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Comparing Inverter Technologies
Apr21

Comparing Inverter Technologies

The decision to install solar is a simple one. It will save you money so you should do it. Solar panels require an inverter to convert the DC power that they produce to AC power that your appliances need. So you know an inverter (or inverters) needs to be part of your solar package, but navigating the options on what type of inverter technology is right for you can be little more complex.  The basic options are microinverters, string inverters, string inverters that require optimizers and battery-based inverters.  Microinverters are installed at the solar panels. They will mount to the solar panel frame or the racking depending on what racking you are using. There is typically one microinverter for every one or two solar panels. The most popular brand for microinverters is Enphase who pioneered the concept of microinverters many years ago. String inverters are very different than microinverters. They are installed separately from the solar panels and one string inverter can handle many solar panels. How many solar panels can go on a string inverter depends on the size of a the string inverter and the wattage of the solar panels. The residential string inverters usually max out at about forty solar panels while a larger commercial inverter could handle hundreds of solar panels. Inverters designed for utility scale solar farms can even handle thousands of solar panels but that is probably a little bigger than you are looking for here. The name “string inverter” comes from the fact that the solar panels are wired together in series strings. Some string inverters require DC optimizers be installed at the solar panels. One or two solar panels connect to each optimizer and then the optimizers are connected together in a string.  It used to be that only SolarEdge inverters needed to have optimizers in installed, but the new NEC 2017 requirements for rapid shutdown has changed the rules for all string inverters. If the system is installed on a building, there need to be rapid shutdown devices that can de-energize the system at the module level. These may not be as complex as the SolarEdge optimizers which do maximum power point tracking for each solar panel but at the very list they have to be a switch that can turn off the DC power for each solar panel. Finally, there are the battery-based inverters which get their power input from batteries instead of solar panels. If you are installing a battery-based inverter as part of your solar power system, you would need to install charge controllers to manage the power from the solar panels going into the batteries and...

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Enphase Ensemble Solar Back-up
Feb27

Enphase Ensemble Solar Back-up

One of the more frustrating facts about standard grid-tied solar power systems is that they do not provide back-up power during power outages. While there are some solutions out there that will allow you to use your solar as back-up power, none of them compare to the new Enphase Ensemble technology that will be available very soon. Most existing solar back-up systems are small and can only provide enough power for some lights and your refrigerator. A solar back-up system large enough to run large appliances like an air conditioner or hot water heater is possible with current technology but it means filling your garage with batteries and inverter equipment. This will be very expensive and the installation is complicated. If you are attempting the Holy Grail of solar back-up, the whole house back-up system, you have to source a transfer switch from the generator industry that is not programmable and may not be suited for all the sources you want to incorporate. But Enphase has the solution with their new Ensemble back-up system. One key component of the Enphase Ensemble back-up system is the Enphase Encharge Storage System. This is an AC Coupled, Lithium Iron Phosphate energy storage unit with integrated Enphase IQ8 Multimode microinverters. The Encharge 3 has 3.4 kwh of usable storage and the Encharge 10 has 10.1 kwh of usage storage. For more storage, multiple Encharge systems can be connected to create a system large enough to provide the whole house back-up system. The incorporated IQ8 microinverters have new processors that can react in 20 nanoseconds to loads coming online and offline so that they maintain an independently stable AC grid throughout the duration of a power outage. Having the battery storage and inverter incorporated into a single unit simplifies installation making it very possible for a do-it-yourself solar installer. Also, these sleek units can be hung on a wall and are even rated NEMA 3R for outdoor installations. Another important part of the Ensemble system is the Empower Smart Switch which has multiple configuration options and even includes a place to add an additional back-up source like a diesel generator which will make the perfect system for the serious doomsday prepper. The Empower Smart Switch manages all the power from the Encharge Storage System, IQ microinverters, grid and generator. If the grid goes down, it seamlessly transfers your house loads to the storage system and IQ microinverters. When grid power is restored, the system transitions back to normal grid-tied operation.  Not only will this system provide back-up power during outages, it can save you extra money when the grid is on by managing power...

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Choosing Solar Panels
Jan23

Choosing Solar Panels

The biggest part of a solar power system is the solar panels themselves. With dozens of different solar panels in warehouses across the US, how do you decide which ones to get? There are many ways to compare solar panels so let’s talk about what to look for. Many people make the assumption that a solar panel with higher wattage is always the better choice, but this isn’t necessarily true. If you are comparing solar panels that are same physical size and one of them is higher wattage, that means it is more efficient and will cost more money per watt. If you have a limited amount of space to install your solar panels, then the more efficient solar panel would be a good idea because you can fit more wattage in the space you have. But if you have plenty of room for solar panels, it may not be worth it to pay the higher price per watt for the more efficient panels. Lower efficiency does not necessarily mean lower quality.      Which brings us to the discussion of quality. Determining the quality of a solar panel is not an exact science but there are some things you can look for. Looking at the manufacturer is a good idea. Ask questions like how long they have been in business and whether they make things other than solar panels. What you are trying to judge is whether or not they will be around 20 years from now to honor their warranty. If they have been making solar panels for a long time, chances are they are good quality or warranty issues would have put them out of business. If are a major electronics brand, that make other things chances are they will stick around and honor their solar warranties because they will still want to sell their other products. Another way to determine solar panel quality is check what certifications it has. You can see our blog article “Solar Panel Certifications Demystified” for more details but all solar panels have to be certified to meet the UL 1703 standard but they can also take it up a notch and get certified to meet other IEC 61646 standards for durability and performance or get tested over time for the DNV GL PV Module Reliability Scorecard which is what financial companies look at when investing money into solar farms. Solar panel manufacturers can also get their factories certified to certain quality standards as well for added peace of mind.  Some people get hung up on different types of solar panels. They might insist on monocrystalline solar panels because they heard they are...

