  • Battery size and charging (for hybrid and off-grid systems)

The PVWatts Calculator from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is a well-known tool that takes into account the above points to show you total system output over each month of the year. 

We also recommend you try out our solar panel calculator. It builds on the data provided by PVWatts to recommend a system size for your specific home, and even shows you which section of your roof you should use for maximum exposure to sunlight. 

Calculate the system size you need to offset 100% of your electric usage

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If you’re adding batteries for a hybrid or off-grid system, you’ll need to take care to size your battery correctly. If your battery is too small, you may run out of backup power just when you need it. On the flip side, if your battery is too big, you’ll wind up spending too much, and might quickly diminish battery capacity by failing to charge it sufficiently. 

For more information about batteries, check out this handy guide on battery sizing. 

As part of your system design, you’ll want to create an electrical diagram. This will be useful as a blueprint when it’s time to install your panels; it will also be required when you’re applying for permits.

5. Do the math 

By this point, you should have a clear idea of what kind of system you want, as well as what’s allowed (and what isn’t) under the rules and regulations governing solar in your area. 

Now you’ll want to move on to specifics and work the numbers, i.e. your estimated costs and savings.

Man in formal attire works on desk with laptop and calculator

Make a solar costs and savings projection covering the guaranteed life of your panels (typically 25 years). Image source: Freepik

Based on your system design, you should be able to search online and find the costs for the equipment you require. The simplest way to do this is to look for a complete, all-in-one DIY solar kit that matches your needs. 

Next, you want to work out your utility bill savings. Using the system size you worked out in your design in Step #4, it’s relatively easy to calculate the annual output of your system. Based on that, you can figure out and total up avoided utility costs. When projecting ahead, be sure to account for inflation in utility costs. 

Some homeowners may be constrained by limited roof space; in that case, they should calculate the maximum number of solar panels that can fit on their roof, and then figure out costs and savings from there.

Now, with the cost and savings figure in hand, you can calculate what the return on your DIY solar panel project will be, and if it’s worth going ahead with from a financial perspective. 

6. Stop and reevaluate

Assuming you’ve already completed Steps 1-4, you should have a clear idea about whether a DIY solar panel installation is feasible or not. Specifically, this is what you should know by now:  

  • If a DIY solar panel system is allowed where you live
  • The permitting and approval process
  • The solar panel system size you want, and whether you have the space for it
  • The estimated cost of the installation
  • The electricity bills savings you will receive
  • If the financial equation is right for you
  • All of the risks associated with a DIY solar panel installation (refer to the ‘Cons’ section earlier on this blog) 

If you’re still unclear on any of the points, step back and continue your research. 

If you do have all this information, then I recommend you pause and reevaluate. 

Is solar right for you? And if it is, here are the three options you can choose to make it a reality. 

DIY solar panel installation 

You’ve done your research and are clear on what DIY solar installation entails. You’re confident in your ability to perform all the necessary tasks yourself, and have a plan to avoid or mitigate all the risks. Congratulations, you’re ready to get started and get your hands dirty. 

Outsource part of the installation 

You may decide that you’re better off outsourcing part of the installation. This is often a good idea if there’s a specific section that you don’t feel comfortable with. For instance, many solar DIY-ers decide to hire an external contractor to perform the electrical installation.

Get a professional solar company to perform the entire installation 

While this is the most expensive in terms of cost, it’s the cheapest option when it comes to time, effort and peace of mind. The solar company will design the system for you, source all materials, and deal with all permitting requirements. Furthermore, if there are any issues with panels or workmanship down the line, they will be there to handle them for you. 

I encourage you to check out this option. To do so, simply use our solar panel calculator to request no-obligation quotes from licensed solar installers in your area.

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If you’re still not sure which is the best way forward, here is a solar decision matrix to help you out. 

 Financial costsTime costsRoof leakage riskPermitting requirementsEasePersonal safety
DIY solar install++ –
Outsource part of the installation+++++
Professional solar install++++++++++

7. Start permitting process

You’re ready to get your hands dirty and install some solar panels! But wait — remember the rules and regulations you researched back at Step #3? 

If you haven’t already, list out all permit processes required by the state, your utility, and your authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). 

There’s a good chance that you’re going to have to apply for a building and utility permit before you start any work. This will often involve an inspection by either an electrician or a structural engineer, or both. 

It’s important to follow all the steps required to ensure that your installation is code-compliant and legal. 

8. Choose supplier and buy equipment 

Here’s is a brief list of all the equipment you’ll need for you solar setup:

  • Solar panels
  • Solar inverter
  • Mounting and racking equipment
  • Wiring and general electrical supplies
  • Battery system (for hybrid and off-grid system)
  • Charge controller (required for some battery systems) 

Ideally, you’ll find a complete DIY solar panel kit that includes everything you need for your solar installation. That’ll save you time that you would otherwise spend searching for individual components and then figuring out whether each part can work together.  

When you’re comparing kits, we encourage you to check product reviews on SolarReviews to make sure that you’re buying from reputable brands that homeowners are happy with. 

