Trace Inverter Saga

I put some time into the creation of this page because I wanted the folks at the Trace Headquarters and our service support in Australia to understand the frustration we are experiencing with our Trace home power systems. It is not that uncommon to find that some systems are inappropriate for the tropical environment but we are particularly disappointed in this case because we purchased the systems for this application from authorized dealers  We have over $17,000 AUD invested in Trace products in 3 homes and you are now refusing to provide warranty service for them because we have them installed in an inappropriate environment.

My 18 month old SW 3024E system failed dramatically in August 2001.  It was charging from a generator and in absorption mode when the generator was disconnected by the system and my APC Line R 1250 voltage regulator on my computer system jumped from the normal voltage light to the Very High voltage light.  This light only comes on when the voltage approaches the upper limit of the regulator of 287 volts.  It had never happened before.  I immediately shut down the computer and then shut off the house main.  I switched off the inverter and stopped the generator.  I switched the inverter back on and measured the voltage.  It read 330 volts with some fluctuation.  I check it again with my analog multi-meter and got a similar reading.  In both cases I used to AC setting to read RMS volts.  

The meter on the inverter "Meters" menu read 172 volts.  I put a lamp with an incandescent bulb on the system and turned it on again to test the voltage with a load.  The voltage read them same and the bulb was exceptionally bright.  Giving the symptoms to the factory led them to believe that a failure had occurred do to fluctuations in voltage from the generator.  

This seemed a possible scenario as my Dunlite generator has a voltage regulator and it seemed to interact poorly with the inverter.  When charging in absorption mode the voltage would fluctuate though it was within the limits of the inverter specs.  Just making a diagnosis from symptoms is, of course, unreliable.  The unit needed to be inspected by an authorized service center.  The unit was sent airfreight at a cost of $275 AUD one way to the recommended service center, Contact Electronics in Brisbane Australia.

The following is the diagnosis provided Peter Sikora at Contact.

At this stage I have removed the top cover and performed a visual inspection. The unit appears to be in reasonably good condition with some light rust marks showing through on the top cover vent grill area. I suspect the unit is operating somewhere close to a marine environment. Applied a regulated power supply to the unit. Unit went through boot up sequence OK. Applied external 240V to AC1 And AC2 inputs. The inverter was detecting them both and syncing then would enter charge mode ok. Set unit in to inverter mode. Checked output waveform on oscilloscope. Found output to have the correct number of steps generating the AC wave form. Measured Peak to Peak voltage at 720V. This equates to 720 / 2 X 0.707 = 254.52 VRMS which is correct. Digital true RMS voltmeter measures ~225V AC on the output. The discrepancy is due to the slightly stepped wave form of the trace inverter and is expected. I removed the control board for inspection. Found that there were some light deposits near the AC board connector end of the control board along with some light corrosion to the circuit board tracks in this area. I suspect that there may be some salt present in the residue deposits coating the board, leading to conduction between the circuit board tracks. This may have fooled the sensory circuit into thinking the inverter was outputting a lower voltage thereby causing the inverter to increase its output accordingly. The inverter dose not appear to be suffering from humidity or moisture problems as there is very little evidence of corrosion internally.

As the control PCB is functioning we can offer you two options. Either, replace the control PCB @ $840.00 AUS or strip back the coating, clean the board and re-apply new coating for $330.00.

We would also recommend to clean and bug screen the unit. Here we strip it down the unit. Thoroughly clean all of the PCB's apply extra conformal coating where necessary and place insect screening to all the vent/grill areas. This will prevent things like Gheko's and Cockroaches from entering the unit. Cost for this service is $440.00 AUS.

Please advise us what you would like to do?

This diagnosis is very much of a concern.  First off, the technician suspects that there is some salt present so he has determined that it is not a warranty repair.  Second, this diagnosis is not consistent with the way the unit failed.  Salt conductivity on circuit boards is a well known problem with yachties.  It usually causes sporadic problems at first and is more acute under humid conditions.  This failure was sudden and dramatic and it occurred on a sunny day while 45 minutes into the charging process when the system is thoroughly heated up and realtive humidity would be very low.  

