Nov 102018

Right now, the cluster is running happily with a Redarc BCDC-1225 solar controller, a Meanwell HEP-600C-12 acting as back-up supply, a small custom-made ATTiny24A-based power controller which manages the Meanwell charger.

The earlier purchased controller, a Powertech MP-3735 now is relegated to the function of over-discharge protection relay.  The device is many times the physical size of a VSR, and isn’t a particularly attractive device for that purpose.  I had tried it recently as a solar controller, but it’s fair to say, it’s rubbish at it.  On a good day, it struggles to keep the battery above “rock bottom” and by about 2PM, I’ll have Grafana pestering me about the battery slipping below the 12V minimum voltage threshold.

Actually, I’d dearly love t rip that Powertech controller apart and see what makes it tick (or not in this case).  It’d be an interesting study in what they did wrong to give such terrible results.

So, if I pull that out, the question is, what will prevent an over-discharge event from taking place?  First, I wish to set some criteria, namely:

  1. it must be able to sustain a continuous load of 30A
  2. it should not induce back-EMF into either the upstream supply or the downstream load when activated or activated
  3. it must disconnect before the battery reaches 10.5V (ideally it should cut off somewhere around 11-11.5V)
  4. it must not draw excessive power whilst in operation at the full load

With that in mind, I started looking at options.  One of the first places I looked was of course, Redarc.  They do have a VSR product, the VS12 which has a small relay in it, rated for 10A, so fails on (1).  I asked on their forums though, and it was suggested that for this task, a contactor, the SBI12, be used to do the actual load shedding.

Now, deep inside the heart of the SBI12 is a big electromechanical contactor.  Many moons ago, working on an electric harvester platform out at Laidley for Mulgowie Farming Company, I recall we were using these to switch the 48V supply to the traction motors in the harvester platform.  The contactors there could switch 400A and the coils were driven from a 12V 7Ah battery, which in the initial phases, were connected using spade lugs.

One day I was a little slow getting the spade lug on, so I was making-breaking-making-breaking contact.  *WHACK*… the contactor told me in no uncertain terms it was not happy with my hesitation and hit me with a nice big back-EMF spike!  I had a tingling arm for about 10 minutes.  Who knows how high that spike was… but it probably is higher than the 20V absolute maximum rating of the MIC29712s used for power regulation.  In fact, there’s a real risk they’ll happily let such a rapidly rising spike straight through to the motherboards, frying about $12000 worth of computers in the process!

Hence why I’m keen to avoid a high back-EMF.  Supposedly the SBI12 “neutralises” this … not sure how, maybe there’s a flywheel diode or MOV in there (like this), or maybe instead of just removing power in a step function, they ramp the current down over a few seconds so that the back-EMF is reduced.  So this isn’t an issue for the SBI12, but may be for other electromechanical contactors.

The other concern is the power consumption needed to keep such a beast activated.  The other factor was how much power these things need to stay actuated.  There’s an initial spike as the magnetic field ramps up and starts drawing the armature of the contactor closed, then it can drop down once contact has been made.  The figures on the SBI12 are ~600mA initially, then ~160mA when holding… give or take a bit.

I don’t expect this to be turned on frequently… my nodes currently have up-times around 172 days.  So while 600mA (7~8W at 12V nominal) is high, that’ll only be for a second at most.  Much of the current will be holding current at, let’s call it 200mA to be safe, so about 2~3W.

That 2-3W is going to be the same, whether my nodes collectively draw 10mA, 10A or 100A.

It seemed like a lot, but then I thought, what about a SSR?  You can buy a 100A DC SSR like this for a lot less money than the big contactors.  Whack a nice big heat-sink on it, and you’re set.  Well, why the heat-sink?  These things have a voltage drop and on resistance.  In the case of the Jaycar one, it’s about 350mV and the on resistance is about 7mΩ.

Suppose we were running flat chat at our predicted 30A maximum…

  • MOSFET switch voltage drop: 30A × 350mV = 10.5W
  • Ron resistance voltage drop: (30A)² × 7mΩ = 6.3W
  • Total power dissipation: 10.5W + 6.3W = 16.8W OUCH!

16.8W is basically the power of an idle compute node.  The 3W of the SBI12 isn’t looking so bad now!  But can we do better?

The function of a solid-state relay, amongst other things, is to provide electrical isolation between the control and switching components.  The two are usually galvanically isolated.  This is a feature I really don’t need, so I could reduce costs by just using a bare MOSFET.

The earlier issues I had with the body diode won’t be a problem here as there’s a definite “source” and “load”, there’ll be no current to flow out of the load back to the source to confuse some sensing circuit on the source side.  This same body diode might be an issue for dual-battery systems, as the auxiliary battery can effectively supply current to a starter motor via this body diode, but in my case, it’s strictly switching a load.

I also don’t have inductive loads on my system, so a P-channel MOSFET is an option.  One candidate for this is the Infineon AUIRFS3004-7P.  The Ron on these is supposedly in the realm of 900µΩ-1.25mΩ, and of course, being that it’s a bare MOSFET and not a SSR, there’s no voltage drop.  Thus my power dissipation at 30A is predicted to be a little over 1W.

