What Is Custom Solar?
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Most residential solar installations are going to be based on standardized solar panels. This doesn’t mean that your home’s solar installation is going to be one-size-fits-all — quite the opposite, every solar installation should be customized for your home’s roof and layout. However, it does mean that the individual solar PV modules are going to be a standard shape, size, and efficiency.
There are times when standardized solar PV modules aren’t going to cut it, though. Some homes, businesses, and specialized buildings are going to be of a non-standard size, requiring a higher level of customization than your average building. This is where customized solar panels come in. We’ll take a look at what custom solar is, how it’s used, and whether it’s right for you.
Custom Solar: Types and Usage
Most solar panels are standardized. For example, Go Solar Group’s solar panel of choice, the Axitec: AC-315MH/120SB, is 65.9 inches by 39.1 inches. These panels are then assembled into a customized installation. Some homes require 30 panels, some need more, some need less. The customization comes from the number of the panels, not the panels themselves.
For most homeowners, this is the cheapest, easiest, and most efficient way to install residential solar. A solar PV installation is not going to take up your entire roof, so the panels can be installed in such a way that they fit the vast majority of residential homes. A small minority of homes and businesses, however, are the exception. These buildings require more specialization than the others.
Standard Solar Panels: A Short Explanation
Advances in solar technology have led to a higher level of customization than previously possible. The most common form of solar material is silicon, which is melted, poured, and then sliced into individual bars, which are used during the construction of panels. These panels are usually built with a hard covering, often glass, which makes it harder to fit them to curved surfaces, or to cut them down to size.
Most solar PV modules are crystalline silicon. Some are polycrystalline, easily identified through their trademark blue coloring, which is less efficient but cheaper. Others are monocrystalline, which is black and more efficient than polycrystalline. It is for this reason that most companies will offer monocrystalline solar panels, or sometimes polycrystalline.
But there is another option.
Thin-Film Solar: How It Works
While most solar modules are built of silicon wafers, silicon can be used in a different way — laid down in thin films, sometimes only a few nanometers thick, on another material. This material can be glass, metal, or plastic, depending on the needs of the panels. The most common form of thin-film solar is cells encased on either side by sheets of glass. There is, however, a way to use thin-film solar cells to customize solar to a difficult roof.
What are Amorphous Solar Panels?
Instead of encasing the cells in glass, the solar is printed onto a flexible substrate, like thin plastic. These panels are sometimes called “flexible solar panels” or “amorphous solar panels.” They are usually smaller than regular PV modules, are generally less efficient, and may not last as long.
The Flexibility of Thin-Film Solar PV Cells
On the other hand, what they lack in power, they make up for in their flexibility. Amorphous solar cells can be applied to round surfaces, such as domes, that might require complex (and expensive) racking systems. This is because many forms of amorphous solar PV cells can be applied to surfaces using adhesive instead of solar racks that are built into the roof structure itself.
As the racking system doesn’t necessarily have to be as robust as it would be for traditional crystalline silicon panels, some forms of thin-film solar cells can be applied to roofs that may not be able to support a traditional solar panel system. This is one of the ways that amorphous solar cells can be more flexible than standard installations.
Other Benefits of Thin-Film Solar Panels
Along with getting more flexible installation options, thin-film panels are also much less toxic to the environment. The process of making crystalline solar panels produces a number of toxic chemicals, which then have to be disposed of carefully. Thin-film panels do not produce nearly as many toxic byproducts, which makes them more environmentally friendly.
Other Forms of Custom Solar Panels
Alongside thin-film solar panels, crystalline silicon solar panels can be custom-built for your needs. Facets that can be customized are the efficiency rating (to an extent), the size, and the shape. Each of these can be useful in different situations.
Customizing Your Solar Panels’ Efficiency
The easiest way to get the efficiency rating that you need is to find panels that already have that efficiency, then have those installed. Many solar installers will offer a range of brands and models to best serve their customers’ needs. Some will even custom order panels if the customer has a specific model in mind. Make sure you check with your installer to see the products that they offer.
Customizing the Size of Your Solar Panels
You may be in a situation where you need solar panels that aren’t as large as the typical panels. When this situation arises, you would need to acquire panels that are cut down. There are a couple of ways that you can do this.
The first way is to custom order your solar panels to be a different size. Custom-built solar panels can be tailor-made for your specific situation, allowing them to fit snugly on a non-standard roof, among other uses. The major downside is that custom ordering solar panels is much more expensive than buying standardized, mass-produced solar panels. Not many people need non-standard-sized panels.
Customizing the Shape of Your Solar Panels
Like changing the size of your panels, you can also change their shape. This can happen when the space where the panels are to be installed in circular or triangular. Solar panels can be cut into different shapes in order to fit these kinds of spaces, particularly if you only have limited space to squeeze as much energy out of as possible.
Panels like these are also going to be more expensive than standard panels and, depending on the shape you go with, some modules may be less efficient. However, if money is not a problem and you need solar panels for a specialized purpose, customizing their shape can be a viable option.
Who Is Custom Solar Good For?
Custom solar is not for everyone. Most homeowners will thrive with a solar company’s usual choice of solar panels. Standardized solar panels have been vetted through widespread use and usually have a strong corporate backing, which helps when maintenance or replacements are needed. However, there are some situations where the standard solar panel offerings simply won’t fit.
When Do I Need Custom Solar?
The scenarios where one needs custom solar tend to be rare. We touched on some of these situations above, but a bit more detail is always helpful.
The most common situation for custom solar is a non-standard roof. It can be curved like a dome, in which case adhesive amorphous panels are necessary. A racking system for a dome would need to be modified to ensure stability. Panels mounted on a dome with a traditional racking system would also look aesthetically unpleasing. Finally, a solar mount system that needs to be modified to this extent would cost extra money for the workers to install.
Another situation where custom solar may be necessary is if you need to maximize every inch of space on your roof to produce solar energy. Most roofs will have room to spare with a standard solar installation. However, some roofs will be an unusual shape or size, which may inhibit a standard installation. When this happens, solar panels may need to be cut into specific shapes or sizes.
The vast majority of homes will not need custom solar. It is a useful tool available for businesses, homes, or government agencies that need non-standard solar, but most homeowners need to look no further than their local solar installation company.