“Three stage chargers are easier on your batteries, charge them faster, fuller and help you use less water”1) – HandyBob
Charging lead acid batteries is not something that you decide to do, or start or stop. The old statement, “I need to idle the engine for a few minutes to “top off” the batteries.” is a prescription for turning expensive batteries into paper weights. You want a system that puts the batteries on charge automatically, every time there is even a single ray of sun or that your engine is running – DiploStrat3)
Solar charging setups cannot charge at night so the most extreme Depth of Discharge typically occurs just before sunrise. The battery bank must be brought to full charge as soon as possible, both to enhance usability and the health of the batteries. Full charge means charging to the battery manufacturer's specification. It is not a guessing (or hoping) game.
A combination of high current charging (shore power? alternator?) combined with solar can be ideal:
“High amps in the morning when most depleted, and enough solar (hopefully more than enough) to reach and hold absorption voltage all afternoon = happy long lived batteries” – Sternwake4)
In general, manufacturers of flooded lead chemistries specify charging at C/10 to C/5; this assumes more charging time than solar power allows.5) AGM are typically charged at C/5 to C/3. There may not be a practical maximum charging rate for cycled FLA batteries when charged from solar. As Sternwake put it when describing a C/1.5 (!) charging scenario, “solar is not instant max output.”6)
Three stage7) or “smart” chargers (whether solar charge controllers or converters) will follow a common pattern. Battery manufacturers publish specs for charging and a good charger will let the user configure the charging stages in accordance with that information. Less-expensive chargers may have presets for charging different battery types; if you get lucky one of the presets will match your manufacturer's charging recommendations.
SternWake sums up smart charging:
“Bulk rate is maximum amps the charging source can supply until the absorption voltage is reached, at that point the amps required to hold the ABSV8) will taper. The longer the battery is held at ABSV, the more the amps required to hold ABSV will taper. At some point, either time, or the amps required to hold ABSV fall below a threshold and triggers float mode.”9)
This graphic10) shows how current and voltage change during the full charge:
Charging won't be as neat as the graphic due to varying solar harvest, varying loads, etc. In practice “constant current” means “as much as your solar can produce”. Generators and shore power charging will usually be able to hold a steady level of current.
The example below will use charging data for a 12v bank of Trojan T-105 FLA batteries at 77F.11)
The bulk stage is a fast and furious rush to get maximum power12) returned to the battery bank. Since the stage by definition requires all the power the system can generate, this is when controllers typically get the most benefit from MPPT features.
This stage begins when charging starts (as when the sun comes up) and ends when the battery climbs to the acceptance voltage setpoint, 14.8v in our T-105 example.
Note: this is the only stage it may be useful to charge the bank with a generator or alternator. After bulk charging is complete the current required begins dropping automatically and roughly linearly.
The absorption stage, sometimes called acceptance13) or boost14), is a constant voltage stage during which the battery is brought to full charge. This stage requires a great deal of time but decreasing amounts of current.
Absorption begins when the battery reaches the absorption voltage (Vabs, 14.8v in our example) and ends when the battery tapers off current acceptance to something like C/100 (“End Absorb”, “endAmps”), and/or when a period of time has elapsed.
Example: if you have a 100Ah battery bank and the manufacturer states that endAmps is C/100, then the battery is fully charged when it is only accepting 1A of current15) at Vabs. An endAmps recommendation of C/200 would be the battery accepting 0.5A of current.16) at Vabs.
In practice absorption takes longer when the battery has been discharged deeply and shorter when it has not.17)
Mythbuster: although it is commonly said that Vabs is attained at ~80% capacity…
charge current affects the SOC transition point from bulk to absorption charging - MaineSail18)
MaineSail found that
Solar-only charging at lower current levels may indeed mean 80% of the amps are replaced at the end of Bulk.19)
Some controllers will allow the user to configure the time or ratio of capacity/current (C/n). Sternwake says:
If your charge controller only holds [absorption] voltage for an hour or two, that is likely not enough time. As long as [there is a load] and you cycle the battery daily, you could set float voltage to [absorption voltage] without worry. Only when you stop cycling the battery do you need to return float voltage to more regular 13.2v20) levels. Premature application of float voltage by automatic charging sources is a battery killer.21)
If Absorption cannot be completed in the max amount of time configurable in the controller (due to damaged/old batteries), charging at the minimum rate and/or at higher voltage may help compensate.
