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electrical:12v:alternator

Words of Wisdom: With a isolator you would run the truck early to get a fair amount of the bulk charging done and let the solar finish it off the rest of the day. – jimindenver1)

Alternator charging

Note: this is a basic overview. More details available on the alternator details page.

overview

The vehicle's alternator is designed to turn some of the engine's mechanical power into electrical power in order to

  1. recharge the vehicle's starter battery after starting the engine
  2. run electrical accessories

dual-battery systems

We can, within limits, use this power to charge our batteries or run our electrical loads. This page is about how to do that with a dual-battery system (i.e. starter battery + house or aux battery).

In a dual-battery system2) some of the alternator output is used to charge the house batteries when the engine is running. When the engine is not running the house battery is electrically isolated from the starter battery to keep from draining it and leaving you stranded. So the devices that handle the isolating/combining duties are sometimes called battery isolators.

when alternator charging works well

The bottom line is that current simply flows where it is needed, batteries will take what they need when batteries are combined, and the voltage becomes equal among the new combined bank. Unless your charger, alternator or solar/wind system is pumping out an incorrect voltage for you bank you will not over charge using an ACR.3) mainesail4)

limitations

Alternator charging is generally only practical for the bulk charge stage due to relatively low voltage output and the long time periods required for absorption.5) It is unlikely to get lead-chemistry batteries fully charged unless one is driving for several hours. Failure to fully charge lead batts regularly6) will impact battery longevity. If one drives often a combination of the alternator doing bulk charging and a small solar doing the rest is good match.

Vehicles with smart (variable voltage) alternators may not be suitable for charging with normal isolators.7) See below.

See Is Solar Mandatory? for ideas on how to charge primarily by alternator.

effect on alternator

Charging the house batteries from the alternator increases the load on the alternator and can be expected to contribute to somewhat earlier failure. In practice it's usually a non-issue if one avoids overheating8) or overloading9) the alternator; alternator failures from aux battery charging are quite rare.

I have created hundreds of designs and installed around 100 systems, many with isolators or solenoids. In four plus years not one customer has come to me saying that their alternator failed. I do tell them not to sit in a hot parking lot idling their engine to charge their batteries. – jimindenver10)

But see this cautionary tale of using a 60A (!) DC-DC charger to charge 200Ah of AGM from a 145A alternator.

If/when the OEM alternator does fail11) a higher output one can be installed for not much more than it would cost to replace the original.

SternWake reports idling while charging causes a sharp increase in alternator temperature.12) To avoid this, do your alternator charging while driving so airflow over the hot alternator will help cool it. Other measures included additional alternator cooling or pulley size tuning to alternator RPM at idle.

alternator current rating

img.mousetrap.net_misc_transit250alternator.jpg In general, vehicles with higher-rated alternators (150A, for example) will handle a given load better than vehicles with lower-rated alternators (60A, for example). The rating in Amps will be listed on the window sticker, often on the alternator housing itself, or can be looked up using a VIN decoder for your automaker.

There are no firm rules on how much power you can extract, but these are commonly-observed limits:

  • draw no more than 1/2 of rated amps while driving at normal road speeds
  • draw no more than 1/4 of rated amps while driving at slower speeds

Note that alternators put out their rated current at higher RPM.13) See chart on the right for a Ford Transit 250A alternator.

effect on GDI engines

High-performing engines with Gasoline Direct Injection can experience carbon fouling on the backside of intake valves, which can cause “drivability woes… misfires” and dislodged carbon flakes can cause “turbocharger issues… catalytic converter damage.”14)

Anecdotally the problem appears to be worsened with excessive idling, although this may be a subset of situations where “the engine doesn’t run long enough or hard enough to get hot enough to burn any of the carbon off.”15)

smart alternators

Traditional alternators typically try to hold a set voltage. Smart alternators talk to the vehicle's ECU (compuuter) and can vary output voltage wildly depending on present conditions. It might unload the alternator during heavy acceleration to reduce parasitic losses, or run the alternator at high voltage just after starting to speed up the recovery of used energy.16)

The use of plain isolators with smart alternators may result in the rapid cycling of the isolator's circuit (with voltage sensing types) or the discharge of the house battery into the starter battery (solenoid type).

