A solar controller is an essential part of nearly all power systems that charge batteries, whether the power source is PV, wind, hydro, fuel, or utility grid. Its purpose is to keep your batteries properly fed and safe for the long term.
The basic functions of a solar controller are quite simple. Charge controllers block reverse current and prevent battery overcharge. Some controllers also prevent battery over discharge, protect from electrical overload, and/or display battery status and the flow of power. Let's examine each function individually.
Photovoltaic panels work by pumping current through your battery in one direction. At night, the panels may pass a bit of current in the reverse direction, causing a slight discharge from the battery.
In most controllers, charge current passes through a semiconductor which acts like a valve to control the current. It is called a semiconductor because it passes current only in one direction. It prevents reverse current without any extra effort or cost.
In some solar controllers, an electromagnetic coil opens and closes a mechanical switch. This is called a relay. The relay switches off at night, to block reverse current.
If you are using a PV array only to trickle-charge a battery, then you may not need a charge controller. This is a rare application. An example is a tiny maintenance module that prevents battery discharge in a parked vehicle but will not support significant loads. You can install a simple diode in that case, to block reverse current.
When a battery reaches full charge, it can no longer store incoming energy. If energy continues to be applied at the full rate, the battery voltage gets too high. Water separates into hydrogen and oxygen and bubbles out rapidly. (It looks like it's boiling so we sometimes call it that, although it's not actually hot.) There is excessive loss of water, and a chance that the gasses can ignite and cause a small explosion. The battery will also degrade rapidly and may possibly overheat. Excessive voltage can also stress your loads (lights, appliances, etc.) or cause your inverter to shut off.
Preventing overcharge is simply a matter of reducing the flow of energy to the battery when the battery reaches a specific voltage. When the voltage drops due to lower sun intensity or an increase in electrical usage, the controller again allows the maximum possible charge. This is called voltage regulating. It is the most essential function of all charge controllers. The controller look at the voltage, and regulates the battery charging in response.
A PWM controller holds the voltage more constant. If it has two-stage regulation, it will first hold the voltage to a safe maximum for the battery to reach full charge. Then, it will drop the voltage lower, to sustain a "finish" or "trickle" charge. Two-stage regulating is important for a system that may experience many days or weeks of excess energy (or little use of energy). It maintains a full charge but minimizes water loss and stress.
The voltages at which the controller changes the charge rate are called set points. When determining the ideal set points, there is some compromise between charging quickly before the sun goes down, and mildly overcharging the battery. The determination of set points depends on the anticipated patterns of usage, the type of battery, and to some extent, the experience and philosophy of the system designer or operator. Some controllers have adjustable set points, while others do not.
The ideal set points for charge control vary with a battery temperature. Some controllers have a feature called temperature compensation. When the controller senses a low battery temperature, it will raise the set points. Otherwise when the battery is cold, it will reduce the charge too soon.
Some controllers have a temperature sensor built in. Such a controller must be mounted in a place where the temperature is close to that of the batteries. Better controllers have a remote temperature probe, on a small cable. The probe should be attached directly to a battery in order to report its temperature to the controller.
An alternative to automatic temperature compensation is to manually adjust the set pointsaccording to the seasons. It may be sufficient to do this only twice a year, in spring and fall.
The ideal set points for charge controlling depend on the design of the battery. The vast majority of RE systems use deep-cycle lead-acid batteries of either the flooded type or the sealed type. Flooded batteries are filled with liquid. These are the standard, economical deep cycle batteries.
How do you know if a solar controller is malfunctioning? Watch your voltmeter as the batteries reach full charge. Is the voltage reaching the appropriate set points for your type of battery? Use your ears and eyes-are the batteries bubbling severely? Is there a lot of moisture accumulation on the battery tops? These are signs of possible overcharge. Are you getting the capacity that you expect from your battery bank? If not, there may be a problem with your controller, and it may be damaging your batteries.