SMA is a world renownd solar inverter manufacturer and one of the few companies to have leading inverters for residential, commercial and utility scale grid-tie systems as well as advanced off-grid systems. Despite the high profile SMA have faced tough competition over recent years and struggled to compete in the rapidly growing hybrid or home energy storage market where all-in-one hybrid and multi-mode inverters have dominated.
Here we review the full range of solar inverters supplied by SMA including:
Sunny Boy - Single Phase solar Inverters
Sunny Tripower - 3 Phase Solar Inverters
Sunny Tripower Core 1 - Commercial Inverters
Sunny Boy Storage - Battery storage Inverters
Sunny Island - Off-grid Inverters
Plus the Sunny Portal for monitoring & Tigo opimisers
SMA is a solar icon. The German company was established in 1981, which is prehistoric in the world of solar and for a long time the SMA string inverters, branded Sunny Boy and Sunny Tripower, were head and shoulders above any other on the market. In Australia, from when the solar boom started around 2008 if you were to ask any solar installer which the best string inverter on the market was (regardless of price), they would no doubt utter the letters SMA. That is no longer the case, at least not in the 5 - 30kW inverter sizes. Whilst SMA still dominates the global large scale inverter market (according to 2018 figures by PV Magazine), they are no longer the favourite of installers for small - medium residential and commercial installations. In our Best solar inverters 2019 article, we have ranked SMA third on the residential list, and second on the commercial list (Fronius tops both of these).
Get the latest opinions and SMA inverter reviews in our solar information forum.
The Sunny Boy Story
The rise and fall of the Sunny Boy
When it came to reliability, SMA was for a long time seen as the only option. This was hugely important in a market that was getting flooded with new inverters every year, and those new inverters continually proved the proverb that “you get what you pay for.'' SMA was the one inverter that installers knew they would not have to do a wholesale recall on a couple years after installing. SMA inverters were German made, which fed into peoples preconceived ideas that German manufacturing was superior, especially because at the time the fledgling Chinese inverter manufacturing industry was not producing reliable inverters.
Over the last few years the superiority that SMA held for so long has been eroded. Not so much because its products or service have diminished, but because the competition has got much tougher. There are now a number of inverter brands around the world that experienced installers are happy to vouch for. Whilst Fronius is right at the top of this list, there are also a number of Chinese inverter brands including Sungrow, Delta and Solax, which offer reliable inverters at very competitive prices.
It is perhaps this change in the competitive landscape that led SMA to make a pivot to begin manufacturing in China in order to reduce costs. One of the big selling points for SMA has always been that its inverters were manufactured in Germany. That began to change around 2013 when SMA bought a majority stake in Zeversolar. The Clean Energy Reviews team was quite positive about this move, hoping that SMA would be able to transform this Chinese inverter manufacturer and create a low cost reliable inverter. However, whilst the Zeverlution models rolled out after SMA’s takeover did get some positive interest, Zeversolar has not to this point made big headway into the residential inverter market. The foray into China via Zeversolar, was potentially a strategic move to investigate the viability of manufacturing their own branded Sunny Boy inverters in China.
The Sunny Boy rises again?
SMA received a pretty bad rap from the solar community following the decision to manufacture the Sunny Boy AV series in China and lost quite a lot of sales. Seemingly in response the poor sales, late in 2018 SMA decided to go back to its roots, close all manufacturing in China and consolidate its operations in Germany. This move has been received well in the industry. It is important to emphasise that we are not concerned at all with the quality of manufacturing in China as some of the worlds best products are manufactured in China. It is more that this move shows SMA’s desire to go back to its roots and focus on the high quality production and reliability that it has been known for.
SMA and the Sunny Boy often get mentioned in high regards on the Best Solar Inverter topic in our solar forum.
Sunny Boy - AV series Inverters
The Sunny Boy is the name given to all of SMA’s residential size single phase inverters. Their current range includes the newly designed, very small and lightweight Sunny Boy 1.5, 2.0 and 2.5.
SMA have also recently revamped and launched a much anticipated new line of Sunny Boys from 3 - 6kW, the new AV series comes in 3.0, 3.6, 4.0, 5.0 and 6.0. These were much anticipated, because SMA had been running with the same models for a long time, and whilst the likes of Fronius were bringing out beautiful easy to install inverters, the Sunny Boy’s technology was ageing fast. The expectation was for the new Sunny Boy models to break the mold and deliver everything that the competitors had, and maybe a little more. That didn’t exactly eventuate. Whilst the new inverters are beautifully designed, slim, elegant and light weight, they do not exactly blow the competition away.
