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Mobile Solar Power

Suggestions, Questions and Answers


Caution: This was written back in 2007, and consists of first-hand experience but second-hand technical knowledge.
Solar power needs up to date information and expert input. Techno Katz.

Should I “go solar”?


“It’s the single biggest thing you could do for your mobile home to change your lifestyle” said the sales rep. And that
was true, but he didn’t mention the alternatives to solar (of a second alternator, a petrol generator, or a wind
generator to achieve much the same result). Nor that the change of lifestyle was to become a 12V battery technician.
Nor did he mention the ongoing and extra costs of electrical self-sufficiency done properly – heavy cables, replacement
batteries, upgrades, extra fuses, fittings, switches, appliances, fuel.

As for the alternatives...


● You can fit a second, or a bigger, or a hot-rated (e.g. marine) alternator, together with a smarter regulator to
control it, but this pushes you into a “drive every day” lifestyle.
● A 240V generator guides you into caravan parks, out of national parks, and into the 240V appliance store.
● A large wind-generator is an anchor, and a small one is a pull to the windy coast.
(Due to the aforementioned lack of mentioning these alternatives, I have no experience with them, but do enjoy the
widest range of camping spots.)

Going solar, on the other hand, is a push into DC appliances, and a low energy usage lifestyle – low wattage globes;
LED torches, and rechargeable torch batteries; no microwave, or big fridge; washing by hand, limited TV and
computer; gas for the stove and fridge; winter shortages of normal power.
Like other changes, it can grow on you, whether you like it or not. If you have specific energy needs like a piece of
medical equipment, or an addiction to TV, then going solar is a big thing, not to be underestimated from its small
beginnings.
But the payoff in going solar is that you can get off the beaten track, sit still long and quietly and unobtrusively, and
shift at a moment’s notice.

Casual questions about a potentially complicated and/or costly enterprise are a little out of place. I write this in an
attempt to answer serious questions seriously, in a form that a short conversation does not allow, and invite you inside
the operations room, as I see it. However, you don’t need to do it my way. You can avoid expensive mistakes (yes,
there are several to make) by understanding how a solar power system is likely to work.

Will It Work?
“Yes; You’ll never regret getting your first solar panel” said the salesman, and that was true, but the system works so
well that it soon leads you down the path of wanting more... ending up with four panels, not one. There is no problem
with that, but be forewarned – Your appetite grows for good things.
Any extra “piece of stuff” doesn’t work by itself for long. It gathers at least an equal bulk of accessories and
maintenance tools. In the case of a power system, make that ten-fold multiplication! (Battery and maintenance tools;
wire and wiring tools; jumper leads, plugs and switches; multimeter and test lights; 12V battery charger and
extension cords and multi outlets; torch-battery charger and rechargeable appliances and their batteries; generator
and its needs; manuals and books; inverter, electrician, and appliances without limit.) You can start small, but you
can’t stay small, if you want “a system which will work”.

Do I Need It?
“Yes” is the short answer again, or you wouldn’t be wondering. As the seller will tell you, “It’s a case of invest your
money then forget the cost and enjoy the dividends”. Maybe so, but if you refuse to use 12/24V appliances or 240V,
you won’t “need” that extra battery or more charging capacity.
»However, if you do use appliances, there is a hidden reason why you need solar.
The alternative is to use the car-battery or have an extra house-battery or three, and charge them off the alternator.
But such batteries will now last only a year or so, because they are now being run down more and recharged less than
in a normal car. To stop multiplying your losses – you need a smarter and more constant charger than the alternator’s
voltage regulator, to keep them from sulphating. (More on this below.) You can simply buy a smart car-voltage-
regulator, but that doesn’t do its job whenever the Sun shines.

Will it Cost Too Much?


Yes, of course. Let that sink in, before you rush on into solar. So, in order to reap the long-term benefits, to justify the
initial cost, you need to start soon – the sooner the better. The investment is OK, as far as investments go, but not on
the basis of resale value – because solar products keep dropping in price and you can't easily get your value back on
older panels or regulators.
You can afford to start small and build, but if you are sure that you will be building, the sooner you invest, the more
likely you are to recoup the costs earlier. There are legitimate ways to minimise costs, like waiting for second-hand
equipment, or wiring it all up yourself.
You also need to secure your equipment against theft and damage, e.g. wind damage (peg down those mobile panels
really securely – I use 9 stays), and don’t drive under low trees. Less obviously, to avoid unjustified over-
capitalisation, you need to use the system maximally. You don’t want expensive equipment sitting idle just pretending
to be useful, like farm harvesters or specialty household appliances. I.e. Have more but useful appliances and use
them; have more batteries to charge; create some standby tasks for using up extra energy. To more fully utilise your
capital investment, you may need to spend even more on setting up a useful and efficient long-term system.
How Do The Solar Panels Perform?
Wrong question. The poor performance is human, not technical. Ask yourself “How can I manage the system within its
limitations, so as not to ruin the batteries prematurely?”. For example, wanting to run a microwave is basically a
misconception.
● The first secret to solar happiness is to not use more energy than you gather.
It’s like trying to live with rainwater tanks on a farm or a boat – You are either sensible or unhappy.
● The second secret of solar power is to have more than enough panel capacity.
You immediately notice, as soon as you get that extra panel, that you no longer have to worry.
● The third secret is that you can only use what you receive from the Sun, so you can do that with full to half-
full batteries, or with half-empty to empty ones. It's your choice to keep sulfation at bay, or to allow it.
Score yourself out of 10 on these points to predict the performance of your solar panels.

Some panels perform best when cold. In that case, i.e. staying in Tasmania forever, you don’t need the compensatory
high driving voltage of the 36-cell versions (17.3V under load; less when hot) and could get away with the 33-cell
versions (16V under load when cold). Amorphous silica panels are not much affected by heat, so 36 cells is probably
overkill.

Comparing low-volt, low-watt solar ‘performance’ with 240V kilowatt, fuel-guzzling, noisy generators is unfair. Don’t
expect similarities. Obvious to some, but not to most, is that the two systems are not in competition. A hybrid set-up
gives you the best of both. Aim for it – a small quiet backup generator for example.

How Many Watts Will I Need?


“There’s plenty of sunlight, more than enough” went the sales-talk, as he sold me a single panel, “but the trouble is in
storing that energy” – which is once again only one third of the story. Firstly, you need lots of solar modules to capture
that “plenty”; the focus on batteries was a blinder. I wanted to run two laptop computers all day, and was dismayed to
find that I needed two panels, not one, to cope with the ends of the day. There was not “more than enough”, even
though I had a battery bank. Secondly, precisely because energy storage is difficult, you do need a safety margin –
extra energy gathering capability – for that cloudy day. I now have 4 panels, and would be happy with more – it would
allow me to leave them on the roof and forget them.

The self-replicating facility of solar power is a force to be reckoned with


With extra panels, you probably want extra storage capacity, so as not to waste energy availability. The rule of thumb
is to have at least one battery per panel, rather than too many of one or the other. (Nonetheless I have found that it is
a myth that you can’t charge up many batteries with a small panel or charger or alternator; you just discharge them
more shallowly, and they all last longer.)

Hint for Happiness: Never believe any advertised power rating.


Find at least three reasons why each appliance needs more energy and delivers less than its rating. E.g. ...
-The batteries have a 15% recharging inefficiency, but notice, this grows to 50% under very heavy load (cranking;
winching; microwaving).
-The cables, diodes and connectors eat up another 10%, and even more under heavy load (hot things develop even
more resistance).
-The inverter to 240V sucks up another 20%.
-Start-up surge requirements are often ignored. For example, a regularly cycling fridge compression motor will
regularly surge. The worst case I have heard of is a ten-tuple surge in power requirement for a water-pump pushing a
tall head of water.
-The difference between “Volt-Amps” (used for ac power ratings) supplied by the appliance, and “Watts” (for dc power)
delivered, can be 30%, due to the “power-factor” of 0.7 (i.e. 100VA out = 70W out)... In electric motors, chargers,
and other appliances the peak Volts gets out of phase with the peak amps, in their sine-waves, so the multiple, volts x
amps, is not 100% peak x peak or rms x rms.
Volts

Out of phase ac components result in less power delivered,


than suggested by multiplying the rated volts and amps.
Amps

-The more relevant figure anyway is power input requirement, not the rated output – You may need to double the
output rating to guess at the input needed. For example, any appliance may be inherently only 80% or 50%, efficient.
Electric motors vary enormously in inefficiency. Read the label on the back.
-“Peak” or “Maximum” output ratings of panels, generators or appliances are measured variously: when new, clean; at
optimal temperature (wind speed; etc); with maximal sunlight; under no appreciable load or friction; at unrealistic
voltages; assuming a power-factor of 1.0; and so on. Always optimistic and flattering.
-Some manufacturers will also actually lie.

Do You Have to Tilt panels to the Sun?


“They work just as well mounted flat on the roof – You don’t need to tilt them” is sales-talk that is not true. Firstly, a
roof-mount tilt of 15 degrees helps in self-cleaning. More importantly, I monitored the output carefully, puzzled as to
how “haze” or “ultra-violet light” could make up for less than optimal direct sunlight interception, and when, in the
hunt for extra energy, I tilted them to North, on their mountings, the output doubled. Cleaning the white roof helped a
bit. Still searching for more, I took them off the roof and followed the Sun around. The daily output doubled again. The
flat-roof-mount is woeful in Tasmania in winter, due to the very low Sun. The “follow-the-Sun” philosophy pays most
dividends in Tasmania in Summer, due to the rise and set far to the South. On overcast days you can still lay them
down flat to optimise light input, but “optimising” the little energy output, gains little. When the sunlight blazes, you
do want to be able to intercept the maximum area. Flat mounts are most convenient, but are an inefficient use of
expensive panels – You will need twice or four times as many just to find parity. So “Yes, you really should tilt them”.
If you rely on your panels working near maximum, leave them mobile, until you get the feel of things. That’s a good
reason for getting smaller than the maximum size panels (½ - 1 sq m is nice). You need to be able to lift, manhandle
and store them easily, and they won’t catch the wind so much.

