The basic truth about solar panels is that you need a lot of them to achieve anything useful, so cheap solar power is kind of an oxymoron.
When a company offers a ‘starter solar kit‘, they’re usually selling a couple of square yards of panels, a controller, and a battery. A setup like that will power a halogen tasklight and a notebook computer. Maybe a radio too (if you keep the volume down).
If you’re planning a solar-powered home, you’ll have to cover half the roof with panels. That’s an expensive exercise. Here we’ll consider how you can bring the price down.
Option #1: Discount store. Obviously. Like any other commodity, solar cells get sold cheaper in bulk, and discount chains are springing up everywhere. Remember to check the deals you’re offered very closely!
Option #2: Shop around. The best performing, most efficient solar panels are usually the most expensive. But what if a minor league company is offering also-rans with 70% of the performance for 50% of the price? You do the math.
Option #3: Seconds. Solar cells are delicate and easily spoilt. Imperfections abound. Look out for people and companies selling cheap, functional, blemished panels. See: used solar panels.
Option #4: Re-runs. Transistors don’t wear out. Neither do modern panels. That doesn’t stop people selling them on when they upgrade their installation or move house. Look for ‘collect in person’ deals on Craigslist or eBay. You may have to build up your array from several different brands but, as long as the rated voltages match, that shouldn’t be a problem.
OK, so that was the watch list. Here comes the ‘Watch out!’ list, especially for bargain hunters.
Item #1: Avoid marine solar panels. Sea air and blazing sunlight take their toll. Secondhand ex-boat panels tend to be bad deals.
Item #2: Check those seals. If the panel isn’t airtight, condensation will build up inside and performance will suffer. If the panel has been on the shelf for a while, look for tell-tale signs of moisture inside the covers and on the cells.
It’s tough out there, and finding a bargain is hard work. But, if you put your mind to it, you can likely shave the cost of your dream system.