The float stage is not a charging stage but rather a maintenance stage.22) In it the battery is fed just enough current to hold the battery at a full charge. The battery will remain fully charged indefinitely in Float; it does not overcharge.
Common Vfloat values range between 13.2v for stored batteries to 13.8v for banks that are deep cycled each day.
also see Setting Vfloat to Vabs
Charging can be applied23) with a simpler methods like charge-and-hold where the charger has a single setpoint which it holds; current will drop as the battery accepts less.
Shunt (on/off) chargers have a charge-and-stop approach where they:
This differs from PWM because PWM can hold an average voltage by cutting power hundreds or thousands of times a second. If you make a setpoint for 13.6v it will hold 13.6v as long as sun and loads cooperate. A shunt programmed to charge to disconnect at 13.6v and reconnect at 12.7v will average 13.05v.
These setpoints may or may not be user-configurable.
Charge-and-stop may be useful when charging battery chemistries like lithium, or when shallow-cycling.
AGM batteries are kept healthy by:
Many charge controllers have AGM or GEL modes that handle these setpoints and durations.
Lithium packs don't need Absorption or Float stages in the lead-battery sense but those voltage setpoints can be put to good use. Follow your Li battery mfg's advice on charging.
Also see LiFePO4 (lithium) bare cell charging.
Sometimes called the fourth stage, “equalizing is an overcharge to stir up electrolyte in stationary deep-cycle flooded/wet batteries.30) Since most vandwellers are mobile and electrolyte gets agitated by the van's movement EQ may not be required for vandwellers. Information provided below for completeness.
An equalizing charge prevents battery stratification and reduces sulfation which are leading causes of battery failure. Trojan recommends equalizing every 30 days or when batteries have a low specific gravity reading after fully charging… Deep-cycle AGM or gel batteries should NEVER be equalized.”31)
House banks in rigs that are driven regularly are likely already mixed by jostling, so equalization may be less important.
Our theoretical T-105 bank will equalize at 16.2v. Since voltages are so high it is common to disconnect everything else from the battery during equalization; this prevents overvoltage damage to electronics. Overvolting electronics could be particularly expensive if the solar controller goes into equalization when alternator charging is occuring – the house and chassis sytems are combined and overvoltage could be sent back to the vehicle.
If water levels are below the plates, add enough water to cover the plates before equalizing. Then top off after equalization. Topping off before equalization could result in spillover and loss of electrolyte.
Accurate charging requires the charger know the temperature of the batteries being charged. In hot temps a full charge will require somewhat lower voltage. Cold temps will require higher voltage32), enough to trip overvoltage protection in some 12v gear.
Trojan gives the adjustment value as:
5.0 mV per cell / °C or 2.8 mV per cell / °F 33)
The charger makes temperature-based voltage adjustments based on one of three methods. From most accurate to least accurate:
This automatic voltage tweaking for temperature may result in your actual battery voltages being observably higher in cold temps and lower in hot temps.
Flooded lead-acid batteries outgas during Absorption, causing a slow loss of water.34) They outgas intentionally in Equalization. To counteract this, the 'dweller must remove the caps and inspect the water level. If low, distilled water is added.
Trojan has a YT video about battery maintenance, including watering.
A battery waterer can make the job easier, and does not require one to judge water level visually. The water “bloops” as it fills and stops blooping when the water is at the correct level.
Batteries that are older, in poorer health, or are charged at higher voltages will be “thirstier”. Check water levels 1x/month until you know how they behave.
Smart chargers handle charging under load gracefully. As long as there is enough solar power coming in to hold the absorption or float voltage steady those charging stages will not be disturbed. If there is not enough power to hold the prescribed voltage the charger may restart Bulk charging. This behavior may be configurable by the user.
Example: a battery bank is in Float mode, 13.5v with minimal current, let's say 0.1A. A laptop charger is plugged in which pulls 3A. The controller will attempt to provide 13.5v at 3.1A. If it can do so the charger stays in Float mode. If it cannot hold that level it will drop back to Bulk stage.35) Morningstar explains it like this:
“Once in Float stage, loads can continue to draw power from the battery. In the event that the system load(s) exceed the solar charge current, the controller will no longer be able to maintain the battery at the Float set-point. Should the battery voltage remain below the Float set-point for a cumulative 60 minute period, the controller will exit Float stage and return to Bulk charging.”36)
Mains automotive battery chargers, even smart ones, can get confused by load during charging.37)
Manual chargers will not be affected by load as they are controlled by the user.