Troubleshooting PV- for the Lazy (and frugal)!

“Happy MegaWatt Day”

I didn’t realize it, but the solar system on our house recently produced one full Megawatt hour of electricity (1000 kwhs). I haven’t been tracking closely, but my friend has! I realized it when I got an email from Ted with the above congratulations.

I talk regularly with Ted and Denise Polczynski, friends who have self-installed one of the Simple Energy Works solar system kits.

Ted tracks the energy production from the solar system pretty closely. He is always talking about how the shading slows the energy production on one side or the other of his array. One of the best things that he enjoys about the Enphase Energy monitoring system is that you can see exactly how much energy each module is producing IN REAL TIME.

Ted regularly is checking out his array and my array production online at the same time. He tells me that he even knows when large clouds are going over the south side of the county (where I live) simply by the difference in our concurrent energy production. (Ted lives on the north side of the country).

Of course with this level of data one can easily figure out any shading issues on the PV array (and trim the offending branches as needed). One can also troubleshoot instantly.

For example, Ted emailed me the other day that I wasn’t producing any electricity. Well, I went over to my Envoy and my internet connection was dis-connected from the back (I had forgotten to re-plug it in after moving some furniture around). So- I was producing energy….. it just was not being reported to the Enlighten website. Easy fix, plug the cord back into the Envoy. Viola!

Now that is the kind of troubleshooting that I like to do.

Compare that with the following scenario (very real by the way). The disconcerted homeowners complain that their solar salesman said that their system would be generating 1560 kWh’s of electricity per year. Yet they had only produced 1344 kWh’s. They say- what is the problem? It is not producing how it should!

OK, so how do we attack this problem? The system is currently producing, but it may be 10%- 20% inefficient for some reason, but we don’t know why. We don’t know if one panel is damaged and slowing down the energy production on the whole PV string (a very common problem). Or possibly it is simply a connection between panels which is arcing (and therefore slowing down the energy production for the whole string(as in the previous scenario). Maybe one of the fuses on a string is blown so a whole string has been sitting there not producing anything for a portion of the year.

Could be any number of problems. We can come on out (at $75 an hour) and start to troubleshoot the system. Maybe we will find something. Maybe we won’t. It is entirely possible that the system is producing what it should be producing (with the current shading). It is also possible that the weather this year has been less productive for solar system owners (weather can fluctuate up to 10% a year).

The only way to really know on this type of a central inverter system is to hire a solar installer (we’ll be happy to come do it) to come out and test the whole system and see if it is performing as it should be. This testing can get expensive as you can imagine.

Now compare that to the ability that Ted has to not only test his PV system in real time online, but he can also compare it to my system (in real time) at the same time. He knows exactly how much each panel (individually) has produced for its whole lifetime.

The level of information that the Enphase Energy management system gives is significantly above any other energy monitoring solution. Which is great, but the best thing about it is that you can self troubleshoot any issue that may come up with your PV system. No need to hire an installer to come out and start “testing”. Your testing has been done continuously since the installation of the system. Think how much money that will save you in “troubleshooting” costs over the lifespan of the PV system!

Enphase explains it all in this video about the Envoy/Enlighten energy monitoring system.

I was talking with Ted last week and he mentioned that the electricity meter from our utility company was slightly off with his Envoy. He had me go out and record my utility meter versus my Envoy energy meter. We found out that there was a 5% difference between the two meters FOR BOTH OF US. Mine was a little further off, but both were just under 5% different.

We looked at the specifications of the Utility meters and those have a 5% tolerance. Add that to the 3% tolerance from the Envoy and any number within 8% is still within “official” tolerances. So, both of our numbers were OK, but we could only track this kind of stuff with the detailed information given by the Enphase Envoy and the Enlighten website.

If you want to take a look at Ted & Denise’s solar system production you can do so by clicking the photo to the right.     All of this data can be made “public” or “hidden.”   Ted doesn’t mind having his out in the public, but it is nice to have the option to keep your data to yourself (if you want).

Of course, Ted also has an app that he can use to track his energy production right on his cell phone. Why not, with the level of information so detailed, it makes total sense!

Ted currently has 7 panels on his house, and you can see his complete energy production. He is finishing up an addition on his house, but is getting ready to install another 14 modules (to triple the size of his system).

Information is king, and Enphase gives it to you. Don’t make the mistake of spending thousands of dollars on a PV system, and then spend all of your time wondering.

Unless you have access to good data, you won’t really know if things are working well, or even if you are getting your money’s worth!

Oh, one more thing. Ted recently shot me a photo of the 2011 annual production of his PV system. You can see how each panel produced individually. Nice!  2011 was a good year for those with solar systems!

Take Care,

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