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What are Solar Roof Panels?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Solar roof panels are a particular type of solar panel meant to be placed on the roof of a house or other structure for the purpose of collecting photovoltaic energy to convert to electricity or as a method for heating water. Solar panels work by harnessing the energy of the sun, converting it into a form that can be stored and used by humans. The type of solar panel known as a solar thermal collector works by simply absorbing the energy into a liquid medium, such as water, to later use as heat energy. The type of solar panel known as a photovoltaic module converts this energy into electricity, which can then be stored in battery bays to be used at a later date.

Most commonly, solar roof panels are of the solar thermal collector variety. Many buildings will line their roofs with hot water panels to collect heat. These panels contain a liquid that runs through pipes that are attached to an absorber panel. In home use, this liquid is usually water, but in larger-scale facilities it may be something else.

This absorber panel will be coated with a deep black coloring, to help it absorb as much sunlight as is possible. The sunlight strikes and heats up the panels, in turn heating up the liquid, which can then be pumped elsewhere for use. For home applications, they may be used to provide hot water for showers, laundry, and sinks, or may be used as part of a forced-water heating system to heat the entire building.

Solar roof panels may also be photovoltaic panels, used to generate electricity. These are most often seen in smaller home use, as large facilities often find thermal heating to be more efficient. In this case, the panels consist of large photovoltaic arrays that are placed on the roof of the house. The roof is an ideal location for photovoltaic panels because it tends to catch more direct sunlight than other locations on a piece of property, and also reduces the visual footprint of the solar panels, which many people find unsightly.

Energy absorbed by the solar panels can then be stored in batteries, to power the household. In the past, panels of this type were used primarily by people in remote locations, who were off of the local power grid. In recent years, however, with rising energy costs and a growing environmental awareness, many people who have access to traditional electricity sources are turning to solar power.

Solar roof panels may also refer to a new type of photovoltaic system, known commonly as solar shingles. These are similar in operation to traditional photovoltaic panels, but are smaller and have what most people consider to be a much nicer aesthetic. Solar shingles are about the size of normal roofing shingles, and they have a similar color. They are installed on the roof, and in many cases are indistinguishable from normal roofing materials. Solar shingles are a recent innovation but already are enormously popular. Many people who never would have considered other solar panels, because of their appearance, are turning to shingles to get the benefits of solar energy without the negative visual effect.

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Discussion Comments
By anon203029 — On Aug 04, 2011

Pretty good article. I agree with parmnparsley. To install the panels to supply electricity to your house, depending where you are, you can get credits for the amount of electricity to give back to the grid. So, it doesn't matter if you are heating water, pumping water or even using your lights -- you will be providing for it all.

I came across an article recently about this where a guy was producing 100 percent of his home electricity from his panels. You might find it worth a read. I only wish they did something similar here.

By parmnparsley — On Oct 29, 2010

@ PelesTears- Ideally the best system would be one where you installed photovoltaic solar panels on your roof to supply electricity, and a solar hot water system to reduce your electricity consumption. Solar water heaters can work great. They do however need to have a regular hot water tank to heat the water beyond what your solar system does and to heat your water during rainy days. The actual efficiency of your system will depend on the hot water demands of your home, the climate zone you are in, and the size of your solar panels.

Essentially, a hot water solar system pumps a fluid through your solar energy collector, which it stores in an insulated tank. Your hot water is then piped through a series of coils in that tank that act as heat exchangers, drawing heat from the heated fluid in your solar system into the ground temperature water. This water is hot, and only needs to be heated to the temperature set on your water heater. If the solar heater heats your water to 115 degrees and your water heater is set at 120 degree, then it only has to heat that water by 5 degrees. This uses much less energy than heating water by 60-65 degrees.

By PelesTears — On Oct 29, 2010

@ CHicada- So wait a minute...If I am installing solar panels on my roof to generate hot water, why am I using any electricity at all? Shouldn't the system actually heat my water? Shouldn't a solar hot water heater actually create power to supply the pump and push the heated water through my home? Can you explain to me a little better how this whole system works? It sounds a little like someone trying to sell some snake oil. Is it actually worth it to install a solar water heating system?

By chicada — On Oct 29, 2010

As the article stated, most of the roofs with solar panels mounted are actually producing hot water rather than electricity, but they are still beneficial in promoting energy efficiency. Very little electricity is used in the generation of hot water from these systems, most of which is attributed to the electricity used to pump the water through the hot water tank and a little bit to further heat the water.

For most people with electric water heaters, hot water accounts for about a quarter of your electricity use. For this reason, installing an efficient solar hot water system will save a person about 80%-90% of what they would normally spend on hot water. In a state like Arizona, where a person spends about $200 a month in electricity for a 2500 square foot home with a pool, this can amount to savings of $40 to $45 per month. That's about $500 a year, so the system can pay for itself in no time.

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