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Best solar panels strictly on price
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SunPower tops CNET’s 2023 list of the best solar panel companies because of its high-efficiency solar panels and its strong warranties. But if you can generate enough renewable energy to meet your needs with cheaper panels, want more customer service support or want your array to be more visually subtle, you’ll find the best pick here.
If you’re planning to buy solar panels to avoid rising energy costs and increasing blackouts or invest in renewable energy, you’re not alone. Residential solar installations grew by 40% in 2022 from the previous year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
You can get 30% of the cost of solar panels back on your taxes and participate in local incentives and net metering (where available). The Inflation Reduction Act that was passed last year opened up more rebates for energy-efficient home improvements, electric appliances and other renewable energy solutions, which could help you save even more with solar panels.
With climate change expected to fuel severe weather that can cause more power outages, solar panels with a backup battery can keep your home powered.
Solar panels are a significant investment though, not to mention a decision that requires some careful thought and research. Below are my choices for the best solar companies by a few different parameters. However, with a purchase as big as solar panels, don’t let this list be your only stop. Solar panel companies, because their products require lengthy, professional installation, are tested a bit differently than other categories on CNET.
This list and the reviews it draws from aren’t based on any hands-on testing. There’s no feasible way to do hands-on testing of the purchase process, installation or a home solar panel array after it’s installed. Instead, these solar company reviews rely on interviews with company spokespeople, publicly available data and analysis of trends (like solar panel prices). While the reviews are as thoroughly researched as possible, the nature of the product means there are some limitations compared to another category like portable power stations.
Best solar companies of 2023
This best list draws from national and notable installers of (mostly rooftop) solar panels. As we publish reviews of more companies, this best list will be updated to reflect our current top choices. These were rated the best solar companies for the variety and quality of equipment and products they offered, their stated warranties and apparent commitments to customer service. (Customer service is difficult to pin down and therefore makes up a smaller portion of the score, even though it’s a significant part of the purchasing process.)
If you’re looking for a solar panel installer, be sure to get multiple quotes including from local installers where possible. The specifics of a solar array could change given the shape and angle of a given roof or the energy usage and habits of a given family. Solar can be a great investment but requires you to do your own research.
SunPower Solar takes the top spot on our best list thanks to its top-of-the-line solar panels and strong warranties. The solar panels SunPower offers have industry leading efficiency marks (22.8%) and a warranty that guarantees at least 92% production after 25 years. It also earns an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau. It offers strong warranties on batteries as well.
SunPower’s solar panels might be a bit more expensive than others (though accurate pricing industry wide is hard to come by). The company has said it plans to continue rolling out more accessible solar solutions. Read our SunPower review.
Palmetto Solar has strong solar equipment offerings and is trying something different from most solar companies when it comes to customer service. Palmetto offers proactive monitoring and tiered levels of support on a subscription model called Palmetto Protect. While some of the upper tiers might only pay off only in the most extreme cases of failure, solar customers feeling uneasy about their equipment can buy a bit of peace of mind for a small fee.
It’s worth noting that solar panels are typically low maintenance systems. People can monitor their systems through apps available from most installers, including Palmetto. Palmetto also receives an A+ from the Better Business Bureau. Read our Palmetto Solar review.
Most residential solar customers up to now have solar panels mounted on racks bolted to their roofs. That’s something GAF Energy is trying to change with Timberline Solar shingles, its solar roofing product. Attached with nails instead of bolts and installed at the same time and by the same team as a new roof, the solar power-generating shingles sit flush to the roof. They look a bit sleeker and could be less prone to leaks than traditional solar panels.
GAF Energy’s solar shingle, installed in 16 states with more to come, could make the decision to go solar easier by rolling it in with the purchase of a new roof. If you don’t like the look of solar panels, Timberline Solar shingles have a subtler look, though they’re not invisible. You also get a solar roof without the major markup of other options, like the Tesla solar roof. Read CNET’s GAF Energy review.
Tesla’s Solar branch seems to be the least loved of Elon Musk’s ventures. Even Tesla’s Solar Roof seems to get more love. Still, solar panels from Tesla are likely to be the cheapest option where they are available. You can save thousands of dollars, without sacrificing on quality of equipment.
What you might sacrifice is customer service. From delays to price changes, to slow responses, to system malfunctions, social media reports of negative experiences aren’t hard to find, including some who regret their choice. This is true of all solar companies, but the quantity of reports concerning Tesla is concerning. Others describe experiences that aren’t so bad, to be sure. The general consensus is that going with Tesla is a gamble.
Read our Tesla Solar review.
Other companies we reviewed
We’ve reviewed other solar companies that don’t appear in our best list above, including some that scored higher overall than Tesla’s solar panels. Given the nature of the solar panel industry, which shifts from state to state and roof to roof, some of these other companies might be better suited to your situation.
- Sunrun: The biggest solar company in America. Sunrun offers quality panels, a choice of a couple of batteries and quality inverters. It also offers strong warranties. Most of its business is in leases or power purchase agreements, and Sunrun provides stronger warranties for power purchase agreements than purchases. Its overall score is higher than Tesla’s, but just missed edging out the others due to its lacking a price-match policy.
- Tesla Solar Roof: Tesla’s Solar Roof is an exciting way to imagine solar. It’s sleek, it’s low profile, but it’s very expensive. Depending on the size of your roof and your location, it can be several times more expensive than solar panels.
