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PVCombinerBoxBuyer'sGuide|HomePowerMagazine

PV Combiner Box Buyer's Guide


By:LenaWilensky
PublishedIn: Issue#132,August/September2009

PublishedIn: August/September2009 LastUpdated:Jan17,2012


CombinerboxesareanintegralpartofmanyPVinstallations,servingasthemeetingplacewherethewiringfrom
arrayseriesstringscometogetherinparallelconnections.

InallbutthesmallestPVsystems,modulesarewiredtogetherinseriesstrings,wherethepositiveleadsofone
moduleareconnectedtothenegativeleadsofthenextmodule.Thisresultsincumulativevoltageoutput,withcurrent
(amps)stayingthesame.Theboxwheretheoutputwiresfrommultipleseriesstringsarejoinedisthecombinerbox.
Ratedforoutdooruse,itcontainsovercurrentprotectiondevices(OCPDs)andthenecessarybusbarsandterminalsfor
combiningtheinputs.
Manyinstallersusedtobuildtheirowncombinerboxesforlackofavailability,butnowthereareplentyofcommercial
productstochoosefrom.Somemanufacturerswillcustombuildcombinerboxestomeetspecificsystemrequirements.
Article690.4(D)ofthe2008NationalElectricalCodeincludesPVcombinerboxesasequipmentthatmustbeidentified
forappropriateuseandlistedbyanapprovedtestinglaboratory,suchasUnderwritersLaboratories(UL)orETLlabs.
Thedaysofhomemadecombinerboxesarequicklydisappearing.
Ifyouliveinalocalewherethe2008NECisineffect,yourelectricalinspectorwilllikelyrequireonethatislistedbyan
approvedtestinglaboratory,asmandatedbyNECArticle690.4(D).
GridDirectSystems

Everyinverterandchargecontroller,whetherinautilityinteractiveorstandalonesystem,hasaDCinputvoltage
windowthatmustbeadheredto.Inbatterylessgridtiedsystems,invertersrequirerelativelyhighDCinputvoltages,
from150to600V(typically7to13moduleswiredinseries).
SmallgridtiedPVsystems(lessthan5kW)oftenhaveonlyoneortwoseriesstringsofmodules.Withfewwiresand
noneedforseriesfusing,aPVcombinerboxisntnecessary:Stringscanbeterminateddirectlyintheinverter(seethe
WhySeriesFusing?sidebar).However,largerresidentialsystems(between5and10kW)oftenhavethreeormore
seriesstrings,andwilllikelyneedfusing.Systemsabove5kWalsotypicallyhavemorewirestodealwith,whichcan
meanmoreinstallationtime,largerconduit,andincreasedwirecostsifallthewiresneedtoberuntotheinverter.A
combinerboxoffersaplacetohouseseriesfusesandparalleltheseriesstringinputs,reducingthenumberofarray
outputwiresneededtoruntotheinverterlocation.
Somegriddirectinvertermanufacturersincludeseriesfusingwithintheinverteroritsattacheddisconnectbox,which
mayeliminatetheneedforaseparatecombinerbox.However,usingaPVcombinerboxlocatedclosetothePVarray
givesyoueasyaccesstothewiresforeachseriesstring.ThiscanbehandyfortroubleshootingamalfunctioningPV
arraywithouthavingtorunbackandforthtotheinverterarea.
GridDirectSystems

LetslookatagridtiedPVsystemwiththreeseriesstringsof10moduleseach.Threeseriesstringsmeanthreesetsof
wiresthreepositivesandthreenegatives,withonegroundwirecomingfromourPVarray.Eventhoughsome
invertershavemultipleDCinputs,theymaynotincludeseriesfusingcapability.Thenitslikelythatseriesfusingwillbe
needed.Evenifallthenecessaryinputfusingisprovidedwithintheinverter,acombinercanbeusedtoeliminate
runningsevenwiresallthewayfromthePVarraytotheinverterpossiblyreducingwiringcostsandinstallationtime.
BatteryBasedSystems

Batterybasedsystems(offgridandgridtiedwithbatterybackup)havelowerDCsystemvoltagesthangriddirect
systems(althoughhighervoltagechargecontrollersareexpectedtohitthemarketsoon).Historically,thisvoltage
rangedfrom12to48Vnominaltomatchbatteryvoltages,butstepup/downMPPTchargecontrollersnowallowarrays
withhighervoltagestochargelowervoltagebatterybanks,makinghigherarrayvoltagesmorecommon(withopen
circuitvoltagesusuallylimitedto150V).Evenwiththeuseofstepup/downchargecontrollers,typicallyonlyonetosix
modulesareplacedinaseriesstring,whichmeanscombiningmorestringsinparalleltogetthedesiredpoweroutput,
whichnecessitatesacombinerbox.
Inaddition,chargecontrollerstypicallyhaveonlyasinglesetofinputwireterminals.Foroffgridsystems,itsoftenwise
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tohaveenoughroominthecombinerforaddingmorestringsofmodulesinthefuture.Ifthecombineranditsoutput
wiresaresizedaccordingly,andthechargecontrollerhasbeensizedtohandletheadditionalamperage,wiringmore
PVmodulesintothesystemcanbeaseasyasterminatingthenewwiresinthePVcombinerbox.
TheSpecs

