Data Drivers: Inverter monitoring system trends in the residential market

data monitoring inverters

This is an excerpt from the 2018 Inverter Buyer’s Guide. Be sure to download the full free report, complete with specs on 136 inverters at the bottom of this page.

Don’t let the hard, boxy exterior fool you — today’s inverters are all about transparency. A key in inverter selection is knowing just how transparent it is: What portals are set up for you and your customer to use? What do they show? And when? Just after it’s failed or maybe just as it sees something’s wrong? How do the alerts work? Can you make adjustments? Will it make its own adjustments?

Basically: How well can you see inside that box?

We asked each inverter manufacturer to share with us how their inverter monitoring system works and what came back was a variety of strategies, from increased flexibility and visibility for the operator and homeowner to innovations in predictive analytics and automated processes. Some come standard, some are subscription-based, but all are slick, boost PV performance and improve your company’s O&M services.

Here are the trends among the manufacturer-provided inverter monitoring systems on the market.

Download the 2018 Inverter Buyer’s Guide

Apps for that

Mobile-friendly platforms are fairly common now, with differences coming in how much data is presented and what remote capabilities are offered.

APsystems provides complimentary module-level monitoring through its cloud-based EMA service for both homeowners and installers. With the EMA app, users can see the energy their system is producing at the panel level, so if the app shows that a particular PV module is underperforming, the owner knows to check for shading issues, debris, damage, etc. The online EMA portal also emails alerts to the installer if a system or unit is operating outside its standard parameters. This is particularly handy when a PV module fails or is somehow disconnected.

Some solar customers invest in a PV system because they want to fully take ownership over their energy bills. They are hands on and want insight into what’s happening and how the system is performing. There are more options than ever for providing this service.

Enphase comes with MyEnlighten for homeowners, which presents system energy production, overall health, historical performance and energy equivalents all on one mobile-friendly display. Real solar enthusiasts can take advantage of a paid upgrade to per-panel monitoring, which is available via the installer who activated the system.
The flipside for the solar installer is the Enphase Enlighten Manager, which provides: fleet management, upgrade management for existing fleets (based on production and consumption data) and simplified repeat-business generation tools to reconnect with existing customers through additional services like battery management, EV charging solutions and system upgrades.

Diagnostics and remote updates

Fronius software updates

The free Solar.web platform from Fronius offers remote diagnostics and alerts such as proactive notifications in a variety of dashboards.

At Fronius, the free Solar.web platform offers remote diagnostics and alerts such as proactive email notifications concerning performance and state codes, as just two examples, to help determine whether a truck roll is necessary or not. Remote Update via Fronius Solar.web eliminates another category of O&M complexity and cost. In just a few clicks, any Fronius SnapINverters is updated remotely from any web-enabled device.

ABB’s Aurora Vision Plant Management Platform and Plant Viewer lets homeowners get a real-time view of how much energy has been harvested along with dashboard views for fleet-wide performance management through reports, diagnostics, analytics or event alerts. ABB inverters also come standard with a wireless connection that enables system monitoring and over-the-air upgrades to ensure units are operating with the latest functions.

Satellite monitoring

Recently, SolarEdge added satellite performance ratio and mismatch reporting to its cloud-based, module-level monitoring platform (free for 25 years). The company says this satellite performance ratio service eliminates the purchasing, installation and O&M of sensors. The mismatch report helps to streamline the process of identifying underperforming modules by comparing each module’s peak power and energy production to the average of all modules in the site, and presenting each module’s mismatch as a percentage above/below the average.

Storage integration

The plus sign in a “solar + storage” system says all you need to know about the monitoring system capabilities — there are more added in.

Magnum Energy provides data monitoring through the MagWeb line of monitoring kits. The MagWeb provides live internet monitoring of the inverter, battery monitor and automatic generator start module. Using an internet connection, MagWeb makes live and historical conditions available through a web browser at data.magnumenergy.com. The MagWeb GT provides an integrated dashboard of the MicroGT system engineered for PV + storage systems. With the MagWeb GT, the production data from the array and the battery bank status of the storage system are accessed via your local network from one simple dashboard.

