Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The solar saga - part 1: Avoiding interference (Why I did not choose microinverters!)

Part 2 of this article (August 22, 2016) is online - to read it, click here: "The Solar Saga - Part 2:  Getting the system online"

Back in November I decided to get some solar (photovoltaic) "grid tie" power generation installed at my house. I decided that the best place to install this was on the roof of my detached garage because:
  • The roof area of the garage was comparable to that of the house.
  • Much less tree shading than on the house.
  • Because it was not an occupied structure with no finished attic space, it was exempt from certain requirements (e.g. walkways around the panel areas, etc.) that would have reduced the available area for the installation of the panels.
  • It already had an existing, high-current circuit that was capable of being used for both source and sink of electrical current.
The only thing that I really had to do in the garage was to replace the 70's vintage Zinsco breaker panel with a more modern "load center" as a sub panel:  Doing so was a straightforward job that took only a few hours and cost less than $125 for all of the parts.

Unfortunately there was a significant snag to the "electrical" side of getting it connected to the utility grid via "Net Metering" (it's not "online" yet...) but that will have to wait for a later installment and that is covered in part 2 of this article - see the link at the top of the page.

What kind of solar system?

In residential, grid-tie installations, two types of solar systems are most commonly found:
  • Series string.  This is where the panels are tied together and go to one, large power converter.  Many of these inverters have inputs for at least two, separate strings for redundancy, to accommodate different illumination profiles (e.g. "east versus west") and also to (statistically) increase efficiency.
  • Microinverter.  In this approach each, individual panel has its own, "private" power converter.
The series string approach is a bit older technology and its popularity is being overtaken by the microinverter approach since the latter is touted with the ability to extract more energy from the entire solar plant since the output from each, individual panel is optimized rather than relying on the "weakest link" from the bank of panels comprising the series string. With modern panels that are intrinsically well-matched, the "weakest link" issue is not as significant as it once was, but that's a topic for a later discussion.

I will say right now that I chose the series string approach for a very practical reason:

Radio Frequency Interference (RFI).

Interference from microinverters:

Let me spin time back to mid 2013 when I saw on an email group a plea from a local amateur (Ham) radio operator for help to analyze a problem that he was having.

He'd had installed a sizable solar plant (approx. 3 dozen panels), each with an Enphase M190 microinverter and suddenly found that he faced a tremendously increased noise floor on both HF and VHF.  By the time that he and I "connected" he had come to some arrangement with the manufacturer and/or installer to install "ferrite beads" (at their expense) on the microinverters' leads in an attempt to mitigate the problem.

He asked me to come over to verify the nature of the interference and its approximate magnitude, prior to the installation of the ferrite devices, and I arranged to do so.

When I arrived, he demonstrated the problem:  When receiving on his HF dipole, which spanned over a portion of his roof and solar panel farm, he experienced 4-6 S-units (20-40dB) of additional noise from the microinverters, depending on frequency.  The noise was that of typical AC mains-coupled switching supplies, being grouped in spectral "bunches" every 10's or hundreds of kHz or so (I don't recall the spacing) on the lower bands (75, 40 meters) and by the time one got to 15 meters it was pretty much just an even "smear" of noise across the spectrum.  By switching to AM, it was apparent that the noise itself had an amplitude-modulated component related to the mains frequency that was not readily apparent when listening on SSB.

The problem was also apparent on 2 meters where low-level spurious signals emanated by these devices were intercepted by his rooftop antenna and would open the squelch and/or mask weaker signals - including those of some of the more distant repeaters.

Analyzing the problem:

For this visit I'd brought along with my FT-817 portable, all-band, all-mode transceiver with a small 2 meter Yagi antenna, a small shielded "H" field loop for localizing signal sources and a specialized 2-meter DF antenna/receiver, to be used with the Yagi, and in switching to 2 meter SSB mode using the rubber duck antenna on the FT-817 I could hear a myriad of low-level carriers as I tuned up and down the band.

Stepping out onto the roof we approached the solar system and I wielded my other gear:  The DF receiver/antenna combination showed the source of the signals - on any random 2 meter frequency - to be that of the solar array. Switching to the combination of the FT-817 and the small, shielded H-loop I was able to localize the conductors from which the energy was being radiated:  Not only did it seem to be coming from the AC power mains cables connecting everything together, but also the frames and the front surfaces of the solar panels themselves, indicating likely egress on both the AC and DC sides of the microinverters.