How to mount solar panels for optional tilting – pivoted at the extreme
ends, so that a pair of support sticks can use the same mounting holes
and bolts. E.g. park North-South, and pivot at either end as required.
Support the central part of the panel when flat and travelling.

How Do You Work Out the Best Tilt and Direction?


Up to 30° mis-aim at the Sun hardly affects the solar panel output and
is not worth worrying about, so a single realignment is good for a 60°
span – anticipate the Sun’s movement by 30°; E.g. a 60° tilt (almost vertical), to the North, in Tasmania in mid-winter,
can cope with both the noon, and with a.m./p.m. Sun. The first and last hours of winter sunlight are relatively useless,
(but I am not above spreading out a white or silver sheet on the ground in front to multiply the available light). So if
'mornings are cloudy', or 'there is a mountain to East' or West, then the optimum single permanent direction is skewed
only slightly to the North-West or North-East.
Basically it is the middle few hours of the day which pump in the most energy – provided you have the battery
capacity or load to absorb it – and you should point the panel at the high-noon Sun (or a little more vertical,
especially in mid-winter), peg it down securely and leave it there all day... that’s if you don’t want to bother chasing
the sunlight. This recipe, applied daily if you are mobile, will automatically cope with seasonal and latitude changes.
Use a magnetic compass at each new place, and remember the height of the noon-Sun, by noticing it.
One panel can be roof-mounted on a permanent tilt slightly to the West, and another slightly tilted to the East, to even
out the input, and provide for self-cleaning. Park North-South.
Daily electrical use patterns can affect your strategy, e.g. With roof-tilted panels, park more to the North-West, to
catch the last few hours better, so the batteries don’t sit undercharged overnight. This works best when the noon-
watts are normally wasted due to morning charge, and your main load is in the afternoon. Park facing the North-East if
you want to recharge first thing in the mornings, after every-night TV, so the batteries don’t stay discharged so long.
Really permanent tilt should be tailored to mid-winter efficiency, not to maximum efficiency, if there is an under-supply
problem. E.g. mount the panel on a nearly vertical panel of the vehicle, and park to face it north.

“Solar” is perhaps a misnomer, because serious electrical usage from any source, often degenerates into “battery
capacity” and how to manage a lead-acid battery bank...

Do the Batteries Really Last Five to Seven Years as They Claim?


To be called true deep-cycle batteries the lead plates have to be very thick, which is the secret of their longer life,
resulting in a minimum weight of about 25kg. Only the much bigger batteries can lay claim to long lives, up to 25
years!
Solar charge-controllers can, indeed should, extend the life of your batteries. So “Yes, but...”. This is where the human
element makes all the difference. If you simply decide to keep your batteries charged up as a matter of policy, each
day, they will last for years, even the car-cranking (thin plates) sort. For instance, to ensure good recharge, don’t
deeply discharge them; if the day is not sunny, you could run the car-motor; you could also stop drawing a load the
next day; you could set aside the late afternoon for battery charging and point the panels West; you can go to bed and
get up with the Sun; you can use the energy while it’s daytime – because that’s more efficient – the energy is used
direct, rather than through a charge-recharge cycle; you could run a generator or mains charger.
Your aim is to reach well over 14V during the recharge each day. In this case, of good-management, you can
reasonably confidently run a large bank of expensive deep cycle new batteries, and hope for years of trouble-free
service. Contrariwise, you could aim to kill your expensive new batteries with sulphation by habitually undercharging
them.
Score yourself out of 10 on this one too, to predict the lifespans of your 'batteries'.

Is It True That You Can Run Deep Cycle Batteries down to Flat Every Day?
No. 11.9V is the normal minimum, 80% discharged. If you drop below 11.5V, the batteries permanently lose some life
and capacity. Below 11, they are drastically affected. If the lights get dim, so are you. Deep-cycling reportedly causes
material to shed from the plates, especially at high discharge/recharge rates. Claims of deep-cycling also assume that
the batteries will be promptly recharged to full, not allowed to sit and sulphate. You should aim to recharge even deep
cycle batteries within half a day, at least as a rule, to be broken occasionally by a week of dull weather, and for best
results should aim for a consistently shallow cycle – 20% discharge, down from 100%, not from 60%! (This again
requires self-discipline.) The maximum period without full charge is one month. In view of conflicting expert advice on
battery capabilities and variations in published technical data, it is better to err on the safe side.
Half of the battery capacity is normally unavailable for economic usage anyway, and an undercharged battery halves
the remaining capacity as well. Why flatten your tires carrying around many heavy half-flat batteries – each with only
10-30% available capacity? “Deep-cycle” is not an excuse to run them flat or keep them flat. Don’t deeply discharge
them in the first place, and do fully recharge them in the second place.

Learn the myth of calling them “12V” batteries. 12.0V is less than half full! and on the brink of sulphation
damage, and considered ‘discharged’. Even 12.5V is considered half-discharged. Fully charged is really a 12.8V
battery. A truck system is 25.5V, not 24V. You should aim to bring the batteries back up to 12.6V self-holding volts
each day to avoid shortening their life.
12.8

11.5 0 - 100%
The range from flat to full is only 1.3V, and 12V is below half-way
(These voltages are for well-rested batteries.
Volts may drop lower during loads but will recover.)

To measure the true voltage of the battery by volt-meter, try at dawn, after many hours without discharge, and before
any solar charge. To measure its internal resistance, add a small load (test light + Voltmeter) to see whether the Volts
drop – a better indicator anyway. To measure electrolyte density accurately, allow several hours of rest for the acid to
equilibrate to the plates – deep-cycle batteries recover more slowly than cranking batteries. To measure remaining
charge carrying capacity, simply discharge it fully at a known amperage and you will know. A ‘high-load’ test uses very
little battery energy but can indicate compromised capacity and reduced cranking capacity, when the voltage drops
early or rapidly, respectively. A garage can do it for you rather than burning out the starter motor trying to do it
yourself.

Can I Redeem Sulphated Batteries?


The trouble with sulphation is that it covers over valuable plate area, and locks away electrolyte. Sulphated negative
plates lose their light, lead-grey colour and sulphated positive plates lose their dark chocolate colour. Sulphation can
be somewhat reversed by overcharging, but that does reduce life-span in itself – Overcharging sulphated plates with a
high current is a recipe for shedding plate capacity. There are new high voltage pulse devices. Powered by the battery
itself, (they cost about as much as a battery) which can redeem sulphation with a lesser current load; Ask around. The
controller may have a sulphation-redeem function which consists of spikes of 20V or more until the battery starts to
accept charge. It can be imitated by tapping a battery-positive lead with a 24V positive input (2 x 12V in series).
Another remedy for sulphation is a long low charge – 2-3 days at 25mA/Ah.

How Much Water Should I Put in Batteries?


This is perhaps the simplest question for the simplest maintenance task, yet it is easy to go wrong. The hidden trap for
the uninitiated is that charging will expand the water volume due to: a) acid production, added to the water volume;
b) heating expansion; c) bubble formation clinging to the plates. Cover the internal plates, to avoid oxidation damage
from them drying out, but leave plenty of expansion room above the water level, to avoid forcing acid out of the filler
caps. Don't judge the water level when the battery is flat, but only after it is freshly recharged.

How Much Battery Capacity Do I Need?


None. But one battery is very convenient. You can add more later. As a matter of logistics several small units are more
flexible and convenient than one large unit. Start small, but plan big and modular. I.e. Try to set aside a large battery
compartment, central and easily accessible for maintenance, and able to hold say half a dozen large batteries plus a
bottle of distilled water, a hydrometer, and spare battery knick-knacks. Initially you may wish to work one battery to a
quick death – 1000 cycles at 50% or more discharge & recharge. With two, you at least double their life, by
discharging each one half as much (unless of course, your appetite doubles – a far more common outcome). With four,
each lasts four times as long, so you can see that, provided you manage batteries well, the balance and payoff is
between the extra weight & space, and the extra reserve capacity. Lead is heavy compared with other sorts of
batteries, and deep-cycle demands relatively more lead, but even so, deep-cycling means more available capacity...
»Therefore (for fully charged 12V lead-acid batteries) Total Weight is the best rough guide to Total available Amp-hour
capacity.

Temperature-dependence results in colder batteries taking less charge-current, holding less volts, keeping less
capacity, yielding fewer peak amps, needing to be larger, gassing at a higher voltage, having less self-discharge, less
shedding and less grid corrosion, and having a longer lifespan. The effect is almost 1% per degree different from
27°C. The standard 14.1-14.4V on car regulators, without temperature compensation, therefore results in Northern
Territory car-batteries being over-charged, and Tasmanian car-batteries being undercharged, worsening the problems
of cold batteries. Controllers adjust the charging voltages by “-3mV/degree/cell” or “-40mV/degree” for 12V, which is
very conservative (inadequate?).
Chemistry works quicker at higher temperature, so a battery will accept more charge the hotter it gets, and so will
heat itself up quicker. Disconnect any battery which is warmer than you are, and bubbling vigorously, or it may soon
explode.