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Should You Add Batteries to Your Solar?
Jan14

Should You Add Batteries to Your Solar?

Fast food order takers ask “Do you want fries with that?” every time you order a burger and now solar installers are asking all their customers if they want batteries with their solar. Add-ons are all the rage so if you have solar or are planning to install solar soon, you need to decide if you should add those batteries.  One thing that might sway your battery decision is power outages. Many people don’t realize it, but a standard grid-tied solar power system will not provide any power if there is no utility power. The only exception to this is that SMA inverters can provide you with one power outlet that will operate small appliances when the sun is out. This is handy if the sun is out and you need to charge your cell phone, but if it’s cloudy or night time, you are out of luck.    So if you have a lot of power outages in your area, batteries might be a good idea. Even if you don’t have a lot of power outages, but having one would cause a serious problem because you require an oxygen concentrator or you like to keep a side of beef in your freezer, you might think about those batteries. What equipment you need depends on what solar equipment you have or are getting but the parts for a battery back-up system to run small things like an oxygen concentrator or freezer might only run a few thousand dollars. A Do-it-yourselfer with some electrical experience can install a simple system fairly easily. If you are thinking in terms of disaster preparedness and want to be able to run your air conditioning, electric hot water heater and swimming pool pump during the zombie apocalypse, the battery system will be far more expensive and complex. You can still install it yourself, but the parts might run into the tens of thousands of dollars depending on how extravagant you want to live during long term power outages. For some people, it is worth the peace of mind. Back-up power aside, there might be other reasons to say yes to the batteries. Changes in electric rates are a big reason why batteries are becoming more popular. Time of use rates are becoming mandatory for some electric customers and this may decrease their solar savings. Solar produces the most power around noon when the electricity is cheap and then electricity is more expensive at 8pm when the sun has gone down. A battery system can store the electricity generated during the “off-peak” cheap times so you can use it during the “peak” expensive time which will...

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Types of Solar Panels
Jan09

Types of Solar Panels

We all know installing solar panels will save you money, that part is simple. But when it comes time to purchase your equipment, you will need to decide what type of solar panels you want. There are three basic types of solar panels available for residential systems – monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin film.   The monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels are the more popular and these are considered “First Generation” solar panels. Both of these types are made with silicon PV cells but the difference is how they are made.  Example of Monocrystalline Solar Panel Monocrystalline PV cells are super-thin slices of a silicon crystal called an ingot. The ingots are grown in the PV factories and their natural shape is round so the slices are also round. In the old days, they made the monocrystalline solar panels with the fully rounded cells but this created a lot of “dead” space in the solar panel because the area around the round cells did not produce anything. To make better use of the space in a rectangular solar panel, they started cutting of the rounded edges of the monocrystalline PV cells but they don’t make them completely square because they don’t want to waste too much of the expensive crystal slice. When you look at a monocrystalline solar panel, you can see all the solar cells have rounded corners which means there are small rectangles of the backsheet showing through. When the backsheet is white, these rectangles are very obvious. If the blacksheet is black, then you will have to look very close to see them. These little rectangles between the solar cells are how you can easily identify a monocrystalline solar panel. Example of Poly Solar Panel Polycrystalline PV cells are made by melting fragments of silicon crystals together. Because they are made in molds, they can be any shape, so they are square to avoid any wasted space in the rectangle of the whole solar panel. The square shape of the solar cell is how you identify a polycrystalline solar panel from the monocrystalline where the cells have the rounded corners. Thin film solar panels are considered “Second Generation”. There are different types of thin film solar panels but the most popular are amorphous silicon which are made with silicon that is not in crystalline form allowing for flexibility, and the non-silicon Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) and Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS) solar panels. Of these three types, the monocrystalline panels are the most efficient which means that you will get the most wattage per square foot with them. Polycrystalline modules come in as a close second on efficiency. When deciding...

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What Do Batteries Do for Solar?
Nov20

What Do Batteries Do for Solar?

Everybody already knows what solar panels do. They turn sunlight into electricity. But what does it do to add batteries to the solar panel system? The short answer is that the batteries store the electricity that the solar panels generate. So let’s talk about what energy storage can do for you. If you are installing an off-grid solar system, storing the power is going to be important. Solar panels only generate electricity during daylight hours and in most cases you are going to want to use some of that energy at night. There are some exceptions like solar well pumps for irrigation or for filling a large holding tank. In these cases, it is okay for the pumps to stop working at night so the solar panels without batteries are going to be just fine. But if your off-grid system is running just about anything else, you will want to store the energy produced during the day so you can use it at night.  Of course, most of you are installing grid-tied solar which makes the batteries less necessary, but they still might be useful. For one thing, even on the sunniest day, most grid-tied solar will not produce any power when the utility company has a power outage. The one exception is an SMA inverter which can be set up with one outlet so you have a small amount of power but only when the sun is shining and it is barely enough to run a refrigerator. If you want things in your house like the lights, fans, computers, microwave and dishwasher to work when power is off, you will need to add batteries to your solar. How much battery you put in will depend on what you want to run but it will typically be $10,000 – $20,000 to run your smaller appliances but if you want your whole house to work when the power is out you are going to need to spend some big bucks. There are also some financial reasons to install the batteries but it depends on your electric rate and net metering rules. A classic example is the time-of-use (TOU) rates which are getting more popular in places like California. Being on a TOU rate means you will pay a high (peak) rate like $.30/kwh on weekdays between the hours of 4pm – 9pm and a low rate like $.15/kwh for the other hours of the day. Solar is going to generate the most power around noon when the electric rates are cheap so the batteries can store that power and you can use it at 8pm when it’s too dark to...

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