DC-DC chargers and/or isolators with an awareness of smart alternators may be required.

Furher reading: Redarc - standard vs smart alternators

isolators

Power from the alternator is shared with the house battery using an isolator (“Split charge relay” / SCR) of some sort. This allows the house battery to charge but does not allow the house battery to pull power from the starter battery.

constant-duty solenoid

m.media-amazon.com_images_i_41zfkq0puil._ac_uy218_ml3_.jpgA constant-duty solenoid is an electromechanical device which uses an electromagnet to complete the charging circuit when the engine is running. Solenoids are generally cylindrical. Energizing the solenoid will cause a 0.5A - 1A current drop between the alternator and house battery. Exception: Latching isolators use latches17) instead of electromagnets to hold the circuit closed, eliminating that vector of power consumption.

18). SternWake recommends the Blue Sea 901219) although non-marine units in the $20-$50 range are more common in vans.
Solenoids can be used for self-jumpstarting if the chassis battery has enough juice to engage the solenoid.

voltage-sensing relays

voltage sensing relays (VSR, also called Automatic Charging Relays or ACR) are solenoids with a bit of extra logic to know when to connect/disconnect. The VSR does not get trigger voltage from the fuse panel but rather reads the voltages of one20) or both21) batteries to know when to switch on.
This kind of isolator may have a “combine” override function to enable self-jumpstarting.

in its simplest form, all an ACR really does is parallel batteries when charging is present and un-parallel batteries when there is no charging present. It does this automatically with no human forgetfulness.22)

starter battery priority

Some VSR have a feature where they delay the connection a few seconds until the starter battery has recovered a bit from starting the engine. Often misunderstood as “charging house batteries after the starter battery is fully charged”, the typical criterion is chassis voltage of ≥13.4v. The starter battery is not fully charged at that point but the current inrush to it has settled down.

examples

  1. single voltage sensing - this type reads the voltage of only one battery. In the case of an RV it would read the voltage of the starting battery. When it is high enough above resting voltage (ie, being charged by alternator) it connects the starting and house batteries.
    [secessus says: “IMO the practical benefit (if any) to charging the starter battery “first” is keeping the load on the alternator reasonable. In practice, the isolator generally connects the two within a few seconds.”]
    Examples:
  2. dual voltage sensing - this type reads the voltage from both sides and when either is high enough it connects the batteries. This may or may not be what an RVer wants
    Examples:
  3. DC-DC isolators (aka b2b isolators) that boost alternator voltage to more appropriate levels for lead chemistries and can do multistage charging. These have their own page.

Note: voltages-sensing (with or without delay) can be added to plain solenoids.

solid state isolator: diode-based

Note: this type of isolator is no longer common for our uses.

These isolators are electronic devices which use diodes to prevent depletion of the starter battery. Isolators are generally brick-shaped. Diode-based isolators have a 0.5v - 1v drop between the alternator and house battery. This may be desirable if the house battery is a wants lower-voltage charging like LiFePO4.

Examples: Victron Argo-diode, Cole-Hersee 48122

Notes:

  • solid state relays can't combine batteries for self-jumpstarting
  • the unidirectional nature of the diode isolator may be desirable to prevent “backflow” of higher voltage from the house bank to the chassis.
  • diode-based isolators are typically installed between the alternator and starter battery. This is in contrast to solenoids and VSRs which can be daisy-chained off the starter battery. The batteries are, in effect, always isolated and never electrically combined.
  • Some 1-wire “self-exciting” alternators require a diode isolator with an Alternator energize feature.34)
  • some diode-based isolators (Victron, see above) have a feature to slightly tweak alternator voltage upwards to compensate for voltage drop across the isolator

solid state isolator: FET-based

This type of isolator is similar to the diode-based one above, except that FET components are used instead of diodes, minimizing voltage drop. They tend to cost 2x as much as the diode versions.