Tabuchi provides data monitoring via the Tabuchi Cloud. Here, customers can monitor PV generation, household consumption, the amount of power bought and sold to and from the grid and the battery charge. It also allows customers to compare data hourly, daily, monthly and yearly. The service is included with purchase of the Eco Intelligent Battery System (EIBS). Tabuchi Cloud allows installers to make sure everything is working as intended, while the simple interface allows homeowners to quickly see how they are saving on energy costs.

Automation

The next evolution in system monitoring is taking all of this data and having the system apply its own fixes. Pika Energy‘s REview Dashboard is provided to the customer with every Pika system to view performance metrics in comprehensive real-time reports, but its biggest advances come from system automation. While some inverters may notify users that grid or environmental conditions have changed, the Pika Energy Island acts automatically to meet these new conditions. When peak rate periods set in, local demand spikes or the grid goes down, the Pika Energy Island manages energy flows to keep system owners powered up and saving money.

SMA’s latest development in monitoring and alerts is SMA Smart Connected. Now available with the Sunny Boy-US residential line of inverters, SMA Smart Connected is a proactive service package integrated into Sunny Portal that automatically detects and evaluates system events and initiates remediation or repair activities. This decreases truck rolls, lengthy service calls and system downtime. Once it is operating, SMA Smart Connected will actively monitor a residential system at all times through Sunny Portal’s intelligent monitoring technology.

For more info on the newest inverters on the market download our free 2018 Inverter Buyer’s Guide

— Solar Builder magazine

Solar Service 2.0: Identify new service, upsell opportunities with smart home technology

crowd

Solar inverter intelligence and monitoring has evolved mightily over the last few years, from silent rows of capacitors to today’s circuit-programmable, WiFi-enabled guardians of PV arrays. These systems sense minute changes in operation and advise system managers of options, in real time, for energy management and O&M (operations and maintenance). The capabilities of internet-based monitoring platforms also offer an ever wider variety of functionalities, from data logging of production and consumption, to energy storage coordination, to time-of-use or peak rate recommendations.

There is more than enough data for every level of user. “Different roles for installers and system owners ensure that the right amount of data and the right functionalities are available to the right people,” says Richard Baldinger, a spokesman for Fronius USA, which has been evolving not just its product line but its installer base to best use these new bells and whistles to their advantage.

Functionality proliferates

The sum of available monitoring functionalities are difficult to count in one breath. Lior Handelsman, vice president of marketing and product strategy for SolarEdge, attempts the feat:

“PV monitoring platforms now offer a wide variety of functionality such as granularity down to the module-level and entire PV fleet management, automatic alerts, comparative energy graphs [on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis, also including estimated energy], analysis of a module’s power and voltage, performance ratio information, site-level reports on commissioning and maintenance, inverter performance comparison reports, system performance reports, remote operation of the inverter and much more.”

While new functions have emerged, some older functions have been refined of late. “Greater inverter automation and alerts to installers that enable improved and more efficient O&M are now common place,” suggests Stefan Grosjean, the CEO of Kortrijk, Belgium-based Smappee.

One way inverter monitoring functions have grown is with the shift to module-level power electronics. SolarEdge, a pioneer in power optimizers, offers a DC optimized solution that manages and monitors energy to maximize power generation. With such module-specific monitoring, array designers have increased flexibility with array design, including more ability to work around the problem of shading and uneven irradiance.

MPP tracking over time can also help inform O&M considerations. “Detailed data points such as voltages and current per MPP tracker help to identify potential problems in the system. With the inverter being the heart and brain of a solar system, any state or error code shown by the inverter and its monitoring platform help identify errors throughout the entire system,” Baldinger says.

The wealth of module-specific data has brought a substantial shift in the commercial and utility market for inverter monitoring. For example, the increase in information granularity permits more string inverters to be used in place of a central inverter, notes Cedric Brehaut, the executive consultant at San Francisco-based Solichamba Consulting.

