Pros and cons of string inverters vs microinverters
Individual panel prices
Prices of DIY kits
Installed system prices
Solar inverters have one core function: convert the direct current (DC) solar panels generate into an alternating current (AC), which is the type of electricity used in your home.
Inverter technology has been steadily evolving over the past several decades to better enable homeowners to reap maximum power from their PV systems. Both string inverters and microinverters do this job for you as a solar homeowner, but go about the process in different ways.
Let's take a closer look at what string inverters and microinverters are, and how they stack up against each other for use in your solar energy system.
A string inverter is a standalone box that is typically installed close to your main service panel and electricity meter.
There is typically only one single inverter, or possibly two string inverters on each residential solar installation; it really depends on the overall solar power system size.
A string inverter functions in a series circuit, with there usually being 6 to 12 individual solar panels in what is known as a "series string." SMA is a leading manufacturer of string inverters.
The main advantage of a string inverter is that you only need one of them to convert the DC electricity coming from your solar array to AC power. If anything is going to fail in a solar system, it is likely to be the inverter - making troubleshooting relatively easy when things go wrong.
Installing a single string inverter on a solar panel installation is cheaper than installing microinverters. Fewer labor hours are required, and string inverters are more affordable than many microinverters.
There are fewer connections between solar panels and the string inverter. Therefore, there’s a reduced chance that a string inverter setup will be improperly cabled compared to a microinverter system.
Since string inverters require solar panels to be wired in series, if one solar panel's output is affected, the entire series of solar panels is affected in equal measure. This can pose a major issue if some part of a solar panel series will be shaded for part of the day.
To get optimal performance from a string inverter, it needs to be working near its peak capacity. So, if you want to increase the size of your solar array at some point down the road, those panels will need to be routed to a separate string inverter, adding in additional complexity and cost.
String inverters are warrantied to last between 8 and 12 years, whereas microinverters have a 25-year warranty.
Panel-level insight is not possible with a string inverter system since there are no components affixed to the back of each panel to do the job.
While aggregate solar production is viewable, you won’t be able to see if there are individual panel performance problems that could be caused by a crack, defects, or debris.
Opt for optimizers! Many of the issues that come with string inverters can be remedied with the addition of power optimizers. Power optimizers attach to the back of each solar panel to mitigate the impacts of shade and maximize solar power output. They also help your system meet rapid shutdown fire safety codes.
Microinverters perform the same basic function as string inverters, except they are installed underneath each solar panel on your roof. Each of these microinverters is about the size of an internet router.
The big difference between microinverters and string inverters is that a solar panel installation with microinverters will typically have the same number of microinverters as there are solar panels (Note: there are microinverters that accept two or four solar panels).
Enphase is a leading manufacturer of microinverters. Enphase microinverters have been on the market since 2009 and have become an integral part of their booming business. Their researchers have been studying how to best apply principles of maximum power point tracking (MPPT) into their components for enhanced solar PV production.
While standard string inverters will cap the electricity production of each panel by the lowest-producing panel on your roof, microinverters don’t have this problem since they function in a parallel circuit.
A microinverter will take full advantage of the production of each individual panel. It will convert the power generated by each panel to the grid voltage. Each solar panel and microinverter combination can “do their best” and contribute as much power as they can.
New electrical codes require rapid solar system shutdown so first responders or firefighters are safe from high voltage when they need to be on rooftops or servicing power lines. Microinverters comply with these rapid shutdown requirements and have this capability embedded into each module.
The core advantage of using microinverters is that theoretically, you can yield more solar electricity. The reason for this is that there are slight differences in currents between solar panels. When solar panels are in a string, the current is reduced to that of the least-producing panel in the string.
If a solar system is facing multiple angles, meaning some panels are facing south, some east, and some west, then microinverters are the way to go. Or, if you have shading issues from trees or a large chimney, again microinverters would be best.
In these situations, the solar panels will be producing different amounts of electricity at different times of the day, but microinverters will ensure you harvest all of the energy, while with a standard inverter you will lose some of this production.
Microinverters typically have 25-year warranties, while standard inverters typically have 8 to 12-year warranties. The reliability of microinverters was in question several years ago, but the technology now has caught up with the industry, and the long warranties on microinverters show the confidence the manufacturers have in their products.
Microinverters have the ability to track the production of each individual panel, while with a standard inverter you only can track the production of the whole system.
If you were to expand your system in the future, microinverters are simple to add one at a time. Each panel and microinverter pair can be easily added to your existing solar array without needing to worry about purchasing, siting, and installing additional string inverters.
To sum it all up, microinverters are definitely a value-add, but are only recommended if have panels facing multiple orientations or you have shading issues. Otherwise, the less-expensive standard inverter is usually more cost-effective.
The main disadvantage of microinverters is the price. They are typically $1,000 or so more expensive than a string inverter on a standard 5 kW residential solar installation.
If one of your microinverters were to fail, not only would detecting which one has failed be a challenge, but once you did, servicing and replacing the component is not as easy as plopping in a new string inverter on the side of your house.
Your solar installer would need to again get up on your roof, work with your racking system, unbolt the solar modules, and replace the microinverter to re-establish AC conversion capability.
Since there’s a microinverter attached to every solar panel on your roof, that’s a lot of expensive metal equipment up there.
Microinverters may act as miniature lightning rods. If you’re in a storm-prone area and have a historical wooden structure with shake roofing materials, you might want to think twice before installing them.
Most microinverter manufacturers claim very low failure rates, but at SolarReviews we remain skeptical of these claims.
The most complex electronic device in a solar system is the inverter and based on our decades-plus experience in the solar installations business, the most common thing to fail in a solar setup is the inverter.
We would rather use power optimizers and string inverters, as these systems allow you to meet rapid shutdown requirements but cost less and are a bit easier to fix if something goes wrong. But, if your roof is very complex or if there are severe shading issues, then you should go for microinverters.
Having said this, we still like microinverters! But don’t be persuaded by their popularity. Consider all of your options before jumping right into a microinverter system.