When you’re buying a turnkey solar installation, a portion of your total cost is attributed to the labor required to set up your system. Manufacturers are constantly innovating new technology to cut down the time, labor, and costs of installations. As a result, there’s one type of solar panel that’s becoming increasingly popular throughout the solar industry: the alternating current (AC) module.
What are AC modules?
AC modules, sometimes referred to as “plug and play” modules, are solar panels that already have an integrated inverter. Manufacturers and distributors ship these solar panels with a microinverter already attached to the back of the panel.
Inverters are critical components of solar panel systems because they convert direct current (DC) electricity produced by solar panels into usable AC electricity for your home’s use. With AC modules, the electricity is converted to AC right at each panel rather than traveling from the panels to a central inverter. This conversion also happens at the panel site when you buy and install solar panels and microinverters as separate components, but many installers prefer AC modules because they’re easier to store, transport, and install on rooftops.
Benefits of AC modules
Because the inverter is integrated into the panel, AC modules typically cost more than traditional inverter-less solar panels. That said, there are many benefits associated with installing AC modules that can make the initial investment worthwhile.
One of the most valued benefits of AC modules is the ease of installation. Because the inverter is already merged with the panel, installers don’t need to spend time and energy carrying extra materials up to the roof, or deal with manually connecting the individual components.
Additionally, installers can avoid spending time on DC wire management when they’re installing AC modules. When solar companies pair solar panels with a central inverter, they need to secure all the wires and cables that connect the solar panels to the inverter(s) and ensure that they’re protected from the elements. “Plug and play” installations minimize wiring, contributing to much shorter installation times and thus potentially cutting down on overall labor costs.
AC modules typically have 25-year warranties for both the panel and inverter component. This is not always true for other types of installations – while most solar panels have a production warranty of at least 25 years, many inverters on the market today only have warranties that last 10 to 15 years. With an AC module, you’ll get at least 25 years for both. Though these panels often come with two different warranties from the individual component manufacturers, there’s usually one manufacturer designated as the point of contact for customer support should any maintenance issues come up.
Module level performance
Have you experienced turning on your Christmas lights come early December, only to find out that they’re not lighting up? This can happen if only a single light on the string is broken. A similar problem can occur when you have solar panels hooked up to a string inverter: if one panel on the string isn’t producing electricity because of shading or a product defect, it will affect the performance of the rest of the panels on that circuit.
Fortunately, you won’t experience this issue with AC modules; because the inverters work independently of the rest, one inadequate solar panel won’t impact the production of the rest in the array.
Because the panels operate individually, it also means that you can monitor the performance of each unique panel rather than evaluating the production of the system as a whole. In some cases, this can mean quicker maintenance: if your solar panel system is underperforming, you can easily see if it’s one particular panel causing the issue.
Types of AC modules
There are a few prominent solar equipment manufacturers currently offering AC modules – here are some of the more popular options:
Enphase AC Modules
Enphase, the most popular microinverter manufacturer in the solar industry, launched a series of AC modules with several different panel manufacturers, dubbed as Enphase Energized modules. All of the panels use Enphase IQ microinverters that are pre-attached to different solar panels.
Enphase has partnered with a number of solar panel manufacturers to produce these AC modules, including Solaria (Power XT AC modules), Jinko Solar (Eagle AC), and LG (NeON 2 ACe). In early 2018, Panasonic also announced a partnership with Enphase to manufacture a new AC Series as part of their product offerings.
SunPower developed residential AC modules to use in the SunPower Equinox system, the company’s all-in-one home solar solution.
Previously, the company used its own microinverter brand in these modules. However, in the summer of 2018, Enphase acquired SunPower’s microinverter arm, further positioning themselves as a leader in AC modules. SunPower’s AC Modules will include their own custom line of microinverters from Enphase.
Should you install AC modules?
As far as solar goes, there is never one size fits all: while there are a number of benefits to installing AC modules, there are other good options to consider when choosing your solar equipment.
If you have an easy solar installation that receives optimal amounts of sunshine and no shade throughout the day, then a traditional string inverter is a perfectly suitable, lower-cost solution for your solar panel system.
Alternatively, if your primary motivations for installing AC modules are the module level performance characteristics, it’s always worth comparing AC modules options with DC solar panels paired with microinverters, or smart modules (panels integrated with power optimizers) that also have these capabilities.
Find AC modules on EnergySage
The best way to make sure you’re getting the right solar equipment for the right price is to shop around. By registering on the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, you can receive up to seven quotes from pre-screened, local installers to compare side-by-side. If you’d like to see offers that include AC modules, simply note it in your account so that installers can quote accordingly.