Ted’s essays

solar power upgrade

When I set up my ham radio shack six years ago, I chose to go solar-powered 12-volt because amateur radio needs to work regardless of the grid up or grid down situation.

Last year I upgraded to second and third deep-cycle lead-acid batteries. I added other uses to the system and last winter was frequently running low on stored energy. So I upgraded the panel and controller to modern, more powerful ones. The new panel overwhelmed the new controller.

It should not have according to the specs on both, but there it was. Controller said, “Too much juice”.

Readily admitting to my ignorance, I contacted a company with a long history of servicing the off-grid community and ordered a more capable controller through them.

The new controller did a *POP*, ~sizzle~, !smoke! routine on me the first time sun warmed up the collector. Woops!

I converted back to the other controller, but put a blade switch in the line so I could quickly and easily cut off the power from the panel as soon as the controller’s rapidly flashing blue light indicated more power coming in than it could handle. I got used to disconnecting around 10:00 AM and reconnecting at dusk. This kept my batteries charged enough to run my ham radios for the day (mostly after dark evening use).

While obviously inconvenient, it served while the EXCELLENT company I bought the upgraded controller from whisked a replacement to me. I discussed my installation and issues with a personable, knowledgeable technician without holding back on my lack of experience. He assured me I did nothing wrong in my application and triggered an expedient replacement.

I was paying attention when the sun began feeding daytime power through the replacement controller. Thus I was quick in responding to the *POP*, ~sizzle~, and disconnected the incoming line before the !smoke! leaked out of the blue box. Having killed two apparently good-quality controllers, my confidence was shaken. In my subsequent conversations with the really delightful customer service representative and super personable tech support I was offering many ways to shoulder the blame myself. They were, and are convinced I did nothing incorrect in my setup.

Meanwhile, I went back to the inexpensive controller, but this time I wired an antique ammeter into the incoming power line. In the old-school meter, all of the power goes through it, moving the needle up as the flow volume increases. I had that and a similar vintage analog volt meter mounted mostly as decoration. I wanted real data regarding what my troublesome solar panel was putting out. My antique electronic studio art became gainfully employed in this effort.

Now something odd happened. The inexpensive controller did not flash its stroboscopic *OVERLOAD* signal at any time during the day. Two sunny days in a row it just worked. My three batteries simply charged up. The only drama was me anxiously waiting and paying very close attention to the indicators.

You can see on the ammeter a reading just over 36 Watts. That is good power while still being under the 40 Watt maximum rating of the controller. Is there some additional resistance in routing the juice through the 70-year-old meter?

I did use smart chargers on each battery before hooking it all back up. Maybe having them topped off before putting the charge controller to work made a difference.

I dunno. But it is now working. And I am still watching closely on the third sunny day since the reconnection.

While the manufacturer and alt E store quickly sent me a replacement, the customer service rep and store manager are not asking me to try a third time. I told her that the little one was inexplicably working and she suggested I accept a full refund and NOT replace it… something I wasn’t even going to suggest after all they had done. She quoted her grandma who taught “When you are not sure of the right decision, make no decision” or something like that. A variation of the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The guy who sold me my new panel said “It is a beast”… meaning very efficiently turning sunlight into electrical power… or so I thought. I now have to wonder what kind of beast I actually have hanging on the southeast corner of my house.

The mounting frame I fabricated for the new solar panel has a crank adjustment so I can aim the panel for maximum solar gain. Since I currently have all I need, I am not adjusting to an optimum summer angle. Who knows when I will relax my guard.