ZERO DROP SOLAR CHARGE CONTROLLER
Why do I need one?
A charge controller, or charge regulator is basically a voltage and/or current regulator to keep batteries from overcharging. It regulates the voltage and current coming from the solar panels going to the battery. Most "12 volt" panels put out about 16 to 20 volts, so if there is no regulation the batteries will be damaged from overcharging. Most batteries need around 14 to 14.5 volts to get fully charged.
What is PWM?
Quite a few charge controls have a "PWM" mode. PWM stands for Pulse Width Modulation. PWM is often used as one method of float charging. Instead of a steady output from the controller, it sends out a series of short charging pulses to the battery - a very rapid "on-off" switch. The controller constantly checks the state of the battery to determine how fast to send pulses, and how long (wide) the pulses will be. In a fully charged battery with no load, it may just "tick" every few seconds and send a short pulse to the battery. In a discharged battery, the pulses would be very long and almost continuous, or the controller may go into "full on" mode. The controller checks the state of charge on the battery between pulses and adjusts itself each time.
The downside to PWM is that it can also create interference in radios and TV's due to the sharp pulses that it generates. If you are having noise problems from your controller, see this page.
Why 12 Volt Panels are 17 Volts
The obvious question then comes up - "why aren't panels just made to put out 12 volts". The reason is that if you do that, the panels will provide power only when cool, under perfect conditions, and full sun. This is not something you can count on in most places. The panels need to provide some extra voltage so that when the sun is low in the sky, or you have heavy haze, cloud cover, or high temperatures*, you still get some output from the panel. A fully charged "12 volt" battery is around 12.7 volts at rest (around 13.6 to 14.4 under charge), so the panel has to put out at least that much under worst case conditions.
Charge controls come in 3 general types (with some overlap):
Simple 1 or 2 stage controls which rely on relays or shunt transistors to control the voltage in one or two steps. These essentially just short or disconnect the solar panel when a certain voltage is reached. For all practical purposes these are dinosaurs, but you still see a few on old systems - and some of the super cheap ones for sale on the internet. Their only real claim to fame is their reliability - they have so few components, there is not much to break.
3-stage and/or PWM such Morningstar, Xantrex, Blue Sky, Steca, and many others. These are pretty much the industry standard now, but you will occasionally still see some of the older shunt/relay types around, such as in the very cheap systems offered by discounters and mass marketers.
Maximum power point tracking (MPPT), such as those made by Midnite Solar, Xantrex, Outback Power, Morningstar and others. These are the ultimate in controllers, with prices to match - but with efficiencies in the 94% to 98% range, they can save considerable money on larger systems since they provide 10 to 30% more power to the battery. For more information, see our article on MPPT.
Most controllers come with some kind of indicator, either a simple LED, a series of LED's, or digital meters. Many newer ones, such as the Outback Power, Midnite Classic, Morningstar MPPT, and others now have built in computer interfaces for monitoring and control. The simplest usually have only a couple of small LED lamps, which show that you have power and that you are getting some kind of charge. Most of those with meters will show both voltage and the current coming from the panels and the battery voltage. Some also show how much current is being pulled from the LOAD terminals.
All of the charge controllers that we stock are 3 stage PWM types, and the MPPT units. (in reality, "4-stage" is somewhat advertising hype - it used to be called equalize, but someone decided that 4 stage was better than 3). And now we even see one that is advertised as "5-stage"....