Frequent Questions: Charge Controllers

Charge Controllers
Do I have to shut off the charge controller when I connect to shore power?
You can have multiple sources charging the same battery bank at the same time.  Whether it is shore power, an alternator, a generator, solar panels, etc., it doesn’t matter.  Connect them all.  Run them all at the same time.  No additional protections or switching of any sort are necessary.  Chargers of all types are protected against reverse current flows and base their output on the voltage of the battery bank they are charging.  When a battery is getting charged by any source, it’s voltage will go up proportional to the amount of current being fed onto that battery.  In some situations where you have a particularly strong charging source, like an alternator or shore power, the high current fed onto batteries will drive the battery voltage up to the point that the solar charge controller thinks the battery is full.  When that happens, the solar charge controller will temporarily stop charging until the voltage returns to a lower level.

What charge controllers do you sell? 
We mainly sell Blue Sky Energy brand charge controllers because of their proven performance in RV applications.  We offer both PWM and MPPT charge controllers to satisfy a wide variety of customer needs.  Decades of experience have taught us what works and what doesn’t work in an RV.  The goal of our charge controllers is to maximize battery lifespan and improve system usability.

What is the difference between PWM and MPPT? 
PWM type charge controllers are simpler and less expensive than MPPT type charge controllers.  MPPT type charge controllers have the ability to convert excess panel voltage into higher charging amps, which means that they will produce about 15% more power than PWM type charge controllers.  Read more about this on our Charge Controllers page.

What charge controller should I use? 
Charge controller selection is based primarily on the panel wattage and corresponding charging current.  For every 100 watts of solar panels, assume that there will be about 6 amps of charging current.  The charge controller’s current rating needs to be greater than or equal to the total panel charging current.  For example, a system with four 100 watt panels can use a 25 amp charge controller.

Beyond the current rating, you should also consider the differences between PWM and MPPT charge controllers.  The MPPT charge controllers are usually more expensive, but can harness about 15% more power from the solar panels.

To learn more, visit our Charge Controllers page.

Can I use multiple charge controllers? 
Yes, multiple charge controllers can be used on the same battery bank.  Multiple charge controllers are used in situations where a single charge controller is not able to handle the entire output of a large solar array.  When multiple charge controllers are used, communications cables connect the charge controllers, and help them work in unison.  Read more about this on our Charge Controllers page.

How do I repair/upgrade my Heliotrope RV30 charge controller? 
The Heliotrop RV30 was a popular two-stage PWM style charge controller that has been discontinued.  If you have one that isn’t working properly, we can connect you with an engineer who can service the unit and provide replacement parts.  Or, you might consider upgrading to a modern charge controller.  Click here for more details.

How should I adjust my charge controller settings for optimum performance? 
It is very important that your charge controller system is properly tuned for your battery bank.  An improperly set charge controller can destroy an expensive battery bank.

Tuning for lithium battery banks is the easiest because they do not require equalization nor do they need regular full charges.  The BMS (Battery Management System) handles most of the thinking for you.  But if your charge controller or converter are configured incorrectly, and the battery bank gets too high of a voltage, the mistake could be very costly.

Tuning for lead-acid (Flooded or AGM) batteries requires the most steps.  The voltage and current limits for absorption, float and equalize have to be set.  You may also have to program for automatic equalization frequency and duration.

All systems installed by AM Solar are programmed to optimize battery life.  If you have questions about how to configure your AM Solar system call or email our Tech Support at (541) 726-1091.  We will need to know the make and model of your batteries and the charge controller system you are using.

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Frequent Questions: Batteries

How many batteries do I need? 
Batteries come in a variety of types and sizes.  Batteries are like gas tanks, in that some are bigger than others.  A better question would be “How many Amp hours of capacity do I need?”  

