Choosing a Solar Controller - MPPT or PWM
Standard solar panels produce much higher voltages than are safe to feed directly to a battery, so a solar controller or regulator must be connected between them.
Two types of controllers are available; PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) and MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracking).
PWM Controllers - When charging, these controllers feed the power from the panel straight through to the battery until
the battery voltage reaches a predetermined Acceptance level. It will then keep the voltage at that level by pulsing
the panel voltage on and off to keep the battery voltage constant.
During the Bulk stage of charging, the amperage delivered to the battery is slightly less than the amps from the panel due to losses in the electronics.
MPPT Controllers - These controllers take the best mix of amps and volts from the panel to give the maximum power.
They then track this Maximum Power Point as conditions change to ensure the highest power is extracted from the panel
at all times.
The DC panel output is then inverted into very high frequency AC and then converted back down to DC to feed to the battery. The result of that inversion/conversion process is that more amps can be delivered to the battery than were produced from the panel, resulting in reduced charging times.
That is a significant advantage over PWM controllers, and more than justifies the higher cost of the MPPT models.
Marine Solar Planning Guide
Typical marine solar panels are comprised of a number of silicon cells (normally 32+) connected together electrically in a series string. Individual silicon cells produce only around 0.6v to 0.7v, and so enough of them have to be connected together in series to produce a voltage high enough to be able to charge a 12v battery.
A Charge Controller must be connected between the panel and the battery to reduce the panel output to a safe charging voltage. Some panels have less than the normal number of cells and produce less voltage than is required to charge a 12v battery, and these will require either a special boost controller, or for a number of them to be connected in series to produce a higher voltage.
Will a Battery Monitor properly show Solar, Wind, or Hydro Output?
Many boats these days have a battery or systems monitor permanently installed. Popular models include: E-Meter, Link 10, Victron BMV, Philippi BCM, etc.
With these meters, DC current is measured in and out of the battery by a device called a Shunt that is installed in the negative lead to the battery. A Shunt is simply a bar of metal with a known resistance between the two ends.
The resulting drop in current is then measured by the monitor and multiplied to give the correct current reading. The Shunt is the very last item connected to the battery negative post, and no other negative leads must be allowed to by-pass it. This is to ensure that it measures every amp of current going both in and out of the battery.
As you can see from the example below, it is possible for solar panels or a wind/hydro generator to supply power for DC loads directly, via bus bars or other connection points, without their current flowing into the battery or through the battery monitor Shunt.