Inverters are one of the most critical a second most expensive item in your solar installation. We’re going to address a very common question, which is about the price and quality of some of the most established brands of inverters.
We’ll also look at how the new breed of low-price Chinese inverters measure against them. You will be in a much better position to make an informed decision for your purchase or advise people on inverters.
In the world of photovoltaic system inverters there are two distinct camps. We have a cluster of companies in Europe and then we have inverters made in China. Although we also have inverters from US, Taiwan, Japan but their market share is too low, so we will focus on European and Chinese brands.
Who makes the best solar inverters?
Up until 5 years ago there was a clear difference between European and Chinese inverters. The quality, efficiency, safety and reliability of European inverters was far superior. The brands included SMA, Schneider, Fronius, ABB, Siemens and Bosch.
Some of them have been in the inverter market for more than five decades and with that amount of experience they have been able to iron out many issues in the design that negatively impact the operation.
Are Chinese inverters any good?
European inverters also had more functionality built into them compared to their Chinese counterparts. The Chinese inverters on the other hand were almost half the price compared to European ones. A few reasons why the Chinese inverters were cheap are:
- Number 1 – they had a lower IP rating and most inverters were designed for indoors. European and even American inverters have a high IP rating, making them safe to be installed outdoors.
- Number 2 – the cost of resourcing components was less in China.
- Number 3 – people did not have to pay for brand prestige, which was charged by European companies because of their solid reputation and last,
- Number 4 – built quality requirements and testing in Europe was more stringent.
However, as of today some of the Chinese inverter companies that mushroomed mostly in the 90s have nearly caught up with their European counterparts. This includes Huawei, that was a late entrant to the domestic inverter market but has displaced SMA to become the biggest supplier of solar inverters in the world.
Now believe it or not, in 2013 SMA and ABB, which are European brands and a Japanese brand were leading the inverter market. All three of them have been eclipsed by the Chinese Huawei and Sungrow in terms of number of units sold.
Are Solax inverters any good?
To understand the inverter market better, it’s best to categorize the Chinese companies into two groups, namely tier one and tier two companies.
- Tier one companies that includes the like of Huawei, Sungrow and Solax are at par with their European counterparts in technology and provide more or less the same build quality and functionality.
- Tier 2 group includes companies that provide inverters as cheap as chips but with lower quality. That is also reflected in their shorter warranty time. The reason Tier one Chinese companies finally have been able to compete with European companies is that they’ve opened their R&D centers in Europe and elsewhere around the world.
This has allowed them to diversify the research pool and tap into the rich expertise through the ex-employees of established inverter manufacturers. On the flip side, to stay in the game, some European companies are also shifting their manufacturing base to China and producing the same inverter at much lower cost.
Part of their strategy is to repackage inverters into a new brand that has a lower batch value. This will give them a foothold in the mainstream inverter market, rather than limit them to the high end. For example, SMA, one of the most renowned brands, has introduced Zevesolar.
It has the same technology as SMA, but because it’s made in China the cost for it is much lower and so is the price. If you look at most of the tier 2 Chinese inverters they tend to be copies of an old inverter model from an established brand.
Often, these tier 2 companies get driven out of business if there’s a lawsuit file against them on patent infringement, so you might save up front cost but you pay for it eventually when you ring them up for support only to see the company non-existent.
Which solar inverters are the best?
Now let’s look at some of the prices.
- SMA 3 kilowatt – you can purchase it for $1410
- Huawei 3 kW inverter can be purchased for $1280
- Sungrow 3 kilowatt inverter can be purchased for as low as $725
- SMA 4kW inverter can be purchased for $1680
- Huawei 4 kW inverter can be purchased for $1360
- Sungrow 4 kilowatt inverter can be purchased for only $800
It should be noted that Sungrow enjoys a good reputation in Australia because of their low cost and high quality build. They’re poised to overtake Huawei as the leading brand in the near future.
Best Chinese inverters
Please note that these prices are for single phase AC inverters. For three-phase AC inverters, on average one has to pay $350 higher. One thing that goes against Huawei and Sungrow is that they haven’t been long enough in a market to establish a reputation for solid build that will last.
The warranty time SMA, on the other hand, enjoys that prestige. The inverter is a critical component compared to solar panels. It is more prone to failure, therefore it’s worth investing the extra money for a higher warranty period. One thing’s for sure – do not buy the cheapest inverter in the market. Do remember that you will need something that has to last for more than 15 years.
The good news is that inverters that had a high price per watt in 2011-2012 of 0.6 dollars per watt has come down to 0.4 dollars per watt for high-end European inverters and is about 0.19 per watt for mainstream brands. This indicates on average nine percent year-on-year drop in price from 2011 onwards.