- Smartflower: The solar sunflower is a beautiful way to install solar panels. Unless you’re trying to advertise your green commitments or find a statement piece for your yard, it’s likely too much money for too little solar.
- ADT Solar: ADT Solar is a relative newcomer, after ADT purchased Sunpro and rebranded it in 2022. The company was forced to find a new panel supplier after LG left the market, but has committed to installing tier one panels. It received high marks for its warranties and price match.
- Trinity Solar: For a while, Trinity was CNET’s top company for customer service and still receives top marks for there. It also offers quality equipment and warranties, though some of its warranties, like its workmanship warranty, are a bit weaker than other companies’.
How we test and rate solar companies
Solar companies are tricky to review. Even if it was feasible to install solar panels from every installer on a single house one after another and compare them, variations in weather and season would affect output. You’d also still be left with the subjective ratings for customer service, which is a major factor in the experience of getting solar panels for a roof.
Even without a laboratory test for solar panel companies, we kept our review as standardized as possible. We evaluated solar companies in three categories: breadth of service, value and customer care. The breadth of service covers things like whether or not a company offered a variety of quality panels, batteries or inverters and if it offered panels for purchase, lease and power purchase agreement. It also takes into consideration the strength of warranties. Value covers price and any other benefits, for example, a highly rated app for customers to monitor their solar panels. Customer care included some anecdotal evidence from online forums and review sites, but also customer satisfaction and care ratings (where available) from reputable sources like the Better Business Bureau.
Solar panel FAQs
How much do solar panels cost?
The average residential solar installation costs $3.04 per watt, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association. That means a 7-kilowatt solar panel system would cost about $21,280. (The cost of solar panels varies by location, thanks to so-called soft costs, like permitting, inspection fees and labor, which accounted for 62% of the total cost in 2021.)
There are plenty of incentives to reduce that cost or give you money back on your taxes, though. The Inflation Reduction Act increased the federal tax credit for solar panels to 30% and made it available for 10 years. Other local tax exemptions or incentives could be possible, too. If your utility has a net metering program, you could receive credits on your utility bill that will help you save money faster than without.
Are solar panels worth it?
Solar panels will likely be worth it, depending on the details of your specific situation. If you use very little energy or have very cheap energy, you won’t be saving as much money each month and it will take longer for your panels to pay for themselves. Likewise, if you live under deep tree cover, rooftop solar panels likely won’t generate enough electricity to be worth it.
However, solar can pay off in energy savings for decades. Lowering the cost with rebates and tax credits will help pay off your solar panels faster. How you pay for your solar panels will affect that calculation, too. It will take longer to recoup your costs if you take out a loan, which will accrue interest and come with fees. You can calculate your payback period if you know the cost of solar panels after rebates and how much you’ll save on energy costs each year.
How long do solar panels last?
If you buy solar panels today, there’s a good chance they’ll be under warranty for 25 years. You’ll often see that listed as the lifespan of the panels, but that’s not quite accurate. That warranty covers production from your solar panels. Solar panels lose their ability to produce solar electricity as they age for any number of reasons, so a warranty will guarantee a certain level of production after a certain number of years. For example, Q Cells offers a 25-year warranty, which guarantees that your panels will produce at 86% of their rated capacity at that point.
This doesn’t mean those solar panels die at the end of 25 years, they’ll just produce less. Solar panels can produce well after their warranty expires, though given that large numbers of solar panels are just now being installed, we’ll continue to get a better idea of how they age in years to come.
Should I hire a solar panel installer?
While skilled do-it-yourselfers might be able to pull off a solar panel installation, it’s definitely not recommended. Going through a reputable and licensed solar installer gives you a number of protections. Installing solar panels is not as simple as plugging in a large appliance. A qualified solar installer will be able to navigate local code and ordinances, and ensure that the warranty on the panels remains intact. They will also be able to tell you if you need a new roof or other upgrades before installing solar panels.
A solar installer will also be able to design your solar system to best fit your goals and habits by identifying the most productive locations on your roof and angling panels to collect the most sun. Further, your installer should be able to help you troubleshoot any problems that arise after installation.
How do I know if the quote I have is a good one?
The best way to tell is to get multiple quotes. With a purchase this big, you should get several, including one or two from local installers who might be able to offer you greater choice.
There are also resources from the federal and many state governments to guide you through the process. You can look out for a few red flags from salespeople, too.
Are local solar installers a good option?
Local installers typically have less costs for advertising and sales than the large, national corporations. That represents possible savings that could be returned to customers. On the other hand, with a long-term investment like solar panels, it may feel safer to have the backing of a large corporation. And larger companies may be able to offer cheaper prices due to the volume of installations they do.
When you’re gathering quotes for a solar panel installation, be sure to contact local installers, too. The solar industry is a competitive one, and checking around could save you thousands.
Will solar panels work in my climate?
Identical solar panels will produce different amounts of electricity when they’re exposed to different levels of sunlight. So, solar panels in sunnier places (like the American southwest) with more direct sunlight (like in the south) will produce more electricity. But other factors make solar a good deal for homeowners.
New England has one of the highest regional adoption rates for residential solar in the US. That’s not because it has a ton of sunshine year round, but because it has favorable solar policies, like net metering and rebates. Solar panels might make financial sense even if they’ll be installed under frequently cloudy skies.
Can I get the federal tax credit?
Correction, Jan. 31, 2023: An earlier version of this article misstated the Better Business Bureau’s grading process. Any company can receive a grade from the Bureau, regardless of whether it has paid to go through the accreditation process.
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