Which Solar Charge Controller: PWM or MPPT?

Victron SmartSolar 100/20


PWM and MPPT charge controllers are both widely used to charge batteries with solar power. The PWM controller is in essence a switch that connects a solar array to the battery. The result is that the voltage of the array will be pulled down to near that of the battery.

The MPPT controller is more sophisticated (and more expensive): it will adjust its input voltage to harvest the maximum power from the solar array and then transform this power to supply the varying voltage requirement of the battery plus load. Thus, it essentially decouples the array and battery voltages so that there can be, for example, a 12V battery on one side of the MPPT charge
controller and panels wired in series to produce 36V on the other. It is generally accepted that MPPT will outperform PWM in a cold to temperate climate, while both controllers will show approximately the same performance in a subtropical to tropical climate.

In order to get the maximum out of a solar panel, a charge controller should be able to choose the optimum current-voltage point on the current-voltage curve: the Maximum Power Point. An MPPT controller does exactly that. The input voltage of a PWM controller is, in principle, equal to the voltage of the battery connected to its output (plus voltage losses in the cabling and controller). The solar panel, therefore, is not used at its Maximum Power Point, in most cases.


MPPT- The MPPT charge controller is a DC to DC transformer that can transform power from a higher voltage to power at a lower voltage. The amount of power does not change (except for a small loss in the transformation process). Therefore, if the output voltage is lower than the input voltage, the output current will be higher than the input current, so that the product P = V x I remains constant.


PWM- A PWM controller is not a DC to DC transformer. The PWM controller is a switch which connects the solar panel to the battery. When the switch is closed, the panel and the battery will be at nearly the same voltage. Assuming a discharged battery the initial charge voltage will be around 13 V, and assuming a voltage loss of 0.5 V over the cabling plus controller, the panel will be at Vpwm = 13.5 V. The voltage will slowly increase with increasing state of charge of the battery. When absorption voltage is reached the PWM controller will start to disconnect and reconnect the panel to prevent overcharge (hence the name: Pulse Width Modulated controller).


General conclusion:


PWM controller- When a solar array is connected to the battery through a PWM charge controller, its voltage will be pulled down to near that of the battery. This leads to a suboptimal power output wattage (Watt = Amp x Volt) at low and at very high solar cell temperatures. In times of rainy or heavily clouded days or during heavy intermittent loads a situation may occur where the battery voltage becomes lower than is normal. This would further pull down the panel voltage; thus degrading the output even further. At very high cell temperatures the voltage drop off point may decrease below the voltage needed to fully charge the battery.

As array area increases linearly with power, cabling cross sectional area and cable length therefore both increase with power, resulting in substantial cable costs, in the case of arrays exceeding a few 100 Watts. The PWM charge controller is therefore a good low cost solution for small systems only, when cell temperature is moderate to high (between 45°C and 75°C).

MPPT controller- Besides performing the function of a basic controller, an MPPT controller also includes a DC to DC voltage converter, converting the voltage of the array to that required by the batteries, with very little loss of power. An MPPT controller attempts to harvest power from the array near its Maximum Power Point, whilst supplying the varying voltage requirements of the battery plus load. Thus, it essentially decouples the array and battery voltages, so that there can be a 12 volt battery on one side of the MPPT charge controller and two 12 V (Vmax =18 V) panels wired in series to produce 36 V on the other.

If connected to a PV array with a substantially higher nominal voltage than the battery voltage, an MPPT controller will therefore provide charge current even at very high cell temperatures or in low irradiance conditions when a PWM controller would not help much. As array size increases, both cabling cross sectional area and cable length will increase. The option to wire more panels in series and thereby decrease current, is a compelling reason to install an MPPT controller as soon as the array power exceeds a few hundred Watts (12 V battery), or several hundred Watts (24 V or 48 V battery).


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