The new Sunny Boy models now have wifi, which is a very welcome edition, however they decided to leave out any display on the actual inverter. This is not uncommon for inverter manufacturers to do, because the display is one of the weakest points on the inverter. The thinking behind it that you can easily manage the setup and monitoring of the inverter via wifi or bluetooth. However that’s not always possible and can be very frustrating if you don’t have a bluetooth smartphone and the wifi is down. The Fronius Primo, Symo and Eco range do have a small display on the inverter, which has been sighted as another advantage of SMA’s main rival in the premium, small scale, string inverter range.
However, the most important thing that we care about when it comes to an inverter is that it is reliable. The Sunny Boy was for a long time seen as the most reliable inverter on the market. Now it has to share that reputation with some other brands. Whilst the latest model has not been around long enough to be certain is has the same reliability as previous Sunny Boy models, there is no reason to think that SMA has not built on its high quality manufacturing with the latest models.
See the full SMA Sunny Boy AV series specification sheet
Sunny Tripower - 3 Phase inverters
The Sunny Tripower is the 3 phase version of the Sunny Boy and is available in a wide range of sizes for residential and commercial installations. The smaller residential Tripower also had a revamp recently and comes in a tidy lightweight compact package similar to the Sunny Boy. The new AV Tripower comes in 3.0 - 6.0kW range, which you could easily mistake for a Sunny Boy, both in features and size/weight (the main superficial difference being the deep blue colour for the Tripower, and bright red for the Sunny Boy). There is also an 8.0 and 10.0kW model in the new compact efficient package.
See the full SMA Tripower AV series specification sheet
For the larger commercial systems the old faithful SMA Sunny Tripower still comes in the 15000TL, 20000TL and 25000TL versions. These proven reliable inverters are still very popular for all kinds of larger scale commercial systems up to several hundred KW in size.
See the full SMA Tripower TL series specification sheet
See the full SMA Sunny Boy AV series specification sheet
Tripower Core 1
A special mention is warranted for the Sunny Tripower Core 1, 50kW inverter. This award winning inverter clearly highlights SMA’s focus on larger scale systems and why SMA is so popular in the commercial solar space. SMA calls this “the world’s first free-standing string inverter”, meaning it can be fixed to the ground, or roof, rather than onto a wall.
The unique design is the first thing you notice about the Core 1, but it does not stop there. The 6 MPPT inputs allows for a lot of flexibility in design, and improved performance if there is a need to place arrays on slightly different angles, or orientations. This flexible inverter allows for reasonably small 50kW installs, right up to 1000kW (or 1MW). The Core 1 comes packed with features at a price point that make it highly competitive in the small to medium commercial market.
Sunny Highpower & Sunny Central
Whilst this review is focused mainly on SMA’s residential and small commercial offerings, it is worth noting that SMA is a very popular choice for large commercial and utility scale systems. Along with the popular and capable Tripower Core 1, SMA recently released the Sunny Highpower PEAK 3 150KW inverter for large scale power plants operating up to 1500V DC and designed to be flexible and easily scalable.
SMA also has a unique range of high powered solar and battery inverters rated over 100kW, including the Sunny Highpower string inverter, and Sunny Central central inverter, as well as the Sunny Central Storage battery inverter.
Sunny Highpower PEAK 3 - More details coming soon.
SMA Hybrid and battery storage inverters
Sunny Boy Storage - SBS
To add battery storage to a grid-connected home, SMA took a different approach to most other inverter manufacturers who developed hybrid (all-in-one solar/battery) inverters coupled with lithium batteries. To store energy in a battery SMA released the Sunny Boy Storage Inverter or (SBS as it is more commonly known) to create an AC coupled energy storage system. The SBS inverter connects with the popular high voltage (300-500V) batteries and is coupled together with a common solar inverter, preferably an SMA Sunny Boy.
AC coupled Battery Inverter
The Sunny Boy Storage is essentially a battery inverter/charger used to AC couple a high voltage battery like the LG Chem RESUH or BYD HV. The biggest advantage of AC coupling is that it can be used to easily retrofit a battery to any existing solar installation.
The first SBS2.5 was released in 2016 but was not a huge success as it was limited to 2.5kW charge and discharge power which is a little undersized for most modern households. The new generation SBS shown above was released in 2018 is more powerful and is the first battery inverter with multi-string battery connections meaning it can be connected with up to three separate batteries. The new SBS battery inverters are available in 3 larger sizes, 3.7kW, 5.0kW & 6.0kW and have respectable peak power ratings of 4.6kW, 6.3kW & 7.5kW respectively. The larger two inverters are much more suited to handle the relatively high loads of more common modern electric households.