Hint: To properly understand energy storage capacity: Think in Watt-hours, not Ampere-hours.
Follow the uselessness of 'amp-hours' in the following variations...
A tiny torch battery – an ‘AA’ 1V 1Amp-hour cell – can, if you could extract all of its stored energy, deliver 1 Amp,
1Watt for 1hr.
A 2V lead-acid cell (actually 2.15V) which could deliver 1 Amp for 1hr would deliver double that, i.e. 2W for 1hr, since
Watts of power is calculated at Amps of current, times Voltage.
A 12V 1A-hr battery (a “battery” is a set of cells in series) can store 12W-hrs, 2 in each of its six 2V cells (actually
more like 12.3W-h for a fully charged 12.8 lead-acid battery, but little of that is available, don't forget).
A truck set-up, at 24V, has 12 cells in series, so a single amp-hr of available capacity yields double the energy again.
I.e. it takes twice the energy input to recharge each 24V ampere-hour.
If you put 10 AA batteries, one amp-hour each, in series for a 12V battery, you would still only have one amp-hour.
You can see that ampere-hours are misleading, when comparing batteries of different voltages, and you should think
in terms of kilo-watt-hours, just as with 240V. 80A-h x ‘12’V = 1kW-h.
For example. It lets you see how many ‘ampere-hours’ a kilowatt heater needs – one kW-hr per hour. The true formula
(dc Watts=Volts times Amps) also lets you see another hidden cause of inefficiency: Charging a battery with one A-h
of usable capacity, at 14.5V, costs you 14.5 Watts – more than 12.3 Watts for 1hour.
»Total Weight and/or size (for both batteries and panels) is the best rough guide to Total Watt-hour capacity, at any
voltage.
»Don't expect 'more' watts if you don't add 'more' something. e.g. switching only the voltage, from 24 to 12 or back,
cannot change capacity.

Life Cycles
»Compare batteries of similar capacity by claimed life-cycles, measured to comparable state of discharge. That gives
the true life-span and charge availability.

What Sort of Batteries?


You can, with care, successfully manage a motley collection of old and new, large and small, good and bad lead-acid
batteries, provided that you isolate each battery from the others when they are not charging or discharging to a
noticeable degree (i.e. disconnect all but one, last thing before bed, reconnecting them first thing next day); and
provided that you have more than enough energy supply to bring them back up to full charge regularly i.e. daily
(roughly one panel per battery). Even then, and with individual tender care, don’t expect miracles of optimal life-span
from this cheap alternative. Dissimilar batteries left alone, will mutually charge and discharge. One way to minimise
these problems is to bring them all securely up to full charge, where the dissimilarities seem to diminish. Monitor them
individually and regularly. One disadvantage of paralleling several small batteries rather than using a single large one,
is that a cell failure can cause large current drain into the bad battery, and ideally the links should all be fused. To
avoid this pitfall, regularly check the voltage held overnight by each battery individually, i.e. before reconnecting it. A
simple way to achieve this regular check is to use a different battery in the accessory battery bank as 'house-battery'
each night after bed, and see how it holds charge overnight. This might avoid draining all the good ones due to an
undetected bad cell.
Alternatively, if you are already so well-organised, as to be confident of optimal recharging, you may simply want to
start with a high-quality set of deep cycle batteries of identical size, age and capacity. Such a set of batteries will
parallel charge/discharge with fewer problems or cares. Consider the scale-economics and flexibilities of large 6V
batteries or large 2V cells in series, in two parallel sets (a single set is prone to failure without backup), and consider
24V for longer vehicles. Read widely – about electric bicycle and car batteries, space-probe batteries, marine types,
home-wind and mini-hydro plants – to come to grips with the wealth of information on battery performance.
A middle-of-the-road beginner’s choice would be a set of identical new but cheapest batteries, until you know you can
look after them properly. Upgrade to a better quality battery and charging system in a year or three, having made
your mistakes.
Gel and glass-mat AGM batteries offer some advantages, like deep discharge and quick recharge. They charge at a
lower maximum voltage, but this potential problem can be partially offset by using an extra series isolator power-
diode, with its 0.7V drop, or putting them on the end of a long cable run, e.g. to a caravan. Still, if they are mixed with
ordinary types, care must be taken not to overcharge them. Iron phosphate and Nickel iron batteries are showing
promise. Get up-to-date on the internet, on who manufactures what batteries.

Can I separate charging and discharging?


“Yes; do”. Some older or high resistance or smaller or larger batteries may benefit from an individual prolonged force-
charge, so you would need to be able to separate individual batteries for charging sometimes. If all the batteries were
left in parallel, the lower resistance ones will hog the charging-current available and starve the others. That way the
bad get worse. So yes, it helps to be able to charge separately.
“Yes, but don’t” (Don't use separate sets, that is). You can also separate batteries into two whole sets. One matched
set charges while the other matched set discharges. Each set will discharge more deeply, but less often, so that the
relative lifespan is much the same. Of course, you miss out on the full available reserve capacity on that rainy day. The
advantages of ‘two sets’ are cosmetic (you avoid running the whole bank flat), and the shallower-discharge ‘combined’
option is more economic.
Furthermore, it is more efficient to allow the solar supplied current to flow directly to the load with only the excess
going into then out of the batteries. To do this you cannot have one set discharging to load, while the other charges,
using all available solar watts. If you draw during the day more than at night (and so it is therefore sensible to run
directly off solar), aim to draw current all morning and noon so as not to waste the oversupply at noon – because
whenever the controller puts itself into “(limited) absorption” phase, the bulk of solar watts are unused for charging,
and wasted. Once again you cannot manage to absorb maximum charge (by feeding a maximum number of batteries)
for later use, if one set is isolated.

One day, instead of batteries, you will be able to substitute a fuel-cell.

The third main component of a “solar” system is a mysterious black box containing magical electronic components and an
IOU for many dollars...

Do I Really Need A Controller?


Yes. »Charge-controllers avoid overcharging. There is simple ‘overcharging’ which simply dries out the battery if you
don’t put water back in. That ruins the exposed plates. Apart from that, vigorous ‘overcharging’ seems to consist of
shedding the active plate matrix chemicals to the bottom of the battery, through excess gassing. This not only reduces
the overall capacity, but can short out the plates. The plate grid can corrode, and its antimony content can migrate,
shortening battery life. Overheating (40°C) can also be a problem, e.g. buckling the plates and causing a short-circuit,
killing the cell. Further heating (50°C) can result in runaway overcharging, i.e. heating, called ‘cooking’ or ‘frying’ the
battery, and may lead to an explosion. Any system with enough voltage to charge batteries to an adequate level is
automatically in danger of overcharging those same batteries, given enough time.
»Controllers avoid long-term undercharging, as mentioned earlier. Unless you are in danger of overcharging, you
almost certainly will not be charging the batteries adequately. The risk is then of consequent damage due to consistent
undercharging – a more serious risk, of sulphation. Such is the case in ordinary car voltage regulators, set to 14.1-
14.4V or so, roughly the excess-gassing-voltage of lead-acid electrolyte. The unavoidable trouble with 14.4V, is that
such a low voltage cannot fully charge the battery – nothing beyond about 70%, and that is a major reason why car
batteries last only a couple of years or so. A controller will achieve 90-100%, and so double the available capacity, as
well as extend the battery life. If you have been congratulating yourself that your battery bank never needs much
topping up with distilled water – that they don’t seem to overcharge – then you have actually discovered that you have
never been charging them enough. A sufficient charging regime will cause them to gas freely.
Therefore the voltage needs control at both ends.
»Another need is to prevent reverse current into the modules. There is either a relay or a diode built in to the
controller.
»You should have a fuse in the circuit too, and the controller does that for you too, and it also does a few other
welcome, safe and money-saving things.
»You can send the output of a manual (non-smart) charger through the voltage controller, which makes the charger
“smart” enough to prevent overcharging – the controller cuts it off at the appropriate time. The controller may also
clean up the rippled output of cheap chargers.
By the way, a “12V” generator output which does not deliver up to 15V is insufficient to charge batteries fully or
quickly. It is a common complaint that running a generator for hours still doesn’t charge the battery bank up. If that is
the case with your generator, you would be better off running a large 240V battery charger from its 240V output,
which is usually much more economic anyway.

How Does the Voltage Controller Work?


The magic ingredients supplied by charge controllers for lead-acid batteries, are various time-out mechanisms. I.e. it
provides a higher charging voltage but for a limited time, in order to bring the batteries closer to full charge. The car
regulator is set to an upper limit of 14.4V to try to avoid overcharging on long trips. If a larger sustained voltage could
be used, then the upper limit would not be 14.4 V. Solar panels run at 17-21V! Even the ones with deliberately fewer
cells run at 15-18V or 16-20V (16V under load or 20V open circuit). The controller may use a simple time out e.g.
one-hour at 14.8V, or several hours at 14.5V, but also it can deliver rapid on-off high-voltage spikes aimed to average
at say 14.4V. These spikes can not only temporarily push in extra changing current at a rate which the battery can
accept, they can also counteract sulphation. The controller may not display these high voltages, but only a time-
average result of on-off cycles. It’s a case of blind-trust – Leave it and trust it.

Some controllers use mechanical relays, but the relays I tested were inconsistent in their cut-in cut-out voltages. You
don’t want them to fail unbeknown, as relays are prone to. The transistor versions are more reliable and should last
much longer, but their liquid crystal displays may give up after some years.

There are problems when two different smart controllers try to work together, e.g. a smart battery charger, or a
smart-regulated alternator, or a second house-alternator, regulated to a different voltage than the main controller.
Each might sense the other as a fully charged battery, or detect its voltage spikes, or take its reading from the wrong
side of an isolator diode (so the sensor inputs need to come direct from the battery bank).

