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How Do Solar Panels Work? Everything You Need to Know About Solar Panels

When you understand the massive power of the sun it becomes easy to imagine a world that is completely powered by solar panels and efficient batteries to hold that power. To achieve that end someone first had to ask the question, “how do solar panels work.”

Did you know that Charles Fritts put the first set of solar panels up on a New York rooftop in 1884! While the tech was hardly adopted by the population at that time, in a little more than 100 years we would have reached a level of efficiency with solar power that most couldn’t even believe.

How do solar panels work?

By the mid-1990’s it became clear that it was only a matter of time before people would be powering their homes with solar power. It’s a shame that we have turned renewable energies into a battle in our nation because they are remarkable.

If we can hold it all together, imagine how efficient our solar panels will be in 50 years! What will we be able to power 50 years from now with solar power? When the children of that time ask, “how do solar panels work,” how much will that answer have changed?

How Do Solar Panels Work?

When it comes to how solar panels work, they are very interesting little inventions. They are basically small silicon cells that do a very specific job. They are created to absorb photons. It is these photons that kick-start electricity generation.

These solar cells are all lined up on a solar panel and they funnel electricity out to the next step in the solar power system. The job of the solar panel and the solar cell is to collect as much sunlight as possible and charge those cells with photons.

Close up of solar panel cells

Your solar panel will likely filter that electricity to batteries or an inverter. To understand something like how solar panels work, you also have to know what the photovoltaic effect is and how that electricity is generated down at the atomic level.

What Is the Photovoltaic Effect

We have talked about the silicon solar cell and how it attracts sunlight and creates a rush of photons. The solar cell is the place where the photovoltaic effect takes place. There are electrons in the solar cell but when the photons flood into that solar cell, brought on by the rays of the sun, they push the electrons out of the way.

The direct current is created by the photovoltaic cell and those electrons are then funneled through the wiring of the solar panel and into the batteries or inverter that you have attached to the solar panel.

This is how the electrical current is created through the photovoltaic effect. Isn’t that feature of how solar panels work so interesting?

How Much Energy Can Solar Panels Collect?

Modern solar panels are the most efficient that have ever existed. Solar technology is being changed all the time. After you answer the question of “how do solar panels work,” you will likely wanna know how much energy they produce. How much energy can you generate with all those loose electrons?

The average solar panel today is capable of producing 200-450 watts of power each. As you string them together you are going to be able to add to the amount of energy that you can produce.

The average solar panel alone is not a lot of power but you could use that much power to charge devices, power lights, and that kind of stuff.

How Do Solar Panels Work in Your Home?

When you attach an array of solar panels onto your roof they will work in just the way that we have talked about so far. The solar cells will create that electric current and deliver it to batteries or an inverter that will make that power available to you.

How solar panels work at home

As long as these panels are kept clean and clear of anything that might block the sun’s rays, you will be getting solar power when the sunlight is hitting the panels. That’s how solar panels work.

How Do Solar Panels Work When the Sun Goes Down

Most solar power systems are set up to route some of the solar energy collected to deep cycle batteries. These batteries get charged while the sun is up. Some systems power the home with electric power that is pushed from the panel to a solar inverter and then right to appliances.

Some systems divert the power to the home directly and to charging batteries. Then of course you can have systems that power batteries exclusively and the home runs off of these batteries.

To answer your question of, how do solar panels work when the sun goes down, well, they don’t work. Without sunlight, the photovoltaic reaction cannot take place therefore the electrons stop flowing.

Remember these panels quite literally turn sunlight into electricity. Without the sunlight, they are just slivers of silicon.

This is why it is important to have batteries that hold the charge you store while the sun is up. That way when the sun goes down and you are no longer producing energy you still have power.

Your modern lifestyle will likely drain those batteries very quickly but the batteries will provide some power after the world around you goes dark.

What Types of Materials Are Used in Solar Panels

What primarily makes up solar panels is silicon. This is one of the most plentiful resources on the planet and it is also a great conductor of electricity so it is the perfect option for creating affordable solar panels.

There is a thin glass sheet that is used to cover the solar cells and also helps with creating the electric charge.

There is also a metal frame that holds the entire solar panel together.

The final material is a 12V wire to carry the electricity.

The Best Kinds of Solar Panels to Use

There are a variety of types of solar panels on the market today but solar technology is improving all the time. If anyone asks you how solar panels work they will need to understand the variation in solar panels.


