“Watching how many amps a charging battery is accepting at absorption voltage, is very indicative of state of charge, the less the amps the more charged.” – sternwake1)
If you want to see lots more amps coming out of the [charge controller], put on a [significant] load… in the middle of a sunny day. – John61CT2)
Note: for simplicity's sake this article assumes nominal 12v panels and 12v house power.
It is common for those with new solar configurations to worry about whether or not they are working. The worry is understandable because:
The last point may be counterintuitive. A fully charged system is observed to deliver very little power because the bank is already charged; the system is loafing, waiting for a load. It only cranks up power when you add a big load or start charging a depleted battery. With lead chemistry batteries this also applies in Absorption stage, when the battery reduces the amount of current it will accept.
A poorly running system is observed to deliver very little power because it isn't set up right (or is shaded, etc) and can't do any better. Battery voltage is too low3) and doesn't meet needs.
Also counterintuitively, systems with lots of panel start generating usable power so early after sunrise that they can finish bulk charging well before solar noon. This means the user might never see the system at full4) power during normal circumstances.5) This effect is particularly strong when the system is overpaneled.
This page is to help solar beginners tell what their system is doing without special equipment. A battery monitor can be extremely useful but we can tell a great deal without it. The info here is oriented to typical 12v systems with lead-acid battery banks. Folks running other battery chemistries or nominal voltages are assumed to already know what they're doing.
Icons and blinking lights are often misleading or oversimplied. Tracer/Renogy controllers are infamous for confusing battery graphics. Others like the Victron 75/15 accurately show which charging stage is running.
Measurements, on the other hand, are useful when we learn how to read them.
To tell at a glance what your system is doing you need to find a couple pieces of info about your system. You will only have to look them up once; it might be worthwhile to write them down on a sticky note near your solar gear.
If you have an MPPT controller also look up these pieces of info:
These checks are admittedly crude but will help see if your system is getting it done. No expensive or specialized equipment is required.6) MPPT controllers in particular will reveal a great deal of information by how they interact with the panels. For the purposes of this article, consider single-stage/shunt controllers to work the same way as PWM except they only have one voltage setpoint.7)
For the examples below we will assume the system is set up this way:
Vpanel - measured voltage of panel output
Vbatt - measured voltage of battery bank
During bulk charging with MPPT
During bulk charging with PWM
During Absorption charging batteries will need less and less current.
with MPPT controllers
with PWM controllers
When transitioning from Absorption to Float the voltage needs to drop about a volt. The system will “free-fall” (make little or no power) to allow the voltage to fall.15) The transition may take seconds or minutes, depending on how/if the system is loaded.
During Float with MPPT
During Float with PWM
Adding a load can help reveal how much untapped power your system can access, and also prove that your system is working.
When adding loads to MPPT during absorption (or float)
When adding loads to PWM during absorption (or float)
These are general targets to ensure the system is working at the bare minimum to meet your needs. They give a big picture but no information about what is happening at a particular moment.
Are your batteries at a reasonable state of charge in the morning?26) If so, continue to Afternoon.
If not, address this issue soon because discharging too deeply will damage the batteries. Consider these changes:
Are your batteries starting Absorption by noon-ish and completing Absorption by late afternoon?27) If so, continue to the next step.
Note: You can tell your batteries are in Absorption because the bank will be at Vabs, the controller's absorption setpoint.
If not, delay running heavier loads until Absorption is underway.
Are you hitting sundown with at least 12.6-12.7v28) in your lead acid bank?29) If so, you can relax; your system is working well enough.
If not, either we are not harvesting enough power or we are using too much. Stop running heavier loads when the controller can no longer hold Vfloat.