Solar shingles vs solar panels: which is best for your home?
The Tesla Solar Roof has garnered a lot of interest from homeowners, but would you be better off with ordinary solar panels? Here's a review of the pros and cons.
In the early days of solar energy - decades ago - people who installed solar panels on their homes tended to be hardcore enthusiasts and hackers who were doing it for environmental reasons above all else.
Today, solar technology has gone mainstream. While most people who install solar panels on their houses these days do care about the environment, other concerns such as finances and aesthetics also are a big consideration.
This is why solar shingle products have gained a lot of interest lately. Known generally as building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV), these look similar to regular roofing shingles but have solar cells embedded in them, allowing them to generate electricity just like a standard solar panel.
The most well-known example of this is the Tesla Solar Roof. Announced in 2016, the Tesla Solar Roof is a full roof replacement that looks like a completely normal roof from a distance. Only when you examine the shingles up close can you see the embedded solar cells.
While it can look great, you will pay a big premium: a Tesla Solar Roof will cost approximately twice the cost of a conventional solar array. (You can use their calculator to find out for yourself.)
Is the extra cost of solar shingles worth it for your home? That really depends on how much of a premium you place on aesthetics. While a Solar Roof looks great, there are some tradeoffs that you should consider before you make that kind of financial commitment. This article will try to make an objective comparison between solar shingles and conventional solar panels so that you can decide what’s best for your home.
What are solar shingles?
There’s no strict definition of what makes a solar shingle or solar roofing tile, but in general it refers to a product with integrated solar cells that is designed to replace a conventional building product.
For example, solar glass uses transparent solar cells to create ordinary-looking windows that generate electricity. There is also solar siding that allows the exterior walls of a building to generate power.
Solar shingles are a logical BIPV product because they’re located on the roof where they will receive the most sunshine. Their placement on the roof also means it’s not as critical that they have a seamless appearance. A solar window or solar siding, on the other hand, will be seen up close where design flaws are more of an issue.
There are two manufacturers that make full roof replacements. That includes Tesla, but Luma Solar is another company with a solar roof product.
In both cases, all the roofing material is replaced by the solar shingles, but only some of the shingles have active solar cells in them. The manufacturer will install enough active shingles to provide 100% of your annual electricity needs. The rest of the roof will be covered with shingles that look like the active shingles, but are blanks that don’t generate electricity. This will give the roof a seamless appearance.
Others, like the defunct RGS POWERHOUSE shingle, replace only a section of shingles in your roof.
Do solar shingles look a lot better than conventional panels?
Full roof replacement products like those offered by Tesla and Luma can look very sleek. There are other BIPV products that mimic roofing materials but don’t have components that include components like roof ridges, edges, and vent stacks. These products replace only part of the roof. Here’s an example of an RGS POWERHOUSE installation:
In my opinion, this doesn’t look much better than an array with all-black solar panels, especially if the all-black array includes a skirt that attaches to the outside edge. Rooftop solar arrays have a gap between the panels and the roof surface, and wiring and other equipment can sometimes be visible from the ground. The skirt hides this gap, giving the array a cleaner appearance.
If you have dark roofing shingles and an all-black array, your solar installation can blend very nicely into your roof. There are several manufacturers that offer all-black solar panels. You can read my article for more details and a list of available products.
The bottom line is that a full solar roof replacement can look great, but other solar shingles that cover only part of your roof don’t look significantly better than solar panels. They also come with big risks.
The risks of going with solar shingles for your home
Solar shingles aren’t a conventional solar product, and because of that they carry some risks.
The first risk is the very limited number of companies offering them. In North America, your options are basically Tesla and Luma Solar. This means that the product might not be available in your area.
Even if the product is available, you won’t be able to get multiple quotes for your installation: only Tesla installs the Tesla Solar Roof. (It’s always a good idea to get multiple quotes for your solar installation.)
And because the technology behind these products is proprietary, only the manufacturer can provide replacement products or service. If you have a conventional solar array and one of the panels goes bad, you can replace it with a panel with similar electrical characteristics from another manufacturer. But if Tesla or Luma stops supporting their product several years down the line, you’re out of luck if you need service.
The other major risk with solar shingles is that the technology doesn’t have a long track record yet. While solar cells aren’t a new technology, the challenge for solar panel manufacturers is how to inexpensively manufacture a high quality product that will withstand a couple decades of abuse by extreme weather.
Manufacturers have had decades to refine their conventional panels and make them durable enough that they can offer product warranties as long as 25 years. Solar Roof products, on the other hand, have been around for only a couple years.
While several years of third-party reliability testing are available for conventional solar panels, no such testing exists for solar shingles, as far as I know.
How much does a solar roof cost?
Luma Solar calls their product a Luxury Solar Roof, which tells you a lot about what the pricing will be like.
While Luma doesn’t publish their pricing, Tesla does. In fact, you can visit their website and get an estimate simply by putting in your address. When I did that, I got a price that was roughly twice the cost of a conventional solar system.
That’s a big premium, but if you already need a roof replacement, that price does become more atttractive.
However, an important caveat is that some customers have found that their actual price ended up being much more than what they were initially quoted. For example, one California homeowner saw his price jump from $70,000 to a whopping $145,000.
Why the huge discrepency? One reason I’ve heard is that complicated roofs increase the cost of the Tesla roof substantially. If you have a simple roof with just a couple flat surfaces, you might find that your actual price is pretty close to the one quoted on the website.
However, if you have a lot of complex features on your roof - dormers, multiple angles, vent stacks, skylights, etc - the installation of the Solar Roof becomes a lot more difficult.
When does it make sense to get solar shingles vs solar panels?
If you need a new roof anyway, your roof isn’t very complex, and you’re willing to pay a premium for a great-looking solar installation, the Tesla or Luma solar roof products might be for you - as long as you’re aware of the risks.
Of these two manufacturers, Tesla is likely the less risky company. They’re much larger, have significant manufacturing experience, and are more likely to still be around a couple decades from now to support the product.
While Luma has a great-looking product, they are definitely a niche player compared to Tesla.
As for other solar shingle products such as those from CertainTeed and SunTegra, they’re hard to recommend. In my opinion, they don’t look a lot better than an all-black solar array but come with a higher cost and risk.
however if your roof is complex you’re screwed.
Deciding whether solar shingles or solar panels are the better choice for your home
The decision whether to go with solar shingles or
- going to get a new roof anyway
While the Tesla Solar Roof is the most well-known BIPV product on the market, it wasn’t the first. In fact, several companies have developed solar shingle products, with varying degrees of success.
Several companies have brought products to market and failed, including very large companies like Dow Chemical that sold off their POWERHOUSE solar shingle product to Real Goods Solar, which filed for bankruptcy in 2020. International companies like