A solar panel system generally has three components — the panel, a charge controller, and a battery. While the battery stores excess power, the charge controller mediates that power. But, can you use a charge controller without a battery?
A solar charge controller will not work without a battery. The charge controller’s purpose is to regulate the amount of voltage flowing from your solar panel system to your battery. While you do not need to utilize a battery or a charge controller for smaller solar panel systems, larger setups will run more efficiently and effectively with both.
Continue reading to learn more about solar panel systems, charge controllers, and how and why they are designed to function together.
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Key Components of a Solar Panel System
Green, clean energy is an essential way forward for protecting the environment and reducing the amount of pollution that comes from burning coal and fossil fuels. A solar panel system is not only an optimal alternative energy solution, but it is also relatively low-in-cost long-term.
While you certainly can use a solar panel kit without any other equipment, the most efficient way to provide electricity to your home, RV, or even a small camping site with solar power requires more than the solar panels themselves.
A solar panel contains photovoltaic (PV) cells that essentially convert sunlight into usable electrical energy. A charge controller, sometimes called a charge regulator, regulates the voltage that flows from the solar panels to your backup battery (source).
A charge controller is important in that its main function is to prevent a deep-cycle battery from overcharging by monitoring the current and voltage flow (source). Overcharging will ultimately result in damage to the battery.
And as you may already be aware, a backup battery for your solar panel system, while certainly a good investment, can be fairly expensive. It is not something you want to have to replace before due time.
Additionally, the controller both stops charging when the battery is full, and if your battery is close to reaching an unhealthy discharge point, it prevents the battery from continuing to discharge. You can read more about solar panel batteries and at what level they should be charged in “How Long Does It Take a 100W Solar Panel to Charge a 100 Ah Battery?”
Utilizing a deep-cycle battery with your solar panel kit is as equally important as the controller and panels themselves, given that you’ll likely need a backup reserve of energy during the night, during cloudy or overcast days when the solar panels may not be able to collect adequate energy, or during power outages.
The deep-cycle batteries designed to work with most solar panel systems can be charged and recharged repeatedly, which is one reason they are effective. But the amount of energy flowing directly to the battery from the PV cells needs to be regulated by the charge controller to prevent damage or a significant decrease in the battery’s life.
So, using a charge controller without a battery seems to defeat the charge controller’s purpose. It would make more sense to skip the controller outright, depending on the voltage flow and power requirements you are working with.
There are two different types of charge controllers — a pulse width modulation (PMW) controller and a maximum power point tracking (MPPT) controller. Each is slightly different concerning size and technology, and one is more expensive than the other.
Determining which one is better is a matter of preference and also depends on your particular setup.
Pulse Width Modulation Controller
A pulse width modulation controller is a bit simpler and less expensive than its counterpart, the maximum power point charge controller, but there are both benefits and drawbacks to consider. A PWM controller is more often used with smaller solar panel system kits, as well as those you’ll often see on the tops of RVs (source).
The PWM controller works by connecting the solar panel array to your battery while continually monitoring the battery’s charging state and adjusting the amount of power. As your battery becomes fully charged, the PWM controller essentially sends small pulses of power to the battery to maintain its capacity without going over.
PWM controllers are ideal for smaller setups, camping sites, and RVs because there needs to be a match between the voltage of the battery and that of the solar panel system. Typically, these are 12-volt panels and batteries. In general, larger systems do not have the same amount of voltage as the requisite battery.
However, while more cost-effective and durable, a PWM controller is less efficient and less powerful than an MPPT controller (source).
Maximum Power Point Charge Controllers
The maximum power point charge controller is a newer, more technologically advanced controller than the PWM controller. It is ideal for more extensive systems where the battery voltage does not need to match the voltage of your solar panel array.
An MPPC controller works by monitoring the difference in voltage between the solar panels and the battery and automatically converting a higher voltage to a lower level when necessary, creating equilibrium between the two.
It also allows for the use of more power from the panel versus the battery, which is helpful in maintaining a consistently reliable backup of power.
The efficiency rate with an MPPC controller is much higher than that of a PWM, providing between 10 and 30% more power in lower temperatures. It also allows for more flexibility within your system as a whole should you decide to add more panels or change the type of panels that you are using.
You can think of the MPPC controller as a “smart” system. It is designed to sense the peak point of voltage and amperage, known as the “knee of the curve,” and automatically adjust to create maximum power output (source).
Nonetheless, MPPC controllers are more expensive and a lot bigger and bulkier than a standard PWM controller. As stated earlier, determining which one is the right one for you depends on both your particular system and set up as well as your budget.
Still, regardless of what type of controller you choose to utilize, you will also need a coinciding battery to operate your system effectively. The only time you could possibly get away with using a charge controller without a battery is with very, very small DC loads — and potentially a PWM controller.
However, doing so will negate the purpose of the charge controller itself. Thus, it doesn’t really make sense to use one without the other. And, especially with MPPC controllers, the battery is necessary in order for it to work at all.
Solar Charge Controllers and Batteries: Are They Essential?
While the most efficient, larger solar panel systems depend on all three key components — the solar panels themselves, a charge controller of either type, and a deep-cycle battery — it is possible to operate your system without a controller at all if it is a smaller system with one to five-watt solar panels.
It is also possible to utilize only your panels to provide access to power and bypass the battery — as well as the controller — altogether.
Conversely, however, off-grid solar panels systems will require a battery so that you can store generated energy for later use. Otherwise, any excess power generated will go back into the grid, and if there is a power outage, for example, you may not have access to power.
You can skip the battery for grid-tiered systems if you choose to do so since it, in a sense, acts as an energy backup itself. But it is not generally recommended, especially if you are relying only on your solar panel system to provide power to your entire home.
Most would suggest having a backup battery in case of unexpected usage or outages.
Regardless of whether you choose to operate your solar panel system with or without a battery, or with or without a controller, you should not operate a controller without the battery as its main function is to regulate the battery and increase its functionality and longevity.
The controller and battery also work together to ensure that you have stable, reliable power consistently, regardless of the time of day, year, or changes in weather. Even a single cloud covering the sun for a moment can result in lower power output and voltage flow.
The combined use of both the controller and battery protects you from any resulting loss of current due to external variables.
Many people advocate for and depend on solar power, whether to supply electricity to an entire home or for smaller ventures such as camping or on the top of RVs.
And while the battery can be bulky and expensive, there are smaller solar panel battery kits that you can consider before skipping the battery altogether, especially if you plan to use a charge controller.
The reality is that the battery and charge controller are designed to work together, and the charge controller’s main purpose is to regulate the current and voltage flow to the battery to keep your power on no matter the weather or cloud cover.
If you are questioning whether you can use a controller without a battery, the better option may be to simply skip the controller altogether.