The more efficient of the crystalline solar panels, monocrystalline, is made from one large ingot of silicon that is sliced wafer-thin. These solar panels are a great option though they cost more than polycrystalline they are more efficient and you will need fewer panels for the same amount of energy production.

The silicon used in these panels is very high quality which means they are going to last longer than polycrystalline, too.


Amorphous solar panels are a very different breed of flexible solar panel. These panels are non-crystalline. It is a different technology that allows the solar panel to bend and flex.

These solar panels are not as efficient at gathering solar power as the crystallines but they give you lots of options because of their flexible nature. Not many people are putting amorphous panels on their homes but they are great to take out into the field because of their versatility.

How Important is Solar Exposure?

The amount of sun that your array gets is everything. The quality of materials, the mounting of the panels, and even the other components of the system will have little to no effect on energy output if you are not getting enough solar exposure.

There are a lot of factors that go into determining how effective your home would be with solar panels. The best advice we can give you is that you should get at least 4-5 hours of sunlight on your southern-facing solar panels each day.

I wouldn’t say that this is optimal at all but you might wanna consider a different kind of renewable energy if you are getting less sunlight than this. Or you could use solar as part of a multi-renewable system that uses things like wind and biogas, too.

Solar Panel Mounting

The types of materials that make up your solar panels are important. The type of panels that you choose is another variable in how much power your solar system will produce. There is another variable, still. That is how the solar panels are mounted.

Men mounting solar panels on a roof


These are solar panels that are basically just drilled to a bracket that is drilled to your home. They are angled to get the best exposure to the sunlight but they will always be in that position no matter where the sun travels in the sky.

This is the affordable mounting method.


More expensive tracking installs your solar panels on a frame that will actually follow the sun as it makes its journey across the sky. This style of mounting is going to be the most efficient as it will place your solar panels at the optimal angle and direction to get the most sun for that moment.


Can You Make Your Own Solar Panels?

You’re not going to find the parts and pieces just lying around, in most cases, but you can make your own solar panels. If you can use a soldering iron then you will likely be able to make your own solar panels.

Your solar panels are not going to be as efficient as those that are made professionally but I can tell you that it’s pretty cool when you realize that you can make solar panels that generate electricity by themselves. If you stocked up on the right materials there is nothing stopping you from building your own array.

Can I Use Solar Panels to Completely Power My Home?

Solar power is amazing and it has come a long way. However, solar power runs off batteries when the sun goes down and those batteries can drain very fast if you use a lot of power. The average American lifestyle would have to change drastically in order for someone to live off solar panels completely.

It would also depend on other factors like how much sun your home gets and what the climate is. If you are running heaters in dangerous cold winters then solar is not going to cut it in a normal residential area. The same could be said for using solar in very hot climates.

All that said, solar will certainly reduce your power bills.

How Do I Clean My Solar Panels?

It is inevitable. The cleaning of your solar panels will have to take place. Your solar panels are installed at an angle so the rain will do a lot of the cleaning for you. However, every bit of grime that builds up on those panels is going to reduce the amount of sunlight that gets through to your solar cells. This means reduced efficiency or less power generated. When it comes to how solar panels work, they don’t if they’re covered by dirt, grime, or even snow preventing the sun’s rays from reaching them.

Cleaning solar panels

When you get your solar panels installed you should be very careful about where they go and be sure that you can either get up there and clean them yourself or you can hire someone to get up there.

Wrapping Up “How Do Solar Panels Work?”

As you can see the answer to, how do solar panels work, comes down to a number of different things from the silicon solar cell to what the sun does in your area? It is not just about the most expensive solar panel. The most efficient solar panel can be nearly ineffective it is set up poorly and doesn’t maximize the sun.

Solar power is an incredible backup power solution in a disaster but may also be a way to power your home regularly at a lower cost than using the traditional power grid.

While solar power is not the answer to our energy needs right now, I do believe a time will come when we harness the majority of our energy needs from the sun. It might be far away but it seems like a forgone conclusion. It would be very cool to see the earth where the solar panels were built into the homes, the roads, and other places to provide us all with limitless power while the sun is up.

For more information about how solar panels work, check out How Does Solar Energy Work? and The Best Solar Generator for Off-Grid Living.