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What is Maximum Power Point Tracking Charge Controllers

blue-light / 2011-08-16
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Overview of MPPT Charge Controllers

Maximum power point tracking (MPPT) charge controllers for solar arrays are becoming increasingly popular because of the many advantages they afford the solar owner. Though a somewhat new technology next to traditional on/off charge controllers and the increasingly standard pulse width modulation (PWM) charge controllers, MPPT charge controllers are gaining market share because of their ability to turn excess energy into a significant benefit.

How Does a Maximum Power Point Tracking Charge Controller Work?

As with any other type of charge controller, an MPPT solar charge controller’s task is to regulate the energy being pumped into the system batteries in order to maintain battery life and reduce the chances of battery damage. Traditional methods for doing this involved a mechanical relay system that simply stopped and started the flow of energy through the circuit. But because this system lacked the ability to check the current state of the battery, it often resulted in battery damage due to overcharging.

Additionally, these traditional models connect the array directly to the battery, forcing modules to operate at the level of the battery’s voltage which prevents them from producing the maximum power possible. In a typical example, a17 volt module with an output of 75 watts will have to operate at 12 volts with a conventional charge controller, which therefore reduces the energy produced by the array to 53 watts instead of the full 75 watts.

Newer systems with PWM charge controllers are capable of checking the battery condition and adjusting the flow of energy accordingly to trickle in the final charge and avoid overcharging. This has been an important breakthrough in the charge controller market, but it still doesn’t address the issue of lost efficiency due to differing voltages.

MPPT charge controllers, however, have gone a step further with their ability to attract additional power from the PV array and convert the excess voltage into amperage. An MPPT charge controller functions by calculating the ideal voltage for producing the most power and then connects the array to the battery at that voltage.

This type of charge controller maintains the maximum power point voltage for the solar panel. Since the amount of sunlight fluctuates throughout the day but the voltage at which maximum power is transferred does not, the MPPT is able to reduce the charge current as sunlight levels go down while maintaining panel voltage at the maximum power point.

Using the same specifications as above, the 17 volt module will operate at the full 17 volts, allowing it to send the full 75 watts of energy to the battery, with a DC-to-DC converter that converts the energy to the current battery voltage, whatever that may be at the time. This results in a 93% to 97% efficiency in conversion, which can mean a 20% to 45% power increase in the winter and 10% to 15% power increase in the summer.

Current Control Loop:

MPPT charge controllers use an extra current control loop that reduces the charge current as the sunlight reduces. This in turn maintains panel voltage around the maximum power point voltage.


The Advantages of Choosing an MPPT Charge Controller for Your Solar System

In real live solar systems, a maximum power point tracking charge controller offers several significant advantages

• Higher Battery Charge When Fully Discharged: When your battery is at its lowest charge, it requires the most current in order to reach a complete charge. An MPPT charge controller is able to increase the power going to fully discharged batteries to effect a more efficient charge cycle.

• Better Short Day Performance: Because cold weather often coincides with shorter days and therefore fewer solar hours, cold weather is generally the time when efficiency needs to be at its best. Though solar panels put out more power in lower temperatures, without a charge controller that can adapt the energy voltage, this advantage is lost. An MPPT charge controller is capable of determining the output of the panels, comparing it to the voltage of the battery, and figuring out the most ideal voltage to get the maximum amps. This results in better short day performance.

• Reduced Distance Restrictions: Long distances between batteries and panels can significantly reduce the voltage of an array without a large, expensive wiring system. But an MPPT charge controller can convert high voltage to the necessary battery voltage to reduce the power loss and keep wiring costs at a minimum.

• Higher Amp Sizes: Though traditional charge controllers, including PWM charge controllers, are often limited to 60 amps or less, MPPTs can handle up to 80 amps.

• System Growth: MPPT charge controllers, because of their ability to adjust to varying voltages, also permit the owner to size the system up without too much trouble.

These are significant advantages for those looking to maximize the output of their solar array. They are, however, more expensive than PWM charge controllers and larger in size, requiring a larger physical footprint. Additionally, each of the modules in a photovoltaic array must be similar in order to be connected in strings to an MPPT charge controller.

How MPPT Charge Controllers Measure Up: Warranties and Standards

In addition to all of the other advantages of MPPT charge controllers, they also generally come with longer warranties and last longer than old-style and PWM charge controllers. Most MPPT charge controllers are UL listed.

When all is said and done, if the price tag can be overcome, the added upfront cost of an MPPT charge controller is usually worth it with the boosts in charging efficiency.

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