Solar panels

What are Tier 1 solar panels and how to choose quality PV modules

When we go for an expensive buy, be it a car, a laptop, or a solar system, we seek the best of the best. Companies and their marketers, on the other hand, look for new ways to convince us that they sell the best of the best. That’s how the solar industry came up with the Tier 1 solar panels concept. In this article, we’ll break down what Tier 1 solar panels are.

Tier 1 solar list and what it stands for

A tiering system does exist. It was developed by Bloomberg media, the provider of financial and investment analysis. However, it does not refer to solar panels but to solar panel manufacturers. According to Bloomberg:

“Tier 1 PV module manufacturers are those which have provided own-brand, own-manufacture products to at least six different projects, which have been financed non-recourse by six different commercial (ie not development, not export-import) banks, in the past two years.”

There is no mention of product quality. This classification shows bankability and financial qualifications of manufacturers. It is used primarily by investors and financiers. Moreover, Bloomberg themselves “strongly recommend that module purchasers and banks do not use this list as a measure of quality” as “there are many documented examples of quality issues or bankruptcy of tier 1 solar panels manufacturers.” 

Here are some of the names from 2023 Tier 1 solar list:

VSUN Solar
Phono Solar
Longi Green
Jinko Solar
JA Solar
Canadian Solar

At the same time, some of the world’s most innovative, respected, and high-quality solar panel manufacturers are not on the Tier 1 list. The names that didn’t make it in include Panasonic, Solaria, Meyer Burger, REC, Silfab, Mission Solar, and Tesla

Criteria for choosing high-quality solar panels

So, if you’re not a bank or investor, you don’t actually need to hunt after top tier solar panels. There are more tangible and reliable criteria to assess a panel’s quality.

Look at warranties first

One of the first things to examine when choosing solar panels is their warranty. A longer warranty period reflects the manufacturer’s confidence that the panels can withstand the test of time. Solar panels come with two types of warranties – product and performance.

Product warranty
The product warranty covers defects in material, premature wear and tear, as well as environmental and workmanship issues. Standard product warranties often range between 10 and 25 years, depending on the brand, with some premium options offering warranties extending beyond 25 years. The highest it gets is 40 years with some of SunPower’s solar panels. Consider it as the minimum solar panel lifespan.

Performance warranty
In addition to the product warranty, the performance warranty guarantees that the solar panels will maintain a certain level of production over time. The performance warranty can go as a standard tiered warranty, ensuring that the module will retain at least 90% of its rated output after 10 years and at least 80% after 25 years. Or as a linear performance warranty, stating a fixed value for power output decrease called degradation rate in the panel’s datasheet.

The average solar panel degradation rate is around 0.8%, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). It typically ranges from 1% to 0.5%, depending on the materials and technologies used. A lower degradation rate indicates that the panels will retain more of their efficiency over time. Some premium manufacturers like Panasonic, SunPower or REC, offer degradation rates as low as 0.25%, though they all are not on the Tier 1 solar panels list.

Check certifications

Before entering the market, a panel should prove that it is safe to use and performs as expected in terms of efficiency, reliability, sustainability, and many other criteria. Conformity is assessed based on standards. When researching solar panels, look for those that carry either IEC or UL certification. 

IEC: International Electrotechnical Commission
The IEC is the world’s leading organization establishing international standards for all electrical, electronic, and related technologies, including solar panels. IEC standards are internationally recognized, ensuring that certified products meet the same criteria regardless of their country of origin.

If you live in an exceptionally rainy coastal area, choose panels with IEC 61701 salt mist corrosion and humidity resistance certificate. For extremely hot areas, you’ll need a different certificate — IEC 61215.

UL: Underwriters Laboratories
The UL is a global safety science company based in the United States. It is composed of three organizations: UL Research Institutes, UL Standards & Engagement, and UL Solutions. The UL certification is another mark of safety and quality for solar panels.

Before purchasing solar panels, check for the IEC or UL marks on the product or the manufacturer’s documentation. Conformity with the standards of these two major organizations serves as proof that your solar panels are safe and perform as expected.

Trust the word of mouth

Blessed are the people writing reviews on the internet. The manufacturer can endlessly hold forth on how good their panels are, but who will tell you the truth but other customers? Customer reviews offer a glimpse into the actual performance and satisfaction levels of those who have installed the same panels you are considering. If many customers are not satisfied or reporting the same problem, the chances that you will encounter the same issue are much higher.

Read and learn

Study the key features of the panels and manufacturers, consult with professionals, watch experts on YouTube, read articles and study all the information available to you. This will help you find exactly what you need and you will be sure that it really is the best of the best.

Years of experience in translation and a love of nature help Julia find the right words to encourage going solar. She joined the team in 2023 and is happy to make her contribution to a greener future.

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