How long do residential solar inverters last?


From pv magazine USA

In the first part of this series, pv magazine reviewed  the productive lifespan of solar panels, which are quite resilient. In this part, we examine residential solar inverters in their various forms, and look at their resiliency and how long they last.

The inverter, a device that converts the DC power produced by solar panels into usable AC power, can come in a few different configurations. 

String inverter vs. microinverter Image: Solar Reviews

The two main types of inverters in residential applications are string inverters and microinverters. In some applications, string inverters are equipped with module-level power electronics (MLPE), or DC optimizers. Microinverters and DC optimizers are generally used for rooftops with shading conditions or sub-optimal orientations (not facing south).

String inverter with DC optimizers
Image: Solar Reviews

The technology ensures that each panel produces its max capability in real time and isn’t limited to the weakest link in the chain, or “string.” String inverters are subject to the “Christmas light” effect, where if one panel is not performing or is shaded, the rest of the panels connected in series will be limited to that panel’s production level.

Some string inverters are equipped with a bypass diode, a technology that prevents the “Christmas light” effect from taking place altogether, shown here by Fronius.

In applications where the roof has a preferable azimuth (orientation to the sun) and little or no shading issues, a string inverter can be a good solution.

In a string inverter, there are fewer moving parts to break down, less complicated wiring, and a centralized location for easy repairs for solar technicians.  Typically they are less expensive, said Solar Reviews. It said that inverters can typically cost 10% to 20% of the total solar panel installation, so choosing the right one is important.

How long do they last? 

While solar panels can last 25 to 30 years or more, inverters generally have a shorter life, due to more rapidly aging components. A common source of failure in inverters is wear and weathering on the capacitors in the inverter. The electrolyte capacitors have a shorter lifetime and age faster than dry components, said Solar Harmonics.

EnergySage said that a typical centralized residential string inverter will last about 10 to 15 years, and thus will need to be replaced at some point during the panels’ life. String inverters  generally have standard warranties ranging from five to 10 years, and many have the option to extend to 20 years. Some solar contracts include free maintenance and monitoring throughout the term of the contract, so it is wise to evaluate this when selecting inverters.

Microinverter installed at panel-level  Image: Enphase

Microinverters have a longer life. EnergySage said they can often last 25 years – nearly as long as their panel counterparts. Usually, these inverters have a 20 to 25-year standard warranty included. It should be noted that while microinverters have a long warranty, they are still a relatively new technology from the past ten years or so, and it remains to be seen if the equipment will fulfill its 20+ year promise.

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The same goes for DC optimizers, which are typically paired with a centralized string inverter. These components last for 20 to 25 years and have a warranty to match that time period.

A study by kWh Analytics showed that 80% of solar array failures occur at the inverter level. There are numerous causes of this.

According to Fallon Solutions, one cause is grid faults. High or low voltage due to grid fault can cause the inverter to stop working, and circuit breakers or fuses can be activated to protect the inverter from high-voltage failure.

Sometimes failure can occur at the MLPE level, where the components of power optimizers are exposed to higher temperatures on the roof. If reduced production is being experienced, it could be a fault in the MLPE.

Installation must be done properly as well. As a rule of thumb, Fallon recommended that the solar panel capacity should be up to 133% of the inverter capacity. If the panels are not properly matched to a right-size inverter, they will not perform efficiently.

Maintenance matters

To keep an inverter running more efficiently for a longer period, Those Solar Guys recommend choosing a cool, dry place with lots of circulating fresh air. It also suggested avoiding installing in areas with direct sunlight, though specific brands of outdoor inverters are designed to withstand more sunlight than others. And, in multi-inverter installations, it is important to be sure there is proper clearance between each inverter, so that there isn’t heat transfer between inverters.

Those Solar Guys said it is best practice to inspect the outside of the inverter (if it is accessible) quarterly, making sure there are no physical signs of damage, and all vents and cooling fins are free from dirt and dust.

It is also recommended to schedule an inspection through a licensed solar installer every five years. These standups typically cost $200 to $300, though some solar contracts have free maintenance and monitoring for 20 to 25 years. During the checkup, the inspector should check inside the inverter for signs of corrosion, damage, or pests.

In the next installment of the series, pv magazine will examine the life of residential battery energy storage applications.

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