“Going one step further in innovation, Huawei is now offering three-phase string inverters with built-in IV curve tracing functions,” Brehaut says. IV curve tracing, which identifies the maximum power point for captured irradiance, is the best way to measure the performance of a panel or an array. Traditionally, IV curve tracing requires on-site work that now is being built into the inverter and accessible remotely via the monitoring software.

RELATED: Strength in numbers: How solar installers can build business through third-party programs

More data more frequently

Beyond module- and chain-specific data, the frequency of data in monitoring has risen to time units of minutes in place of hours or days. This avalanche of data enables monitoring systems to consider utility peak rate or time-of-use rates to curtail the consumption of energy from the grid during higher cost periods.

“By simply visualizing the consumption in real time, the so-called Prius effect can occur, meaning that the raised awareness for energy consumption can lead to changes in behavior and, with that, a decrease of consumption,” Baldinger says. “Consumption monitoring makes energy more visible, and visualized real-time data is more tangible than the numbers on the utility bill.” Fronius recently re-designed its monitoring platform Solar.web, with improved usability and new analysis features for this very reason.

Encompassing data feeds also provide the ability to drive advanced analytics to predict component failure so that O&M can be strategically planned. Advanced analytics involve benchmarking performance against similar plants, normalized for capacity and weather, as well as against a modeled plant that is based on historical operating data and weather conditions. However, such a capability is far from mainstream adoption yet, Brehaut suggests.

“Monitoring software provider QOS Energy reports that only 10 to 20 percent of its clients currently use the benchmarking and digital twin functions built into the platform,” he says.

fronius

Fronius re-designed its Solar.web monitoring platform, improving usability and analytic features.

Customer, supplier relations

As such rich functionality developments add more value to monitoring, the relationship between the customer and the monitoring system provider changes substantially. This new possibility of customer service and interaction is the next big opportunity for the solar industry to evolve.

“Upselling strategies throughout the lifetime of a system make a solar system sale less transactional and more based on long-term relationships, creating win-win situations for both installers and system owners,” Baldinger says.

A solar monitoring platform is the key in this new frontier of customer relationship, lead management and upselling, including opportunities in solar system expansions, storage and energy efficiency.

As Handelsman puts it: “For instance, some EPCs can now offer different levels of O&M services without incurring a significant amount of increased costs.”

That transition requires preparation, though. “Clearly there is an opportunity for installers to sell monitoring and O&M services if they are up to the task,” Brehaut says. “They have to be ready to deliver, despite limited resources; the way that service calls weigh against new installs can be an issue. The ability to view status codes remotely helps a service provider to determine whether a truck roll is necessary or not.

“If we fast forward, when there is a strong economic utility incentive to manage an entire home or business, then monitoring and energy management services become very compelling, so third party operators may find ways to compete with the inverter and monitoring equipment manufacturers to provide service,” Brehaut says. He recently explored the concept in a white paper, “Solar PV Asset Management 2017-2022,” produced with GTM Research. “The advantage is that by monitoring solar, storage and total consumption, some level of automation can be done, though still limited.”

RELATED: Ask a Distributor: We ask distributors for their purchasing advice, products to watch in 2018

Smart home monitoring provider Smappee cautions that basic inverter monitoring and basic smart home management are, at least for now, largely different functions. “Internet-based inverter monitoring is not a substitute for smart energy monitoring. Likewise, today’s smart home energy monitoring systems like Smappee Plus may measure solar PV consumption, but they are also not a substitute for the manufacturer’s inverter monitoring systems. Rather, the two products should be seen as complementary,” the company explains.

Smappee’s latest innovation, Smappee Plus, acts like an energy traffic controller that can automatically steer excess solar energy production to home appliances in order of preference, further increasing a homeowner’s energy efficiency and cost savings. For example, if a consumer is simultaneously charging their EV and cooking on an electric stove, Smappee Plus can control and reduce the power that goes toward the EV until the homeowners finish cooking to avoid fuses from blowing. Afterwards, the car will receive more power again.

