Looking for a Tier 1 Solar Inverter? Sorry, no such beast!

sma inverter

A good inverter is essential in the Australian sun.

Picking great inverters; Tier 1, 2 or 3?

Savvy solar customers are quickly realising that there is a very real difference between the quality of products and services you can find in the solar industry.

As a general rule, the old adage “you get what you pay for” generally holds true but the plethora of offers and solar companies can make selection tricky. Here at SolarQuotes I’ve helped make this choice a little easier by developing its own ranking system for installation companies.

But how do you choose a great inverter?

In the solar panel world, the overall quality, scale and reliability of companies who manufacture solar panels is described within the industry as Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 (1 being the best and 3 the worst). Although it’s an imperfect system it does provide an excellent indication of the companies and brands that are most likely to provide what you really need; decent products made by products who are most likely to be around to support you in the future.

I’ve written about this in the past, which you can read about here.

In the solar inverter world there is no recognised list or analysis of Tier rankings. However, some very similar rules apply which can be used to help pick a great brand. Spending a little time doing some research can make all the difference when it comes to a long and trouble free life of solar bliss. Talk to anyone in the solar industry and they’ll tell you that inverters are the most troublesome part of a system and when system failures do occur, it’s almost always the inverter that is the problem.

So here are my top tips to help you make a choice:

1. Experience really counts

 

An inverter is a sophisticated power conversion device that is ideally efficient, robust and will stay connected to the grid under a variety of conditions (grid voltage actually varies quite a bit on the Aussie grid). There are literally hundreds of electronic components inside the box and when they are working hard, they have to react fast, handle a lot of high voltage power and deal with a fair bit of heat; especially in Australia.

It stands to reason that companies who have been making inverters for a long time will have learned some valuable lessons about how to choose the right components that can reliably withstand this electronic torture. However, a handful of newer companies have shown they can get it right too by investing heavily in research and development and innovative new technologies.

In a nutshell, this is most often demonstrated by the scale of their operations. Large companies with substantial, modern manufacturing facilities are most likely to know their stuff and importantly, to want to protect their brand reputation.

So, tip one is to choose a company who either has a long track record and big brand or, if they are newer, can demonstrate genuine innovation and an incredible commitment to research and development. As a general rule, try to avoid companies who are simply copying what others have done.

2. Support matters

 

Even the best manufacturers (in any industry) occasionally have problems or make mistakes, no-one is perfect. Their ability and commitment to support you therefore becomes the second essential element.

Support can come in many ways but I typically look for the following things.

They must have an Australian presence and a support team in place. Your supplier should have staff that understand the local market and can support you and their installers. Some inverter companies offer incredible levels of staff and support such as regular product training, technical updates and teams of highly technical staff who help with design, specification and after sales support.

A crappy office manned by a pimple faced kid who doesn’t have a clue – or a hope of really helping – isn’t indicative of long term support.

Their warranty should be succinct, easy to understand and based on local support. Having to pay to ship an inverter half way round the world for diagnosis just doesn’t cut it. We also see a lot of warranty documents that don’t even comply with Australian Consumer Law, so make sure you read the details and understand explicitly how the process works in the event of a problem.

It’s also important to know who is legally responsible for the warranty. Ultimately, the company who imports the inverter is where the buck stops although your installer will be the first port of call if a problem emerges. Part of this is about who really makes the inverter, who is the company behind it. There is a small number of great Australian made products worth considering too.

So, Tip 2 is read the warranty carefully and understand what should happen, who is responsible and what resources they have in place to help if the doo-doo hits the fan. Be absolutely clear who actually manufacturers the product. If your installer can’t or want answer these questions in plain simple language, choose another supplier.

3. Commitment to Australia

 

Logically, there are two simple ways manufacturers tend to approach market opportunities.

The first is to take a low cost, short term approach. Make as many sales as possible, as fast as possible with the minimum cost and investment. If it gets tough, bail out. We have seen this happen on several occasions in recent years (eg KLNE and Beyond Building/Sunny Roo) and it has left a lot of customers with broken inverters and no support at all.

The second is to invest more and try to build a long term market. This will add cost and sales may results may not come as quickly. Good examples are where companies invest in training facilities, dealer support programs and are actively engaged in developing the industry, are members of industry associations and work hard to keep solar strong.

There are many examples of this behaviour from good inverter companies. Some are on advisory panels with industry associations. Some donate to fight for solar campaigns. Some sponsor industry associations and industry development programs, or support charities. Manufacturers who are thinking short term don’t.

