The equipment you need for a solar panel system

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solar equipment for a solar panel system

If you're considering installing a solar panel system, you've probably researched financing, tax breaks, and solar installers. However, you should also educate yourself about the solar energy equipment your system needs to get up and running. While the components of a PV system are simple, the different product options and brands can make the equipment selection process fairly complex. We'll break down all things solar power equipment to best prepare you to select your hardware.

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Key takeaways

  • You need solar panels, inverters, racking equipment, and performance monitoring equipment to go solar.

  • You also might want an energy storage system (aka solar battery), especially if you live in an area that doesn't have net metering.

  • In general, equipment only accounts for about 25% of the total cost of your solar system; soft costs generally make up the bulk of the gross price.

  • Visit the EnergySage Marketplace to find the right solar equipment from the best local installers.

In order to go solar, you're going to need the following equipment:

Your primary equipment decision is the brand and type of panels for your PV system. For an easy guide to comparing and contrasting the top panel brands, check out our complete ranking of the best solar panels on the market, which puts panels from SunPower, Panasonic, REC, and LG at the top.

Some factors to consider as you weigh your options are efficiency, cost, warranty, and technology type. Solar panels will generally be categorized as one of two technologies: monocrystalline and polycrystalline. Both types have the same function and are made from silicon cells, but the outward appearance and price differ significantly. Monocrystalline panels are more efficient and expensive and come with a dark blue or black tint. Polycrystalline panels are a lighter blue hue, the cheaper and less efficient option.

Generating rooftop solar energy is a simple process in which solar panels convert sunlight into direct current (DC) power that can be delivered to a home's power system. However, most homes and businesses are wired to use alternating current (AC) power. That conversion from DC to AC is where inverters come into play, and there are several options to compare:

String inverters

Also known as a centralized inverter, a string inverter refers to a single-string technology that connects your solar array to your home's electrical panel. String inverters are the least expensive option but aren't ideal for every situation. They connect your panels to your home's power infrastructure as a single unit, which means that if one panel in your system isn't performing well due to a shading issue, your entire array's performance will fall until that single panel recovers.


Unlike string inverters, microinverters are attached individually to every solar panel, which maximizes production for your array. In the example above, if a single panel is shaded or blocked by a cloud during the day, the rest of your solar system's production won't be affected because each panel has its own microinverter. Microinverters also offer panel-level performance monitoring in your array – a huge plus for homeowners interested in closely tracking the output of each solar panel. Though they are the most efficient equipment technology option, microinverters are also expensive.

Power optimizers

With the definitions of microinverter and string inverter in mind, one can think of a power optimizer as a hybrid of the two. Like microinverters, power optimizers are installed at each panel. However, they are more affordable than microinverters and slightly more expensive than string inverter systems. Power optimizers are ideal for higher maintenance roofs with shading issues or panels facing alternate directions. Like microinverters, power optimizers offer performance monitoring for each panel in your system. Power optimizers are not inverters – they "condition" the DC power from a solar panel and then pass it onto a centralized inverter where conversion occurs. While power optimizers can improve your system's efficiency, they don't offer the efficiency of a microinverter system.

Homeowners are often surprised to learn that their solar panels are not nailed directly onto their roofs but instead mounted onto solar racking equipment. Racking allows your solar installer to optimally angle solar panels for maximum performance and helps attach the array to your roof without causing damage. Solar panels will ideally face south at an angle of between 30 and 50 degrees.

The term "racking" refers to a rooftop installation. There is also mounting equipment that is ideal for ground mount solar and solar carports, which can both serve the same purpose of maximizing the angle of the panels for sunlight exposure. With ground-mount solar, you can choose between fixed and track mounts. Fixed mounts are stationary, placed at a set angle and orientation, whereas track mounts are designed to adjust and "follow" the sun during the day as it moves across the sky.

One of the best reasons to go solar is the experience of watching your electric bills diminish over time. Having a good performance monitoring system is a key interest for solar homeowners. This nifty piece of solar energy equipment reports the hourly electricity production of your solar system.

In addition to being a fun way to watch your panels power your home, monitoring systems allow you to recognize potential performance issues and ensure maximum electricity production. There are two types of monitoring systems: onsite monitors, where the system is installed with your panels, and remote monitors, where your system is tracked through the cloud and can be monitored online.

Many homeowners interested in solar want to include some form of energy storage that will allow their solar panels to offer power during nighttime and disadvantageous weather. While many states offer net metering, which will enable homeowners to use the electrical power grid as backup storage for their solar array, adding a battery to your solar system can make more sense or may be your only storage option in some cases. Solar-plus-storage, also called solar batteries, are typically offered as either lead acid or lithium-ion technologies (such as the Tesla Powerwall). Price and efficiency are the deciding factors between the two options – lithium-ion is the current favorite with regard to popularity but is undoubtedly more expensive.

There are three critical cases when your solar equipment decision really counts:

1. Solar batteries in net metering states

If you live in a state that offers a net metering program, and you aren't trying to go completely off-grid with your solar system, it probably doesn't make sense to fork over the extra money for a solar battery. Net metering is an efficient and optimal way to store energy through the electrical grid, and solar batteries are still a relatively expensive technology. Additionally, net metering is a major incentive to go solar, to begin with, since you typically qualify for bill credits for any surplus energy that your solar panels produce.

2. Inverters for large, south-facing roofs

There are various inverter options for the scenario where a homeowner's roof is not south facing or does not have ample space to orient solar panels precisely in the same direction. If you don't deal with this conflict and instead have an ideally angled roof with plenty of space, there's no need to spend more on microinverters. String inverters make perfect sense for these roofs, and power optimizers are an affordable upgrade if you're looking for one.

3. Roof vs. Ground mounting

Choosing a ground mount system will add some costs to your installation, particularly if you select a system with track mounting. If you have a rooftop that has no issues with sunlight exposure (and especially if you live in a particularly sunny state like California, Arizona, or Florida), a fixed-mount rooftop system will be perfectly satisfactory. Ground-mounted systems, and track mounting, are meant for a very specific use case and can be an unnecessary added cost if you have an ideal roof for solar.

Equipment decisions will significantly impact how much you'll pay out of pocket for a solar panel system. They'll also affect how much you can save over the lifetime of your system. To determine what your specific system will cost, try our Solar Calculator. This tool uses your electricity consumption and factors in real-time market prices to offer an instant solar estimate. Once you've figured out your actual cost to install solar, you can begin comparing quotes from pre-screened installers in your area and start laying out your equipment preferences.

Find out what solar panels cost in your area in 2024
Please enter a five-digit zip code.
  • 100% free to use, 100% online
  • Access the lowest prices from installers near you
  • Unbiased Energy Advisors ready to help
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