April 2017

Solar Cluster: Selecting batteries and sources

I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking on this. Solid-state works but suffers from voltage drop. Relays work but either require the coil to be energised constantly (~1W load) unless you look for latching relays, for which 30A units are hard to come by.

These look promising though. A latching relay is nice since I only need to pulse the coil, not hold it on indefinitely.

That got me thinking what else can I use to switch power? The ideal for me is something that has practically no voltage drop and remembers its state without power. A latching relay fits this requirement. So does a uniselector or stepping switch. Those were commonplace in telephone exchanges years ago, but have since gone the way of the dodo as semiconductor technology replaced it.

The nice thing about a uniselector though for my application is you can switch between N points, instead of just two like a regular relay. So if I buy a third battery, I can wire it up to the uniselector, and have it switch the compute load between the batteries. Likewise, I can connect a charger to the battery most in need of a charge. MCU measures battery voltages, picks the battery with highest voltage to run the load, and the lowest voltage to get a charge. Easy.

That got me thinking… can I make a uniselector? Well of course I can! I basically need to make a rotary switch that can revolve around indefinitely. The shaft of the switch would then be turned by a DC motor.

The stator of a N-way switch would have N+1 pads, one which is the “common”, and the other N would be to each selection. The common pad would be a 180° arc, the others would be 180°/N.

The rotor would feature two brushes 180° apart with a wire connecting them. It is free to move vertically, but must rotate with the shaft, a spring between a nut on the end of the shaft and the rotor applies tension to keep the rotor pressed firmly against the stator.

The interface between rotor and stator features some triangular grooves, so that when the rotor is turned, it pushes it away from the stator, breaking contact. When the rotor passes a critical point, the spring pressing the rotor against these grooves makes the rotor “want” to continue turning until it hits the bottom of the groove, at which point it “sinks” down towards the stator and eventually makes contact again.

Visually, it looks like this:

A small microswitch mounted on the stator could tell us when touch-down takes place, if we use the normally-closed contact to power the motor it will automatically stop the motor when the next position is reached. We then just need to override that open switch by applying a pulse to get things moving.

Power is only needed when we want to change the selector switch. This should be simple enough to fabricate here out of plywood. I don’t have a 3D printer, but you could do it with one of those very easily.

The nature of this switch makes it a break-before-make switch, which has a downside when using it to select which battery to use: there’s a momentary break in power.

I can use diodes to carry the current temporarily. If I run a high-current diode from each battery to the output via a current sensor. If the current sensor measures current flowing through the diodes whilst a battery is selected, then we know that battery is lower than the others by at least the diode voltage drop, and we should consider switching.