Hi. I’m Amy from the altE Store. I’m going
to go over the basics of solar charge controllers with you.
First let’s take a look where a solar charge controller fits into an off-grid solar system.
The charge controller goes between the solar panel and the deep cycle battery.
A Charge controller is an important component in battery based systems. They are not used
in straight grid-tied systems, as they do not have batteries to charge.
Their primary role is to manage charging the battery bank. It prevents it from overcharging,
and many of them control the rate of the current and voltage at which it charges. More on that
in a moment. Some charge controllers have load control,
where you connect the DC load right to the charge controller instead of to the battery,
and it will turn it on and off based on voltage of battery and/or time of day, for example
turning the load off if the battery gets too low or turning on a light from dusk to dawn.
At night, the voltage of the battery bank is higher than that of the solar array that
is connected to it. Since electricity flows from high voltage to low, without a charge
controller, the tendency would be for the electricity to flow out of the battery bank.
A charge controller prevents that from happening, allowing the flow to only go one way, into
the batteries. Many charge controllers manage charging the
batteries by varying the voltage and current to the battery bank based on how full the
battery is. Much like pouring a glass of water, when the glass is fairly empty, you can have
the faucet on full blast, but when it starts to get full, you want to turn down the flow
to prevent overflowing. Likewise, a charge controller sends a lot of power to the battery
when it is low, but as it approaches full, it slows it down. Once it is full, it will
send a smaller amount of power, a trickle charge, to keep it topped off.
This is called multi-stage charging. Here’s an example from Morningstar of 4 stage charging.
With Bulk Charging, when the battery is low, it will accept all the current provided by
the solar array. At Absorption, the battery has reached the
regulation voltage, the controller begins to hold the voltage constant. This is to avoid
over-heating and over-gassing the battery. The current will taper down to safe levels
as the battery becomes more fully charged. Equalization is done with flooded batteries,
not sealed batteries like AGM and Gel. Many batteries benefit from a periodic high voltage
boost charge to stir the electrolyte, level the cell voltages, and complete the chemical
reactions. Your battery specs will tell you how often and at what rates it wants to be
equalized. Float charge is when the battery is fully
recharged, the charging voltage is reduced to prevent further heating or gassing of the
battery. There is a wide variety of features that are
optional on some, but not all controllers. In most cases a display does not automatically
come with the controller, but can be added separately for a remote display. A few even
have Ethernet connections, allowing you to monitor your system across the web.
Temperature compensation will improve the battery bank charging, by adjusting its output
based on the temperature. Low Voltage Disconnect is a great feature
that allows you to connect your DC load to the charge controller. If the battery voltage
gets low, it will turn off the load, preventing the batteries from becoming too low and getting
damaged. Some controllers can be used as a diversion,
or dump, load controller, turning power on to a heater to burn off excess power. There
are others that have light control functions, turning lights on and off automatically based
on dusk and dawn. You’re going to hear me talking about Nominal
Voltage, Voc, and Vmp. Voc is Open Circuit Voltage, or what you will measure from a solar
panel in perfect test conditions with nothing but a volt meter connected to it. Vmp is voltage
at Max power, or what the solar panel will put out when it is connected to equipment
like a charge controller or inverter. Nominal voltage is a way to categorize battery based
solar equipment. Because a higher voltage is required to charge a battery, nominal voltages
are used to help see what equipment goes with what. So a nominal 12V panel, which actually
has a Voc voltage of around, 22V, plus or minus a volt or 2, and a Vmp of around 17V.
And if you count the number of cells, or silicon squares on the front, it will likely have
36 cells. Likewise, a panel that was designed to charge
a 24V battery bank will have a Voc of around 44V and a Vmp of around 36V. Counting the
cells will come up with 72, twice as many as a 12V panel. If you wire 2 24V panels in
series, or 4 12V panels in series, you can charge a 48V battery bank.
This was all well and good for battery based systems, but then along came grid-tied systems,
and 12, 24, and 48V became meaningless. So the industry sort of standardized on 60 cell,
20V nominal panels. Alone, they are too big to charge a 12V battery, and too small to
charge a 24V battery. An MPPT charge controller solved that, by reducing the voltage down
to the required range, and in doing so, increasing the current output, so you are not losing
power. There are 3 main types of charge controllers.
Shunt controllers, that just turn the flow to the batteries on or off are rarely used
anymore, so we won’t go into them. The 2 main types you’ll find these days
are PWM and MPPT. Let’s discuss them in greater detail.
PWM are generally the less expensive option of the two. A PWM charge controller pulses
the power sent to the battery bank, allowing it to do the different charging stages we
discussed. When using a PWM charge controller, the nominal
voltage of the solar panel must be the same nominal voltage as the battery bank.