Part 15 compliance?

At this point one might ask how such a product appeared on the market if it caused interference:  Doesn't FCC Part 15 "protect" against that?


First of all, it is worth re-reading a portion of the text from Part 15 that I'm sure that you have noted somewhere on a device or in a manual that you have laying around.  Quoting from FCC Part 15, section 105 subpart (b):

This equipment has been tested and found to comply with the limits for a Class B digital device, pursuant to part 15 of the FCC Rules. These limits are designed to provide reasonable protection against harmful interference in a residential installation.
This equipment generates, uses and can radiate radio frequency energy and, if not installed and used in accordance with the instructions, may cause harmful interference to radio communications.
However, there is no guarantee that interference will not occur in a particular installation.
(The emphasis is mine.)

The above speaks for itself!

It should be observed that while Part 15 limits the amount of incidental RF energy that can be emitted/radiated/conducted from electronic devices to a certain level, that level is NOT zero!  The fact is that a device may be perfectly legal in its amount of emission, but still be detectable, under the right circumstances, from a significant distance.  In this particular situation, there were at least three things going against our solar system owner:
  • He was in very close proximity to the microinverters and solar panels.  As noted previously, his antennas for HF and VHF were either on the roof, or crossed part of it.
  • HF operation, by its nature, involves rather weak, narrowband signals.  This makes it even more likely that similar low signals emanated from devices would be noticeable and obvious and that broadband noise could be quite apparent.
  • His solar system comprised approximately three dozen panels.  What this means is that each of those microinverters is, by itself, radiating its own, set amount of interference.  If you take the number as 36, this means that as a system, the total amount of energy being radiated by all of those microinverters put together will be increased by nearly 16 dB - that's nearly 3 S-units!  Practically speaking those inverters nearest the antenna(s) will cause the most problem due to proximity, but you can certainly see that many devices in one location are likely to exacerbate the issue overall.
I had no way to accurately measure the emitted signals from the microinverters to determine if they were compliant with part 15 or not, but I'm willing to believe that a widely-sold product such as an Enphase M190 microinverter had been tested and found to be in compliance by reputable people.

Figure 1:
A look inside the newer, Enphase M250, a model newer than the M190's
described as causing interference problems.  At the moment the jury is still
out if the M250 (or M215) is much "cleaner" than the older M190 in terms
of radiated energy.  While some decoupling - possibly filtering - is visible
on the AC mains connection at the bottom, no inline chokes are
apparent from the top-of-board view on the DC (solar panel) side - only
some capacitors that appear to bypass it to ground (e.g. the case.)
This M250 was given to me by an installer after it had failed in the field.
Click on the image for a larger version.
We discussed what it would take to make this microinverters completely quiet and I knew a way:  Completely enclosing each microinverter in a metal box with L/C Pi filters on both the DC input and AC output leads.  Proper L/C filtering of the input and output along with appropriate capacitive bypassing so that not only does RF energy not escape from the unit, but it also offers little/no potential for RF currents generated within to appear differentially between the DC input and AC output leads.

I have discussed similar interference-elimination measures related to switching power supplies in my August 18, 2014 post, "Completely Containing Switching Power Supply RFI" - link.  This method can be completely effective in reducing the interference level of such devices to undetectable levels.

It would have been nice if if there was available a weathertight box into which each microinverter could be mounted, along with a separate set of filtered input and output power connections.  The design of such a device would be slightly complicated by the fact that the Enphase units communicate via their powerline connections, but it was likely that this could be accommodated in the filter design.

I was quite sure that such an after market product did not exist at the time and even if it did, it would be prohibitively expensive, particularly when multiplied several dozen times!

My host asked me if I thought that the installation of ferrites on the input and output leads would help:  I thought that it might help a little bit on VHF and UHF, but that I couldn't see it having any useful effect on HF - but I hoped that I was wrong!

As I left this ham's house I had my FT-817 connected to my vehicle's antenna, listening in SSB mode on 2 meters and I could hear the low-level signals from his solar array from a distance of nearly two blocks, line-of-sight.

Post ferrite installation:

A few weeks later I got an email from this same ham stating that the ferrites had been installed on the microinverters.  To do this, it was necessary to (practically!) un-install and re-install the entire system as very few could be reached from the roof, requiring a lift to access.