TheSpecificationstableonthefollowingpagessummarizesthemainfeaturescommontomostPVcombinerboxes.
WeincludedproductsthatarecurrentlyavailabletoconsumersintheU.S.market.
MaximumDCVoltage(Max.VDC)
EachcombinerisratedtoaccommodateuptoaspecificDCvoltage.Residentialgriddirectsystemsgenerally
accommodateDCvoltagesupto600V,whilemostbatterybasedPVsystemDCvoltagesarelower,typicallymaxing
outat150V.
MaximumNumberofPVInputCircuits
CombinerboxescomewithacertainnumberofterminalswherePVsourcewirescanbeattachedandanequivalent
numberofOCPDspaces.ResidentialPVcombinersusuallyneednomorethan12inputs.Griddirectsystemsrequire
fewerinputs,whilebatterybasedsystemscanrequiremore.Additionally,batterybasedPVsystemscommonlyhave
multiplechargecontrollers,andeachmayhaveitsowncombinerbox.
MaximumOCPDRating
Theovercurrentprotectiondevices(OCPDsfusesorcircuitbreakers)chosenfortheparticularcombinercannot
exceedthisrating.PVmodulenameplateslisttherequiredseriesfuserating.
OCPDType
CombinerboxescomewithOCPDs,usuallyeitheraformoftouchsafefuseholdersorDCratedcircuitbreakers.
Sincegridtiedsystemscangenerateupto600VDCwellabovethe150VDCratingofmostavailablecircuitbreakers
fusesarealmostalwaysnecessary.OCPDsfoundincombinerboxesaregenerallylimitedtobatterybasedsystems.
Mostfuseholdersarenotratedtobeopenedunderload,sotheycannotbeusedasaDCdisconnect.Thisisan
especiallyimportantconsiderationforhighvoltageDCsystems:Tryingtoopenafuseholderwithoutfirstopeningthe
circuit(whichcanbesafelydoneviathemainDCdisconnect),willlikelydrawanelectricalarcthatcancauseafireand
burnand/orshockyou.
WireRange:SizeofInput&OutputTerminals
Wireterminalsareratedtofitarangeofwiresizes,inbothbusbarsandtheOCPDs.Becausetheoutputcircuitis
carryingthecombinedampacityofalltheincomingseriesstringsandalsomayhavetobeoversizedduetovoltage
dropforlongerwirerunsinlowervoltagesystems,itmaybenecessarytoconnectarelativelylargediameterwireto
theoutputterminals.
MaximumNumberofOutputCircuits.
Sometimesitisappropriatetousemultipleinvertersorchargecontrollerswithasinglearrayliketwooffourstrings
intooneinverterandtheothertwointoasecondinverter.Forthis,youllneedeithermultiplecombiners,orone
combinerthatcanaccommodatetwoseparateoutputcircuits.Ofallthecombinerslisted,onlyahandfuloffertwooutput
circuits.
MaximumContinuousOutputCurrent
Eachcombinerhasaratingfortheamountofoutputcurrentthatitcansafelyhandle.Dependingonthesizeand
numberofOCPDsinuse,itmaybepossibletooverloadthecombinersbusbars.Forexample,inacombinerwith
sixteen20Acircuitbreakers,320Acouldflowintotheoutputcircuit,overloadingthebusbarifitisratedat100A.To
ensurethisdoesnothappen,useacombinerwithahighenoughoutputrating.
DataMonitoringCapabilities
Whileindividualstringmonitoringisgenerallyusedincommercial,ratherthanresidentialscale,systems,some
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homeownersareinterestedintrackingtheperformanceofeachstringofPVmodulestoensurethesystemisworking
optimally.Combinerboxeswithdatamonitoringcapabilityareoftenreferredtoassmartorintelligentcombiners,and
alloweasy,quickinstallationofdatamonitoringsystems.
WeatherproofRating
MostcombinerboxesareinstalledneartheirPVarrays(thatis,intheweather),andrequireappropriateoutdoorratings.
InstallationsareexpectedtolastatleastthelifetimewarrantyofPVmodules(about25years),soinstallingdurable,
longlivedequipmentthatwillstanduptotheenvironmentinwhichitisplacediscritical.
EveryapprovedelectricalenclosurehasaNationalElectricalManufacturersAssociation(NEMA)ratingassociatedwith
it.TheratingsonPVcombinersincludeNEMA3and3R(ratedforoutdooruseinlimitedorientations)andNEMA4and
4X(includesadditionalprotectionsoboxescanbemountedinanyorientation,fromverticaltohorizontal).Wiringmust
entertheboxthroughacordgripthatwillproperlysealthepenetrationandupholdtheweatherproofratingofthat
combinerbox.
Listing
TheNECrequiresthatallelectricalequipmenthaveavalidsafetytestlistingtoensuresafetyforthegeneralpublic.In
theUnitedStates,mostofthistestingisperformedbyUL,anindependentnonprofit,althoughthereareother
independentlaboratoriesthatwilltesttoULstandards.OnesuchlabisIntertek,whichofferstheETLlistedmark.Allof
thePVcombinerboxesinthetablehaveacurrentorpendinglisting.
Access

LenaWilenskyiscoownerofNunatakAlternativeEnergySolutionsinCrestedButte,Colorado.Shemanagestotake
timeoutfromplayinginthemountainstodesignandinstallPVandremotepowersystems,andinstructPVclassesfor
SolarEnergyInternational.

lrecinos
Greatarticle,thanks!!
1year3monthsago

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