When it comes to picking a supplier, you want to choose one that offers great warranty and after-sales support. I would prioritize both these factors over price — unless you’ve performed a solar installation before, you’re going to have to talk to the vendor many times during the installation, and maybe even after.

9. Install the solar panel system

At this point, you should have successfully applied for all necessary permits and approvals, and accepted delivery of your solar equipment. It’s now time to install the panels!

The actual specifics of the installation will depend on what system type and equipment you’ve decided upon. 

The process I’m describing below is for a grid-tied system that uses microinverters for the DC to AC power conversion. 

Task 1: Install solar panel racking and mounting 

Use a chalk line to measure and mark out exactly where on your roof the racking system will be installed. 

Next, look for solid bits of the roof to drill into for the installation of lag bolts. You should consider using a stud finder with AC current detection to ensure you’re not drilling through a power line. 

Caulk the holes and install flashing to create a waterproof seal before you screw the lag bolts in. Once the lag bolts are all ready, you can install L-feet and then lock the rails on to them.

Task 2: Connect microinverters 

Onto the microinverters. These are little boxes that will modulate the output of each panel. You’ll connect them to the rails using the provided bolts. Each box will have a positive and negative wire coming out of it, which you will connect together to form a series connection for each array. 

Close up of a microinverter connected to a rail atop a shingled roof

Microinverters attached to a rail. Later, each solar panel will be connected to one before it is mounted. Image source: Enphase

Task 3: Connect grounding wire

Connect copper wire of an appropriate gauge across the rails as grounding. This is an important safety precaution and will help dissipate any anomalies caused by a lightning strike or a fault.

Task 4: Install roof junction box 

You’ll need to drill a hole in the roof to install a junction box. If you have more than one solar array, you will run the trunk cable from each into the junction box. This will allow you to channel the power from the solar panels to your house. 

Task 5: Install the solar panels

It’s now time to haul the panels onto the roof. Each module is about 65 inches by 39 inches, which can be an awkward size for one person to handle on their own. Consider getting someone to assist you with this part, especially if your roof is steep. I also strongly recommend that you use a harness while you’re up there. 

It’s now time to attach the solar panels to the mounting rail. Before laying them down flat, first get the wiring in order. Each solar panel will have a negative and positive DC wire attached. You don’t want the wires to touch the roof, so you clip or zip-tie them to the panel. You can then connect the wires into the microinverters you’ve already attached to the railings. 

Next, insert the provided mid-clamps into the railing to hold the solar panel in place from each side. For the solar panels that lie on each end of the rail, use end-clamps to keep them in place and present a more aesthetically pleasing look. 

Task 6: Home run connection

With the solar panels ready, it’s time to connect them to the house. For this you will need to install:

  • A conduit
  • An external junction box
  • An emergency disconnect box

The conduit will carry the wires from the roof junction box down to the external junction box. 

The junction box will in turn connect to an emergency disconnect. This is a safety feature that allows you to quickly shut off your solar panel system, and is a required feature in many jurisdictions.

From the emergency disconnect, the wires are passed through to the home’s main electrical panel. The external junction box and emergency disconnect box should be weatherproof and installed in an area that is easily accessible and allows easy connection to the home’s main electrical panel.

Your solar panel system is now ready, but unfortunately there’s still a couple of more hoops to jump before you can actually switch it on. 

10. Final inspection and interconnection with the grid

Once your installation is complete, you’ll have to schedule an inspection with the local AHJ. The inspector will come out and inspect your system to ensure that it’s compliant with local ordinances, and that the design matches those laid out in your plans. 

The system will also need to pass an electrical inspection to ensure that it is code-compliant. 

Once the inspection is done, you will need to apply for interconnection with the grid. The utility will either install a second meter, or replace your existing one with a bi-directional (or net) meter. The bi-directional meter can record your home’s power exports the grid so that you can receive credits on your power bill.  

11. Switch on your system

Assuming your system has now met all state, local and utility requirements, you can now commission it. 

These days, most inverters offer solar monitoring app that allow you to check your system performance online from wherever you are. Use this to make sure that your solar system is performing as expected. 

It was hard work, but you can now benefit from a solar panel system that produces clean energy, lowers your electricity bill, and improves the value of your home. Congratulations! 

DIY or not, solar power is highly rewarding

If you’ve read through this very lengthy blog post, kudos – you are definitely serious about going solar! You are now on a journey that I’m sure you’ll find highly rewarding. 

Here are some of the best things about having solar panels: 

  • The satisfaction of receiving a much lower utility bill – and thinking of all the things you can do with the money you’ll be saving over the years
  • Monitoring your solar panel production and usage from day to day
  • Pride in producing clean energy and doing your part in combating climate change

If you have a lot of time on your hands and the skills to pull it off, you can achieve all these benefits at the minimum possible cost. 

However, if you’ve read through this guide and feel that a DIY solar installation is just too much work, then fret not: you can still get all the benefits by getting a professional solar company to do the work for you.

Either way, we encourage you to check out our solar calculator. It will recommend a system for you that offers 100% offset of your utility bills, and can show you what the panels will actually look like on your roof. 

Best of luck on your solar journey!

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