Did it help?

Not that he could tell.

Is his situation unique?

Apparently not.

There are many anecdotes of amateur radio operators facing terrible interference issues after they - or their neighbors - install a microinverter-type solar system.  Once such instance is documented in the following thread on Reddit:
Neighbors just got solar - They gifted me with S-9 RFI  - link

Another case was documented several years ago on the "Ham Nation" Web TV show (Episode #65) where the only way to reduce the problem to a tolerable level was to relocate the antenna some distance away from the house-mounted microinverter system, at the far end of the lot.

A link to the webcast of Ham Nation episode #65 may be found here:  Link  (The relevant portion starts at 16:40.)

Since the original posting of this article a write-up appeared in the April, 2016 QST magazine that details another ham's battles with RFI from a solar electric system.  While this system was not microinverter-based, it used devices called "optimizers" that work on similar principles to the microinverters in that high-frequency switching supplies are used to maximize the amount of power available from the array.

Why the ferrites didn't/won't work:

There is a misconception amongst some that loading wires with ferrites will stop the ingress/egress of RF signals.

This does not happen.

By putting a piece of ferrite on a conductor one increases the effective impedance at a given frequency, but that impedance is not infinite, and the effectiveness of the ferrite depends on several things:
  • The characteristic impedance (real, complex) of the conductor on which it is placed at specific frequencies (it varies all over the map!) 
  • The size of the ferrite (length, diameter, etc.)
  • The material type (permeability)
  • The frequency
  • How many "turns" of the conductor may be passed through the ferrite.
For retrofits, the answer to last one is generally easy:  One turn, as that is all that may be accommodated with a typical "split core" ferrite that is installed simply by placing it over a wire.  As was certainly the case with the Enphase units, the connecting wires were simply too short to allow additional turns of wire even if the ferrite device were sized to allow it.

In general, ferrites have greater efficacy with increasing frequency, but this is not surprising since their mechanism is generally that of adding a bit of inductive reactance to the conductor on which they are placed - but this also explains why "snap on" or split ferrites are part of a futile attempt when one attempts to solve HF-related noise issues:
They simply cannot provide enough reactance to attenuate by the needed 10-30dB to solve most severe interference situations at HF!
Figure 2:
The outside of the same Enphase M250 as shown in Figure 1,
above, showing connecting cables:  Not much room
to place large ferrites on these - much less multiple turns!
(The cables on the M190 are of similar length.)
Click on the image for a larger version.

The reason for this is immediately apparent if one studies the specifications of a typical snap-on ferrite such as the Amidon 2x31-4181p2 link.  Here are some typical specifications for this rather large piece of ferrite:
  • I.D:  0.514" (13mm);  O.D.:  1.22" (31mm) ;  Length:  1.55" (39mm)
  • Material type:  31 (1-300 MHz, typical)
  • Reactance of device, typical:  25 ohms at 1 MHz, 100 ohms at 10 MHz, 156 ohms at 25 MHz, 260 ohms as 100 and 250 MHz
As you can see, the impedance is stated as 100 ohms at 10 MHz.  Being generous, let us apply that figure to the 40 meter band where we can see that if this were applied to a line that had a 50 ohms characteristic impedance, we might (theoretically, simplistically) expect to see somewhere in the area of 8-16dB of additional attenuation caused by the loss induced by this device - but that is only 1-3 "S" units, and that represents only a "good case" scenario.  In the case of the aforementioned situation it would have taken several more "S" units to reduce the noise to the point where it was not highly disruptive.

What is more likely to happen is that the interconnecting wires will have wildly varying impedances at different frequencies - some higher, some lower - and the this will have a dramatic effect on the efficacy of this reduction.  In the case of the ham that I had visited I would not have been surprised that if a plot had been taken of the noise versus frequency, its "shape" would have been dramatically altered by the addition of the ferrite devices and, overall, the amount of radiated energy (interference) would have been measurably reduced.  The problem was that the level was so high to begin with that knocking it down by, say, 90% (10dB, or just under 2 S-units) still represented a terrible situation!

The Amidon device noted above is a rather large device and at least three of them would be required for each microinverter (one for each DC lead, one for the AC connection) and the expense of these devices - not to mention the installation (36 microinverters would require 108 ferrite devices!) - could really add up!