“By having an understanding of energy consumption at the appliance level, in tandem with solar generation and storage status, smart energy monitors can further optimize the energy flow locally at the home level, providing great value for use cases such as demand charging and load management maximizing savings,” Grosjean says. “These use cases will be very important in the future as utilities across the United States are implementing demand charging and time-of-use pricing.”

— Solar Builder magazine

Rapid Shutdown and Beyond: Inside NEC 2017 and the effort to streamline PV design

collaboration illustration

New codes and regulations are notorious for raising prices and halting innovation in industries, but the new rapid shutdown requirements facing the solar industry are having the opposite effect. Thanks to a coalition of manufacturers and interested parties across solar, the solutions being developed to meet NEC 2017 Module Level Rapid Shutdown requirements will achieve something solar technology has long needed: common language.

“The intent is to create an open protocol for any manufacturer to apply,” says Michael Mendik, head of solution management, Solar Energy Division at Fronius USA. He has been an active member of the SunSpec Alliance, the group that has developed these standards. “Inverter manufacturers can build and design their own transmitters and then the rapid shutdown boxes will also be tuned to that language and can receive the signal. There is no proprietary stuff.”

“The current systems were designed to meet the previous rapid shutdown requirements using mostly proprietary communication systems,” says Mario Thomas, product manager at ABB. “Future system design will be vendor independent, allowing a better choice for the customer and the installer.”

“The solar industry is experiencing significant growth with new requirements, so we welcome the vendor coordination efforts and the wide adoption by many vendors working to improve the safety of clean energy production,” says Danny Eizips, VP of engineering at Tigo. “This is a great opportunity for multivendor support.”

This standard protocol has ramifications beyond the context of rapid shutdown, but let’s start there.

NEC 2017 changes

The 2017 edition of the National Electrical Code (NEC 2017) includes an update to section 690.12 Rapid Shutdown of PV Systems on Buildings. The update pushes the requirement to “module-level” rapid shutdown instead of the “array level” that was listed in NEC 2014. Effective Jan. 1, 2019, this requires conductors inside the array boundary to be discharged to 80 volts or less within 30 seconds of initiating a rapid shutdown event. This requirement comes in addition to the outside the array boundary voltage being limited to 30 volts or less.

At first glance, the changes didn’t require such a collaborative effort. Module-level electronics could have done the trick and piecemeal proprietary products and one-off collaborations from various manufacturers could have continued as usual. Luckily, that wasn’t the case.

The SunSpec solution

Formed in 2009, the SunSpec Alliance is a trade alliance of more than 100 solar and storage distributed energy industry participants, together pursuing information standards to enable plug-and-play system interoperability.

After nearly two years of intense technical collaboration, the Communication Signal for Rapid Shutdown Interoperability Specification was published in September 2017 as a method to comply with NEC 2017. This spec defines a communication protocol that uses the cabling of the solar array to transmit messages over the DC power lines between the PV modules and a master control device located near the inverter.

In addition, PV module manufacturers can implement the protocol on intelligent devices embedded in the junction box of each PV module. A master control device associated with the inverter communicates with the PV modules. Altogether, the specification enables plug-and-play interoperability and any-to-any rapid shutdown solutions.

“This open standard delivers multiple benefits to the distributed energy industry, most notably lower integration costs and the freedom to choose from an array of interoperable products,” saysTom Tansy, chairman of the SunSpec Alliance.

What’s this mean for me right now?

  1. If you are a big fan of installing microinverters, you’re already meeting these rapid shutdown requirements.
  2. As mentioned earlier, the implementation date for NEC 2017 is Jan. 1, 2019. Depending on the Authority Having Jurisdiction where you do business, you may not even be held to the NEC 2014 requirement right now, let alone NEC 2017 when it arrives. The Northeast portion of the country will be the earliest adopters, followed by California.
  3. If you are going to be held to NEC 2017 — or just generally would like to comply on your own — sit back and wait for these SunSpec-certified products to hit the market and design systems the way you always have.

“The complexity here is not on the installer end,” Mendik says. Manufacturers had to develop a transmitter that’s hooked to the DC line and puts in the signal.