So if you are using a 12V battery, you must use a 12V solar panel. If you have a 24V battery
bank, you must wire two 12V panels in series, or one 24V panels to make 24V. If you have
a 48V battery bank, you must wire four 12V panels in series, or two 24V panels in series,
to make 48V. Make sure the charge controller you select is designed for the battery bank
voltage. Some can support multiple voltage ranges, others are designed only for 1 voltage.
Note if a PWM charge controller says it can support 12 or 24V, both the panel and battery
bank must be one or the other. It is NOT saying it can take a 24V panel to charge a 12V battery.
It is saying it can work in EITHER a 12V or a 24V system.
Selecting the right charge controller for a PWM system is pretty simple. For a single
string, we check the label or datasheet and confirm with the Voc of 22.1V that it is a
nominal 12V panel, and the Isc is 8.68A . We then multiply the Isc by the number of parallel
strings, 1, and multiply it by NEC’s safety factor of 1.25, to get 10.85A minimum charge
controller amperage requirement. Great, I’ll round up to a nice 15A Morningstar
ProStar 15M with a meter. Now let’s try it with 2 parallel strings
of the same 140W panel. Notice I’m not talking about how many panels are in each string,
because I’m using a PWM charge controller, I know that I’m using the right number to
match the voltage of my battery bank, so I’ve got 1 for a 12V, 2 in series for a 24V, and
4 in series for a 48V battery bank. In this example, I have 2 parallel strings of 2 in
series for a 24V system. 8.68A short circuit current x 2 strings x
1.25 NEC required protection, equals 21.7A, so I’ll round up to the Midnite Solar 30A
Brat charge controller. Now we move on to MPPT charge controllers.
A Maximum Power Point Tracking, or MPPT, is the more sophisticated, more expensive type
of charge controller. It tracks the output of the solar array and
adjusts itself so that the output is always maximized. In doing so, it can increase the
production of the array by up to 30%. Another great advantage is that most MPPT
charge controllers can take a higher voltage array, for instance a 60 volt array, to charge
a lower voltage battery bank, like a 48V. This is required if you have a 60 cell, 20V
grid tied solar panel, that are common, and thus less expensive, and use it to charge
a 12V battery. It’s also very useful if you have to go a distance from your array
to your battery bank. The higher the voltage of the solar array, the lower the current
going across the wire. Therefore, you can use smaller gauge wire, which will cost less,
and have a lower voltage drop, which gets more of your power to the batteries.
There are also a few MPPT charge controller that can take a lower voltage panel and charge
a higher voltage battery bank. These are great to use a 12V panel to charge a 36V golf cart.
But MOST MPPTs require a higher or equal to voltage panel. Be sure to read the specs carefully.
To see how an MPPT charge controller works, let’s look at a system with one 60 cell
PV panel and one 12V battery. The charge controller takes the 30 volts from the solar panel and
converts it down to around 14V to charge the battery. Unlike a PWM charge controller, it
doesn’t just throw away the extra voltage, it increases the current on the output to
maximize the power out. So if it is taking 30V in and sending 14V out, that is a decrease
of 2.14. Since it is taking 9A in, it will INCREASE that by the 2.14, and output 19.28A
out. So power in equals power out. So the simplest way to size an MPPT charge
controller is to take the total watts of the array and divide it by the voltage of the
battery bank. So 270W panels times 4 panels divided by 24V battery bank times 1.25 for
NEC equals 56A charge controller. Cool, I’ll use an Outback Power FlexMax 60.
In addition to amps, Solar Charge controllers are also rated by voltage.
A typical 150V charge controller can support up to three 20V panels in series. You may
be saying, but three 20V panels in series equals 60V, that’s waaay below 150V. But
the voltage the specs are referring to are the Voc voltage, the actual voltage the panel
puts out. That is much higher than the nominal 20V or the Vmp. The Voc of a 20V panel is
actually around 38V, so three in series is 114V. Also note that cold weather increases
the voltage output of a solar panel. So if we also figure in the cold temperature in
the winter, we increase the volts. At -5 degrees Fahrenheit, it adds 20% to the voltage, bringing
us up to 136Voc. So you can see why at least in cold climates, three 20V nominal panels
would be the max for a 150V charge controller. There are now higher voltage charge controllers
available, with some accepting as much as 600V in. This is very useful if the array
is a long distance away from the battery bank. So again, check the specs to find the right
charge controller for you. That’s it for a quick summary of solar charge
controllers. Check out our website for a great selection
of solar charge controllers and all of the other components needed for a solar power
system. Also watch more of our Videos on our web site
to learn more. We’ve got a team of highly trained Technical
Sales Reps available to help you plan your system, give us a call. And don’t forget to check out the rest of our website at altEstore.com where we’re making renewable doable!