It should go without saying that a smaller ferrite - although less expensive - will have even less effect than a larger one!

Ferrite devices such as described are often more useful for preventing RF from getting into devices:  Increasing the impedance on the connecting leads and wires may not only improve the efficacy of already-existing RFI protection devices such as bypass capacitors, but they can also break up loops through which high RF currents induced by a local transmitter might be passing "through" a device.  In these case the moderate effect of their added impedance may well be enough to adequately mitigate RF ingress issues.
Remember:  With RF ingress it is often the case that knocking down the RF energy by 6-12 dB will be enough to mitigate the issue.  Conversely,the amount of "hash" emitted by the microinverters would likely need to be reduced by more than 20 dB to make it undetectable.

"Grounding" won't help either:

Reading some of the correspondence in the Reddit posting (above) there is mention of "grounding" to eliminate/reduce RFI from these units:  To assume that "grounding" would likely solve or mitigate this problem would be to assume incorrectly!

The problem, again, is that RF energy appears to be conducted from the input and output (DC and AC, respectively) coupling wires which, themselves, can act as antennae:  "Grounding" the case - which would also "ground" the safety ground on the AC output - is not really going to help.

If the unit is installed according to code, there should already be a "ground" attached at the panels, anyway - but this wire connection, which is likely to be 10's of feet (several meters) between the roof and the Earth or grounding point is going to look like a "ground" only at DC and low frequencies - such as those found on the AC mains!

Any wire that is several feet long - grounded or not - is going to act as an antenna.

What this means is that it is entirely possible that at least some of the RF interference being radiated by the inverter is going to be conducted along the grounded metal structures (such as the solar panels and the frames) and wires in addition to the AC mains wiring.

Again, the proper way to contain such RF energy within the confines of the circuitry was discussed above:  Proper L/C filtering of the input and output along with appropriate capacitive bypassing so that not only does RF energy not escape from the unit, but it also offers little/no potential for RF currents generated within to appear differentially between the DC input and AC output leads.

The upshot:

If you are getting interference from a microinverter system - either your own, or your neighbors, is there anything you can do?

Since the installation of ferrites will have minimal effect on HF, the answer would seem to be "No, not really", aside from converting to a series-string system, or installing a series-string system, instead.

In the case of the ham operator that I visited, he mitigated the situation somewhat by moving his HF antenna as far away from his house as he could (which wasn't very far considering that he had limited space on his city lot) which helped slightly.  Nighttime was the only time during which he could completely quell the interference by turning off the breaker feeding the solar array, but during the day there was nothing he could do:  If either solar illumination or AC mains power was available to the microinverters they seemingly caused the same amount of interference, whether they were under load or not!

Are newer microinverters better/quieter?

It has been reported that the Enphase M190 microinverter has been obsoleted and has been replaced with newer models that are more reliable and more "RF Quiet".  On this second point, the jury seems to be out:  Anecdotally, there seem to be about as many reports of the newer models (from various manufacturers) causing interference as not, so the reports are rather confused.

I know at least two amateur operators with newer-model Enphase inverters (M215, M250) but they report other extenuating circumstances (e.g. their microinverter PV system is located some distance from their antennas and/or they already had notable interference from other sources before installing the solar power system) that they cannot say for certain whether or not there is a problem caused by their system.  At some point I hope to personally visit at least one of those installations in the coming months.

Series String inverters and interference:

While less efficient overall and somewhat less expensive up front, I decided to use a series-string inverter system.  From direct observation and reports by people that I know and trust I knew that units made by Sunnyboy and Fronius could be reasonably expected to cause little or no interference on their own.  Additionally, were an interference issue to arise, having a single point at which to filter (e.g. one large box with a relatively small number of input and output leads) I was quite confident that it would be possible to add additional filtering if necessary.

To be sure, one might (theoretically) lose up to 10-20% or so peak efficiency with a series-string system as opposed to a Microinverter that optimizes for each, individual panel, but considering the comparatively low cost of panels these days and the lower "up front" cost for a series-string inverter system, one can usually afford to "up size" the system slightly to compensate.

(Comment:  As noted previously, series string "optimizers" have been observed to cause significant RFI since their basic principle of operation would lend to them tendencies to produce unwanted "hash" unless well-designed.)

