What is AC or DC coupling?
AC or DC coupling refers to the way solar panels are coupled or linked to an energy storage or battery system.
The type of electrical connection between a solar array and a battery can be either Alternating Current (AC) or Direct Current (DC). AC is when the current flows rapidly forward and backwards (this is what the electricity grid uses to operate) and DC is where the current flows in one direction. Most electronic circuits use DC, while solar panels produce DC, and batteries store DC energy. However, most electrical appliances operate on AC. This is why all homes and businesses have AC circuits. DC can be converted to AC using an inverter but, as explained below some energy is always lost in the conversion.
The Solar battery evolution
Simple DC coupled solar battery systems were once used only for remote power systems and off-grid homes, but over the last decade inverter technology advanced rapidly and led to the development of new AC coupled energy storage configurations. However, DC coupled systems are far from dead, in fact charging a battery system using a solar charge controller or hybrid solar inverter is still the most efficient method available.
Over recent years battery technology has improved significantly with many new lithium battery types emerging as manufacturers explore different ways to add or couple batteries to new or existing solar systems. The original Tesla Powerwall was the first 'high voltage' DC battery system. Since then higher voltage (200-500V) batteries have become increasingly popular and are used with specialised hybrid inverters. More recently, AC batteries have been developed by many leading solar manufacturers including Tesla, Sonnen and Enphase.
With the many complex varieties of battery storage systems now available, here we explain the advantages and disadvantages of each type.
The 4 main solar battery System types
DC coupled systems - Off-grid
AC coupled systems - Off-grid
AC coupled Battery Systems - Grid-tie
DC coupled Hybrid Systems - Grid-tie
Note: Generally only DC or AC coupled systems are used for off-grid solar installations. We explain the reasons why below, plus a comparison of AC vs DC coupled solar for off-grid power systems.
Important: This is a guide only! For less technical information see the basic guide to selecting home grid-tie or off-grid solar battery system. Solar and battery storage systems must be installed by a licensed electrical/solar professional. Solar/energy storage systems generate and store huge amounts of energy which can result in damage or serious injury if the installation does not meet all relevant regulations, standards & industry guidelines.
1. DC Coupled systems
DC coupled systems have been used for decades in off-grid solar installations and small capacity automotive/boating power systems. The most common DC coupled systems use solar charge controllers (also known as solar regulators) to charge a battery directly from solar, plus a battery inverter to supply AC power to the household appliances.
For micro systems, such as those used in caravans/boats or huts, the simple PWM type solar controllers are very low-cost way to connect 1 or 2 solar panels to charge a 12 volt battery. PWM (pulse width modulation) controllers come in many different sizes and cost as little as $25 for a small 10A version.
For larger systems, MPPT solar charge controllers are up to 30% more efficient and available in a range of sizes up to 100A. Unlike the simple PWM controllers, MPPT systems can operate at much higher string voltages, typically up to 150 Volts DC. However this is still relatively low compared to grid-tie solar string inverters which operate 300-600V.
Learn more about MPPT solar charge controllers here.
Due to the common 150V upper voltage limitation of many MPPT solar controllers, only 3 panels can be linked in series which means for larger solar systems above 3kW the installation can become more complex and involves combining strings of panels in parallel with fuses.
Higher voltage MPPT solar charge controllers
Higher voltage MPPT solar charge controllers are available; up to 250V from Victron Energy and 300V from AERL in Australia, which enable longer strings and can be used with larger solar arrays up to 6kW. There are also higher 600V units available from Schneider Electric and Morningstar, although these are much more expensive and don't have multiple MPPT's inputs like many solar string inverters used in AC coupled systems. MPPT charge controller are a relatively cheap, very efficient and secure way of ensuring batteries are charged even in the event of a AC shutdown - this is especially important in remote locations.
Very high efficiency - up to 99% battery charging efficiency (using MPPT)
Great low cost setup for smaller scale off-grid systems up to 6kW
Ideal for small auto or marine systems requiring only 1 - 2 solar panels.
