Many solar companies recommend pairing a solar array with power optimizers and a central inverter to enhance the performance of a solar panel system. While many people install power optimizers and panels as separate components, your installer may recommend a solar panel that integrates both components into one, also known as a smart module.
What are smart modules?
Smart modules, otherwise known as DC-optimized modules, are solar panels that have an integrated DC power optimizer. Manufacturers and distributors ship solar panels with the optimizers pre-attached to the back of the panels so that installers don’t need to spend time storing, transport and assembling separate components.
When sunlight hits a solar panel, it generates direct current (DC) electricity. Most appliances cannot run on DC electricity, so you need a solar inverter to convert this DC electricity into useable alternating current (AC) electricity. Power optimizers are sandwiched in the middle of this process; they “condition” the DC energy, fixing the voltage of the DC energy so that it’s more efficiently converted into AC once it hits the inverter. With smart modules, you still require a central inverter to finish the conversion process.
Benefits of smart modules
Smart modules are typically more expensive than a traditional, DC solar panel due to the integrated power optimizer. That said, smart modules have a number of advantages over a more traditional solar setup that can make the added cost worthwhile.
Easier purchasing for solar installers
There are a number of “soft costs” associated with solar panel installations – while you won’t see this number explicitly spelled out in solar quotes, they do contribute to the overall cost of your solar project.
One soft cost associated with installing solar is the time and effort required to obtain equipment. Your solar installer will work with manufacturers or distributors to purchase and ship solar panels and inverters that eventually end up on rooftops. By purchasing smart modules, installers can reduce the time it takes to purchase and obtain this equipment because the solar panels and optimizers that are typically shipped as two separate components (and potentially from two separate companies) can be ordered, shipped, and stored on site as one complete part.
One of the most valued benefits of smart modules is the ease of installation. Because the optimizer 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 individual components. Faster and easier installations can help cut down on labor costs for your solar installer and consequently lower the total costs for you as the end purchaser.
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 of lights is broken. Similarly, when your solar panels are 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.
You won’t experience this issue with smart modules – because the power optimizers work independently of one another, a single solar panel or power optimizer that isn’t producing electricity won’t impact the production of the rest of the solar 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. This can also mean quicker maintenance: if your solar panel system is underperforming, you can easily see if it’s one particular panel causing the issue.
Solar panel systems require very little maintenance over the course of their lifetime. This is because, save for ground-mounted systems with trackers, there are no moving parts to a solar panel system.
That said, should maintenance be required on a smart module, it’s easy to perform. The power optimizers located on the back of smart modules are easily detachable, which makes servicing your equipment relatively straightforward in the rare case that malfunctions occur.
Types of smart modules
While there are hundreds of different solar panel manufacturers to choose from, the inverter and power optimizer market is much more consolidated. There are two companies predominately responsible for manufacturing power optimizers utilized in smart modules today: SolarEdge and Tigo Energy.
The majority of smart modules on the market today include SolarEdge’s power optimizers. SolarEdge, a leading manufacturer of power optimizers and inverters, has partnered with a number of solar panel manufacturers to produce smart modules, including but not limited to Canadian Solar, JinkoSolar, UpSolar, and Axitec. In 2018, Panasonic also announced a new smart module series of their own, the S-Series, that utilize SolarEdge components.
Similarly to SolarEdge, Tigo Energy has also partnered with multiple solar panel manufacturers to build smart modules. Trina Solar and UpSolar currently offer smart modules using Tigo’s optimizers. Vikram Solar also announced a new line of smart modules utilizing Tigo optimizers in summer of 2018.
What’s the difference between smart modules and AC modules?
Smart DC-optimized modules and AC modules both include module-level power electronics, but the primary difference between the two is the location of the inverter. Power optimizers condition DC electricity, but they don’t convert it into AC – that requires a separate central inverter. AC modules, on the other hand, have microinverters integrated into each individual solar panel, so the conversion to AC electricity occurs right at the panel site.
Should you install smart modules?
There isn’t a one size fits all rule for solar panel installations: while there are many advantages to installing smart modules, there are other good options to consider when choosing your solar equipment.
If you have a perfect southern-facing roof that experiences no shade throughout the day, then a traditional string inverter is a perfectly suitable lower-cost solution for your solar panel system.
If your primary motivations for installing smart modules are the module level performance characteristics, it’s always worth comparing smart modules with DC solar panels paired with power optimizers, or AC modules that also have these capabilities.
Find smart modules on EnergySage
With all the solar equipment options available today, it’s a good idea to compare multiple options. Shopping around is the best way to make sure you’re installing the right solar equipment for the right price. You can sign up on the EnergySage Marketplace to receive up to seven custom solar quotes for your home or business. If you’d like to install smart modules, simply note it in your account so that installers can quote accordingly.