PWM vs MPPT Solar Charge Controllers
What’s the Difference?
The charge controller is a key component of a solar power system and specifying the best one for the system requires some analysis. Below is a quick overview.
The two types of charge controllers most commonly used in today’s solar power systems are pulse width modulation (PWM) and maximum power point tracking
(MPPT). Both adjust charging rates depending on the battery’s charge
level to allow charging closer to the battery’s maximum capacity as well
as monitor battery temperature to prevent overheating.
► Comparing the Two
maximizing charging capacity were the only factor considered when
specifying a solar controller, everyone would use a MPPT controller. But
the two technologies are different, each with it’s own advantages. The
decision depends on site conditions, system components, size of array
and load, and finally the cost for a particular solar power system.
► Temperature Conditions
An MPPT controller is better suited for colder conditions. As solar module operating temperature goes down, the Vmp1 increases.
That’s because the voltage of the solar panels operating at their peak
power point at Standard Testing Conditions (STC is 25C°) is about 17V
while the battery voltage is about 13.5V. The MPPT controller is able to
capture the excess module voltage to charge the batteries. As a
result, a MPPT controller in cool conditions can produce up to 20 – 25%
more charging than a PWM controller.
In comparison, a PWM controller is unable to capture excess voltage
because the pulse width modulation technology charges at the same
voltage as the battery. However, when solar panels are deployed in warm
or hot climates, their Vmp decreases, and the peak power point operates
at a voltage that is closer to the voltage of a 12V battery. There is no
excess voltage to be transferred to the battery making the MPPT
controller unnecessary and negating the advantage of an MPPT over a PWM.
► Array to Load Ratio
a scenario where the solar array is large relative to the power draw
from the batteries by the load, the batteries will stay close to a full
state of charge. A PWM controller is capable of efficiently maintaining
the system without the added expense of an MPPT controller.
► Size of the System
Low power systems are better suited to a PWM controller because:
- A PWM controller operates at a relatively constant harvesting efficiency regardless of the size of the array
- A PWM controller is less expensive that a MPPT, so is a more economical choice for a small system
- A MPPT controller is much less efficient in low power applications. Systems 170W or higher tickle the MPPT’s sweet spot
► Type of Solar Module
Stand-alone off-grid solar modules are typically 36-cell modules and are compatible with both PWM and MPPT technologies. Some grid-tie
solar modules on the market today are not the traditional 36-cells
modules that are used for off-grid power systems. For example, the
voltage from a 60-cell 250W panel is too high for 12-Volt battery
charging, and too low for 24-Volt battery charging. MPPT technology
tracks the maximum power point (thus MPPT) of these less expensive
grid-tie modules in order to charge the batteries, whereas PWM does not.
controllers are typically more expensive than PWM’s but are more
efficient under certain conditions, so they can produce more power with
the same number of solar modules than a PWM controller. One must then
analyze the site to verify that the MPPT can indeed perform more
efficiently when used in that system’s given set of conditions.
When specifying one technology over the other, the cost of the
controller becomes less important than the total cost of the system. To
specify a controller technology simply based of cost, be sure to perform
a close analysis of realized efficiencies, system operation, load and
SUMMARY OF COMPARISON
PWM Charge Controller
MPPT Charge Controller
PV array & battery voltages should match
PV array voltage can be higher than battery voltage
Operates at battery voltage so it performs well in warm temperatures and when the battery is almost full
Operates above battery voltage so it is can provide “boost” in cold temperatures and when the battery is low.
Typically recommended for use in smaller systems where MPPT benefits are minimal
≈ 150W – 200W or higher to take advantage of MPPT benefits
Off-Grid or Grid-Tie
Must use off-grid PV modules typically with Vmp ≈ 17 to 18 Volts for every 12V nominal battery voltage
Enables the use of lower cost/grid-tie PV Modules helping bring down the overall PV system cost
Array Sizing Method
PV array sized in Amps (based on current produced when PV array is operating at battery voltage)
PV array sized in Watts (based on the Controller Max. Charging Current x Battery Voltage)
At Solarcraft, when we select one type of charge
controller over another we assess its advantages in the overall system
cost. The goal is to power a system efficiently and continuously while
preserving the health of the battery bank.
1 The Vmp (maximum power voltage) is
the voltage where the product of the output current and output voltage
(amps * volts) is greatest and output power (watts = amps * volts) is
maximized. Module wattage ratings (e.g. 100W, 205W) are based on Pmp
(maximum power) at Vmp under standard test conditions (STC).