Example: Victron Argo 200A FET Battery Isolator

manual switch

m.media-amazon.com_images_i_81n-ap_0lpl._ac_uy218_.jpgThe simplest and least-featured isolator is a manual switch.

A manual battery switch normally has 4 positions: A, B, A+B, and Off. A would be for the starter battery and used during starting. B would be used for house use when one is not driving. A+B could be used to combine both sets for starting or for charging while driving. This kind of setup is prone to user error. A manual switch has no current or voltage losses.

lithium-specific

m.media-amazon.com_images_i_41d3iimvdjl._ac_ul320_.jpg The Precision Circuits Li-BIM is a lithium-specific dVSR isolator with some differences:

  1. the VSR circuit disconnects at 13.4v when there is no charging occuring on the alternator side. This eliminates the “gotcha” of the circuit staying closed due to high Vbatt.
  2. the isolator opens the circuit (disconnects) regularly to allow alternator cooling. Charge for 15 minutes, disconnect for 20 minutes, repeat.
  3. the isolator disconnects when it detects >= 14.4v on the alternator side, to avoid overcharging

The unit supports self-jumpstarting but a switch must be installed by the user. 160A and 225A models are available. BB suggests the BIM is recommended for lithium banks >= 300Ah.35)

A teardown of the Li-BIM can be seen in this video.

misc

[note from secessus: “not sure what's inside these solid state isolators”]

m.media-amazon.com_images_i_51xoshk5uil._ac_uy218_.jpg The Magnum Energy ME-SBC is notable for some unusual features:

  • configurable connect/disconnect setpoints
  • ability to drive a solenoid, which allows for much greater current

Xantrex makes a 15A Digital-Echo Charge isolator.

The Mastervolt Charge Mate Pro 90 is an electronic current-limiting isolator.

.

how to choose

For many36) use cases a plain constant-duty solenoid triggered by an ignition circuit will augment aux battery charging nicely. It can deliver large amounts of current when battery state of charge is low, and is quite inexpensive. The wiring might cost more than the solenoid.

When access to an ignition circuit is impractical, a voltage sensing relay will do the job, no external trigger required.

In some cases a DC-DC charger is preferable or mandatory:

  • when using alternator as the sole form of charging lead chemistries
  • when the vehicle has a “smart” alternator37)
  • when using an alternator to charge large aux battery banks that may strain the alternator
  • when alternator and aux battery bank voltage are different (12v alternator and 24v bank, for example)

See the gotcha section below to see if there are hidden traps in your intended use case.

sizing an isolator

If an isolator is oversized it will cost more for no benefit and will self-consume somewhat more energy to hold the combining circuit closed.38)
If an isolator is undersized (less common) it will not be able to carry enough current, resulting in overheating and/or sudden shutdown.

Most AGM will pull about C/3 (33A for a 100Ah bank) but premium brands may do more. Flooded lead-acid batteries tend to pull less current (C/5, 20A per 100Ah of bank). If your flooded back will only pull ~40A, or your AGM bank 70A then there is little reason to spend more money on a 150-200A isolator.

Lithium in particular has low internal resistance and can pull 1C (100A for an 100Ah bank) or more. Victron posted a video showing it is possible to “smoke” an alternator while charging lithium. Since lithium does not care much about state of charge, there is little reason to go for maximum force lithium charging. Some Li bank owners use DC-DC isolators which limit themselves to a particular output (20A, 60A, 100A, etc).39)

Reasonable charging rates can also be easier on the alternator when charging suddenly stops, whether by completion40) or BMS intervention. Blue Sea makes an alternator field disconnect which shuts down alternator power just before disconnecting the load, but this may be chiefly applicable to marine alternators. Others have discussed installing a small lead-acid battery parallel to the Li bank; in theory this could soften the blow from Li leaving the circuit. Other sources suggest the presence of the starter battery would be sufficient.41)

flooded lead-acid

FLA batteries can accept up to C/5 in Bulk stage.

Example: a 200Ah FLA battery bank will pull up to 40A42) in Bulk charging. An isolator rated for constant duty at 40A43) would be sufficient.44)

AGM lead-acid

Consumer-grade AGM batteries typically will accept C/5 - C/3.