What are “Boost Charge, Bulk Charge, Absorption Charge, Float Charge, Equalisation Charge”?
You may already have a controller but still not understand the instructions, or the jargon, or the reasons. Most
controllers are “Three step”...
• Initially they allow uncontrolled high current to “boost” a flattish battery, i.e. by supplying the full available power in
“bulk”. This voltage-limited, approximately ‘constant power’ step ends when a pre-set voltage is reached. E.g. 13.8-
14.3V for gel cells; 14.7-15V for wet cells, compensated upwards for a decrease in temperature. For battery chargers
it is more like a ‘constant resistance’ phase, where current drops as volts rise. To reduce gassing and so prolong the
life of your batteries, you may wish to reduce the voltage ceilings, e.g. to 14.5V, if you know your batteries will
recharge fully and regularly anyway – the Sun is in no hurry, and longer time at lower voltage is a gentler recharge. A
timer, if fitted, might time the bulk charge out, e.g. if a bad cell stops the voltage from ever rising.
• Next comes the time-limited second ‘constant voltage’ step of keeping a lid on the rapidly rising voltage, either
keeping it up at that pre-set ceiling for about an hour, or pulling it back down for a few hours to a fixed voltage,
though still at over-voltage, as low as 13.8V depending on the battery type. This phase supplies that extra 20-30%
charge “absorption” that a low fixed voltage cannot. It also has the effect of limiting the maximum charge current to
the desirable 10% of Amp-hour capacity. Transistor switching, a very rapid on-off-on process, ensures that a
decreasing amount of current will flow, dependent upon the actual or predicted state of charge. The rest of the charger
output is wasted or dumped or shunted. Absorption charge is usually ended when the current input falls to very low
levels.
• The third step (a voltage floor) is to release the fixed higher-voltage force-charging, and so allow it to “float”, back
down to a level where a trickle charge will counteract self-discharge. This also is controlled by transistors switching the
charge on or off as necessary. It is constant in neither voltage nor current nor power nor resistance, just floating.
Eventually a load will cause the voltage to drop below the float-voltage minimum (about 13.5V), and this triggers
step 1 again.

• Once a season, more or less, the batteries need a wake-up, called an “equalisation” process, or ‘conditioning’,
aimed at ensuring that each cell is equally and fully charged, with its electrolyte thoroughly mixed, and it also tries to
redeem sulphation. The 6 cells are in series and may require slightly different charging, but have been given no
choice. The same inequity happens when you charge dissimilar batteries in series.
However, in deep-cycle batteries, if you keep your bank full, minor sulphation redeems itself, and the prolonged slow
controlled charge rate of solar power, with none-the-less periods of free gassing, minimises the need for cell-
equalisation, compared to quick-and-nasty chargers (e.g. in marine or industrial situations); and a bumpy dirt road
can mix the electrolytes. You don’t necessarily need to worry.
The equalisation process, roughly ‘constant current’, calls for adding extra amps to the normal charge regime (e.g. 5
extra per 100Amp-hrs; or 1 extra Volt above normal absorption charge; or simply use uncontrolled bulk charge) for a
limited time (e.g. 3-4 hrs, but it can be prolonged by using a lower voltage). This process obviously allows you to reset
your automatic “state-of-charge” meter to 100%, uses higher voltage (disconnect all computers, including the
computerised car-management system – so don’t choose the automatic time-tabling option for regular equalisation),
causes much gassing (check acid levels afterwards), stirs up the stagnant dense bottom layers of over-concentrated
acid electrolyte (a good thing), slightly reduces the capacity and life of the battery due to forcing the plates to shed
material (so don’t equalise too often), yet definitely improves the overall life of the battery. Lack of regular
equalisation is listed as a common cause of premature battery forced retirement.

All of the above steps are monitored and controlled by the transistor technology, and programmed to optimise the life
and utility of your batteries, supposedly, at least.

Can’t I just have a large battery bank, a small panel, and occasional manual shut off?
Not always. A “large battery capacity” requires a large charging capacity, to avoid daily undercharging. (Few people
can say honestly “I’ll turn off and shut down when the voltage first drops to 12.6V”.)
Secondly, the time will undoubtedly come when you want to leave the setup to take care of itself for a week or month.
Then the voltage will build up and up to damaging levels – It is a myth that a smaller charging current can’t damage
batteries. If the battery charging mechanism has any capacity to charge the batteries properly, especially on a daily
basis, it equally has the capacity to overcharge them, and reasonably quickly too. A so-called “trickle-charge”
(1mA/Ah) can counteract self-discharge and prevent a battery losing voltage, but if it is a true trickle-charge, then it
will be unable to increase the battery voltage, and is useless to remedy discharge. A long slow minimal charge current,
to avoid overcharge, e.g. when laid-up, only works when you are not drawing any loads. Given enough time, you can
bring the battery up to near full charge without running near the upper voltage limits. Try setting the voltage controller
down to 13.8V bulk-charge for lay-up. It is gentler (i.e. minimises gassing, which only begins to be noticeable at
13.8V), if you have the time it demands, but it may not fully recharge the battery once it has been used. Leave the
battery fully charged to start with.
If the charging voltage is above about 14.4, then long-term charge is damaging. Luckily solar power is itself time-
limited, and can only deliver maximum charge for a few hours at a time. You don’t need to panic as the battery
voltage rises above 14.4V, especially in a colder climate! You can also help out, e.g. with a switch, a timing switch, or a
voltage-tripped switch. If you are there, you simply need to read the voltmeter regularly and to turn on more and
more house-lights as the Sun gets stronger. The voltmeter is the essential ingredient for manual control.

Perhaps you reason to yourself that you could draw off sufficient charge every day, to avoid overcharging. Such
manual monitoring and management not only sentences you to constant vigilance, with the risk of mistakes, but it
again puts you in danger of chronic undercharging, with the associated increased sulphation plus the loss of potential
capacity. Undercharging is the greater evil, and therefore overcharging is the constant though lesser danger.

Surely There’s Some Compromise Strategy to Automatically Stop Overcharging!


If you do need to connect solar modules direct to the battery without a voltage controller (going solar may have led
you far from the nearest alternative energy store), and you want something automatic, first try some simple
expedients like placing your panel in partial shade during the middle of the day, i.e. due South of a gum tree, or tilt it
more vertically to not catch so much of the high Sun, even point it due South in mid-summer, tilted at 45°. If you
follow the Sun around with the panels, here is a simple regime: Point East in the morning to quickly boost the
batteries, and West after noon, to give a final boost before nightfall... This avoids the long noon-boon. To reduce the
panel voltage without choking the current, try taping thin white plastic (i.e. somewhat translucent and weather
resistant) over up to 11 cells on each panel, aiming to leave about 15V, then follow the Sun around to get maximum
output. Avoid undercharging by careful monitoring.

What’s the Cheapest Controller I Can Get Away with?


Probably the most expensive. For one thing, you need to “Think Big”, i.e. to plan for an inevitable future expansion. It
makes sense to get a larger capacity controller now, to cope with changes later. “Solar modules” are indeed modular,
and so are batteries, but the controller is not (in practice). The controller is central to the system, and all wiring,
planning, and capabilities revolve around this hub – It becomes the rate-limiting component.
Running several small controllers in parallel may give unforeseen interaction problems, although identical ones can be
paralleled. With multiple controllers you will need to redesign your electrical nerve-centre so that it revolves more
around flexible interconnections of many cables, and less around the controllers. That may not be easy, and there may
not be space enough. Another alternative to a single controller is to have a voltage-clipper or a smart-switch on each
battery. A good controller however will do a good job, whereas small cheap devices may simply limit the current or
voltage or waste the available watts. Another choice is to have a small controller control a high-current relay rather
than control the charge current directly, but you would need a controller designed for the job, because of the rapid
switching involved. Until the state of the art changes, transistor controlled voltage-regulators do the best job.
A big controller doesn’t need to be expensive – shop around – but I suggest you stop skimping on this item.

Life is long enough for you to gradually build an expensive set of modules, batteries and appliances – so don’t get put
off by the thought of future costs; you will expand as your budget and luck allow; but you do need to consider a big
controller now if you can, in anticipation. I did so, hardly daring to think of a second panel, but the double-size
controller I bought wasn’t nearly enough. If I knew then that I would end up with 4 panels and want more, I would
have been too frightened to even buy one panel, but if I knew also how happy I would be with a bigger system, I
would have spent more to start with – 2 panels, and room for another two, and I still would have underdone it!

For a second thing, the bigger controllers offer built-in functions that save you money and worry – ammeters,
voltmeters, amp-hour meters, reverse current protection, over-current protection, lightning surge protection; night-
time drop-out, battery temperature sensors and automatic compensation, remote readouts, alarms, automatic and
programmable cut-out and re-connect settings, adjustments for those newer battery types, shunt-loads, night-light
timers, and more. If you expand, you will want these features. That’s why they are there.

Thirdly, an expensive controller costs about as much as an expensive battery, but lasts much longer, and saves the
cost of replacing several batteries over the long-term. A bigger one will save the cost of several more, since it allows
you to include extra energy gathering as the budget allows, and thus allows you to better charge the batteries you do
have. Plus, importantly, if you spend your money on a big controller now, rather than on extra panels or batteries, you
can afford to await the opportunity to buy extra panels and storage batteries second-hand, and so save more
hundreds of dollars. The controller comes with this unsigned IOU. Good controllers will be harder to come by, second-
hand.

Ideally you should start the hunt now, for a second-hand beefy controller before anything else.

How Big a Controller Should I Buy?


