Micro inverter makes install-it-yourself solar panels possible
It's a green-energy geek's dream do-it-yourself project: attach a few solar panels to your deck, and watch your electric bills go down. Now, one company is selling such a product.
SpinRay's install-it-yourself solar panels sitting on a deck.
(Screenshot by Martin LaMonica/CNET)
SpinRay Energy has developed a system that lets consumers install up to five solar panels on their decks and plug them in to an outdoor power outlet. People can install one panel at a time, and get up to 1000 watts of power with five installed.
The main electrical components of the system have a UL safety certification, including the solar panel and the micro inverter, which converts direct current from the panels to household alternating current. If there is a loss of grid power, the panels will stop delivering current, because it could be a danger to power-line workers, according to the company.
In the US, SpinRay Energy is selling the DIY kit through a few retailers, including Amazon. There are just a few reviews, but people who installed the panels say that they work as advertised. The deck kit, sold for US$1099.95 on Amazon, comes with brackets that attach to a deck, or for setting up panels in a yard.
The idea of making a solar-panel "appliance" that a person could install without an electrician has been pursued for years, but there is reason for caution, according to solar industry professionals.
A representative from the renewable energy retail company AltE Store voiced some concerns when we described the product, starting with safety and UL certification. When we said that the product has UL certification, he noted that many solar companies have come and gone, so he questioned the warranty.
He added that professional installers not only ensure safety, but also help consumers pick good locations for solar panels.
The president of SpinRay Energy, Arthur Chew, said he has had five panels installed on his deck for months without incident. He brought building inspectors to look at the installation, but since it is a plug-in device, it's considered an appliance, and doesn't need special permits in the US.
As for scepticism from solar industry pros, he noted that the panels use relatively new technology in the micro inverter, and people in the industry may be opposed to DIY solar, because it cuts professionals, such as installers and electricians, out of the picture.
"Our plug-and-play systems are not a replacement for a rooftop solar system. They should be considered a stepping stone for those interested in being green and to learn the benefits of solar," Chew told us. He noted that the warranties for the panel and micro inverter, which are made by other companies, are in line with the sort of warranties offered by other commercial companies.
It's worth noting that previous companies have failed to deliver on their promises of consumer-installed solar panels.
Two years ago, Clarian Technologies generated a lot of media interest when it said it would have a US$800 plug-in solar-panel kit within about one year, but a year after it promised to deliver its product, neither the company nor its CEO has responded to multiple emails from us regarding its status.
Mighty micro inverter
The key technology to the plug-and-play approach is the micro inverter.
The direct current generated by solar panels needs to be converted into household alternating current with an inverter. Historically, inverters have been large machines, about the size of a desktop PC, that convert DC to AC for several solar panels.
Micro inverters are about the size of a smartphone, and are placed directly under the panels, so that each one outputs alternating current. In the past few years, this technology has become more efficient, reliable and commonplace, used in residential and commercial settings.
When SpinRay Energy's panels are generating, they power appliances or electronics in the home, effectively slowing the household meter. The plugs to connect the panels into an outdoor outlet have coverings to protect them from water.
Consumers who don't want to go the self-install route can also add solar panels incrementally, which is made easier with the micro inverters. Tradesmen or solar installers can install the panels on the roof, and electricians can do the connection to a home circuit box.
As noted, solar-industry professionals have long voiced caution at the idea of consumer-installed, grid-tied solar panels. But if there's one thing that SpinRay Energy has shown, it's that the technology for piecemeal solar is readily available.