Example: a 200Ah AGM bank will pull up to 67A in Bulk. A 75A isolator45) would be sufficient.

Note: high-end AGM like Lifeline, Odyssey, Rolls, etc, can pull massive current when charging. 200A+ would be possible for the example bank and could shorten the life of a stock alternator.

lithium

Lithium also has the ability to accept massive amounts of charging. It will do so across the entire charging range, as lithium does not have an Absorption phase the way lead-acid does.

Example: 200Ah of lithium could easily accept 200Ah+. There are mitigating factors, however.

  • Because lithium can use about 80% of it's capacity instead of 50% for lead-acid, 120Ah of lithium is a common replacement for 200Ah lead-acid banks. So the lithium bank would “only” draw 120A instead of 200A.
  • drop-in lithium banks like Battleborn have a battery monitoring system (bms) to shut down charging if current exceeds specs.

sudden disconnection

Sudden disconnection of a large load46) when the alternator is running can damage the alternator and any operating chassis electronics. Sudden disconnection can occur when:

  • an isolator shuts off due to current beyond it's rating
  • a BMS shuts off lithium charging. This can include overvoltage, overcurrent, temperature extremes, etc.

The existence of the starter battery should attenuate the problem but keep the issue in mind.

externally-regulated alternators

It's more common in marine setups than vehicles, but external regulators can be used to trick the alternator into outputting specific non-OEM voltages47). Balmar appears to be the industry leader in external regulation.

Note that while your battery bank might like higher voltages the vehicle chassis may not.

secondary alternators

In RVs with heavy electrical consumption a secondary alternator may be installed for aux power and charging. It runs off the engine and effectively replaces the generator; some systems will auto-start the engine similar to how gens can auto-start. The secondary alt is typically rated for heavier current and/or externally-regulated (see above). It may be run off a smaller pulley that increases alternator RPM at idle for more power and/or cooling.

Challenges include hefty cost, already-cramped space in van engine bays, mechanic unfamiliarity with non-OEM systems, and potentially-increased time running the engine.

gotchas

The average user will likely not notice these effects; some of them rather subtle.

  • Solar charging while the isolator circuit is closed (ie, batteries connected) can pass higher-than-normal voltage to the chassis and starter battery. Workaround: see notes on HVD and DC-DC charging below.
  • Voltage-sensing relays can be unintentionally triggered48) or “held closed”49) by voltage from the solar-charged side in some scenarios. Workaround: address with HVD as below if desired, or with a DC-DC charger, or by putting a switch on the trigger wire.
  • Idling the engine to charge house batteries can overheat the alternator,particularly older-style ones that do not reduce output to control high temps. Workaround: Don't plan to idle to charge from alternator. If you do, a fan may help cool the alternator.
  • In early morning when house battery voltage is lowest, a plain solenoid may unintentionally allow depleted batteries to pull down the starter battery. Workarounds: use a VSR, a DC-DC charger, or start the vehicle immediately after inserting the key50).
  • Solar charging while the engine is running may get "stuck" at alternator voltage. Workaround: higher solar wattage, DC-DC charger, or a switch to disconnect isolator after alternator voltage is reached. The Victron Cyrix-ct isolator could be useful here, as it appears to disconnect >13.8v.51)
  • Alternator charging may bring some battery chemistries (like bare lithium cells with no BMS) to unsuitably high voltages. Workarounds: A high voltage disconnect can restrict alternator charging to lower voltages. DC-DC chargers can also regulate voltage provided to the house battery.

wiring

2 gauge copper wire connecting the coach and house is recommended for most alternator charging installs. SternWake recommends attaching at the alternator rather than the battery.52)

Note that you will only have to run the POS+ leg of wire to the house battery as the chassis ground is usually the other leg.

alternator hacks

There are ways to get the alternator to pump out more power:

  • a higher-output alternator will put out more power
  • a different voltage regulator for older vehicles, as demonstrated by SternWake, increases the voltage available for charging but also increases the coach voltage.
  • a Sterling “fake load” regulator will cause the alternator to put out more amps and then will DC-DC convert the voltage up to correct charging range.53). This is the opposite direction of how MPPT charging works. Also see b2b chargers.

using the coach battery only

A simple possible approach would be to replace the starter battery with a marine or AGM battery.54)

charging trailer batteries

Some amount of power can be passed along the 7pin harness, usually enough to maintain the trailer battery's voltage and run small loads. For the purposes of this discussion the important wires in the 7-pin are:

  • battery hot lead, typically black.
  • ground55) wire, typically white.

