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Best Solar Panels 2014

Solar panel intallation
Contractors install solar panels on a residential roof.
CREDIT: Dennis Schroeder, NREL.

Solar panels promise to lower your electricity bill by supplementing the energy you buy from the local power company. But choosing and installing solar panels can be an overwhelming task.

Solar cells, which are linked together in a panel, convert sunlight directly into electricity via photovoltaic materials, such as silicon. When sunlight hits these materials, the photons get absorbed, and that energy causes electrons to escape from their position in the silicon atom. These released electrons are captured to produce an electric current.

Currently, more than 9,370 megawatts of cumulative solar electric capacity are operating in the United States, enough to power more than 1.5 million average American homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

How much you save with solar panels depends on your local weather — they're a better deal in sunny Denver than dreary Seattle — and how much electricity costs in your market.

"There are many systems that make great economic sense today, and these are the types of systems that are being installed in large numbers," said Tommy Cleveland, a solar energy engineer at the North Carolina State University Solar Center. "They are primarily in locations with expensive electricity rates, making the energy produced by solar systems very valuable."

If you make the leap, however, it pays to get the right kind of panels.

Our sister site, TopTenREVIEWS, does extensive in-depth reviews of solar panel technology. Here are their top three recommendations for this green technology.

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#1 Kyocera KD315GX-LPB

The Kyocera KD315GX-LPB solar panel gets top marks for its high solar efficiency, the amount of energy converted from sunlight per surface area. At 16 percent, this solar panel is not the most efficient on the market, but it ranks high. (Silicon-based solar cells like this one usually operate at an efficiency of 18 percent or lower, according to the University of Pennsylvania.) The Kyocera KD315GX-LPB panels are also durable and come with a complete five-year warranty. The company guarantees power output at 80 percent of the minimum power promised by manufacturers for 20 years.

Ease of use: As with any solar panel array, you'll need to check your local regulations and permitting requirements before installing. You can mount Kyocera solar panels yourself if you're handy enough and if your local laws allow. Experts advise against doing so unless you really know what you're doing, however.

"It is best to get a professional installer to install them," Cleveland told LiveScience. "There is serious danger working with electricity, so someone not properly trained to install a system can easily get hurt or killed."

A few notes on choosing an installer: The U.S. Department of Energy recommends approaching this step with care. Ask potential contractors about their level of experience installing both on-grid and off-grid photovoltaic systems. Most homeowners will want on-grid installation, meaning your solar system is interconnected with the local power grid. Be sure the contractor you hire is licensed and certified and that there are no legal complaints against them. Your state electrical board and the Better Business Bureau are good resources.

The Kyocera panels are easy to maintain, requiring only occasional cleaning with water and mild detergent and an annual check of the connections and hardware.

Help and support: The company provides frequently asked questions on their website and will answer individual queries by phone and email. There is no online live chat option for support, a downside of this brand.

Cost: For a complete and up-to-date cost comparison, see TopTenREVIEWS' comparison tool.

#2 Canadian Solar CS6X-305M

Founded in 2001, Canadian solar sells to 50 countries around the globe. The company's Canadian Solar CS6X-305M model took second place in the TopTenREVIEWS rankings for power, durability and visual appeal. The panels' shape is more rectangular than Kyocera's offering, which may appeal to some homeowners. The efficiency of these panels is rated at 15.9 percent, barely behind the No. 1 Kyocera model. They are particularly durable, able to handle up to 113 pounds of snow per square foot.

Ease of use: Though the installation is not significantly different than that for other solar panels, this model is advertised as self-washing, meaning that with a sufficient roof angle, rain will keep dirt and dust off the solar panel surface. Owners may still need to take a sponge and soapy water to the panels on occasion if they get particularly dirty, however.

Help and support: Canada Solar offers support by phone and by email, and includes some information on frequently asked questions on their website. There is no live chat or blog, making the company slightly harder to reach than competitors. The company offers a 10-year warranty on materials and workmanship.

Cost: For a complete and up-to-date cost comparison, see TopTenREVIEWS' comparison tool.

#3 Grape Solar 390W

Eugene, Ore.-based Grape Solar was founded in 2009 and makes solar panels largely manufactured in Asia but assembled in the United States. The Grape Solar 390W panel has an efficiency percentage of 15.21, a solid number, and can handle 50 pounds of snow per square foot.

Ease of use: These solar panels can be cleaned with just water, no soap necessary. TopTenREVIEWS rated Grape Solar's phone-based customer service as "first-rate." You can also contact the company via email or get in touch with the company's technical team through a customer hotline.

Cost: For a complete and up-to-date cost comparison, see TopTenREVIEWS' comparison tool.

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