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Understanding Solar Roofs vs Solar Panels

A solar roof with single cell solar panel shingles
  • A solar panel–also called solar cell panels, solar electric panels, or photo-voltaic (PV) modules–is a group of cells that make energy from sunlight–all mounted together in a framework, called a panel. Homeowners then install these panels on top of their roof.   
  • A solar roof goes a step further by using materials in the roof’s construction that can absorb sunlight directly rather than installing panels on top of an existing roof. The term “solar roof” may refer to an entire roof or just a section.

Most people today have some familiarity with solar panels, whether on camping equipment or on rooftops. Believe it or not, the first rooftop solar panels, connected directly to a building’s roof, were installed in the late 1800s.

The first solar roof appeared almost a century later, in 1973. Innovators at the University of Delaware integrated solar cells into the roof instead of putting them on top.  

Since then, the solar energy industry has evolved considerably. Now that we understand it as a viable, sustainable energy source, today’s consumers seek the best ways to leverage solar and other renewable sources to meet ever-increasing energy demands.

The comparison below explains some features of solar roofs vs solar panels that can help you harness a virtually endless energy supply from the Southern California sun. It also offers some tips to help you decide which option best suits your needs.

What is a Solar Roof?

Simply put, the difference between a solar roof and solar panels is the relationship of whole (roof) to part (panel). Solar roofs are constructed with integrated materials that convert sunlight into electrical power, rather than placing panels on top. The integrated solar energy cells may be part of a building’s initial construction, or function as a later, post-construction upgrade. 

Homeowners may upgrade to a solar roof if they discover the original structure needs replacing, or simply because they want to save money on utility bills while simultaneously increasing their home’s value. 

While solar panel installations can look like obvious additions, solar roofs appear as seamless elements of architectural design. Homeowners concerned with improving solar energy’s aesthetics proved to be a factor in driving the industry’s growth. 

Although typically thin, solar roofs are quite durable and resilient against harsh weather. In and around San Diego, they also tend to shine, as they’re commonly made of materials like gallium, indium, selenide, and copper. Several different types of solar roofs are listed below. 

Types of Solar Roofs

  • Solar Metal Roofing

A solar metal roof looks just like those on metal buildings. They contain several layers with a solar cell layer–including tempered glass–on top. With invisible wiring or connection hardware and a variety of available colors, you can select a metal roof that complements your home’s appearance. 

  • Interlocked Solar Panel Roofing

This roof type features sections of solar panels that replace traditional roofs of asphalt shingles or clay tiles. Without roofing materials beneath, the solar panels interlock to keep out air, water, and debris.  

  • Solar Shingles

Solar shingles, which look similar to other roofing shingles, are a popular choice. Their hidden wiring and connections give them a sleek appearance. Monocrystalline shingles–made from silicon–offer the highest efficiency. 

The initial cost of installing a solar roof will likely be much more expensive than installing solar panels to cover a comparable size. 

The advantages of a solar roof include significant added home value, lower electricity bills, and rebates and/or credits. Added together, these benefits can easily outweigh your installation investment.

Solar Panel Advantages

Solar panels, which are more well known, have more practical advantages and lower costs than solar roofs. 

  • Adjustability
    Panels can be angled to maximize insolation and energy efficiency.
  • Portability
    Solar panels can be removed and reinstalled, although this option is not usually advisable, especially if the installation company lacks sufficient experience.
  • Affordability
    Solar panel installations are typically less expensive than solar roofs, if no roof work is required. However, if you know your roof will require repairs in the near future, plan on scheduling them before installing solar panels. 

How to Choose Between a Solar Roof vs Solar Panels

One of the main reasons homeowners choose a solar roof instead of solar panels–once they have confirmed that solar panels will work on their roof–is their aesthetic appeal. 

While choosing between solar roofs vs solar panels can be difficult, answering the questions using the table below can help you make the best selection. 

Will you need roof repair soon (i.e. less than 1-3 years)?
Is portability of your solar system a consideration?
Is it important that your solar system does not look like an add-on?
Is energy efficiency (maximum energy for the least roof coverage) your primary concern? 
Is durability the most important consideration? 
Is minimizing the overall cost of your installation most important?
Do you have metal siding on your home?

These suggestions weigh the strengths and weaknesses of both options to help you decide when to consider installing a solar roof, solar panels, or both. 

Before committing to any kind of solar installation, make sure to consult with an experienced company that can give you specific, detailed answers about using solar energy sources. You need a company that can obviously perform the installation to the highest standards, but will also be there to support you in the future.

Baker Electric Home Energy has served the Southern California area for over 15 years and provided clean energy solutions to more than 17,000 of your neighbors. Our way of doing business, The Baker Way®, which includes delivering extraordinary service and building customer confidence, is exemplified by being awarded the Torch Award for 2021. For more information on whether to go with solar roofs vs solar panels, contact us.