Understanding the Basics of Solar Panel Systems

Before diving into the details of solar power for your home, it helps to understand what exactly solar panels are and how they work. The experts at Vivint Solar explain that solar photovoltaic panels are typically composed of silicon solar cells wired together into large flat panels. When sunlight strikes these solar cells, photons knock electrons loose from their atoms which allows electric current to flow.

We know this process of converting light directly into electricity as the photovoltaic effect. The solar cells generate direct current (DC) electricity which flows to an inverter to convert it into 120V alternating current (AC) that can power your home. It’s quite literally transforming sunshine into usable electric power.

Components of a Residential Solar Energy System

A complete solar panel system for powering a home consists of several main components, including solar panels, an inverter, racking, wiring and switches a monitoring system and possibly a battery for storage.

Proper planning and sizing of each component is crucial to create an efficiently functioning solar panel system for your home. Professional installation is highly recommended unless you have specific solar training.

Sizing a Solar System for Your Home’s Needs

When considering solar power for your home, one of the first steps is properly sizing your system. As a general guideline, you need about 100 square feet of roof space per 1 kilowatt of solar capacity, but this varies based on panel efficiency and your geographic location. Your installer will evaluate the usable square footage of unshaded roof space and optimize placement of panels within that area.

In addition, your average monthly electricity consumption needs to be measured, usually by analyzing 12 months of utility bills. With your space and energy usage constraints known, an appropriately sized system can be recommended. For most homes, a system that generates 60-80% of your annual power needs is ideal. This allows you to supplement with grid electricity as needed while minimizing excess unused solar generation.

Connecting to the Electrical Grid vs Off-Grid

The vast majority of homes with solar power remain tied to the traditional electrical grid. This is known as a grid-tied solar system. It allows you to draw supplemental power from the grid when your solar panels are not meeting 100% of home usage. Excess solar generation flows back into the grid for bill credits.

True off-grid solar systems are uncommon in residential settings but make sense in very rural locations. They require solar arrays significantly oversized for normal usage as well as large battery banks to store enough energy for multi-day weather events. Maintaining an off-grid solar system requires diligent monitoring and maintenance.

Positioning Solar Panels for Maximum Sun Exposure

To maximize productivity, solar panels need to be positioned for optimal sun exposure. In the northern hemisphere, south-facing rooftops are best to point panels towards the sun’s path across the southern sky. Panels should avoid being shaded by trees, chimneys or other obstructions, especially during peak midday hours when irradiance is most intense.

Maintenance Requirements are Minimal

Once professionally installed, residential solar panel systems require very little regular maintenance. Homeowners should periodically clean off dust and debris from panels, clear any overhanging tree branches, and monitor system performance data. Your installer can provide guidance on best practices for maintaining your specific solar power system over decades of service.


Investing the time to understand the basics of how solar panels function and integrate with your home means you’ll be well equipped to harness the sun’s emissions-free energy for years to come. Reach out to local solar companies to explore if solar power for your home makes sense.

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