Solar Charge Controller Basics: How To Choose One & What To Avoid In 2022

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Living off-grid is on the rise and so to are off-grid solar setups. Understanding how they work is an important step in securing an energy source for your off-grid life. In this post, we’ll go over what solar charge controllers do and why they’re an important part of your solar system. We’ll also show why in 2022, you might not need one at all…

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The Basics of Solar Charge Controllers

If you’re considering solar energy for your home, off-grid setup, or even your RV one of the key components you’ll typically need is a charge controller (although not always, read to the end to find out why).

Solar charge controllers are devices that regulate the flow of electricity from the solar panels to the batteries. They help to prevent overcharging and can prolong the life of your batteries. There are two main types of solar charge controllers: MPPT and PWM.

MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracking) solar charge controllers are more efficient than PWM controllers and are better at extracting power from the panels in low-light conditions. They’re also more expensive.

PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) solar charge controllers are less expensive than MPPT controllers but are less efficient. They’re better suited for use in high-light, consistent and predictable conditions (which vary rarely exist).

When choosing a solar charge controller, you’ll need to consider the following factors:

The type of panels you’re using (monocrystalline, polycrystalline, or thin-film)

• The voltage of your panels (12V, 24V, or 48V).

• The current.

How To Choose The Right Solar Charge Controller

  1. Determine the type of charge controller you need. If you have a very predictable system, a PWM-type controller will be sufficient. For almost all other types of systems (homes, RVs, off-grid scenarios) you’ll have less predictable environments, so efficiency is key. Here an MPPT-type controller is almost always best.
  2. Consider the features offered by different manufacturers. Some solar charge controllers come with built-in displays that show system performance data, while others include USB ports for connecting to a computer for monitoring and data logging.
  3. Determine the maximum power rating of the charge controller. This is important because you want to make sure that the controller can handle the maximum output of your solar panels. E.g if your whole system is generating 1000W output, you’ll need a controller that can handle over 1000W.
  4. Compare prices from different manufacturers. Solar charge controllers can range in price from around $30 to $200, so it’s important to compare prices before making a purchase to fit your budget.
  5. Read online reviews from other customers, YouTubers, and online articles. Research is king.
  6. Consider not using a standalone solar charge controller altogether and opt for an all-in-one solution such as EcoFlow Power Stations or the EcoFlow Power Hub.

Why you might not need a solar charge controller at all

Nowadays, solar charge controllers can be built-in into your system. This saves the hassle of setup and it also saves you space (ideal for RVs or smaller builds where space is valuable). A prime example here would be an EcoFlow Portable Power Station or the all-new EcoFlow Power Hub.

How portable power stations work

Portable power stations (otherwise known as solar generators when combined with solar panels) are pretty much giant batteries with outlets. They combine everything you need to generate, store and use energy in a compact and handy solution that you can take anywhere. They’re typically used for emergency power (similar to how a gas generator would be used), camping, RVs, and off-grid power. EcoFlow’s models all have an MPPT charge controller built-in, all with various solar input capabilities for fast charging.

portable power stations as an alternative to solar charge controllers

How the Power Hub works

The Power Hub is an all-new solution from EcoFlow. It combines two MPPT solar charge controllers, one battery charger with MPPT, one DC-DC step-down converter (great for if you’re running an older 12V system), and an inverter-charger. That allows for your setup to have far fewer components and wiring required.

ecoflow power hub as an alternative to a solar charge controller

It also acts as the heart of “EcoFlow Power Kits” which are entire solar systems designed to make setup, expansion, and use easy. It’s the hub that allows you to just plug in all your inputs and outputs to get your solar set up just right without the hassle.

The benefits of buying a built-in MPPT solar charge controller

Safety

If you use the wrong solar charge controller between your batteries and solar panels, you could risk overcharging the battery with too much voltage. This could seriously damage your battery, or even result in the battery exploding. With a built-in setup, such as with a portable power station or Power Hub you do not run this risk.

Save space

With a built-in charge controller, its one less component in your RV or off-grid build. That means valuable space is saved for more important belongings, and less wires need to be managed.

Avoid compatibility issues

Not all solar charge controllers will be the right fit for your setup. With maximum solar input ratings varying drastically and different battery capacities favoring different solar setups – getting it just right can be a hassle. When combined and built-in like with a portable power station or Power Hub, this isn’t a concern.

Portability

This one applies to portable power stations specifically. With an all-in-one build, you can simply pick up your unit and move it to where you need to be, plug in your portable solar panels and charge up. Great for camping, use at home, or in an RV. The same can’t be said for a web of wires and components in a more static setup.

Save time

The time it takes to learn how to set up your own solar system can be daunting, complicated and a road filled with costly mistakes. Buying an all-in-one solution outsources that problem to the manufacturer of the product. All you need to do is plug in and go.

Wrapping things up…

It’s useful to know what’s out there before making a purchase decision. For some people with an existing setup, a standalone controller might be a good pick. Alternatively, the Power Hub from EcoFlow might be a good pick if you’re sporting a small to medium-sized system. For those that are starting a new system from scratch, it might be best to weigh up whether or not you need a full solar system, or if you can get by with a solar generator for extra flexibility. If you need a full system, you might opt for an EcoFlow Power Kit, which has all the components you need built-in for an easy setup.

Kris Haagensen
Kris Haagensen
Born and raised in the UK, Kris is a 4.0 International Business grad from Sheffield Business School. After working in the tech industry for half a decade in Shenzhen, China, he's now Lead Copywriter at EcoFlow. Kris is a renewable power enthusiast & uses solar generators to run his DJ gear in exotic locations.

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