Put your imagination into gear. Will you ever plug in a large mains battery charger through the charge-controller? And
ask yourself whether you would say No to the offer of a cheap secondhand petrol generator. It may be small or large,
but its output is larger than a solar panel, and you may wish to route its 12-15V output through the controller. And will
you really want to throw away a large battery (which can still store energy) just because it can’t crank the car? Your
battery collection may grow. Wouldn’t you like one-day to have one of those small wind generators? By this time you
probably also have four plastic panels on the roof and two glass ones on the ground; You are watching the Olympics
non-stop, cooking by microwave, running the laptop, and drinking ice-cold tinnies from your fridge.
A kilowatt controller would not be too big! I.e. if you take this questionable advice, roughly, ten-tuple you initial
wattage.
And don’t forget to imagine the impossible. You may one day, in view of the price of fuel, decide to grow roots, and, in
view of the oil crisis, want to transfer the panels to power a shack, when expansion is a “definite probability”.

Apart from that, know that roof-mounted panels perform only at half-watts in higher latitudes, and low-Sun situations,
so a 120W controller should cope with 3-4 x 60W panels, in winter in Southern Australia. Just don’t park on a North
facing hillside.

(Herebelow, this section degenerates into boring detail of dubious reliability, until 'Inverters'. From there on is boring
information of questionable reliability.)

»A power choke, such as running the solar supply through your headlights, as described in the Appendix below, is
useful to add in extra panels without buying a bigger controller. For instance, you may want to buy some
second-hand panels you come across. You design the maximum power throughput of the power choke, to match the
controller rating (or the battery bank maximum safe charge current, whichever is smaller) and channel all panel inputs
through this choke. You hardly notice the restraint at low power (very dull light), you welcome the extra panels in dull
light and you welcome the restraint on bright days. The down-side is sacrificing the possible high charge rate for a
large battery bank. No manual control is needed. Indeed, manual over-ride is not possible, because it would damage
the controller. Instead the extra panels could be transiently connected direct to the batteries through a 'controller-
bypass switch' (jumper lead), but this may lead to inadvertent overcharging. The choke can be used as a mild heater,
e.g. for an incubator cupboard. In addition the surplus watts can be used in a shunt circuit (see below). The power
choke doesn’t consume much power, it stops it getting through. The excess remains available upstream from the
choke.

Suggestion: Get an Additional Shunt Controller.


A shunt is a parallel circuit. It virtually short circuits the input side when the voltage rises above a set point.
Don't confuse an '(excess) current shunt', a power-consuming device, with a 'current(-measuring) shunt', which
measures the millivolt drop across a stretch of cable.
To use the power shunt facility, simply design uses for spare solar power for when the batteries are nearing full charge
– when they won’t accept full watts. The spare watts can be diverted to other loads. Some suggestions: A room heater
or fan; a warm water tank; an incubator for rising bread or making yoghurt or sprouting seeds; a combination of those
two – a ‘warm cupboard’; a clothes-drying cupboard; a drinking-water steriliser; a cold-chest, or a combination warm-
cold double-chest (use one of those thermo-electric heat-separating semiconductor devices); a water-pump; a slow-
cooking pot; a food dryer. Its a matter of economic principle – to use the available energy, rather than waste it – to
justify your investment.
A shunt facility also allows you to add a wind generator. Shunt controllers can cope with both solar and wind output,
but solar controllers do not cope with wind input. A shunt for wind (and water) energy is needed because a wind-
generator can’t just be turned off – It needs to dump its oversupply somewhere, to avoid going out of control. In this
case you need to supply a low resistance high-wattage load, not simply a low wattage heater or appliance.
You don’t need to add wind-energy, but you still may want to use shunted energy. Unfortunately, a shunt controller
may not be three-step in itself. What you need is a combined series/shunt three-step control, and if that is
unavailable, you can add a voltage tripped shunt on the high voltage side of a series three-step voltage controller.
When shut off from the batteries, the solar voltage rises, but it can be used, if you supply a suitable voltage threshold,
and a load which ideally can take all you can throw at it, perhaps in a graded manner – starting off with only a small
load. Note that the shunt should only be used on the high voltage side, and when the voltage is high (sustainable
above 15V. E.g. cut in at 19V, cut out at 15V) or else the tendency is to never allow the three-step controller to spend
its allotted time at a high voltage in the absorption phase, the phase which requires some power to be rejected.
Cutting in a shunt of any size will drop the charge current, drop the battery voltage and trigger bulk charge, interfering
with the optimal program.
The shunt function needs to be accessible, i.e. not simply an inbuilt resistor bank, but for your use. I have no
experience with commercial supply-side shunts, but I do want to be able to access that raw 20V excess power on the
supply side, and for it to be automatic. It makes more sense than putting a voltage-tripped switch on the downstream
low-voltage side (even if it shunts the upstream flow) or merely shunting an uncontrolled input. So try to get a three-
step controller designed for a user-supplied shunt-loading for the wasted watts. It should positively switch off the
battery circuit, in case the shunt load fails to absorb all the excess, and switch in the shunt load, preferably in a well-
graded fashion... small loads to start with, to avoid immediately dropping the voltage.
The combination of a power choke (for many panels feeding a small controller), along with an 18V shunt load for the
excess power at noon is a good match.
Appendix: Can I Make a Controller myself out of Common Components?
A multimeter is a must, to make these make-shift suggestions work. Meters are your eyes in the dark. See how to
protect your ‘eyes’ in the DIY section below.
These suggestions don’t stop overcharging at low currents, and/or won’t stop undercharging (they may cause it), but
they do slow down damage from high charge currents, e.g. in summer, and are better than nothing, if you get the
voltage drop right, to leave about 15V maximum. No guarantees are given! Assume a 12V system...
A. Parallel Shunt Devices
»The wasted watts may be recouped if you heat something up from the dissipated heat from the diodes, resistors or
lamps suggested. Otherwise there is little point in using a shunt. The more useful the added appliance, the happier
you will be to have it there.
»A simple-to-understand (but not cheap) voltage-clipper is a series of 20-24 power diodes ($2 each!), to short-circuit
excess voltage, placed across the terminals of either the panel or the house circuitry – point them downstream). They
have a conducting threshold of say 13.2V (22 x 0.6V) rising to about 16.5V volts under load (22 x 0.75V) – Measure
current and voltage drop of diodes when cool, under minimum load, then under maximum load, while hot, and adjust
the number of diodes as desired, e.g. to run a shunt load. When this voltage clipper is set up as a battery charger, use
one extra diode (0.7V higher threshold) if you have used any downstream series diode. The series diode is to isolate
this charger from other controlled inputs, e.g. ones rated higher, say at 14.8V.

In Out
21V to 15V Voltage-clipper, equivalent to a power Zener-diode.
Note the upstream diode protection from other charging sources.

»Try 24 power diodes and a 6V headlight in series with it, across the terminals. Whenever the batteries have no use
for the panels, the voltage rises and the available current is shunted through the lamp and diodes, used as a heater,
and as a visible ammeter.
»A 24V headlight (or 2 x 12V in series) is an easier method of shunting current across the panel terminals, and will
subdue the maximum voltage by milking say, a quarter of the available watts. As the batteries come up to charge, the
voltage rises and it will draw more. You can choose the watts by using either or both filaments in series or parallel.

The trouble with shunt loads (except the diode versions) is that when the solar output drops, the shunt goes on using
up current, so you may want something which only works when the Sun shines. Either turn off the shunt automatically
by a normally-off relay fed by sunshine, or switch your strategy to a series-inserted power limiter...
B. Series Devices
»Experiment with inserting a low voltage appliance, such as a 6V water-pump, in series in the circuit, or a power-
resistor rated to drop 3 or 4 Volts at maximum desired current (e.g. 1 Ohm at 3 Amps; 2 Ohm at 4 amps. Volts=Amps
x Ohms). A 6 Ohm power rheostat as found in some car dimmers does a good job. You use it in conjunction with a
Voltmeter, and keep adjusting the battery voltage to what you want, e.g. 14.2V, during the day.
»Alternatively, a series of 4-7 power diodes will remove a constant 3-6V (whereas a resistor or motor will work their
way up to it as the current increases). The diodes may drop as much as 1V each when under maximum load, 1.5 Volts
if heat-stressed. You need to provide adequate ampacity for a predictable voltage drop, and/or provide an adequate
heat sink to keep any power diode cooler. Warning, heat-sink metal can be live. In this case, diodes need individual
and insulated heat-sinks, to avoid simply bypassing the diode through the metal. Diodes waste more energy at lower
currents than do resistors or thermistors.
»Another alternative is to use long thin wiring, of just sufficient ampacity, which will heat itself up under high load and
consume the excess volts and so choke the maximum watts. However it would be safer to use a purpose-designed
heater. E.g...
»Try an incandescent-filament 6V (motor-cycle) headlight in series with the batteries in the solar-charging input
circuit. To limit the high current-and-voltage combination, get one rated at 1/3 – 1/2 the total Wattage. At maximum
power, this drops out 5-6V (1/3 of what is available). The other 14 or so volts is taken by the batteries. When the
current is low, so too is the in-line resistance, and most of the voltage is available for charging, but when the current
rises, the light glows and resists the flow, and the voltage available doesn’t rise. You can bypass these shunts as the
Sun declines if you want to.
»Smaller wattage globes simply act as a current choke – useful if you want to leave the vehicle unattended.
»Light filaments also substitute for a fuse, in the event of shorting the batteries – the solar input is cut off because the
light will burn out. When the batteries are in the circuit, the back voltage of 12-14V will not allow the filaments to work
at their rated Volts.
»Once you have grasped the in-series-voltage-drop idea, experiment with higher volt ratings, in series and parallel
configurations.
»Higher voltage globes give a more sudden cut-off, wasting less watts, but you need more and bigger ones to let
through enough current. My suggestions are based on measurements of 4 x 12V globes in series, run at 14V, and
similar set-ups – I found that a filament at quarter voltage glows only mildly, has half its normal resistance and 1/8 its
rated watts. The end result is a power-choke, with whatever filament you use reaching half-heat. The desired runaway
thermistor effect is best just below that, when the filament is just starting to glow, so aim for this to happen at
somewhat below the maximum desired current. The system will end up glowing red/yellow and dropping 4 or more
Volts, at maximum current, but being hardly visible at low power.
»Try a 12V headlight, with one or other or both filaments connected in parallel, (or two filaments in series = a 24V
system) rated at just over the total system wattage, or a truck 24V headlight, perhaps two in parallel. With a multiple
switch arrangement you can fine tune the desired voltage, by choosing the appropriate filament combinations
according to system charge-state and solar intensity. The dilemma with such choice is either constant vigilance, or
constant waste. You can only safely leave it if it is set to the likely maximum resistance ever needed that day.
»An old mechanical voltage regulator can be wired to mimic the 14.4V cutout for restraining a small panel’s output as
if it were a battery supplying field current. A fridge relay can be used for bigger currents, but you have to supply some
external circuitry.
Here is a simple cut-in load, (which will occasionally buzz). The voltage rising increases the coil current until the relay closes. But it may stay on too
long when the voltage drops.

