Off-grid Wire Sizing matters!
Properly sized wire can make the difference between inadequate and full charging of a battery system, between dim and bright lights, and between feeble and full performance of tools and appliances. Designers of low voltage power circuits are often unaware of the implications of voltage drop and wire size. In conventional home electrical systems (120/240 volts ac), wire is sized primarily for safe amperage carrying capacity (ampacity). The overriding concern is fire safety. In low voltage systems (12, 24, 48VDC) the overriding concern is power loss. Wire must not be sized merely for the ampacity, because there is less tolerance for voltage drop (except for very short runs). For example, a 1V drop from 12V causes 10 times the power loss of 1V drop from 120V.
Use the following chart as your primary tool in solving wire sizing problems. It replaces many pages of older sizing charts. You can apply it to any working voltage, at any percent voltage drop.
Determining tolerable voltage drop for various electrical loads
A general rule is to size the wire for approximately 2 or 3% drop at typical load. When that turns out to be very expensive, consider some of the following advice. Different electrical circuits have different tolerances for voltage drop.
LIGHTING CIRCUITS, INCANDESCENT AND QUARTZ HALOGEN (QH): Don’t cheat on these! A 5% voltage drop causes an approximate 10% loss in light output. This is because the bulb not only receives less power, but the cooler filament drops from white-hot towards red-hot, emitting much less visible light.
LIGHTING CIRCUITS, FLUORESCENT: Voltage drop causes a nearly proportional drop in light output. Flourescents use 1/2 to 1/3 the current of incandescent or QH bulbs for the same light output, so they can use smaller wire. We advocate use of quality fluorescent lights. Buzz, flicker and poor color rendition are eliminated in most of today’s compact fluorescents, electronic ballasts and warm or full spectrum tubes. Use them to illuminate your office so that customers can see them.
DC MOTORS may be used in renewable energy systems, especially for water pumps. They operate at 10-50% higher efficiencies than AC motors, and eliminate the costs and losses associated with inverters. DC motors do NOT have excessive power surge demands when starting, unlike AC induction motors. Voltage drop during the starting surge simply results in a "soft start".
AC INDUCTION MOTORS are commonly found in large power tools, appliances and well pumps. They exhibit very high surge demands when starting. Significant voltage drop in these circuits may cause failure to start and possible motor damage. Follow the National Electrical Code. In the case of a well pump, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
PV-DIRECT SOLAR WATER PUMP circuits should be sized not for the nominal voltage (ie. 24V) but for the actual working voltage (in that case approximately 34V). Without a battery to hold the voltage down, the working voltage will be around the peak power point voltage of the PV array.
PV BATTERY CHARGING CIRCUITS are critical because voltage drop can cause a disproportionate loss of charge current. To charge a battery, a generating device must apply a higher voltage than already exists within the battery. That’s why most PV modules are made for 16-18V peak power point. A voltage drop greater than 5% will reduce this necessary voltage difference, and can reduce charge current to the battery by a much greater percentage. Our general recommendation here is to size for a 2-3% voltage drop. If you think that the PV array may be expanded in the future, size the wire for future expansion. Your customer will appreciate that when it comes time to add to the array.
WIND GENERATOR CIRCUITS: At most locations, a wind generator produces its full rated current only during occasional windstorms or gusts. If wire sized for low loss is large and very expensive, you may consider sizing for a voltage drop as high as 10% at the rated current. That loss will only occur occasionally, when energy is most abundant. Consult the wind system’s instruction manual.
More techniques for cost reduction
ALUMINUM WIRE may be more economical than copper for some main lines. Power companies use it because it is cheaper than copper and lighter in weight, even though a larger size must be used. It is safe when installed to code with AL-rated terminals. You may wish to consider it for long, expensive runs of #2 or larger. The cost difference fluctuates with the metals market. It is stiff and hard to bend, and not rated for submersible pumps.
HIGH VOLTAGE PV MODULES: Consider using higher voltage modules (18+ volts peak power point, like our BP-585 and BP-590) to compensate for excessive voltage drop. In some cases of long distance, the increased module cost may be lower than the cost of larger wire.
SOLAR TRACKING: Use a solar tracker so that a smaller array can be used, particularly in high summer-use situations (tracking gains the most energy in summer when the sun takes the longest arc through the sky). The smaller PV array will require smaller wire.
