How do you improve the curb appeal of solar panels?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that applies to solar panels too. Not everybody likes how they look, but there are a few things you can do to improve the curb appeal of solar panels.

Photo of all-black SunPower solar panels.
SunPower

I personally like the look of solar panels on my house. I think they’re interesting to look at, and they’re often a conversation starter.

But my solar panels face the backyard away from the street, so even if I didn’t like how they look, people casually passing by don’t see them. Not everyone has that choice: typically, you want your solar panels pointed south to capture as much sunlight as possible, but doing that might mean facing the panels toward the curb.

If you don’t like the aesthetics of solar panels, or you’re afraid that future home buyers won’t, you have some options to “soften” their appearance.

Think about facing your solar panels in another direction

Unless shading from nearby trees and buildings is a factor, if you have a roof surface that faces south, that’s where you would normally install solar panels. But unless your house is on wheels, you can’t choose which way your roof is oriented.

If a southerly orientation means that your solar array would face the street, ask your solar installer to give you a power output estimate for panels that are installed on other sides of your home. You will generate less power - expect approximately a 20% drop off if you face directly west or east instead of south - but you might decide that the power loss is worth it. To compensate, you could install a higher efficiency solar panel, which will let you generate more power in the same square footage.

One important situation to consider: if you live in a place where your utility company makes a time-of-use plan (TOU) either optional or mandatory with your solar install, you may be better off facing your panels west.

This is because TOU peak hours (when electricity is most expensive) is usually in the late afternoon and early evening when the sun is in the western sky. In this situation, if your solar panels face west, you will generate less total power but the electricity that you do generate will be more valuable.

Again, speak with your solar installer, who will be able to make this calculation for you.

Consider the location of attic vents and plumbing vents

Your roof most likely isn’t an uninterrupted surface, but has one or more things sticking out of it: plumbing stack vents and roof vents, for example.

When I had solar installed in 2013, I didn’t think about how this would affect the appearance of my installation. Here’s what it looks like:

See that one gap in the array where the pipe is? That’s a plumbing vent. Not only does it take up space where I otherwise would have been able to fit one more panel, but it leaves what I think is an unsightly gap in the array.

If I had a chance to do it again, I would have contacted a plumber to see if the vent could be moved to another part of the roof. It’s not always possible to move plumbing vents, so this might not be an option for you. Roof vents, which are more stubby and sometimes have a rotating part, can have fewer constraints on where they are located.

In any case, if you have vents that interfere with the placement of your panels, contact a roofing or plumbing professional to see if they could be moved. It might cost in the range of a few or several hundred dollars to do so, but if helps to improve the appearance of your roof, you might decide that it’s worth it.

Ask your installer where the conduit will go

The solar panels on your roof will have an electrical cable that runs down to your electrical panel and meter. Whether it’s located inside or outside your home, the cable will sit inside an armored pipe called conduit that looks like this:

Example of solar conduit
New England Clean Energy

This might be fine if it’s placed somewhere out of the way, but it can pretty ugly to have it facing the street. Unless you specifically ask where your installer intends to install the conduit and related equipment, they may default to the cheapest option, which is to run it on the exterior of the building.

A better option is to run the conduit inside an exterior wall and to also place the inverter and other equipment inside. Some high quality installers will do this automatically, but others may charge for it. It also may not be an option because of structural issues or local and utility rules about where this equipment - especially the cutoff switch - is placed.

Whatever the case, be sure to ask your solar installer about these details.

Ask about all-black solar panels

Even if you have a light colored roof, such as one with tile, it often looks better to have an array that uses all-black solar panels. The photo at the top of this article is one example of what those look like, and here’s another:

Example of all-black solar panels.
Solaria

All-black solar panels tend to disappear against a dark background such as asphalt shingles, but they also generally look better even against a light colored background, such as this tile roof.

That’s because all-black panels don’t have a white grid between the individual solar cells of the panel, as is the case with standard panels. (The photo of my house above uses standard panels, and the white grid is clearly visible.) That white grid tends to draw attention to itself, in contrast to an all-black array that looks like a continuous black sheet.

Many manufacturers now include all-black panels in their product lineup. Some manufacturers, such as SunPower, also have racking systems that put a matching black edge around the array, giving it an even more flush appearance.

Solar shingles such as the Tesla Solar Roof may be an option, but beware

One of the more well-known products for people who are looking for an attractive solar panel solution is solar shingles or solar tiles. The most popular and viable product in this category is the Telsa Solar Roof, which uses solar cells embedded in glass tiles that are printed to look like conventional roofing materials like slate and clay.

While Tesla is the most notable manufacturer to sell this type of solar panel (known generically as Building Integrated Photovoltaics), they’re not the first. Unfortunately, few have succeeded. There are a number of smaller startup-sized companies attempting to bring them to market, but even giant corporations such as Dow have failed.

Dow developed the POWERHOUSE lines of solar shingles and spent years trying to develop a market before selling the product to RGS Solar, which went out of business in 2020. The few customers who installed POWERHOUSE shingles are now in a bit of bind: they have to hope their solar shingles will work without failure for their anticipated lifespan, otherwise they’re most likely out of luck if they need service or replacements.

Telsa’s research and development for their Solar Roof is more extensive than other manufacturers, so it’s quite possible they’ll succeed where others have failed. But regardless, the main risk with a product like this is the proprietary nature of the components. With a conventional solar panel array, standardization means that you can swap in a panel or inverter from a different manufacturer if necessary. Not so with the Solar Roof, which ties you to one company. For this reason, we think it’s a better to go with the cheaper and less risky alternative of conventional solar panels.

Bottom line: work with your solar installer, and don’t be afraid to ask questions

Even if you hate the look of solar panels, there are definitely steps you can take to make your array more aesthetically pleasing.

On the other hand - especially with renewable energy gaining mainstream acceptance - some people who aren’t even nerds like myself really like the look of solar panels. Research has also shown that solar panels tend to add signficant value to your home, so you might not even need to worry about whether you’d be losing equity by installing panels. If an analysis by a professional solar installer shows that your array will be a cash-positive investment, it will likely be a smart investment.

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