Solar PV vs. Solar Thermal: All You Need to Know

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Jack Ayre

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The use of solar panels as alternatives to traditional fossil fuels is getting more prevalent every day. When you look at solar PV vs. solar thermal panels, you’ll find that they serve the home in very different ways, with one producing electricity and the other producing heat.

The primary difference between solar thermal and solar PV panels is how they work. Solar thermal panels capture energy from sunlight and convert it into heat, using a heat-transfer fluid, which can then be used to heat a home or provide hot water. In contrast, solar PV panels use photovoltaic cells to produce electricity.

Read on to learn more about how each type of solar panel works. We’ve also outlined the perks and drawbacks of installing each type in your home.

Overview of Solar Energy

Solar energy is a form of power produced through sunlight. The technology used to convert sunlight into usable energy was initially invented by A.E Becquerel in the mid-19th century.

Over a century later, solar panels became available to individuals and businesses. Since they emerged on the scene, solar panels have become more and more popular.

This rise in popularity was accelerated by the rising awareness of climate change and the danger of greenhouse gases. The main advantage of solar power is that it’s much more environmentally friendly compared to fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas.

Solar PV Panels

Solar PV panels are a type of renewable energy type that homeowners typically use to fulfil their houses’ energy requirements.

How Do Solar PV Panels Work?

Solar PV panels can serve their purpose of converting sunlight into electrical energy due to the material they’re made of.

These panels are crafted out of multiple layers. Two of those layers are made out of semiconducting materials, such as silicon. Sandwiched between these two layers are photovoltaic cells.

The electrical properties of this system allow it to create an electric field when photons from sunlight hit the panel. In turn, this induces an electric current. This process is referred to as the photoelectric effect.

Be noted that the current solar PV panels produce is DC. Before you can use this current to power appliances in your home, it needs to pass through an inverter that converts it into an AC current.

Advantages of Solar Panels

Here are the main pros of using solar PV panels:

Electricity Produced Is Never Wasted

The primary benefit of solar PV panels is that none of the electricity they produce goes to waste. Even if the panels produce more electricity than you need, you can store that excess power in a battery. Additionally, you can pump the extra electricity back into the national grid and get compensated financially.

Low Cost of Maintenance

Installing solar PV panels can come at a steep price. However, these panels’ cost is virtually zero once the installation is complete. The reason is that the maintenance cost for solar PV panels is practically non-existent. This remains true if you keep your panels clean and in good condition. Additionally, solar PV panels typically come with a 25-year warranty.

Can Power Your Entire Home

Another advantage of solar PV panels is that they can fulfil all of your house’s energy needs. They can power appliances, HVAC systems, lights, and much more. The same cannot be said for solar thermal panels, which we will discuss later in this guide.

Disadvantages of solar panels

Solar PV panels aren’t without their flaws. Here are a few of them:

High Upfront Cost

As previously mentioned, the initial cost of installing solar PV panels can be high and requires an investment by householders. However, the energy savings you enjoy as a result of solar PV panels still make them excellent investments in the long run.

They Take Up a Lot of Space

Another con of solar PV panels is that they require a lot of space. A solar PV system designed to power an entire house will take up around 45 square meters. Not only that, but solar PV panels aren’t to everyone’s tastes and can hurt your home’s aesthetic.

They Are Relatively Inefficient

Compared to solar thermal panels, solar PV panels are rather inefficient. At an average efficiency of 15-20%, solar PV panels are over three times less efficient than their solar thermal counterparts.

Solar Thermal Panels

The other main type of solar panel is solar thermal. These panels, also known as solar collectors, are devices that convert sunlight into heat energy. However, they differ from solar PV panels because they use a heat-transfer fluid, such as water, instead of semiconductors to do so. They are effectively a solar water heating system for homes.

How Do Solar Thermal Panels Work?

Solar thermal panels capture energy from sunlight (ideally best placed on a south facing roof) and convert it into heat energy using water. The heated water is stored in a hot water cylinder and can be used to provide heat and hot water.

In terms of hardware, solar thermal panels have flat-plate collectors. These are flat, dark surfaces enclosed in an insulated box. Solar thermal panels need to be dark to absorb energy from sunlight more efficiently.

Solar water heating systems also consists of pipes that flow beneath the floor. These pipes radiate heat into the room as a result of the hot fluid running through them.

Advantages of solar thermal panels

Here are the benefits of installing solar thermal panels vs. photovoltaic panels:

Lower Upfront Cost

Solar thermal panels are sometimes a better option for those looking to shift away from fossil fuels but are on a tight budget. This is because the solar thermal panels cost around half that of solar PV panels.

More Efficient Than Solar PV

Another edge that solar thermal systems have over solar PV is that they’re more efficient. Solar thermal panels can convert sunlight into usable heat energy at up to 70% efficiency. As mentioned above this efficiency level dwarfs that of solar panels.