WATER WELL PUMPS: Consider a slow-pumping, low power system with a storage tank to accumulate water. This reduces both wire and pipe sizes where long lifts or runs are involved. A PV array-direct pumping system may eliminate a long wire run by using a separate PV array located close to the pump. Our SunRise Submersible, Solar Slowpump, Flowlight Booster Pump and Solar Force Piston Pump are highly efficient DC pumps that are available up to 48V. We also make AC versions and converters to allow use of AC transmitted over great distances. These pumps draw less running current, and far less starting current than conventional AC pumps, thus greatly reducing wire size requirements.
A relatively new feature is showing up in charge controllers. It’s called maximum power point tracking (MPPT). It extracts additional power from your PV array, under certain conditions. This article explains the process by a mechanical analogy, for people who do not understand basic electricity.
The function of a MPPT is analogous to the transmission in a car. When the transmission is in the wrong gear, the wheels do not receive maximum power. That’s because the engine is running either slower or faster than its ideal speed range. The purpose of the transmission is to couple the engine to the wheels, in a way that lets the engine run in a favorable speed range in spite of varying accelleration and terrain.
Let’s compare a PV module to a car engine. Its voltage is analogous to engine speed. Its ideal voltage is that at which it can put out maximum power. This is called its maximum power point. (It’s also called peak power voltage, abbreviated Vpp). Vpp varies with sunlight intensity and with solar cell temperature. The voltage of the battery is analogous to the speed of the car’s wheels. It varies with battery state of charge, and with the loads on the system (any appliances and lights that may be on). For a 12V system, it varies from about 11 to 14.5V.
In order to charge a battery (increase its voltage), the PV module must apply a voltage that is higher than that of the battery. If the PV module’s Vpp is just slightly below the battery voltage, then the current drops nearly to zero (like an engine turning slower than the wheels). So, to play it safe, typical PV modules are made with a Vpp of around 17V when measured at a cell temperature of 25°C. They do that because it will drop to around 15V on a very hot day. However, on a very cold day, it can rise to 18V!
What happens when the Vpp is much higher than the voltage of the battery? The module voltage is dragged down to a lower-than-ideal voltage. Traditional charge controllers transfer the PV current directly to the battery, giving you NO benefit from this added potential.
Now, let’s make one more analogy. The car’s transmission varies the ratio between speed and torque. At low gear, the speed of the wheels is reduced and the torque is increased, right? Likewise, the MPPT varies the ratio between the voltage and current delivered to the battery, in order to deliver maximum power. If there is excess voltage available from the PV, then it converts that to additional current to the battery. Furthermore, it is like an automatic transmission. As the Vpp of the PV array varies with temperature and other conditions, it "tracks" this variance and adjusts the ratio accordingly. Thus it is called a Maximum Power Point Tracker.
What advantage does MPPT give in the real world? That depends on your array, your climate, and your seasonal load pattern. It gives you an effective current boost only when the Vpp is more than about 1V higher than the battery voltage. In hot weather, this may not be the case unless the batteries are low in charge. In cold weather however, the Vpp can rise to 18V. If your energy use is greatest in the winter (typical in most homes) and you have cold winter weather, then you can gain a substantial boost in energy when you need it the most!
Here is an example of MPPT action on a cold winter day:
Outside temperature: 20°F (-7°C) Wind is blowing a bit, so the PV cell temperature rises to only around 32°F (0°C).
Vpp = 18V Batteries are a bit low, and loads are on, so battery voltage = 12.0
Ratio of Vpp to battery voltage is 18:12 = 1.5:1
Under these conditions, a theoretically perfect MPPT (with no voltage drop in the array circuit) would deliver a 50% increase in charge current! In reality, there are losses in the conversion just as there is friction in a car’s transmission. Reports from the field indicate that increases of 20 to 30% are typically observed.
A charge 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 controller are quite simple. Charge controllers 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.
Blocking Reverse Current
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 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 charge controllers. 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 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.
Control Set Points vs. Temperature
The ideal set points for charge control vary with a battery’s 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. If your batteries are exposed to temperature swings greater than about 30° F (17° C), compensation is essential.
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 points (if possible) according to the seasons. It may be sufficient to do this only twice a year, in spring and fall.
Control Set Points vs. Battery Type
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.
Sealed batteries use saturated pads between the plates. They are also called "valve-regulated" or "absorbed glass mat," or simply "maintenance-free." They need to be regulated to a slightly lower voltage than flooded batteries or they will dry out and be ruined. Some controllers have a means to select the type of battery. Never use a controller that is not intended for your type of battery.
