By Jennifer Lubell

Shopping around for solar panels? Panel quality is an important factor to consider in choosing a solar panel system. There are many brands and grades to choose from, and it’s up to you to decide whether you want to invest in a low-range, mid-range or high-end panel.

Keep in mind that premium options may deliver higher quality, more cost-efficient results and operate more effectively in extreme weather conditions than other panels, but their initial cost will be much higher than other grades. Low-end panels tend to cost less but often have limited warranties and lower efficiency ratings. On average, a high-end panel may cost up to $475, compared with a low-end panel, whose prices range from $200 to $300.

Mid-range panels, whose efficiency is usually around 15 percent, represent the majority of installations in the United States. As with any solar system, the prices for mid-range panels will vary depending on usage and system size. As an example, for an average homeowner with a 5 kilowatt (kW) system, a mid-range system may cost around $7,000 (after rebate). These panels often durable and efficient, but with so many mid-range panel types to choose from, homeowners should consult with their installer to see which panel is the best choice.

Some experts recommend that prospective buyers evaluate panels on three criteria: manufacturer quality, production and durability. Solar panels lose their efficiency with age and are susceptible to weather. When shopping for panels, be sure to consider whether the materials can withstand the climate where you live, especially if your home is susceptible to extreme weather, such as powerful winds or heavy snow. You should also consider the system’s power tolerance, which measures how much electricity a solar panel can produce in real-world conditions in relation to its rated capacity.

Crystalline silicon is the chief ingredient in most solar panels, but it is featured differently depending on the panel. Monocrystalline silicon, a material that yields the highest efficiency (particularly in warm weather) and the longest warranties, is the most space-efficient material. Polycrystalline silicon is less expensive – the cost per watt for a polycrystalline solar panel is 80 to 90 cents, compared with up to $1.40 for monocrystalline silicon – but it ranks lower than monocrystalline silicon in terms of overall efficiency. The good news is the difference in heat tolerance between the two types of panel materials is very small.

From an aesthetic standpoint, the type of panel material you choose will affect the appearance of your home. Panels made from monocrystalline silicon usually have a more rounded shape and a blackish hue, whereas polycrystalline silicon panels are sky-blue in color and square in shape.

When selecting a solar system, you’ll also have to consider the placement of your panels. Solar systems either have ground or roof panels. They’re usually made from the same materials and have similar efficiency levels, from 15 to 20 percent. However, some key differences exist.

Rooftop panels usually have 60 cells in each solar panel, compared with ground mount panels, which have 72. Ground mount panels are most often reserved for the bigger projects: utility-scale installations greater than 1 megawatt (MW). Ground panels might have additional tracking features and are installed in locations with more solar resources, enabling them to maximize the amount of electricity produced. For these reasons, businesses and utilities are more likely to use ground mount panels than homeowners unless the homeowner owns a lot of land.

From size, to type, to location, you want to get the solar system that best serves your individual needs as a homeowner.