Known as the brains of a solar power setup, solar inverters transfer the sun’s energy into a type of power you can use. Learn how solar power inverters work, which types you can choose from, and the primary benefits of solar inverters.
How Solar Power Inverters Work
When you think of solar energy, solar panels might come to mind immediately, since they’re the most visible component of this type of system. Like most energy systems, however, solar power relies on a complex network of controls that transmit energy safely from the source to your home.
Inverters play an important role in regulating power between the photovoltaic (PV) system, or the solar modules, and the energy off-taker, or resource buyer. True to their name, solar power inverters essentially invert the system’s output mode from direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC). Since virtually all appliances and devices in your home rely on AC power, this inversion is an essential step in the solar power process.
While early inverters often perform just this single step in the process, many recent models are capable of doing much more. For instance, some can monitor data from the PV system, provide advanced utility controls, and even offer built-in applications for improved performance.
Main Classes of Solar Inverters
All solar inverters fall into three main classes. Each class is ideal for a different type of solar energy system.
- Stand-Along Power Inverters: These are designed for isolated solar energy systems that don’t connect to a utility grid.
- Grid-Tie Power Inverters: These link a home solar energy system with a utility grid, and they also use a battery to store extra energy, which users can sell to the local utility provider.
- Dual Power Inverters: These solar power inverters can provide both levels of functionality. They store power in a backup battery, which sends electricity to the inverter when necessary.
Primary Types of Solar Inverters
With four primary types of solar inverters to choose from, you’ll have plenty of options to consider. Get to know your options and take a closer look at the features that each one offers.
By far the most common type of solar power inverter, a string inverter meets the needs of many residential and commercial power systems. With this type of inverter, a string connects each group of solar panels, and each string plugs into a single inverter. The string inverter then converts DC power into AC electricity.
While string inverter technology dates back several decades and has proven effective in many applications, it does have drawbacks. For instance, each string is only as powerful as the panel that produces the smallest amount of electricity. Since shade can limit the amount of electricity a panel can produce, areas that typically receive full sun are ideal for string inverters.
Also common for a variety of applications, central inverters rely on the same basic technology that string inverters use. This type of inverter requires PV panels to be organized in strings, which all link to a universal DC-to-AC inverter. Like string inverters, central inverters are only as powerful as the least effective panel, which means minimizing shade is essential.
Most central inverters operate large groups of solar panels, making them ideal for large residential commercial, industrial, and field installations. To optimize sun exposure, consider installing all panels facing the same direction and removing large trees or other obstacles that may produce shade.
Instead of relying on a string-like connection, micro inverters connect to each individual panel. Though you can purchase PV panels with integrated micro inverters, many are installed as separate units. From there, the inverter converts energy directly into usable electricity for your home or business without the need for a central inverter.
Since each solar panel links to its own micro inverter, there’s no risk of one poorly performing unit slowing down energy production overall. Micro inverters also enable easy monitoring, so you can gauge the performance of each PV panel and make adjustments as necessary.
As a sort of happy medium between string inverters and micro inverters, power optimizers have some of the features of both types of devices. In this type of system, a power optimizer connects to each PV panel. Instead of inverting the energy immediately, however, it transmits the DC power to a string inverter. From there, the string inverter transforms the conditioner solar energy to AC power.
In effect, power optimizers offer the best of both worlds. They increase efficiency and energy production like micro inverters, but they’re also cost-effective like string inverters.
Top Benefits of Solar Inverters
Each type of solar power inverter offers unique benefits. Weigh your objectives against the benefits of each to find the right kind of solar inverter for your home or business.
Solar inverters haven’t always been particularly affordable, but they’re a necessary component in solar energy systems. In recent years, however, the cost of solar panels has decreased substantially, and the price tags on solar inverters have gradually followed. String and central inverters have long been the most affordable, but quickly advancing technology means micro inverters and power optimizers are rapidly catching up in terms of price point.
String and central inverters require the most rigid installations in order to maximize efficiency. For oddly shaped buildings or unusual layouts, micro inverters and power optimizers offer much more design flexibility.
All solar inverters offer high efficiency as long as they’re designed and installed in the right environment. Overall, power optimizers are the most energy-efficient solution, since they utilize the best features from other types of inverters.
String and central inverters typically last for five to 10 years, with a warranty to support that lifespan. In contrast, micro inverters last for 15 to 25 years, or approximately twice as long. No matter which type of optimizer you choose, however, plan to replace it at least once before you’ll need to replace your PV panels.
Solar power inverters are essential for producing usable power from any PV system. Get familiar with the benefits of each type of solar inverter and choose the right kind for your solar energy setup.