Modular - Additional panels and controllers can be easily added if required.
Very efficient for powering DC appliances and loads.
If an electricity service provider restricts or limits the capacity of grid-tie solar allowed (ie. 5kW max), additional solar may be added by DC coupling a battery system and MPPT charge controllers.
More complex to setup systems above 6kW as often multiple strings are required in parallel, plus string fusing.
Can become expensive for systems above 6kW as multiple higher voltage solar charge controllers are required.
Slightly lower efficiency if powering large AC loads during the day due to the conversion from DC(PV) to DC(batt) to AC.
Some solar controllers are not compatible with ‘managed’ lithium battery systems such as the LG Chem RESU or BYD B-Box.
Recommended DC Coupled Systems
Victron Energy Multiplus inverter/chargers and solar charge controllers,
Outback Power Radian, FXR Inverters & FLEXmax MPPT solar controllers
Schneider Conext XW+ with Conext MPPT controllers (See video review)
2. AC Coupled systems
Advanced AC coupled systems are often used for larger-scale off-grid systems and use a string solar inverter coupled with an advanced multi-mode inverter or inverter/charger to manage the battery and grid/generator. Although relatively simple to set up and very powerful, they are slightly less efficient (90-94%) at charging a battery compared to DC coupled systems (98%). However, these systems are more efficient at powering high AC loads during the day and some also can be expanded with multiple solar inverters to form micro-grids.
Many modern off-grid homes use AC coupled systems due to the advantages of using string solar inverters which operate with higher DC voltages (up to 600V or higher). This allows much larger solar arrays to be easily installed at lower cost and complexity compared to DC coupled systems requiring multiple MPPT charge controllers. Larger 3-phase commercial systems which require much larger solar arrays use AC coupling with larger 10 to 20kW+ solar inverters.
Higher efficiency when used to power AC appliances during the day such as air-conditioning, pool pumps, and hot water systems, (up to 96%).
Generally lower installation cost for larger systems above 6kW.
Can use multiple string solar inverters in multiple locations (AC coupled micro-grids)
Most string solar inverters above 3kW have dual MPPT inputs, so strings of panels can be installed at different orientations and tilt angles.
Advanced AC coupled systems can use a combination of AC and DC coupling (Note: this is not possible with some lithium batteries)
Lower efficiency when charging a battery system - approx 92%
Quality Solar inverters can be expensive for small systems.
Lower efficiency when powering direct DC loads during the day.
Recommended AC Coupled systems
3. AC Coupled Batteries
AC coupled batteries or simply ‘AC batteries’ are a relatively new evolution in battery storage for grid connected homes and allow batteries to be easily AC coupled to a new or existing solar installation. AC batteries consist of lithium battery modules, a battery management system (BMS) and inverter/charger all in one compact, simple unit which can be easily connected to most homes.
These systems are generally only designed for grid-connected homes, not off-grid homes, as the (transformerless) inverters are typically not powerful enough to run a home completely off-grid and cannot handle the surge loads of many appliances. The most well known AC battery is the Tesla Powerwall 2, along with the SonnenBatterie which is more common in Europe and Australia. Leading micro inverter company Enphase Energy also manufacturer a very compact AC battery system for home use. These systems are generally simple to install, modular and one of the most economical choices for storing solar energy.
AC coupled battery inverters *
Another option is to use a ‘retrofit’ AC coupling inverter to create an AC battery system. These systems use a specialised AC coupled battery inverter such as the SMA sunny boy storage together with a common DC battery such as the popular LG chem RESU.
Easy retrofit - can be added to homes with an existing solar installation
An economical way to add energy storage.
Generally simple to install.
Modular system to allow expansion.
Lower efficiency due to conversion (DC - AC - DC) - approx 90%
Some AC batteries cannot function as a back-up supply
Generally not designed for off-grid installations.