More sophisticated circuits could solve most of the problems, but why bother imitating a controller badly? Buy a
purpose-designed gizmo.

The fourth component in many solar systems

Inverters
I don’t use them much, only the small detachable ones. They all need foolproof grounding. Secure and reliable
grounding requirements for 240V in a mobile home are difficult to meet. Stay alive; Don’t use 240V. Use in-line fault
sensors, but grounding the solar panel negative can probably interfere with (by bypassing) the ground-fault detection
– Check with an expert.
To install inverters permanently as part of a system needs permits and inspections, which tells you that the removable
ones can't be much safer, yet that the wiring system has escaped professional scrutiny.
They add roughly an extra 20% inefficiency to add to the other inefficient steps.
They add an extra and unreliable link in the chain, e.g. they can’t be used in a lightning storm i.e. can be damaged
easily, and should be surge protected, and unplugged in storms.
To provide a backup in case of malfunction, and to give some modular flexibility, use the option to stack two or more
identical inverters in parallel, connecting the second one only when necessary.
You may not like to live next to a very high frequency device, because of radiated energy. Your electronics equipment
may not like its jagged waveform or voltage/frequency variation. The high frequency versions produce the smoother
waveform, whereas the low frequency devices are heavier, bulkier and more efficient.
Like the controller, the inverter is a bottle-neck; plan its size for your imagined future needs, to cope with inevitable
expansion.
The most modern inverters are probably the best, since the technology is improving. Get the latest advice.
Some run in reverse as a battery charger, run by a generator.

DIY Solar? If you want to understand it yourself, and expand it yourself, you had better supervise it yourself.

Could I Design the System Myself?


In older cars, Yes, and even in modern ones too. In any case, aim to leave the car-alternator-cranking-battery system
untouched and separate – that’s simple isn’t it? This also avoids interfering with modern computer management
systems for car electrics. It leaves you free to design and redesign your ‘house’ electrics. Careful interconnection is
nonetheless covered below.

Read all you can about 12V and car-electrics.

One other reason for a stand-alone house-system is the following problem...

Positive-wire or Negative-wire control?


The charge-current control is achieved by impeding flow from the charger to the battery, usually in one wire of the
circuit only. It may be the positive wire or the negative wire, but the choice causes problems in: grounding; wiring;
interaction with the car-charging system; and with voltage sensing. Because the situation begins to get hard to
understand if you mix two different systems, it is simpler to have a positive wire controller, especially if you intend to
integrate the alternator and the solar system.
So be aware that many solar controllers regulate the negative wire current from the solar panels to the battery and so
require un-grounded ('insulated') negative returns – to avoid bypassing the controller via the chassis or via grounded
appliances. The instructions supplied with controllers could be more helpful.

Ground
There is a difference between 'grounding' and 'negative return' or 'chassis ground'. 'Ground' is often used loosely in dc
(2 wire) systems, as in this article, but it really means “physically well-connected to the earth”, not simply 'connected
to a common return e.g. the chassis or negative bus-bar'. E.g. in ac (3 wire) systems the bare wire is “grounded” but
the “neutral” (non-active 'return') wire must only be grounded where it is immediately protected by a circuit-breaker. A
solar panel frame may be grounded for lightning or static protection, but it is and should remain electrically isolated
from the solar panel negative wire. Where you see a hole in the frame marked “ground”, you connect it to the actual
ground, not to the solar negative! The instructions provided with panels should be clearer. Whether or not to ground
the solar negative wire or other components of your system is a safety and wiring issue which you should discuss with
a good electrician. There is often a 'third wire' in a boat called the 'bonding strip' which is like the bare ac ground wire
and is not used for current carrying except during lightning, leakage current, corrosion or short-circuits. Its point of
attachment to the negative electrics is again a complicated issue, to be well understood first.
Try to say, if that's what you really mean, 'chassis; return; negative; negative-return', instead of 'ground; earth'.
Chassis
Most cars now are 'negative earth', using a chassis return, i.e. the metal bulk acts as a common negative (but no
actual ground or earth!). The voltage regulation via the alternator takes place on the 'floating' positive. Boats and
stand-alone house systems may be 'insulated return', avoiding any chassis-return, e.g. for corrosion control, and this
suits either control system (positive or negative wire interruption), provided all the appliances are chassis-isolated, but
at the cost of more cable. The motor usually has electrical connections to the chassis, and radio aerials may need
'grounding' (either version -- chassis or earth). In the case of unavoidably grounded or chassis-return appliances, the
house-battery negative may need to be floating – isolated from the chassis – to avoid multiple 'negative-grounds'
interfering with the negative-wire controller. The instructions may not explain this clearly i.e. they will not even tell you
which wire is controlled, let alone how to properly ground the system. A built-in amp-hour-meter needs all the outputs
from that battery bank to go through the meter or it will not be able to tell you the true state of discharge of the
battery bank. This is another reason for double-wire (non-chassis-return) circuits.

Common Negative or Common Positive?


Positive-wire controllers allow a common negative, so that the solar negative wire could run directly to the battery, if
that is the shortest cable-run. Negative wire controllers will allow a common positive, and so the solar positive can run
directly to the battery, to save cable length and voltage-drop power losses. However the uncontrolled wire may be
used to measure the charge-current, and so the ammeter would be bypassed. You can replace the ammeter function
by measuring the milli-volts drop over the length of the heavy cable. Use long thin wires to each end of the cable,
soldered in place, and turn the ammeter on, when you want a reading. Calibrate it if you desire, e.g. “14mV/Amp”.

Battery-Voltage Sensing Wires


If you run a heavy solar wire directly to the battery, a thin cable to sense battery voltage accurately can be run from
the battery back to the 'battery' (positive or negative) slot on the controller – it carries virtually no current. When you
run either or both of the solar wires to the controller (e.g. you must run the positive solar through the controller in a
positive-wire control system), and then carry onwards with a thick current carrying cable from either 'battery' slot to
the battery, the voltage sensed is not the battery voltage but slightly more. E.g. if there is a half-volt drop under load
in one cable from the controller to the battery, and two such wires, the controller could undercharge by one volt. The
sensed voltage would need to be compensated by up to a volt for full load, but at low load (no voltage drop) it may
then overcharge by a volt. The voltage drop problem is there, unavoidably, for the controlled wire, so there is always
some voltage drop, and the idea is not to double it up unnecessarily. Controllers provide a 'battery' slot or two without
telling you how to properly connect it. Some controllers claim to compensate for such effects, but it is difficult to see
how they can know your cable-size, usage and draw details adequately. More blind trust is needed. It is always better
anyway, for current-carrying cables, to use large enough diameter cable, to minimise voltage drops.

Voltage Spike From Disconnecting the Alternator


»Don’t put an isolator switch on the cranking battery, for fear of accidentally disconnecting all batteries while the
alternator is running. The momentary voltage spike can kill the alternator, the car electrics, and you. You can (should?)
fit a surge protector from alternator output to chassis to avoid that high-voltage-spike problem. Ask for a properly
appropriate ‘snubber’ or zener diode (25-30V).
»If you do use a cranking-battery isolator switch, it can be paralleled with three or four diodes fixed in series (not
necessarily very large), pointing to battery positive, to effectively leave the battery connected in the event of a high-
voltage spike, without drawing current from other charge-sources or batteries, while the battery is supposedly
‘isolated’. This accomplishes spike protection without drawing much current from high voltaged chargers.
Alt BattA voltage spike from the alternator can bypass the isolator switch
but stop other charge getting through. A similar feed from the charger,
through only one diode, as shown, can allow a float charge to the cranking battery.

Charger

Discharge protection – Battery 'Isolation'


Battery isolation is mainly for preventing a charged battery from discharging, e.g. when the television or fridge is on
all night. You can still allow charging, with a one-way device called an isolater diode. The 'Isolation' is then partial.
»You can make a permanent low current connection from the solar charger to the car-cranking positive, through a
silicon power-diode (which introduces a 0.7V drop; diagram above). This safely supplies say, up to 14.1V for part of
most days, to stop the cranking battery running flat from disuse. You could even try a second diode in series to reduce
it to a 13.5 “float” charging voltage, if you think 14.1 is too high. (This single diode connection can be done for any or
all batteries, to bypass the isolator switches, one-way only – Just make it detachable).
»The device called a “Dual Battery Isolater” isolates the accessory battery only, or whatever is connected to it
downstream of the cranking battery. It closes a relay when the cranking battery is sufficiently charged to allow the
voltage to rise to, say, 14V. You could use it to shunt excess charge current to a load, for instance, and it would only
come on when the cranking battery side had sufficient voltage. If there is a solar panel on the downstream side, the
solar voltage will keep the relay open even when the engine switches off, and the solar system will then share its
charge current with the cranking battery.

