For the first time in history, solar is the lowest cost source of electricity. This trend will likely result in many new solar energy users and a host of new products entering the market.
Electronic devices used in solar installations might include inverters, controllers, energy monitors, switchboards, among others. With the rapid electrification of automotive products, attention is turning towards more sophisticated home battery and battery management systems (BMS).
To gain a competitive edge, new product designers in the solar space can learn from recent improvements in premium consumer electronics.
Best practices for electronics have evolved to include more flexibility in board placement within the device, which can protect the circuitry for greater longevity and fewer warranty claims. More formalized design techniques can also aid in creating legible and logical user interfaces (UI). These improvements can be deployed in both residential and municipal scale solar applications.
Considering the User
Most new solar users will be homeowners. Even if a system is installed by professionals, the resident will be left to oversee the day-to-day control, troubleshooting, and maintenance. As will any technological space with growth and competition, user interfaces will trend towards simplicity and friendliness, so one needs to be less of an electronics expert to keep the system running.
With the exception of the smart phone aggregation of energy data for monitoring, the major devices that make up solar system infrastructure communicate just a few data points to the on-the-ground user, usually through simple LED indicators or readouts.
Consumer electronics allow the freedom to place these points of indication anywhere on the control panel, regardless of where the printed circuit board (PCB) is mounted inside the device. This has led to more artful and clearer interface designs, with which most consumers are now familiar.
Considering the Location
Where will solar equipment be installed? While some electrical infrastructure may be outdoors near to the point of solar collection, likely the majority is sheltered, either in a shed, garage, or a room inside the residence.
Yet these spaces are not always climate controlled, which means electronics might have some exposure to extremes in temperature, and in some cases more subject to dust and moisture than indoor consumer appliances.
Ideally for product longevity and customer satisfaction, solar components should have a measure of ingress protection (IP) as well as some ruggedness in the design of its casing.
In terms of designing the user-facing controls and indicators, consider the wide variety of residential installation locations — some cramped, some mounted high on a wall, some crowded with storage items which may impede easy access. Basic operational indicators should be viewable from a distance or from many different vantage points. Consider, too, the need for LED illumination of control panels or user-accessible connectors and components.
What do solar users need from interfaces to understand and control the system? A long history of computing, audio/visual, and home appliance products shows a predictable maturation of technology from early, hard-to-interpret controls to spatially logical interfaces that even novices can figure out.
First generation electronic devices typically are built by engineers for other engineers or for electronics enthusiasts. In these cases, an indicator light might not even be labeled; it is up to the user to innately know what it means, open up the device and look at the circuitry, or consult the instruction manual.
Unfortunately, many solar energy devices employ interfaces that still contain this expert-only opacity. The future of the marketplace belongs to electronic products that can communicate without misinterpretation, through controls that respond affably to user actions.
Considering the Competition
Looking into the future, there is another reason why electronic device manufacturers who have been successful so far in solar energy might want to make consumer-friendly design a bigger priority.
Not only is there competition from manufacturers of similar products, but there may very soon be encroachment into the solar space as the cheap-energy gold rush continues.
Carmakers are now interested in supplying batteries and battery control systems installed in residential garages. Likewise, the smart home marketplace is burgeoning with more automated features and devices and connected infrastructure.
Both of these industries are consumer-facing and have invested heavily in UI design considerations. Will Tesla offer its battery and charger as well as an all-in-one home energy management appliance? The economy is full of examples of market capture simply by making functionality easy for the consumer.
New Best Practices in Consumer-Facing UI
One significant development in recent years for consumer electronics UI is the advent of light pipes.
Light pipes, as the name implies, are conduits that move light from one place to another. This simple invention, however, has made a great impact on consumer device design.
Using light pipes rather than LEDs alone has the effect of decoupling the PCB from the control panel. Previously, a board with LEDs needed to be positioned near the surface of the UI. With light pipes the position no longer matters at all, which frees constraints for both board design and UI design. The PCB can be mounted anywhere inside the casing, which might be maximized for protection from water or dust ingress or rough handling, for example. Likewise, a UI can employ a logical, commonsense layout that makes the most sense for the user.
Thus, light pipes have become a new essential in sophisticated premium products. They also have solved some of the common problems with LED indicators in first-generation electronics. These might include light bleed — interference from multiple LEDs inside a casing which can reduce brightness and color integrity.
Light pipes also attach with a precision fit to the UI surface, eliminating the possibility of LEDs being knocked out of position, providing sealed IP68 protection, and delivering enough brightness to illuminate lenses for clear, 360-degree visibility.
The solar industry is experiencing rapid growth. A challenge for all players is to design systems accessible to novice users. By adopting lessons learned in consumer UI development, device manufacturers can gain a competitive advantage.
For more about designing with light pipes, see the introductory video.