There was no diagnosis of failed components though I had provided evidence of it with my initial e-mail about the problem so I pointed this out with my admittedly angry reply:

Peter

You don't mention the R2 resistor on what I believe is the AC board. This resistor was so badly overheated that it discolored the board.

You have determined that the problem is based on corrosion so I presume this is why it is not a warranty repair even though the unit is within warranty.

I am reluctant to spend $1,280 AUD plus another $300 AUD on return airfreight if this is just an environmental problem. Our house is positioned on the water but it is on a protected waterway. All of our other electronics perform in this environment. It appears that you are saying that these units should only be used in an inland area, a location unavailable in an island nation.

It appears the the cost of ownership of this unit is going to be too high. What is it worth in its present condition?

Thanks...Jim

I got the following reply:

Dear Jim,

The components R1, R2 & C3 form a passive filter network to filter out high frequency harmonics on the output of the inverter. There are primarily two reasons that these components fail. One is high input voltage from the AC source usually associated with a Gen-Set, the other is a switching fault in the inverter causing excessive harmonics to its output. Usually a switching fault is caused by a faulty Fet board and is easily detected with an oscilloscope by checking that all the steps are there that build up the sine wave.

In this case it probably failed because the inverter was going over voltage on its output. The reasons which I have previously stated in my detailed report.

I am sympathetic to your problem and your dilemma, however every installation is unique and trace can not be held responsible for the installation and placement of their inverters. On page 16 of the user manual it states under the section headed "MOUNTING." "Mount the unit securely in a clean, dry, properly ventilated enclosure. Do not mount the unit in the same enclosure as vented or maintenance free type vented batteries." Not every inverter needs the same level of environmental protection. Often the conditions that the inverter is operating in vary with the seasons so that at installation time certain potential problems may not be self evident. So to keep the cost down of the units. It is left up to the purchaser to ensure that the unit will be kept free of contaminants etc. So as to give it the best chance of survival.

We have offered you a number of options with the least expensive being $330 AUD this included fixing the AC board problem. Not to mention that I am out of pocket over half a days labour with simply picking up your inverter and getting it out of customs because the paper work was not properly presented.

We are trying to offer you the best possible assistance, and offer the best possible advice to ensure that you do not have a re-occurring problem. I understand that your are unhappy about paying extra money for something you already own but sometimes we just have to accept this. Please advise us of what you would like us to do?

Thanks and kind regards

Peter Sikora

Contact Electronics

 

It appears that we have found some problems on the AC board but there is no estimate for the repair cost which presumably I must pay.

Now here is my dilemma

  1. Has the system been properly diagnosed?  I am given the option of replacing the the PCB so the technician has effectively made me responsible to decide if he is competent and has done a thorough job.  I will have to pay  another $600 AUD for airfreight (uninsured as insurance costs another $400 AUD round trip) if the unit is not properly repaired.  The way it failed is not consistent with the diagnosis so I am suspect and  I feel that the problem probably lies on the AC board.
  2. Is it true that we must expect these problems because our houses are near the sea?  If so, then we definitely have inappropriate technology but we should have been informed of this in Trace literature or by the dealers that sold the units.  The following  picture highlights that the sea plays no more of a role in our environment then it would in the Great Sandy Straight or in a cove on the Puget Sound.  My batteries are in a separate structure alongside my shed housing the inverter.  We followed the installation instructions carefully.
  3. Should I continue to invest in Trace technology or should I cut my losses and switch inverters?  I feel very bad on this point because the owners of the other 2 systems near me purchased them on my recommendation.  I must make the basic repairs to my system but this question will be answered before we purchase any more systems for houses under construction (2 at the moment).

 

The Segond channel is 2 km wide and very calm.  North is up and the prevailing South Pacific tradewinds blow from the southest.  The shore is a lee shore meaning that the water is calm.

 

 

The shed was purpose built for the power system.  The generator is not pictured and in another building.  The inverter is in a room that is open on the sides for ventilation.  The sides are covered in a cyclone.  The batteries are in an attached small house that is ventilated separately.