Maintaining the various systems:

Anecdotally, from both owners and maintainers of microinverter-based systems, it is not uncommon to experience the failure of several of the microinverters after a only few years, the rate-of-failure (apparently) following somewhat of a "bathtub" curve:  Several die early on, there is often a period of relative stability, and then they start to fail in greater numbers after several more years.

While these devices (microinverters) seem to have a good warranty, the issue comes about replacing the microinverter that is in the "middle of everything" on the roof.  On a roof with a moderate-to-steep pitch it may be necessary to use equipment such as a lift to be able to safely access the failed inverter - and it may be necessary to "de-install" several of the surrounding panels to gain access.  In other words, it will likely be many times the cost of the microinverter itself ($125-$300) in equipment rental, time and labor just to replace it.  For this reason it seems that many people simply allow several of them to fail before "calling out the troops":   Having several panels (effectively) offline at a time is something that detracts from the proclaimed efficiency benefit of the Microinverter scheme!

The large, series-string inverters appear to be extremely reliable, having excellent track records (at least for Fronius and Sunnyboy - the two brands with which I have any familiarity).  The obvious down side is if there were a failure with the converter, it would likely take a large portion - or all - of the production off line, but the replacement of the device is comparatively easy and would likely not be more than a couple times the total cost (parts plus equipment rental plus labor) of replacing a small handful of microinverters!

What about failures of solar panels?  Modern panels contain diodes that "wire around" sections that have failed or shaded, so unless a catastrophic failure occurs that completely removes it from the circuit, one will lose, at most, the capacity of the entire panel:  This is true with both microinverter and series-string configurations.)

Fortunately solar panels have been around for decades and have been proven to be quite reliable and rugged in terms of durability.  If a failure in a solar electric system is going to occur, the solar panel itself is less likely to be the problem unless the problem is actual, physical damage.

(Note:  There may be warranty coverages or service plans that mitigate the costs related to such maintenance, but since they vary wildly with installers and manufacturers, they are not covered here.)

A note about "Optimizers":

It is common in series string - with a single, main inverter - to use an "optimizer" on each solar panel - particularly if the series string consists of solar panels at various angles covering a complex roof where the availability of just two MPPT inputs per main inverter is not sufficient to serve many "sub-strings" of panels mounted at those different orientations.

It has been observed (See the April 2016 QST article, "Can Home Solar Power and Ham Radio Coexist" pp. 33-37) that many models of optimizers - notably certain models made by "SolarEdge" - produce noise in a manner similar to that of microinverters.  This is not too surprising considering that an optimizer and microinverter are quite similar in many ways - notably the fact that both use high-frequency switching converters for voltage and current transformation.

In the aforementioned QST article it was noted that while the RF noise generated by the optimizers in the solar installation could be reduced significantly with proper wiring configuration and the implementation of hundreds (or maybe more) of dollars of ferrite chokes, it could not be completely quashed:  The author of the article reported that he would simply shut down the system if the noise floor was too high to work the "weak ones".

In short:  As of the time of this writing, both Microinverters and Optimizers share the same issues when it comes to being "RF Noisy".

Final comments:

Each system has its advantages and trade-offs:  In my case a primary concern was the avoidance of interference.  Since the advent of digital TV - and because fewer people listen to the radio or even have off-air TV these days - they likely wouldn't notice (or would care!) about interference issues that appear to be common with the microinverter (and "optimizer") approach.

One can always hope that newer microinverters will become increasingly quiet, but for now that seems not the case - if not in reality, certainly in perception.


While the Enphase M190 was known to be a strong emitter of spurious RF signals across the RF spectrum (from at least 3.5 MHz through 450 MHz) it would seem that the later Enphase M215, M250 and IQ series are much quieter - at least to the point that some amateurs that have them have found their situation to be acceptable in terms of generated noise.

What is not known at the time of this update (March, 2017) is if they are "RF quiet" to the point of practical undetectability (as in the case of my SunnyBoy series string inverter) or if they are just "much quieter" than their predecessors.

What seems to be clear is that Enphase has made gains toward the reduction of interference potential of their products - definitely a move in the right direction!

(I have no new information on other manufacturers' microinverters or optimizers at this time.)

* * *

In the next installment I talked a bit more about the installation of my system - trials and tribulations...  Part 2 of this article (August 22, 2016) is online - to read it, click here: "The Solar Saga - Part 2:  Getting the system online"


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