Sol-Air Blog

Photovoltaic vs. Thermal Solar Panels

Posted on 7/18/18 8:50 AM


Many homeowners want to embrace solar energy to reduce grid dependence and make the best possible use of natural resources, but there’s a lot of confusion out there about how solar panels work and what exactly they can do to transform a home. 

One of the biggest misunderstandings is that the term “solar panel” refers to just one tool. There are two distinct types of solar panels that can harness the sun’s energy in different ways. Let’s take a moment to explain the differences between the two: 

Photovoltaic Panels (Solar Power)

Photovoltaic panels capture energy from photons in sunlight and convert that energy to electricity. That power can be used immediately on-site, stored for later use in a solar battery or cell, or transferred back into the grid to be used elsewhere. 

The energy from photovoltaic solar panels can be used exactly the same way you would use electricity delivered by the utility company. It will power lights, appliances and other home systems, just like the off-site electricity distributed through power lines. Depending on where you live, photovoltaic cells can even help you earn energy credits or other incentives from your utility company. 

Solar Thermal Panels (Solar Heat)

Solar thermal panels attract and concentrate the sun’s rays to capture solar heat. Unlike photovoltaic cells, solar thermal systems do not convert that heat energy into electricity, but rather put it to work directly to meet household heating needs, including ambient heat and hot water. 

Solar thermal systems can be connected to existing radiators or forced air HVAC systems, which makes them a great option for homeowners who are trying to embrace solar energy, but aren’t sure if they’re ready to rethink their relationship with the grid. Don’t let the name fool you, though; solar thermal panels can also help keep the house cool using an absorption pump, so they’re a year-round solution.

Making the Decision

One of the great things about solar energy is that it provides opportunities for customization. Homeowners can choose to incorporate photovoltaic panels, solar thermal panels, or both, based on their energy needs and goals. In order to make that decision in an informed manner, however, it’s crucial to understand the differences in the hardware and what they can help you achieve.

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