Solar panels guide: how much do solar panels cost to install and are they really worth the investment?

With energy prices soaring, now is the perfect time to think about installing solar panels

A house with solar panels
Published: April 6, 2022 at 10:27 am
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Solar panels have always been popular with those looking to reduce their carbon footprint. But now, with most of us experiencing the high cost of energy price hikes, it’s potentially a great way of saving money at the same time. Here's all you need to know before making the switch.

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What are solar panels?

Solar electricity is low carbon, renewable energy. Solar PV panels are made from cells made from layers of a semi-conducting material, usually silicon. When the sun shines on to the panel, energy from the sun is absorbed and a flow of electricity is created. The cells don’t need direct sunlight to work but the stronger the sun, the more energy will flow. The energy that is generated is called direct current (DC) and because our homes need alternating current to work (AC), an inverter will also be installed to convert DC to AC. Once you’ve paid for the panels and their installation, your electricity bills should be much lower.

 How do solar panels work?

The panels are made up of photovoltaic (PV) cells between layers of a semi-conducting material such as silicon. When photons from sunlight hit them, an electric field or photoelectric effect is created, producing the current required for electricity. It’s this current that is then fed through an inverter to convert it into usable energy in your mains circuit for your appliances or stored for later use after dark.

What are the options for solar panels?

There are three types to choose from - standard solar panel, solar tiles and film solar panels

  • The most popular and efficient are standard solar panels, as they can be perfectly positioned to get the most sunlight and are easily fitted to the roof with aluminium brackets.
  • Solar tiles are another alternative and are ideal for those who want their solar to blend in with the roof. Tiles are interlocked together and can be either integrated into an existing roof structure or used to make up a completely new roof. These tend to not be quite as efficient as panels and can cost a lot more.
  • The third choice is thin film solar panels, which are lighter but take up more space as they are less efficient so you need more of them. There are foldable and rollable designs, which tend to be used on commercial buildings.

Other things to think about include whether to select tempered or strengthened glass over plate glass. Tempered will cost more but can save more energy in the long term. The Energy Saving Trust has a helpful solar energy calculator to give you an idea of whether solar is for you.

What about solar for hot water?

Solar PV panels can be coupled with the immersion heater on the hot water tank to give you free hot water using a power diverter or Solar PV optimiser.

Alternatively, you can have a solar thermal system installed, which enables the sun to heat the water, which is stored in a hot water cylinder or thermal store. It won’t provide all your hot water needs so you will also require a boiler or immersion heater to make up the rest.

A solar thermal system uses panels or tubes called solar connectors, they gather solar energy, which is then converted into heat, pumped around a circuit and passed through the hot water cylinder. Just like solar panels, they are fitted to the roof and should give you about 90% of what you need during summer and 25% in winter. Lower energy, lower bills, lower carbon footprint. The average cost is around £3,000 to £5,000 according to the Energy Saving Trust.

 Do I need planning permission to install solar panels?

Solar PV panels won’t need planning permission for most houses, as they fall under permitted development. However, as with all exterior house alterations it’s best to contact your local planning office to make sure. If your home is a listed building or you live in a conservation area or National Park then certain restrictions will apply.

Another thing to remember is that you must register your solar system with your Distribution Network Operator (DNO) either before or after installation. In most cases your installer will register it for you, just like a Gas Safe engineer registers your new boiler. There’s some helpful advice on gov.uk as well as information on how to find your DNO at the Energy Networks Association.

 How much do solar panels cost to install?

According to The Eco Experts, the cost of an average solar panel system for a family of three is £4,800 including installation and it could cut down your monthly energy bill by as much as 50%. Another reason to buy now is that VAT on solar panels has been cut entirely starting from April 2022 for the next five years.

Most panels are around 350 watts so you’d need three panels to create a 1 kWp (kilowatts peak) system or six for a 2kWp with single panels priced around £480. The energy you produce is completely free, saving hundreds of pounds over the course of a year. This will depend on how much electricity your home uses and what time of day you switch appliances on, so try to do your laundry and dishwashing during the day when the panels are active.

 How much money will solar panels save me?

It takes anywhere from 12 to 26 years to get your money back on the cost of installing solar panels so it’s not a great idea if you’re planning to move house in the next few years.

You can also take advantage of the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG), which pays you for any solar energy you export back to the National Grid. You can find out more information here.

 Are solar panels easy to maintain?

Solar panels won’t need much in the way of maintenance so long as they are well designed and expertly installed. This is why it’s important to buy from a qualified, registered installer. You can find an MCS accredited installer on their website.

Make sure you get a good warranty and check if you are covered on your home’s buildings insurance should anything happen such as storm damage for instance. Keep a regular check on whether there are any overhanging trees or shading on the panels and cut back branches where necessary. You may need to replace the inverter within the first 25 years and this costs around £800.

Are there any government schemes that help with the cost of solar panels?

A great place for information is Energy Grants UK, where you’ll find all the help you need to take advantage of the ECO4 (Energy Company Obligation Scheme) which started in March 2022 and runs until 2026. The government have allocated £4 billion towards the installation of heat pumps and solar panels across the UK and is letting councils determine the eligibility criteria depending on the needs and circumstances of homeowners in your area. The great news is that grants will now be available to many more people than in previous years. This is because the Government now have a target to have all homes in the UK up to an EPC band of D by 2025.

 Are solar panels suitable for every property?

You can fit panels to most properties with a pitched roof, so long as you are the homeowner. A south-facing roof is the most effective as it will generate the most energy. However, you can still have solar on east or west orientated roofs though perhaps think twice if yours is north-facing as it doesn’t receive much sunlight at all.

A typical system uses around 25 sq m of space and it should ideally be unshaded between the peak sunlight period of 10am and 4pm. If you have a flat roof or live in a listed building or within a conservation area then you may not be allowed solar panels, so check with your local planning office before you part with any money. The roof should be in good condition so replace any old or broken tiles before installation.

 Is now a good time to install solar panels?

Yes! With energy bills due to increase yet again this October, now is the perfect time to switch to solar. Once fitted, remember that the panels must be registered and you’ll need an MCS certificate to register for smart export guarantee payments with a licenced energy supplier.

Are there any disadvantages to solar panels?

As with any big purchase, it’s best to do your research before taking the plunge and solar panels are no different. Keep in mind the initial cost of the panels, inverter, wiring, batteries and installation. This will vary depending on where you live as well as what grants you are entitled to. Get three quotes from three different registered installers and ask about installing a battery storage system at the same time, for times when daylight isn’t so abundant. Check if the quotes include scaffolding, roofing works, internal wiring, sorting a connection agreement with your energy supplier, electrical work and generation meter.

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Also, remember that you can’t take the panels with you so this is only for those staying put for a long time.

Authors

Hayley Gilbert is an award-winning interiors journalist with 25 years' experience writing about everything from blissful bathrooms to the coolest kitchens. Publications she has written for include Good Homes, Country Homes and Interiors, House Beautiful and The English Home.

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