Friday 4 April 2014

Off-grid solar PV upgrade: 750W to 1,250W

Yesterday we upgraded our solar PV - again! I'll go through some of the pictures first, then get into technical stuff later for those that are interested... Here's the finished system, installed next to our existing solar thermal (hot water) installation - as we were working above the flat roof, it was a lot easier than last time, no scaffolding required!

As before, my friend Rich gave me a hand with it, here he's fitting in one of the roof hooks that hold the rails on which the panels are mounted. Thanks again to Midsummer Energy for being very helpful in the supply of Grace Solar mounting equipment for the panels.

Once the hooks are in, they look quite neat. For more detail on the fitting process, see the blog post on the work we did last July.

The only tricky bit was the route up, on a ladder past the existing solar panels. Easy enough to climb, but not so easy to get the solar panels up there!

I chose to mount the panels one above the other, as this will minimise afternoon shading from the chimney.

The fiddly bit was actually doing the wiring - there's now five pairs of wires coming in, but I've also added blocking diodes - the row of components bolted to the top bus-bar here:

Anyway, that's it for the summary, now for the detail...

Why the upgrade?

Three reasons:
  1. I had to go up on the roof to fix the chimney cowl after the wind in December, and while I was up there I realised there was space for one or two more panels...
  2. When I set up the original system, I knew there would be a bit of spare capacity in the Morningstar Tristar MPPT controller, as it can handle nearly 900W on a 12V system, and I only had 750W installed. However, what I hadn't thought about enough was that while the Suntech panels I've used output 250W each under 'standard test conditions', under what they call 'nominal operating cell temperature' (NOCT) conditions it's only 183W each. This is because the panels are less efficient when hot, and also allows for not having the sun directly overhead. This meant there was a lot more spare capacity than I originally thought.
  3. Finally, I saw a couple of identical panels to the ones I already have on ebay for a good price, so that was the final prompt to get installing!
Power advantages
Our Tristar MPPT controller will handle up to 882W on our system with the way I have it set up, though this falls as the battery temperature rises. So, when the panels do output at their rated power, the controller will be shifting the voltage to dump the excess power. However, this only occurs in rare conditions, usually on a cool day with patchy cloud - as the sun appears between clouds you get 'cloud edge effect', where in addition to the direct sun you also have reflected light from the edges of the clouds round the sun, with the result that the panels sometimes even generate more than their rated output for a short time! In practice though, our five panels can output 915W under NOCT conditions, so there's only a bit of power going to waste.

Where the advantage really comes in is on the duller days and during the winter - at these times all the extra power produced will be harvested, allowing us to run more of the house off-grid for more of the year. At the sunnier times of year, the boosted capacity will also enable us to run the washing machine off grid more often, and also power a slow cooker, thus saving us some gas (our normal cooking energy source). I'm even considering an electric chainsaw for solar-powered firewood production!

The need for blocking diodes
One downside of the location of the additional solar panels is that one of them will get shaded by the chimney from mid afternoon, and the other from late afternoon. Because of the way solar panels work, if you shade even a small part of them, the power generation drops dramatically (all 60 cells on each of our panels are in series - so shade one, and the current is limited for all of them). When you have panels in parallel, this can even mean that some of the power from the unshaded panels could feed backwards through the shaded panel, thus losing some power and potentially even damaging the panel.

To avoid this problem, I added some blocking diodes. A diode acts like a one-way valve, allowing electricity to flow in only one direction. I used Schottky barrier diodes, as these drop a smaller amount of voltage than normal diodes, so reducing the losses. The model I picked is the VT4045BP from Vishay Semiconductor, which can handle 40A and a reverse voltage of 45V - a lot more than our panels will ever generate. I reckon that typically about 1% of the system power will be lost in the diodes, but the avoided shading losses should more than make up for this. You can see the diodes bolted to the upper busbar in this picture:

So, it's all happily running now, I just need to sit back and watch the kWh flow in! :-)


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WorldWideSkylab said...

what is the part number of the disconnect switch you use in your video.

Mike Pepler said...

Hi, it's a "DURITE 0-605-11 MARINE BATTERY ISOLATOR". Cost about £40.