Over-ride: Aim for a separate “house” system – chargers and batteries – but with over-ride.
»Between the two systems – your separate house circuits, and the original vehicle electrics – you can connect a heavy
duty switch or solenoid (or impromptu jumper-lead), and heavy cable, to boost the car-battery capacity for
cranking/winching and for cross-charging, but get advice first about compatibility with the car-computer-management
(e.g. “Disconnect the solar system while running the engine”).
A relay controlled dual battery isolater will not allow such reverse current, so it cannot act as an over-ride device.
Other Connections Between the Two Systems
»With positive-wire controllers, you can afford to use a common chassis “ground”, but may wish to have an extra,
dedicated, large chassis-strap.
»If you want the car alternator/regulator to charge both battery banks there are various options to make an automatic
parallel connection only when the alternator voltage rises. Purpose built parallelers are also available (e.g. the dual
battery isolator). One other option to connect the house batteries into the alternator charging system is to operate a
relay from the oil pressure switch (rather than from the ignition switch – Turning the ignition on, will not in itself stop
the two battery banks equalising to a low voltage, e.g. from prolonged cranking, but using engine revs to connect the
two banks should ensure that only a charge to both is possible).
»If you do charge both banks off the one alternator, the alternator output should really go to the house batteries first,
since they are most likely to be flatter, and to the cranking battery only when the voltage rises sufficiently. This
prevents excessive currents constantly running through the parallel link device. But beware if your “parallel link” is
really an automatic isolator – you may succeed in isolating the alternator! I.e. you can turn the dual battery isolator
around so the cranking battery is downstream of the isolator from the alternator, and charged second, but the house-
batteries must then never be isolated (while the motor runs), lest the alternator gets disconnected from every battery.
A heavy duty manual isolator switch is another option, but place it on the house batteries, to leave the cranking
battery connected permanently to the alternator.

Dedicated Systems
»Consider dedicating particular batteries to particular tasks, notably cranking and electronics. A dedicated “electronics”
battery is thereby insulated from voltage fluctuations due to charge/discharge/cranking. One dedicated battery can be
used for the “vehicle control systems and small vehicle accessories”; another for “house electronics”, e.g. computer.
You could even have a dedicated battery for “vehicle large-accessories” (headlights, etc) to ensure that the “cranking
battery” cannot be compromised by night driving or by accidentally leaving on the vehicle lights. I.e. the ‘cranking’
battery is only truly ‘dedicated’ to cranking when all other loads are always drawn from elsewhere. Add in “house
accessories” and that’s 5 semi-isolated systems instead of two, as in the modified schematic diagram below.
»Each dedicated battery bank should necessarily have an isolator diode, and the voltage regulator should be therefore
adjusted upward 0.7V to compensate. There are several ways to do this: Adjust the regulator; Take the voltage
sensing directly from the battery, not from the alternator output (This bypasses the diode but only effectively controls
the charge in one battery – it’s hard to decide which to choose.); Wire in a similar diode into the sensing circuit,
pointing from positive to negative, though its voltage drop will be less because it is cooler.

Go Modular
I prefer keeping complex wiring simplified, exposed and accessible for fault-diagnosis and for upgrades or changes. It
is not a 240V system, after all. Therefore I also recommend that you keep each module modular, i.e. supplied with its
own reverse-polarity protection diode, and with its own long cable to the hub, and perhaps with its own controller.
Providing individual connecting cables to the hub, takes no more copper than joining panel to panel, but makes it easy
to trace faults, to dismantle or reconfigure the system, to test individual performance, to understand the overall setup,
and even to recharge somebody’s flat car-battery. Because each panel operates simultaneously there is no saving on
wire size by using a common feed cable.

Wired in line, only one module is removable for individual testing. Wired as modules, might take no more wire.
Batteries and solar modules can both be treated this way – as individual suppliers – but provide a switch, detachable link and/or
isolater diode to each unit, as required.

The diodes consume a few watts each (0.75V x a few amps), but this sacrifice is worthwhile to make the system
foolproof. E.g. the generator will not try to charge the solar panels. If a diode is too small and runs too hot, wire or
solder a similar one alongside it in parallel, to share the current load, and to reduce losses.
Go modular also with the batteries and their connections into the bank. Make each one individually accessible, e.g. for
charging or measuring, and removable for testing or retiring. I.e. each one needs its own isolator switch – the ones
that let you disconnect the battery from its connection easily, by removing one screw-bolt. Preferably have an isolater
switch on both posts, to encourage you to easily remove a battery for testing, but then leave the negative switch
always closed. After some years those bolts develop unreliable electrical contact, so regularly check that they work.
You can run very light cables with a small in-line fuse, from each positive post, to a voltmeter. Protect them from
short-circuiting to chassis or negative, when pinched by stray obstacles. They provide easy remote access for
monitoring the individual voltages, when batteries are isolated.

Schematic modular wiring, for positive-wire control, according to the K.I.S.S. Principle (Keep it simple, stupid). A
negative-wire controller requires floating negative lines, i.e. before they connect to chassis, and the diagram does not
apply. Chargers (1,2,3,4,5... Roof panels; Mobile panels; Battery charger; 15V Generator; second alternator with 15V
regulated output), and house battery bank (A,B,C,D,E...) onto the return rail (black; the chassis) and onto the House
supply rail (grey), which supplies the appliance-loads. When not attached to the house rail, individual batteries and
chargers can be connected together, separately from the system. E.g. 5 is charging A. Each charger may need reverse
voltage protection, e.g. via a series isolator diode. A single voltage controller could handle all inputs or there may be
several controllers, e.g. 5 has one. Fuses and circuit breakers are not shown, but need to be included. In practice, the
grey rail, from 1-5 and A-E forms a tight hub, near the battery compartment, for controllable interconnections, with a
second hub for the cabin loads, breakers and fuses in a second junction box.
1 2 3 4 Shunt 5 A B C D E

Series Control

With some modification, the diagram can also represent 5 different dedicated battery banks. Each battery-bank-
positive needs an isolator diode, and its specialised loads are taken off closer to the battery-positive. The controller
charge input must be boosted by 0.7V, and the alternator must be permanently connected to at least one battery,
even if only through a fixed diode or four. E.g. Divide the batteries into: Cranking only; Vehicle lights and accessories;
Vehicle electronics; House electronics; House accessories. The aim is increased protection through dedication, at the
expense of losing three batteries to quarantine. The rest can be used for deeper discharge, i.e. the vehicle accessories
could be paralleled with the house power as a norm.

1 2 3 4 Shunt 5 A B C D E

Series Control

Can I Do the Wiring?


Yes, you don’t need a permit by law, for 12V systems, but only Ohm’s Law, a cheap multimeter and handyman
common sense.
Connect appliances with their required polarity. Don’t interrupt a negative return line with unnecessary switches or
fuses. These principles matter in damp and corrosion-prone places (and grow enormously in importance for mains
ground wires).
Don’t tinker with the 240V house wiring. You need a permit for that, and for very good reasons. Don’t bundle dc and
ac cables together, because 12V dc insulation is not up to ac standards.

Cables: Use heavier i.e. costlier cable than you think you need, to avoid voltage drop in the cable. Every extra
available 0.1V downstream of the controller will make a big difference in the charging rate of a battery, e.g. under
cloudy conditions, or on the reliable running of a caravan fridge. Upstream resistance wastes watts. 24V systems allow
more than quadruple-length wire run (4 times the resistance), because the current halves, the wires are cooler (less
resistance) and the power loss is calculated at the square of the current times the resistance (Watts = Amps x Volts,
or = Amps x Amps x Ohms, or = Volts x Volts over Ohms).

Avoid dissimilar-metal corrosion where moisture, copper-wire and aluminium meet (e.g. for grounding the solar
panel frame), by keeping the joint dry... seal it with epoxy, and/or use a tight rubber washer on a stainless self-tapper
and a wire-crimp connector (tin-plated) to separate the copper from the aluminium. A stainless washer by itself will
not stop the moisture bridge between the metals.
Marine grade tinned copper wire resists corrosion better, but is obviously expensive.
Acid corrosion around batteries can be retarded by smearing all exposed metal with petroleum jelly, which evidently
does not cause any electrical resistance provided all electrical joints are tight.

For a useful voltage-drop measurer (in long-run cables) attach a very long lead to one voltmeter probe. Test the
cable under high load (no current=no voltage drop), looking for a voltage-drop not exceeding ½ volt, preferably less,
for cables supplying small-appliance circuits, and 1/3V or less for charging-circuits and heavy-current-circuits. Voltage
drop is approximated by metres x amps x 0.018 divided by square mm of the cable, but more when hot. E.g. 20m of
‘0.35mm’ cable at 5 amps (its maximum rating) will drop 6V. Other cable-size resistances can be inferred from this
figure of 17-18.5 milli-ohms per metre for 1mm square of electrical copper wire. Aluminium wire uses a value of 28
(put 0.028 in the formula), and the resistivity of steel is 180 – ten times that of copper. You need a table of ampere-
capacity also, since ampacity is not linear, but depends upon the insulation and nearby wires. E.g. Big diesel engines
need jumper leads of 50-100 “mm” (i.e. mm squared) – 200-400A. The ampacity also tells you the maximum safe
fuse for that cable.