When dealing with lead-acid batteries you will want between 0.5 and 1.0 Amp hours for every 1.0 watts of solar panels.  If you have too much battery capacity your batteries may not be able to reach a full charge frequently enough to prevent sulfation.  Additionally, battery charging inefficiency will eat up an increasing amount of solar production as you add to your battery bank.  But, if your battery bank is too small, you will reach a full charge early in the day while there is still plenty of sunlight.  Solar panels connected to a fully charged battery bank cannot produce power and therefor become expensive roof decorations.

With lithium batteries you don’t need to worry about full charging or inefficiencies.  Get as much lithium battery capacity as you can afford as long as you have enough to store a full day’s solar production.

What is better, 6V or 12V batteries? 
If you are comparing similar battery types, from a chemistry perspective, there is no difference between 6V batteries and 12V batteries.  The only difference is that 12V batteries have twice as many of the same type of cells as 6V batteries.  In other words, aside from smaller plates, a 12V battery is just two 6V batteries in the same enclosure.  People choose one type over another based on space constraints and costs.  Two 100Ah 6V batteries connected in series will have the same electrical characteristics as a single 100Ah 12 battery.

Are lithium batteries worth the upfront cost? 
Many customers that factor in the longer lifespan and improved performance of lithium batteries conclude that in the long term they are cheaper than AGM batteries.  You can learn more about the advantages of lithium batteries on our Batteries page. 

What should I do to keep my AGM batteries healthy? 
The challenge with AGM batteries is managing the build-up of sulfate on the internal plates.  This accumulation of sulfate on the plates is a natural side effect of the battery discharging, but getting that sulfate off the plates and back into the electrolyte solution is an often-overlooked aspect of battery management.  If the sulfate isn’t regularly removed from the plates it will harden and reduce the conductive area of the plates, which will reduce the capacity of the battery.  

In order to remove the sulfate, the battery has to be fully charged.  But, if the battery is over charged the electrolyte will boil off.  A careful balance has to be maintained in order to get the most useful life out of your battery bank.  A well-tuned charge controller system can automatically regulate the charging cycle of your batteries.  

All systems installed by AM Solar are tuned specifically to optimize your battery bank.

To learn more about battery management check out our Batteries page.

How long will my batteries last? 
Batteries have varying lifespans depending on how they are used.  AGM batteries may last up to three years.  Lithium batteries are warrantied out to five years but can last longer than ten years.

What does Bulk, Absorption, Acceptance, Float & Equalize mean? 
These are all terms pertaining to the various stages of lead-acid battery charging.  

Bulk:  This is the stage where the battery gets about 80% of charge and where it can handle the highest current and voltage.

Absorption (also known as Acceptance):  This stage can be described with an analogy of pouring beer into a glass.  After the main pour (bulk stage) you have a lot of bubbles in the top part of the glass and you have to slow down the pour rate to keep from overflowing the glass.  The absorption stage is essentially a slower charge than the bulk stage.

Float:  The float stage is a very slow charge rate and how batteries are maintained long term when they are full.  Back to the beer analogy, the float stage would be like slowly replacing beer that evaporates as a glass sits full for a long time.

Equalize:  A battery is composed of cells that may not always be at the same charge level.  An equalization stage is a brief overcharge that brings all the cells to full (equal charge) to remove the accumulated sulfate on the battery plates.  In terms of beer, it would be like having several closely spaced shot glasses with a pitcher pouring beer all over them and only stopping when the last shot glass is full.  Some shot glasses will fill quickly and overflow, but in the end they will all be equally full.

To learn more about battery management check out our Batteries page.

How should I dispose of old batteries? 
Lead-acid batteries have lead cores that need to be recycled after they are spent. Most battery shops will accept lead cores, and some will even charge an extra fee if you purchase a battery without returning a spent core. Also, check with your local recycling centers to see which centers are willing to receive spent cores.

When lithium batteries have reached the end of their lifespans, they will also need to be recycled. We’re not quite sure what that will look like 10 years down the road, but we know lithium technology today should not be disposed of in the landfill.  Check with your local reclamation centers for additional information.