They Take Up Less Space

Finally, the higher efficiency of solar thermal panels means you need less of them to achieve the desired results. Therefore, they require less roof space than solar PV panels. You will likely need a solar thermal panel around 1-2 metres squared per each person in the household

Disadvantages of solar thermal panels

Needless to say, solar thermal panels have some drawbacks including:

May Not Meet Your Year-Round Needs

Solar thermal systems will provide sufficient heat in the summer months, but may not generate sufficient for your needs the rest of the year. It all depends how much hot water and heat your household requires. As a result, you may have to use a boiler to make up for the shortfall.

Shorter Warranty

Solar thermal panels typically only come with a 5 to 10-year warranty from the manufacturer. This warranty duration pales in comparison to the 25 years you can expect to get with solar PV panels.

Lots of Moving Parts

Another disadvantage of solar thermal panels is that they involve lots of moving parts. For starters, installing such panels involves significant plumbing, and possibly a new hot water tank.

Furthermore, you’ll need to replace the heat-transfer fluid at least every seven years. This means that the cost of the second replacement will have to come out of your own pocket since the warranty period will have ended.

Why You Should Install Solar Panels in Your Home

You may be wondering if installing solar panels in your home is actually worth it. The answer is that it is for sure, if your home is suitable for them.

Here are some of the benefits you’ll reap if you decide to pull the trigger on getting solar panels:

Saving on Energy Bills

The first advantage of having solar panels on your property is the reduced amount you’ll pay in energy bills, whether that is through solar electricity production or by generating heat through solar thermal panels.

As per the Energy Saving Trust estimates, you can expect to save anything from £630 to £520 annually by producing your own solar electricity. Your savings will depend on how much you are home during the day (and therefore using the electricity produced), plus whether you sell back any surplus electricity produced.

You can supplement your income thanks to solar panels. This can be done by sending any excess electricity your panels produce back into the grid and getting paid for it. This initiative is known as the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) and effectively replaces the previous Renewable Heat Incentive.

Increased Self-Sufficiency

Another benefit of installing solar panels in your home is that you’ll be much less dependent on the national grid. As a result, it’s great to have peace of mind knowing that you’ll always have electricity available, even if there’s a power outage in your area.

Raising Your Property’s Value

Finally, installing solar panels on your property can actually raise its value substantially. This increased valuation can mean more money for you if you decide to sell your house.

It’s estimated that installing solar panels can raise your property’s value by as much as 14%.

Solar PV & Solar Thermal FAQs

Are solar thermal panels cheaper than solar PV?

In terms of the upfront cost of installation, solar thermal panels are significantly cheaper than solar PV panels. However, the higher energy bills savings and lower maintenance costs associated with solar PV panels make them a more cost-efficient investment in the long run.

Can a solar hot water system overheat?

Solar thermal panels can be prone to overheating at times. However, there are many things you can do to reduce the chances of this happening. These measures include installing a radiator heat dump or a pre-cooling vessel within your solar thermal system.

Solar PV v Solar Thermal Conclusions

When exploring your options in terms of solar panel systems to install on your property, you’ll come across two main types, solar PV and solar thermal.

Both these types are significantly more environmentally friendly, leading to a reduced carbon footprint compared to fossil fuel methods of heating and powering a home. Which one of the solar options you should go for depends on your household’s needs.

Solar PV panels are the better choice if you’re looking for a comprehensive solution to your home’s energy requirements. Solar thermal systems cost less and are an attractive option for those primarily looking for heating and solar water heating solutions.

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Born in North West England, Jack kicked off his career in the insurance arena, dealing with claims for three years. Always up for a challenge, Jack leapt out of his comfort zone and embarked upon 5 years of excitement with the military.

Working for the Ministry of Defence, Jack specialised in counter-terrorism which took him to places such as Dubai, Oman, Iraq, Norway and Bahrain. During this period he worked with various Governments implementing strategic operations to prevent terrorism.

After travelling around various countries Jack increasingly came across various forms of solar from large solar farms to domestic solar panels. From here Jack took a keen interest in all things solar and started reading about the technological capabilities with a view to entering the industry after his career in the Ministry of Defence.

Once home after 5 fruitful years, Jack had 3 months leave in which he immersed himself in a solar crash course and got applying for jobs within the solar sector. He came across ESE Solar, a long-established forward-thinking company whose head office was only a stone’s throw away from him. He picked up the phone to see if there were any vacancies and within a week had a successful interview and obtained a full-time job, starting in the technical team.

Within the first few months, Jack onboarded in various online courses during work and social hours to speed up his knowledge of all things solar. Due to his strong work ethic and thirst for knowledge Jack was promoted to Head of Technical at ESE Solar. He currently leads the team and oversees the product development of new technologies within the company alongside assisting where necessary on their maintenance department.

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