However, Sunny Boy Storage inverters are not able to provide back-up power without an additional backup box of which there are two options, the manual changeover switch for ‘essential backup circuits’ and the fully automatic backup unit if larger loads are needed to be backed up in the event of a prolonged blackout.
See the full SMA Sunny Boy Storage SBS Inverter specification sheet
Sunny Island Inverters
SMA’s Sunny Island inverters are highly regarded in the off-grid solar world being one of the few high quality off-grid inverters with proven long lasting reliability. The Sunny Island series was first launched over a decade ago and quickly became the go to inverter for any serious off-grid installation for both single phase and advanced three-phase remote power systems.
However, just as the Sunny boy string inverters lost a lot of market share over recent years so too has the Sunny Island (SI) due to some serious competition from the likes of Selectronic in Australia, Outback Power in the USA and Victron Energy in Europe. While the Sunny Island has had a few minor updates, these three well established companies have made some big advancements, especially in the hybrid battery storage segment. They offer high performance off-grid/hybrid inverter solutions at the same level and higher than the now dated Sunny Island series.
Probably the biggest downfall of the SI is the lack of an internal AC bypass contactor which enables pass-through power and automatic grid-isolation, something most of the other leading off-grid/multi-mode inverters offer. Without the internal contactor it is far more complex and difficult to setup a hybrid backup solar system and it does not offer instantaneous backup in the event of a blackout.
On the plus side one of the unique capabilities of the Sunny Island inverters is the level of scalability which is unmatched by almost all other systems. The Sunny Islands can be used to power a simple off-grid home right through to a large scale micro-grid’s for powering remote communities and commercial operations using the powerful and flexible SMA clustor controllers.
SMA Sunny Portal
The Sunny Portal monitoring is one of the best free monitoring packages available on the market, and is a great selling point for end user customers of the SMA inverters. It gives great oversight of the performance of the solar system. This is a vital piece of software given that the new Sunny Boy and Sunny Tripower inverters do not have a display. The latest model SMA inverters all ship with wifi webconnect as standard, so it is very easy to setup the Sunny Portal monitoring.
When adding the optional Sunny Home Manager 2.0 energy meter, the Sunny Portal gives great insight into your home energy use. Also, if Tigo optimisers are added to the panels, Sunny Portal allows installers and property owners to see the performance of individual panels in real time.
Unfortunately the SMA mobile App is still very limited and does not provide real time or direct system monitoring and has very limited functionality. It is surprising that SMA has not developed the app to be more user friendly and functional like the sunny portal.
SMA partnership with Tigo
SMA has bought a stake in the power optimiser (optimizer) company Tigo which develops a product used for panel level monitoring, rapid shutdown, as well as power optimisation. In fact the TS4-R model optimiser (optimizer) is also modular, so it can be installed simply for monitoring and rapid shutdown, or if required the optional optimiser very easily slots in to the device. SMA engineered the new Sunny Boy models so that the Tigo TS4-R model will work seamlessly with the Sunny Boy 3.0 - 6.0 models. The big selling point of the Tigo TS4-R is that the power optimiser does not need to be installed on every panel in the solar system, it can just be added to a particular panel that will be affected by shade, thus reducing the cost significantly.
Note that while SMA did manufacturer a Sunny Boy 240 micro inverter for a few years, they are not currently selling any micro inverters. We have mentioned that Fronius is a strong competitor to SMA in the small scale string inverter market, however we should note that Enphase poses serious competition with its micro inverters also. There is strong data to suggest that whilst the upfront cost of an Enphase system is higher, the ROI is often greater than that of a string inverter system. Read more about Tigo optimisers vs micro inverters in our forum.
SMA is still generally considered somewhat of a legend in the solar industry despite their popularity waxing and waning in different inverter markets over the years. Overall the company has maintained a very healthy reputation for reliability and performance and still offers great service. SMA did have a bad run and lost some of its shine in the smaller scale residential market with the decision to locate some manufacturing in China and then back to Germany. While in the advanced hybrid and off-grid world the once extremely popular Sunny Island multi-mode inverter has struggled to compete with inverter manufacturers focused solely in this space. However, overall the company has been focusing on cementing its place as a firm leader in the commercial and utility scale solar inverter market.
SMA is still moving ahead and constantly improving with more advanced monitoring, upgrades to its Sunny Boy the AV series and the new 3 phase version of the Sunny Tripower. Solar installers still love working with SMA products, particularly on large commercial jobs and we expect an increasingly strong performance by SMA in the residential sector going forward.