Solar Cluster: Jury still out on solar controller, thinking of PSU designs

So, the last few days it’s been overcast.  Monday I had a firmware glitch that caused the mains supply to be brought in almost constantly, so I’d disregard that result.

Basically, the moment the battery dropped below ~12.8V for even a brief second, the mains got brought in.  We were just teetering on the edge of 12.8V all day.  I realised that I really did need a delay on firing off the timer, so I’ve re-worked the logic:

  • If battery drops below V_L, start a 1-hour timer
  • If battery rises above V_L, reset the 1-hour timer
  • If the battery drops below V_CL or the timer expires, turn on the mains charger

That got me better results.  It means V_CL can be quite low, without endangering the battery supply, and V_L can be at 12.8V where it basically ensures that the battery is at a good level for everything to operate.

I managed to get through most of Tuesday until about 4PM, there was a bit of a hump which I think was the solar controller trying to extract some power from the panels.  I really need a good sunny day like the previous week to test properly.

This is leading me to consider my monitoring device.  At the moment, it just monitors voltage (crudely) and controls the logic-level enable input on the mains charger.  Nothing more.  It has done that well.

A thought is that maybe I should re-build this as a Modbus-enabled energy meter with control.  This idea has evolved a bit, enough to be its own project actually.  The thought I have now is a more modular design.

If I take the INA219B and a surface-mount current shunt, I have a means to accurately measure input voltage and current.  Two of these, and I can measure the board’s output too.  Stick a small microcontroller in between, some MOSFETs and other parts, and I can have a switchmode power supply module which can report on its input and output power and vary the PWM of the power supply to achieve any desired input or output voltage or current.

The MCU could be the ATTiny24As I’m using, or a ATTiny861.  The latter is attractive as it can do high-speed PWM, but I’m not sure that’s necessary in this application, and I have loads of SOIC ATTiny24As.  (Then again, I also have loads of PDIP ATTiny861s.)

The board would expose the ICSP pins plus two more for interrupt and chip select, allowing for a simple jig for reprogramming.  I haven’t decided on a topology yet, but the split-pi is looking attractive.  I might start with a buck converter first though.

This would talk to a “master” microcontroller which would provide the UI and Modbus interface.  If the brains of the PSU MCU aren’t sufficient, this could do the more grunty calculations too.

This would allow me to swap out the PSU boards to try out different designs.

Solar Cluster: Measuring the battery voltage

So, I was just updating the project details for this project, and I happened to see this blog post about reading the DC voltage input on the TS-7670v2.

I haven’t yet gotten around to finishing the power meters that I was building which would otherwise be reading these values directly, but they were basically going to connect via Modbus to the TS-7670v2 anyway.  One of its roles, aside from routing between the physical management network (IPMI and switch console access), was to monitor the battery.

I will have to explore this.  Collectd doesn’t have a general-purpose I²C module, but it does have one for barometer modules, so with a bit of work, I could make one to measure the voltage input which would tell me what the battery is doing.

Solar Cluster: Battery monitor computer ordered

I’ve taken the plunge and gotten a TS-7670 ordered in a DIN-rail mount for monitoring the battery.  Not sure what the shipping will be from Arizona to here, but I somehow doubt I’m up for more than AU$300 for this thing.  The unit itself will cost AU$250.

Some will argue that a Raspberry Pi or BeagleBone would be cheaper, and that would be correct, however by the time you’ve added a DIN-rail mount case, an RS-485 control board and a 12V to 5V step-down power converter, you’d be around that figure anyway.  Plus, the Raspberry Pi doesn’t give you schematics.  The BeagleBone does, but is also a more sophisticated beast.

The plan is I’ll spin a version of Gentoo Linux on it… possibly using the musl C library to keep memory usage down as I’ve gone the base model with 128MB RAM.  I’ll re-spin the kernel and U-Boot patches I have for the latest release.

There will be two functions looked after:

  • Access to the IPMI/L2 management network
  • Polling of the two DC power meters (still to be fully designed) via Modbus

It can report to a VM running on one of the hosts.  I believe collectd has the necessary bits and pieces to do this.  Failing that, I’ve written code before that polls Modbus… I write such code for a day job.

Solar Cluster: 2 days and counting on solar…

So, I’m home now for the Christmas break… and the fan in my power supply decided it would take a Christmas break itself.

The power supply was purchased brand new in June… it still works as a power supply, but with the fan seized up, it represents an overheating risk.  Unfortunately, the only real options I have are the Xantrex charger, which cooked my last batteries, or a 12V 20A linear PSU I normally use for my radio station.  20A is just a touch light-on, given the DC-DC converter draws 25A.  It’ll be fine to provide a top-up, but I wouldn’t want to use it for charging up flat batteries.

Now, I can replace the faulty fan.  However, that PSU is under warranty still, so I figure, back it goes!

In the meantime, an experiment.  What happens if I just turn the mains off and rely on the batteries?  Well, so far, so good.  Saturday afternoon, the batteries were fully charged, I unplugged the mains supply.  Battery voltage around 13.8V.

Sunday morning, battery was down to 12.1V, with about 1A coming in off the panels around 7AM (so 6A being drained from batteries by the cluster).

By 10AM, the solar panels were in full swing, and a good 15A was being pumped in, with the cluster drawing no more than 8A.  The batteries finished the day around 13.1V.

This morning, batteries were slightly lower at 11.9V.   Just checking now, I’m seeing over 16A flowing in from the panels, and the battery is at 13.2V.

I’m in the process of building some power meters based on NXP LPC810s and TI INA219Bs.  I’m at two minds what to use to poll them, whether I use a Raspberry Pi I have spare and buy a case, PSU and some sort of serial interface for it… or whether I purchase a small industrial PC for the job.

The Technologic Systems TS-7670 is one that I am considering, given they’ll work over a wide range of voltages and temperatures, they have plenty of UARTs including RS-485 and RS-232, and while they ship with an old Linux kernel, yours truly has ported both U-Boot and the mainline Linux kernel.  Yes, it’s ARMv5, but it doesn’t need to be a speed demon to capture lots of data, and they work just fine for Barangaroo where they poll Modbus (via pymodbus) and M-bus (via python-mbus).

Solar Cluster: Solar back on…

So, this weekend I did plan to run from solar full time to see how it’d go.

Mother nature did not co-operate.  I think there was about 2 hours of sunlight!  This is what the 24 hour rain map looks like from the local weather radar (image credit: Bureau of Meteorology):

In the end, I opted to crimp SB50 connectors onto the old Redarc BCDC1225 and hook it up between the battery harness and the 40A power supply. It’s happily keeping the batteries sitting at about 13.2V, which is fine. The cluster ran for months off this very same power supply without issue: it’s when I introduced the solar panels that the problems started. With a separate controller doing the solar that has over-discharge protection to boot, we should be fine.

I also have mostly built-up some monitoring boards based on the TI INA219Bs hooked up to NXP LPC810s. I have not powered these up yet, plan is to try them out with a 1ohm resistor as the stand-in for the shunt and a 3V rail… develop the firmware for reporting voltage/current… then try 9V and check nothing smokes.

If all is well, then I’ll package them up and move them to the cluster. Not sure of protocols just yet. Modbus/RTU is tempting and is a protocol I’m familiar with at work and would work well for this application, given I just need to represent voltage and current… both of which can be scaled to fit 16-bit registers easy (voltage in mV, current in mA would be fine).

I just need some connectors to interface the boards to the outside world and testing will begin. I’ve ordered these and they’ll probably turn up some time this week.