Keep the lengths as short as possible, again to avoid voltage drop in the cable. You have paid for those watts, but
long hot cables gobble them up. The battery compartment should therefore be as close as practicable to the line
between panels and loads. For positive-wire controllers only, use a chassis return where possible, but not if current-
induced metal-corrosion is a possibility (i.e. in a marine application. There the metal-bonding strip provides an
unimpeded return for stray currents only, equivalent to the ac “third wire”, grounded but not for normal current-
carrying). When mounting your first roof-panel, imagine room for mounting three more, with all their junction boxes
close to the cable feed-point. For mobile panels however, to reach the sunlight, you need say 10m double-cable –
that’s a 20m run! – so you will need very heavy cable.

For a heavy current dc ammeter, measure the millivolts across a particular jumper lead with a known current, then
extrapolate linearly for bigger or smaller currents that you make pass through it. Label it for future use, making sure
to measure in a repeatable way. I.e. the millivoltmeter probe wires must be reliably attached to the same 2 places on
the jumper cable each time. You could solder them in place on the jumper lead as dedicated probe wires and use a
second set of probe-wires when you want to use the meter elsewhere.
Arc-welding cable is a good high-current cable (the many fine strands carry more current than fewer larger strands
because the electric charge travels at the surfaces, due to mutual repulsion of electrons), but fine-stranded copper
cables should be (non-silicone) sealed at joints where they are exposed to moisture, puddles or rain, to avoid them
wicking up the water and corroding. Also (pay attention now), fine-stranded copper cables should not be attached
flexibly, in such a way that the fine strands systematically flex and break over time until one day all the current is
passing through the remaining hanging thread. Battery cables, being heavy, flex with vibration, and operate in acid
fumes – They are particularly prone to degrading by breaking more strands over time. Heavy dc (fine stranded cable)
current through bad connections is a house-fire-risk. That is why ac cables are never fine-stranded. Reinforce each
connection with a splint.

Connections: Similarly, you need reliable heavy connectors to avoid resistance losses, e.g. for in-line fuses, switches
and circuit breakers. Trailer plug-and-sockets are designed for reliability, corrosion resistance, and heavy loads. For
instance you can split a large cable into three or four smaller copper bundles and use a seven-pin plug. You can wire
the negative to the middle three, and the positive to the outer pins (so that you are unlikely to short-circuit the pins by
trying to plug it in upside-down). Both ends – the batteries and the panels – may be live, so take care with those
exposed pins, and label them as ‘live’.
A pair of 12-pin trailer plugs (1 positive and 1 negative) makes a neat junction-&-distributer box for the house circuits
trying to feed off that single “load” terminal of the controller. It allows 5 x 35A and 7 x 15A circuits, and can be readily
detached for working on. Supply in-line fuses or a separate fuse box.
Solar panels should be easily disconnectable to allow for safe maintenance of the house wiring and for coping quickly
with a short circuit. Dc switches need to act extra-fast to prevent arcing (50Hz ac has only 1/100 sec to arc), so any
ac switches used in dc circuits should be rated as high ampacity and used at low capacity (20%; and relabelled
accordingly) to avoid problems.

Spade fuses are more resistant to loose connections than glass fuse-holders. Ordinary spade connectors can be
tightened to accept spade fuses, if you don’t have purpose-designed holders. Tie or hold the leads together somehow
to secure the connection from being yanked apart.
Lightning protection can be done with Zener diodes across the terminals of outside modules. Get advice on quick
response surge protection devices suitable for 12V/24V.

Grounding of the frames of mobile panels (mostly for lightning protection) can be approximated by stainless steel
wires to long metal tent pegs – use them to peg down the panel against wind gusts. And metal-peg the base frame
directly to ground. Pour a cup of water onto the soil at each peg. If the frame is connected to the negative solar wire,
or if that wire is grounded to earth separately, this may bypass a ground-fault detector in any 240V external supply
line.

Before measuring with a multi-meter


The thoughtful use of a multimeter is your best guide in the dark. Before measuring with a multi-meter, to protect it
from fusing or confusing, check-list 5 things, which means memorise these, counting down from the big-picture,
running along the wires back to your fingers:
“Five”: Disconnect remote (downstream or upstream) sources of live voltage, especially for measuring Ohms. (E.g.
while working on the batteries, the solar panels may be connected, and vice versa.)
“Four”: Rearrange the tested wires (e.g. battery terminals or a globe or a return wire you are testing) – Check that
you have rearranged their power and circuit status, as follows –
Voltage-drop requires a current load, (turn something on) but
Volts may need a zero current, e.g when trying to track down a break in the circuit (Why doesn't it go?), full voltage
indicates no load downstream yet. E.g. disconnect all sensors, and reconnect one by one to see what supplies a
voltage to the alarm circuit.
Voltage drop under load. The test light between a voltage and return, is sometimes superior to a voltmeter onto an
open circuit, since it adds a slight load and can reveal a voltage drop under load. With a test light you need a sure
return path.
Ohms – disconnect the power, and disconnect the tested item from any circuit. One wire connection must be broken.
Amps – make sure there is a circuit.
“Three” Change the probe-end connections – think how you will change how the probes will be connected when you
are ready to proceed with a new reading:
series for amps (It will register no Volts if tried on Volts);
parallel across terminals for Volts (It will register huge amps if tried on amps);
parallel to a current-carrying cable for voltage drop (It will not register any volts if there is no load);
right polarity for diode-testing (Test both directions);
solidly connected for amps and ohms (to avoid adding resistance).
Don't connect yet, just plan it.
Switching to Amps but leaving the Volts connection is the mistake which blows fuses.
“Two” Check the leads into the meter – that you have taken them out of the ‘high-current’ shunt or ‘high-voltage’
socket and have removed any extra shunt resistances. Testing for Volts with the short-circuit high-current shunt still
on is how to cause sparks and smoking probes.
“One” Select the switch – See that you have not left it on “Amps” or “Ohms” when wanting to measure “Volts”.
Testing Volts with the switch on Amps is the no-no. The only safe switch position is Volts, because it requires high
meter-resistance.
Always remove one connection, to set up the switch and scale, before proceeding with a new measurement.
Work down from the least sensitive volt and amp scales to a scale which gives a more sensitive reading. The high-volts
and high-amps scales safely register only a small percentage of the possible Volts or Amps. I.e. once connected avoid
switching through the microamps on your way to the milliamps, or the millivolts on your way to the Volts. The 'least
sensitive' scale for Ohms is testing for small Ohms, because it supplies only a small internally generated voltage to
push through the expected small resistance.
“Zero, Ready for lift-off”: Have a buddy counter-check your work, circuit theory and meter connections.
In practice, you should think “5,4,3,2,1”, then do “5,4;1,2,3,connect” to double-check yourself before connecting.

Don’t forget other safety considerations – protect circuits with fuses, avoid acid spills and spatters (wear glasses when
peering in at those bubbles), ventilate the battery compartment, make it acid-proof, avoid sparks near recently-
charging batteries, and don’t drop any metal objects (which you don’t want to weld in place or vaporise) near live
terminals; cover live terminals, live wire or live metal. Battery banks may need warning signs and to meet other
standards. Some ‘12V’ appliances can nevertheless have high and deadly voltage inside, e.g. fluorescent lights, and
therefore need secure grounding.

Trouble-shooting.
If you can diagnose engine problems, you know the method of being systematic – checking and eliminating each
system in turn. Eliminate the simple oversights first. Is the switch on, or the fuse blown? Electricity is very much like
that – it depends on every link in the chain, and is sensitive to every logical blunder. Remember next that most
electrical problems are actually mechanical – loose connections; faulty switches; dirt; grime; insects. Start with a good
look: Inspect solder joints for cracks, through a magnifying glass. Smell the circuitry. Look for signs of burning, arcing,
wear, corrosion, looseness, broken strands. Check for leakage to chassis, especially from moist battery cases. Add to
that some logic. I.e. think in terms of circuit diagrams, with pencil and paper, and understanding. Follow the circuit
around in your mind. Add a dash of thoroughness – check all ten possibilities, not 9 out of ten. Be methodical. I.e.
work out your methods and plan of approach beforehand, and stick to the plan. Be careful, e.g. to be safe. These
attitudes make the difference.
Most solar energy problems are from undercharged batteries, and underestimated power requirements. Most caravan
electric problems are from long thin cables. Most refrigerator problems are from insufficient supplied voltage. Most
insufficiency in voltage is from wiring resistance, overused and undercharged batteries. Most problems, in other words
are human, not electrical or mechanical, so be a sensible mechanic, sensible user, methodical checker, and also, keep
those batteries charged up each day.

In summary, Start Small, but Plan Big – use your imagination now, and don’t put it off. View the initial and ongoing
expenses as a good investment, with a plan for modular expansion, and expect more cost than is initially visible. Aim
for more than enough, and expect to need double what the power-ratings suggest. Get a big controller, with a shunt-
option. Learn all you can about 12V batteries, wiring and configuration. Keep the house systems separate and the
modules modular and diode-protected. Discipline your usage to recharge batteries sufficiently almost everyday. And
don’t weld your fillings to each other.

I’m sure most of you could slowly and surely build up sufficient expertise over years, to cope well with a large and
complex hybrid system. Far from putting you off, I’d just like to forewarn you that in the end you will wish to have set
it up better. So take these and other suggestions on board before you hand over big money. You can start with a panel
on legs with a cable run straight onto the battery, uncontrolled, but you can also dream, of an automatic array and
dedicated systems, and you can cope with it, and there is no law against setting it up according to a plan.