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Last updated: 13 December 2018

What is the Difference Between Solar Panels and Solar Water Heaters?

Learn the Difference Between These Two Typically Misused Terms

As green energy becomes more popular, the demand for domestic solutions that exploit renewables keeps growing. For that reason, many alternatives are now available to homeowners who want to reduce their carbon footprint and save up on their energy bills. If your choice of energy source happens to be the sun, you might already know that two systems are available today: solar panels and solar water heaters. While they both work by absorbing sunlight - and thus need to be placed on your roof, facing south - the similarities between them end there. In fact, they are two very different products.

Two Outcomes: Power and Heat

The first fundamental difference between solar panels and solar water heaters is what they produce. Solar panels exploit the photovoltaic effect by absorbing particles of light (photons), extracting the electrons and leading them through a wire: the flow of electrons itself is electricity. This is done by using solar cells made of semiconductor materials such as silicon, which have a negative layer and a positive one, creating a magnetic field. Therefore, solar panels are used to produce some or all of the electricity the house needs. Smaller systems will lead to big savings on energy bills, while larger ones can generate enough power to allow you to become independent from the grid.

Solar water heaters, on the other hand, do not produce any electricity. They use sunlight differently, turning it into heat rather than energy. Solar collectors are made of a series of pipes containing a solution that turns solar energy into heat, which is then transferred and stored in a water tank. It can be then used for space heating or to supply hot water. Low-temperature collectors can be used to heat swimming pools instead. Usually, a solar thermal system will provide 90% of your hot water in the summer, when space heating is not needed, and 40-60% in the winter. Additionally, it extends the life of your boiler by 60%. Alternatively, you can use solar thermal for heating and thermodynamic panels for hot water to go completely green. Since this technology does not generate energy, you will still need to use a little electricity to power the pump. If your plan is to go 100% green, that electricity could be provided by your solar panels, otherwise you can simply connect to the grid.

One Benefit: Green Energy

Even though the two systems work differently and have distinct purposes, they reach the same goal: using renewable, low cost energy instead of traditional, “dirtier” power sources. Both systems will allow you to save money and help the environment. Once installed, they need little maintenance and provide free energy and hot water. In addition to the immediate savings on bills, both systems will yield a financial return as they are eligible for Government incentives. Specifically, solar panels fall under the Feed in Tariff scheme, which pays you for the electricity you produce and sell back to the grid, while solar water heaters are object to the Renewable Heat Incentive. Therefore, even though the initial investment may seem high, the payback period for solar systems is shortened by immediate savings and returns.

Application Deadline for Solar PV Feed in Tariff:

Read our guide on how you can still benefit from the solar PV Feed in Tariff before it ends in Match 2019.

Read more: Green Energy Grants.