Typical set points for 12 V lead-acid batteries at 77° F (25° C)
(These are typical, presented here only for example.)
High limit (flooded battery): 14.4 V
High limit (sealed battery): 14.0 V
Resume full charge: 13.0 V
Low voltage disconnect: 10.8 V
Reconnect: 12.5 V
Temperature compensation for 12V battery:
-.03 V per ° C deviation from standard 25° C
Low Voltage Disconnect (LVD)
The deep-cycle batteries used in renewable energy systems are designed to be discharged by about 80 percent. If they are discharged 100 percent, they are immediately damaged. Imagine a pot of water boiling on your kitchen stove. The moment it runs dry, the pot overheats. If you wait until the steaming stops, it is already too late!
Similarly, if you wait until your lights look dim, some battery damage will have already occurred. Every time this happens, both the capacity and the life of the battery will be reduced by a small amount. If the battery sits in this overdischarged state for days or weeks at a time, it can be ruined quickly.
The only way to prevent overdischarge when all else fails, is to disconnect loads (appliances, lights, etc.), and then to reconnect them only when the voltage has recovered due to some substantial charging. When overdischarge is approaching, a 12 volt battery drops below 11 volts (a 24 V battery drops below 22 V).
A low voltage disconnect circuit will disconnect loads at that set point. It will reconnect the loads only when the battery voltage has substantially recovered due to the accumulation of some charge. A typical LVD reset point is 13 volts (26 V on a 24 V system).
All modern inverters have LVD built in, even cheap pocket-sized ones. The inverter will turn off to protect itself and your loads as well as your battery. Normally, an inverter is connected directly to the batteries, not through the charge controller, because its current draw can be very high, and because it does not require external LVD.
If you have any DC loads, you should have an LVD. Some charge controllers have one built in. You can also obtain a separate LVD device. Some LVD systems have a "mercy switch" to let you draw a minimal amount of energy, at least long enough to find the candles and matches! DC refrigerators have LVD built in.
If you purchase a charge controller with built-in LVD, make sure that it has enough capacity to handle your DC loads. For example, let’s say you need a charge controller to handle less than 10 amps of charge current, but you have a DC water pressurizing pump that draws 20 amps (for short periods) plus a 6 amp DC lighting load. A charge controller with a 30 amp LVD would be appropriate. Don’t buy a 10 amp charge controller that has only a 10 or 15 amp load capacity!
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 charge controllers 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.
Displays and Metering
Charge controllers include a variety of possible displays, ranging from a single red light to digital displays of voltage and current. These indicators are important and useful. Imagine driving across the country with no instrument panel in your car! A display system can indicate the flow of power into and out of the system, the approximate state of charge of your battery, and when various limits are reached.
If you want complete and accurate monitoring however, spend about US$200 for a separate digital device that includes an amp-hour meter. It acts like an electronic accountant to keep track of the energy available in your battery. If you have a separate system monitor, then it is not important to have digital displays in the charge controller itself. Even the cheapest system should include a voltmeter as a bare minimum indicator of system function and status.
Have It All with a Power Center
If you are installing a system to power a modern home, then you will need safety shutoffs and interconnections to handle high current. The electrical hardware can be bulky, expensive and laborious to install. To make things economical and compact, obtain a ready-built "power center." It can include a charge controller with LVD and digital monitoring as options. This makes it easy for an electrician to tie in the major system components, and to meet the safety requirements of the National Electrical Code or your local authorities.
Charge Controllers for Wind and Hydro
A charge controller for a wind-electric or hydro-electric charging system must protect batteries from overcharge, just like a PV controller. However, a load must be kept on the generator at all times to prevent overspeed of the turbine. Instead of disconnecting the generator from the battery (like most PV controllers) it diverts excess energy to a special load that absorbs most of the power from the generator. That load is usually a heating element, which "burns off" excess energy as heat. If you can put the heat to good use, fine!
Is It Working?
How do you know if a controller is malfunctioning? Watch your voltmeter as the batteries reach full charge. Is the voltage reaching (but not exceeding) 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.
The control of battery charging is so important that most manufacturers of high quality batteries (with warranties of five years or longer) specify the requirements for voltage regulation, low voltage disconnect and temperature compensation. When these limits are not respected, it is common for batteries to fail after less than one quarter of their normal life expectancy, regardless of their quality or their cost.
A good charge controller is not expensive in relation to the total cost of a power system. Nor is it very mysterious. I hope this article has given you the background that you need to make a good choice of controls for your power system.