There are others too with even smaller Ron values, but they are in teeny tiny 5mm square surface-mount packages.  The AUIRFS3004-7P looks dead-buggable, just bend up the gate pin so I can solder direct to it, and treat the others as single “pins”, then strap the sucker to a big heatsink (maybe an old PIII heatsink will do the trick).

I can either drive this MOSFET with something of my own creation, or with the aforementioned Redarc VS12.  The VS12 still does contain a (much smaller) electromechanical relay, but at 30mA (~400mW), it’s bugger all.

The question though was what else could be done?  @WIRING_SOLUTIONS suggested some units made by Victron Energy.  These do have a nice feature in that they also have over-voltage protection, and conveniently, it’s 16V, which is the maximum recommended for the MIC29712s I’m using.  They’re not badly priced, and are solid-state.

However, what’s the Ron, what’s the voltage drop?  Victron don’t know.  They tell me it’s “minimal”, but is that 100nV, 100mV, 1V?  At 30A, 100mV drop equates to 3W, on par with the SBI12.  A 500mV drop would equate to a whopping 15W!

I had a look at the suppliers for Victron Energy products, and via those, found a few other contenders such as this one by Baintech and the Projecta LVD30.  I haven’t asked about these, but again, like the Victron BatteryProtect, neither of these list a voltage drop or Ron.

There’s also this one from Jaycar, but given this is the same place that sold me the Powertech MP-3735, and sold me the original Powertech MP-3089, provided a replacement for that first one, then also replaced the replacement under RMA.  The Jaycar VSR also has practically no specs… yeah, I think I’ll pass!

Whitworths marine sell this, it might be worth looking at but the cut-out voltage is a little high, and they don’t actually give the holding current (330mA “engage” current sounds like it’s electromechanical), so no idea how much power this would dissipate either.

The power controller isn’t doing a job dissimilar to a VSR… in fact it could be repurposed as one, although I note its voltage readings seem to drift quite a lot.  I suspect this is due to the choice of 5% tolerance resistors on the voltage sensing circuit and my use of the ~1.1V internal voltage reference.  The resistors will drift a little bit, and the voltage reference can be anywhere from 1.0 to 1.2V.

Would a LM311N with good quality 1% resistors and a quality voltage reference be “better”?  Who knows?  Maybe I should try an experiment, see if I can get minimal drift out of a LM311N.  It’s either the resistors, the voltage reference, or a combination of the two that’s responsible for the power controller’s drift.

Perhaps I need to investigate which is causing the problem and see what can be done in the design to reduce it.  If I can get acceptable results, then maybe the VS12 can be dispensed with.  I may be able to do it with another ATTiny24A, or even just a simple LM311N.

Sep 172017

So we’ve got a free weekend where there’ll be two of us to do a solar installation… thus the parts have now been ordered for that installation.

First priority will be to get the panels onto the roof and bring the feed back to where the cluster lives.  The power will come from 3 12V 120W solar panels that will be mounted on the roof over the back deck.  Theoretically these can push about 7A of current with a voltage of 17.6V.

We’ve got similar panels to these on the roof of a caravan, those ones give us about 6A of current when there’s bright sunlight.  The cluster when going flat-chat needs about 10A to run, so with three panels in broad daylight, we should be able to run the cluster and provide about 8A to top batteries up with.

We’ll be running individual feeds of 8-gauge DC cable from each panel down to a fused junction box under the roof on the back deck.  From there, it’ll be 6-gauge DC cable down to the cluster’s charge controller.

Now, we have a relay that switches between mains-sourced DC and the solar, and right now it’s hard-wired to be on when the mains supply is switched on.

I’m thinking that the simplest solution for now will be to use a comparator with some hysteresis.  That is, an analogue circuit.  When the solar voltage is greater than the switchmode DC power supply, we use solar.  We’ll need the hysteresis to ensure the relay doesn’t chatter when the solar voltage gets near the threshold.

The other factor here is that the solar voltage may get as high as 22V or so, thus resistor dividers will be needed both sides to ensure the inputs to the comparator are within safe limits.

The current consumption of this will be minimal, so a LM7809 will probably do the trick for DC power regulation to power the LM311.  If I divide all inputs by 3, 22V becomes ~7.3V, giving us plenty of head room.

I can then use the built-in NPN to drive a P-channel MOSFET that controls the relay.  The relay would connect between MOSFET drain and 0V, with the MOSFET source connecting to the switchmode PSU (this is where the relay connects now).

The solar controller also connects its control line to the MOSFET drain.  To it, the MOSFET represents the ignition switch on a vehicle, starting the engine would connect 12V to the relay and the solar controller control input, connecting the controller’s DC input to the vehicle battery and telling the controller to boost this voltage up for battery charging purposes.

By hooking it up in this manner, and tuning the hysteresis on the comparator, we should be able to handle automatic switch-over between mains power and solar with the minimum of components.