Some of these solutions are already available, like the Fronius Symo. Other companies announcing immediate plans to incorporate the technology into their product lines include ABB, Maxim Integrated, Omron, Outback, SMA and Tigo. You can expect to see most of these around Q2 this year. There is no UL testing protocol yet to certify these products, but UL is part of the SunSpec Alliance, and you can expect this to happen soon.

Why else is this a big deal?

Not to be flippant about the importance of safety, but this protocol opens the door for way more impactful product developments. There’s an opportunity here to make your life even easier and bring the costs of a system down even more.

1. Proprietary boundaries will come down.

For starters, the array-to-rapid-shutdown-box-to-inverter architecture is more flexible. Prior to any updates, you had to procure the rapid shutdown box and the inverter from the same manufacturer. No more.

“The installer can install the systems as before and doesn’t have to worry about matching inverters of rapid shutdown boxes,” Mendik says.
So, that’s cool, but that flexibility goes way beyond the rapid shutdown, inverter pairing. “There’s no specific [module-level electronics] on the roof,” Mendik continues. “If there are different panels, they will be working with different rapid shutdown boxes. If one type of inverter in a system breaks, it can be replaced with another, and it will still work. A distributor can have different inverter types in stock for replacement, and everything will still be in line with the protocol.”

2. System designs will be streamlined.

Today, that rapid shutdown box is just an added expense, even now, after the protocol. This is why many installers prefer module-level electronics like microinverters, which meet rapid shutdown module-level requirements while also adding optimization, monitoring and design flexibility.

In the not-too-distant future though, this rapid shutdown box will be gone completely, even in a string inverter design. Soon, using this common language, module manufacturers will be including supped up junction boxes or chips from a company like Maxim instead of diodes. These will meet NEC 2017 and provide MLE performance with a string inverter design. This will keep costs and industry part counts down.

“An integrated module in the future, where the installer doesn’t have to buy and wire a specific rapid shutdown box … it’ll be like going back in time to when he didn’t have to worry about that,” Mendik says. “This also means you won’t have complex electronics on the roof. The standard forces you into more complexity for rapid shutdown, but the solution we’re looking at is simple electronics, not power electronics and doesn’t convert power from DC to AC.”

Thomas sums it up: “The customer in the end has a choice. I think that’s a big benefit. Customers don’t want to get stuck with one vendor and want the right to choose between different manufacturers. Having this choice and competition will reduce costs in the end.”

— Solar Builder magazine

Ask a Distributor: We ask distributors for their purchasing advice, products to watch in 2018

solar distributors

Solar is now the No. 1 new source of capacity being added to the grid, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and solar installer is the fastest growing job in the country according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And what’s the reason for the rise of this new era? The impending doom of the ice caps melting? Hardly. The advancements in technology? Getting warmer.

Really, things just got cheaper.

This is to say that purchasing plays a large, perhaps outsized, role in the value proposition of the industry and your business. Given that reality, we wanted to kick off the year by polling a handful of solar distributors for their purchasing advice.

You’ll be hearing from:

purchasing

Here’s the No. 1 way to avoid purchasing problems

What are the common problems distributors see when it comes to purchasing systems to install? There are a few quick, solvable issues — stuff like reviewing the details of an order before signing off on it or avoiding last minute purchases.

“Plan ahead and inspect shipments to avoid/mitigate mix ups and ensure fast and timely solutions when needed,” McShea says. “Waiting three weeks until install to say something is missing and you need it now is not effective.”

But all of that feeds into the advice that resonated with us the most: Seeing the distributor relationship as a two-way street that adds value to your business. According to the distributors we talked to, the more often you communicate, the more the distributor knows about your business, the easier it is for them to help.

“Valuing price over loyalty and the quality of the relationship with a distributor, I think, is a mistake,” Schoder from Civic notes.

A simple step up in communication will not only solve a bunch of issues but could create additional value for your business.

“Good communication and transparency are always the best remedies for doing good business and mitigating potential errors,” Dufrenne says. “Everyone is busy and going to make mistakes, including distributors and shipping companies. When all parties pay attention to detail and plan accordingly, deliveries and installations seem to go more smoothly.”