The minimum size for these wires is 12ga and some heavier models use 8ga.

current on different sized wires

Given: a 3% maximum voltage drop56) and a 40' round-trip wiring run from alternator to trailer battery we can provide Float voltage to the trailer battery at these rates:

  • 12ga ~5A
  • 10ga ~8A
  • 8ga ~10A

workaround: voltage boosting

DC-DC charging

A configurable DC-DC charger might be able to pass high enough voltage to overcome sag. If the 7-pin is the conduit then we are still limited to the currents listed above.

high-voltage boosting

More power (and more appropriate charging voltages) can be passed along the 7-pin by injecting higher voltages into the harness.57)

The basic idea is alternator → DC boost to 36v or something → run down the 7pin charging wire to the trailer → MPPT charge controller → battery

Using 12ga wire as an example, 5A @ 13.6v = 68w. After the same 3% voltage drop and MPPT conversion losses the boosted setup would deliver 166w, and be able to “smart charge” the trailer battery at appropriate voltage.

workaround: heavier wiring

It's also possible to run a separate and heavier cable from the TV to the trailer; this would minimize voltage sag. If a plain isolator is used with heavier wiring the voltage will still be insufficient to fully charge lead batteries.

Heavier cabling + a DC-DC charger could provide correct voltage to the trailer battery.

isolator without a house battery

Q. An isolator is typically used to charge a house battery, so why install an isolator if you have no house battery?

A. because an isolator can bring big current into the cabin for other uses, and do so only when the engine is running. Ciggy ports are typically limited to 10A (120-150w).

Examples:58)

  • 120v 300w rice cooker running on 500w MSW inverter, (~330w total after inefficiencies).
  • 120 175w wall charger for your solar generator running on a 300w PSW inverter.
  • if you have a stout enough alternator, a 120v 700w instant pot running off an inverter.

further reading

  • Split Charging Guide - a British page. Note the following differences in terminology from American English:
    • “split charging” == alternator charging
    • “leisure battery” == house battery
2)
starter battery and house battery
3)
ie, an isolator
5)
DC-DC chargers can help with the voltage
6)
daily is ideal
8)
as when idling
9)
as with giant AGM or lithium banks
11)
all alternators have a non-infinite lifespan, not just ones used to charge aux banks
13)
typically highway speeds
17)
surprise!!!
20)
VSR
21)
dVSR - d is for dual
23)
apparently time-based, see documentation
25) , 28)
time-based, see documentation
29)
time-based
31)
typically 0.5A
32)
bonus points to the Jaycorp for printing the connect/disconnect setpoints right on the isolator!
33)
also see Li-BIM below
36)
most?
37)
variable voltage
38)
an electromagnet holds the parts of the active circuit together. When power to the inolator input is cut the electromagnet can no longer hold the circuit closed. The circuit is open and the batteries are isolated from each other.
40)
same reason headlights are turned on at the donor car when jumpstarting
42)
200Ah/5
43)
likely with peak tolerance of 60A or so
44)
assuming you aren't applying heavy loads like a microwave while driving
45)
100A peak
46)
including a charging battery
47)
even “smart” staged charging
48)
dVSR
49)
both VSR and dVSR
50)
ie, do not leave in the Accessory position which would drain the starter battery
55)
negative return
56)
14v at the alternator and 13.6v at the battery
57)
disregard the relay complication; you can use a toggle switch if desired
58)
while driving, not while idling
electrical/12v/alternator.txt · Last modified: 2022/06/23 11:16 by frater_secessus