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. Solar controller block reverse current and prevent battery overcharge. Some controllers also prevent battery overdischarge, 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. (Our term "battery" represents either a single battery or bank of batteries.) The potential loss is minor, but it is easy to prevent. Some types of wind and hydro generators also draw reverse current when they stop (most do not except under fault conditions).
In most controllers, charge current passes through a semiconductor (a transistor) 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. (You can hear it click on and off.) The relay switches off at night, to block reverse current.
If you are using a PV array only to trickle-charge a battery (a very small array relative to the size of the 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. A diode used for this purpose is called a "blocking diode."
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 Solar controller. The controller "looks at" the voltage, and regulates the battery charging in response.
Some controllers regulate the flow of energy to the battery by switching the current fully on or fully off. This is called "on/off control." Others reduce the current gradually. This is called "pulse width modulation" (PWM). Both methods work well when set properly for your type of battery.
A PWM Type Solar Solar 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 solar 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.
A circuit is overloaded when the current flowing in it is higher than it can safely handle. This can cause overheating and can even be a fire hazard. Overload can be caused by a fault (short circuit) in the wiring, or by a faulty appliance (like a frozen water pump). Some Solar controller have overload protection built in, usually with a push-button reset.
Built-in overload protection can be useful, but most systems require additional protection in the form of fuses or circuit breakers. If you have a circuit with a wire size for which the safe carrying capacity (ampacity) is less than the overload limit of the controller, then you must protect that circuit with a fuse or breaker of a suitably lower amp rating. In any case, follow the manufacturer's requirements and the National Electrical Code for any external fuse or circuit breaker requirements.