So, tip number three is look for examples and evidence of a real, tangible, long term commitment to the development of the solar industry, helping the solar community and contributing rather than just making fast bucks. Again, ask your installer about this – many of them can be gauged by this level of commitment too.

4. Quality

 

Every supplier will tell you they are awesome and have great quality. However, if you dig a little deeper, you often find that some manufacturers don’t really understand or care about quality.

So what really is quality and how can you pick a company who really understands it?

There are several important ways.

Firstly, it’s obviously about the company’s ability to make things that work and to do it consistently. You can get a sense of this by looking for compliance to international quality standards like the ISO9000 family of quality standards. I’d go so far as saying if the product you’re looking at isn’t made by an ISO9000 certified manufacturer, don’t use them.

Secondly, look beyond the certificate for stories and examples of how they have embedded quality control into the facilities. Have they just completed a paperwork audit and got a certificate or can they describe the things they do beyond just “100% inspection”? Do their systems and process extend right down to how they will support you? (they should!)

Thirdly, when you get down to it the real definition of quality is meeting the customer’s needs. This goes back to the earlier points because what you want and need is reliability, support if things go wrong and products that do things well. In this sense, true quality is about being a great manufacturer and a great company.

So tip four is to ask for evidence of ISO certification and examples of how they embed quality assurance right through out their business – including looking after you!

5. Technology

 

It’s impossible to overlook the issue of technology, or perhaps more accurately technological prowess.

Any company with a bunch of decent electronics graduate students can probably design and cobble together an inverter that works or, copy someone else’s. However, a great manufacturer will be able to design and make a product that is genuinely advanced.

Some good examples I have seen include things like housings that are made to convect heat away in simple, clever ways, reducing component stress. A dumb arse will just bung in a cheap fan and hope for the best. Others carefully design circuits so that heat generating components are isolated from sensitive components. Some have really clever programmability, monitoring gear, safety features and so one. Although a large range of products isn’t critical, it’s also a good indication of their ability and prowess.

You can get really cheap, no whistles and bells inverters but the majority are frankly, rip offs of old inverter technology made by companies who just don’t know what they are doing.

So tip five is look for a company who can describe a decent level of innovation, of prowess in understanding why and how to make a great inverter that is technologically advanced.

Summary

 

If someone tells you they are offering a Tier 1 inverter, that’s a shaky start because there is no internationally recognised, independent listing.

The best advice I can give is to dig a little bit for evidence (not hearsay).

Look for a strong track record of experience, a decent parent company and some genuine innovation and technical prowess. Make sure the warranty is concise and will work for you and understand who is behind it all.

Finally, be prepared to spend a little more money because your inverter is both essential and potentially the most fragile part of your solar system.

About Finn Peacock

I'm a Chartered Electrical Engineer, Solar and Energy Efficiency nut, dad, and founder of SolarQuotes.com.au. My last "real job" was working for the CSIRO in their renewable energy division.

Comments

  1. Davyd Lewis says

    I’ve got a Fronius inverter and it’s crap. Every reading is ‘N/A’ which I think is the Austrian abbreviation for ‘none of your business’. It was installed by Modern Solar so I suppose they bought a job lot of European rejects.

  2. Might be helpful if the writers at SolarQuotes could reveal what inverters they have at home?

    • Hi Alex,

      I’ve got Solar Bridge micro inverters. John, our CTO has a Fronius.

      Neither of us have ever had a problem with them.

      Hope That Helps,

      Finn

  3. Hi Finn

    How would I make sure the solar system I’m considering will work across all of my 3 phase power system. I’mgetting mixed and conflicting answers from sales people.

  4. Hi Finn

    Hembrows solar in brisbane queensland are recommending a
    Zevershine inverters such as the TL5000.

    Is this a good inverter.

    Regards

    • Ronald Brakels says

      With inverters it is generally a case of you get what you pay for. Zeversolar is a lower cost inverter but probably decent value for what you pay. However, you can’t expect it to last as long as a more expensive, high quality inverter. Zeversolar were owned by the German company SMA but they recently sold it. Hopefully that won’t affect their quality. If you want to see a list of inverters we consider to be well supported in Australia you can check out our Solar 101 Guide:

      https://www.solarquotes.com.au/solar101.html

      It has a graphic displaying inverters from entry level to top end.

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