And it’s not just an exercise in mistake avoidance. Keeping everyone on the same page, forecast-wise, can only make the ordering process smoother for everyone.

“At least one call a week to plan upcoming jobs would help avoid supply chain issues,” Kyler says. This ensures all orders and forecasting align with expectations.

There’s also the training aspect. “Manufacturers are constantly offering training, quite often through their distributors,” Bailey notes. “Yet we still see many installers deal with headaches for hours which they could have learned to avoid by going through some quick training on the product features and installation.”

Think about kits

Ordering from multiple suppliers for a given residential job can leave more room for error, such as damage during shipping, incorrect parts arriving or a delayed delivery, all of which lengthens install time and increases costs.

“The best solution I’ve seen yet for lowering soft costs is to have one to two standardized kits which the sales team and installation crew are both very familiar with,” says Leone with Civic. “This mitigates both sales and labor costs. We recommend having multiple kits to protect against upstream challenges such as availability.”

“Ordering from one supplier and having the experts kit the equipment per job before shipping to the jobsite or warehouse can reduce most mistakes that cause delays and additional labor/mobilization costs,” Dufrenne says.

Sticking with brands also avoids the hassle of resubmitting permits with different equipment types or brands.

4 soft cost reduction tips

Schoder: “Utilizing online software programs like Helioscope and Energy Toolbase to drastically reduce the amount of time and effort that goes into a respectable customer proposal.”

Bailey: “Smaller installers like to use microinverters for [lowering soft costs]. In many cases they don’t have the in-house expertise to properly design a string inverter system which can maximize production. Microinverters are flexible, and the installers can design in the field by adding modules as they see fit.”

Dufrenne: “Good operations management [from lead generation to final completion]. Use software, like ENACT.”

Kyler: “Installers should keep at least one administrator dedicated to handling all incoming and outgoing paperwork such as permits, SREC registrations and contracts. This would help reduce soft costs and avoid any confusion or dilemmas later on.”

Truck these rolls

For starters, it helps to have a mini-inventory of small accessories (L-feet, clamps, wire), but stocking extra parts for the rest of the system is always a good idea.

“A common purchasing mistake I see installers make is purchasing just enough for their project instead of calculating for inevitable adjustments when they get on the roof,” Kyler says. “Mostly when it comes to racking, I recommend keeping spare parts in each truck.”
Dufrenne laid it out like this: “Not ordering extra parts for racking and attachments ends up costing much more than you’d think, once you have to roll another truck and pay for overnight shipping charges for parts that are usually less than $10.”

When it comes to the inverter (and we will get into this more on page 28) MLPE or string inverters could each offer a route to reduced truck rolls, if handled correctly. But for now, we just note what Kyler recommends: “Select products that allow remote updates or choose manufacturers that provide service programs.”

“Carry spare parts and get your system up and communicating with your gateway and online account before leaving the site,” Bailey says. “Installers who use gateways can track performance as soon as the system lights up. They can coordinate with technical support and determine within a few minutes that all modules and inverters are performing to spec.”

Head to page 2 for advice on system purchasing

— Solar Builder magazine

Sponsored: Top 5 ways to become 24 hours of sun on the new Fronius website

fronius

Fronius USA redesigns their web presence to help connect people with 24 hours of sun, a vision of the future where 100% of our energy is made by renewable energy. Here are the top 5 new features of Fronius.com:

  1. Easy navigation: same bankable company, all new modern sleek design
  2. All new services and solutions: Solar inverters are not the only thing Fronius offers! Our new website helps us communicate the evolution of our training, services and O&M catalog.
  3. “Get involved” and contact pages allow you to narrow your search from homeowner information, to distributors in your area, etc. Now everyone can get involved with #24hoursofsun
  4. Easy event registration: from webinars to technical trainings; filter your searches in your calendar and get connected faster!
  5. Transparent technical product information: stay green and download datasheet information in our one stop shop product page.

Fronius is #24hoursofsun with their new sustainable website.

— Solar Builder magazine