Recommended AC Battery Systems
4. DC coupled Hybrid systems
Hybrid systems can be described as a grid-tie DC coupled solar battery systems. They come in many different configurations and typically use a hybrid or multi-mode inverter. Modern hybrid inverters incorporate high voltage MPPT controller/s and battery inverter/chargers inside a common unit. The first generation hybrid inverters were compatible with 48V lead-acid or lithium battery systems, however over recent years higher voltage (400V+) battery systems have become increasingly popular.
High Voltage or Low Voltage? The new generation 'high voltage' batteries operate in the range of 200-500V DC (400V nominal) as opposed to the traditional 48V battery systems. This offers several advantages, including lower cable losses and improved efficiency as the solar array typically operates at 300-600V which is very similar to the battery voltage.
The new generation higher voltage (400V) batteries and compatible hybrid inverters use lithium battery systems operating between 120-500V DC, rather than 48V. Higher voltage batteries can be configured in two different ways:
DC coupled between the solar array and inverter.
DC coupled directly to a compatible hybrid inverter (as shown below).
Since most solar arrays operate at high voltages around 300-600V, high voltage batteries use efficient DC-DC converters with very low losses. The first generation Tesla Powerwall was the first 400V battery available and was mated to the popular SolarEdge Storedge hybrid inverter.
The new LG chem RESUH battery range is now one of the most popular HV 400V battery systems available being compatible with many hybrid inverters including SolarEdge Storedge, SMA sunny boy storage and Solax Gen 3.
Economical, compact and simple to install
High-efficiency battery charging - approx 96%
Compact, modular battery options
Smaller cable size and low losses using high voltage batteries
Can be retrofitted to 'some' existing solar installations.
A growing number of hybrid inverters are now available
Some systems cannot function as a back-up power supply
Many systems with back-up have a 3-5 second delay during a blackout
Generally not suitable for off-grid installations due to transformerless hybrid inverters with low surge rating and no generator controls.
Recommended Hybrid systems
AC vs DC coupled for off-grid systems
Why would you use an AC coupled off-grid system rather than DC coupled?
Advanced AC coupled off-grid systems use modern solar inverters to convert solar DC power directly to AC which can then be used immediately by most appliances during the day. This is very efficient, especially when powering high loads such as air-conditioning systems, modern kitchen appliances and water/pool pumps. Additionally, the installation cost of AC coupled string solar inverters is lower for larger systems above 5kW, due to the multiple MPP trackers, higher string voltage up to 1000V, and higher capacities up to 10kWp single phase.
Note: If an AC coupled system is used for off-grid installation the solar inverter/s must be compatible with the main (multi-mode) battery inverter/charger to enable charge control. This is required so the solar generation can be 'managed' or ramped up and down to ensure safe and accurate battery charging. There are several management systems used by different manufacturers such as frequency ramping (used by SMA and Victron) or direct communication - refer to manufacturers specifications.
As explained previously DC coupled systems are extremely cost effective for small to medium size systems. Another advantage of DC coupled systems is solar controllers are very flexible and scalable meaning additional panels can be easily added if required using relatively low cost DC solar controllers.
AC and DC coupling Combined
Most modern interactive inverter/chargers and such as Selectronic's SP PRO, SMA sunny island and Victron multiplus can function in both AC and DC coupled configurations. This offers the best of both worlds and provides back-up DC battery charging in the event of an AC shutdown.
If there is a shutdown in a remote location due to low battery voltage or low SOC the DC coupled solar charge controllers will continue to function (without AC operation) and charge the battery system which preserves the battery life and can restart the system if configured correctly. This creates a more fail-safe setup unlike a pure AC coupled system which are unable to be automatically or remotely restarted unless a back-up generator/source is functioning.
This is a guide only. All solar and energy storage systems must be installed by a licensed electrical/solar installer. Solar & battery systems generate huge amounts of energy which can result in damage or serious injury if the installation does not meet all relevant regulations, standards & industry guidelines.
See the complete off-grid solar systems review