Troubleshooting - Solar Electricity Handbook 2011: A Simple Practical Guide to Solar Energy - Designing and Installing Photovoltaic Solar Electric Systems - Michael Boxwell 

Solar Electricity Handbook 2011: A Simple Practical Guide to Solar Energy - Designing and Installing Photovoltaic Solar Electric Systems - Michael Boxwell (2011)

Troubleshooting

Once your solar electric system is in place, it should give you many years of untroubled service. If it does not, you will need to troubleshoot the system to find out what is going wrong and why.

Keep safe

All the safety warnings that go with installation also relate to troubleshooting. Remember that solar arrays will generate electricity almost all the time (except in complete darkness), and batteries do not have an ‘off’ switch.

Common faults

Unless you keep an eye on your solar energy system, problems can often go undetected for months. Only if you have a stand-alone system and the power switches off will you find out that you have a problem.

The faults are typically to be found in one of the following areas:

·       Excessive power usage – i.e. you are using more power than you anticipated

·       Insufficient power generation – i.e. you are not generating as much power as you expected

·       Damaged wiring/ poor connections

·       Weak batteries

·       Obstructions (shading)

·       Faulty earth (ground)

·       Inverter faults

Obstructions are a big subject by themselves, and I cover this in much more detail in Appendix A. Other faults are covered below.

Excessive power usage

This is the most common reason for solar electric systems failing: the original investigations underestimated the amount of power that was required.

Almost all solar controllers provide basic information on an LCD screen that allows you to see how much power you have generated compared to how much energy you are using, and shows the amount of charge currently stored in the battery bank. Some solar controllers include more detailed information that allows you to check on a daily basis how your power generation and power usage compares.

Using this information, you can check your power drain to see if it is higher than you originally expected.

If you have an inverter in your system, you will also need to measure this information from your inverter. Some inverters have an LCD display and can provide this information, but if your system does not provide this, you can use a plug-in watt meter to measure your power consumption over a period of time.

If your solar controller or your inverter does not provide this information, you can buy a multi-meter with data logging capabilities. These will allow you to measure the current drain from the solar controller and/or your inverter over a period of time (you would typically want to measure this over a period of a day).

Attach the multi-meter across the leads from your batteries to your solar controller and inverter. Log the information for at least 24 hours. This will allow you identify how much power is actually being used.

Some data logging multi-meters will plot a chart showing current drain at different times of the day, which can also help you identify when the drain is highest.

Solutions

If you have identified that you are using more power than you were originally anticipating, you have three choices:

·       Reduce your power load

·       Increase the size of your solar array

·       Add another power source (such as a fuel cell, wind turbine or generator) to top up your solar electric system when necessary

Insufficient power generation

If you have done your homework correctly, you should not have a problem with insufficient power generation when the system is relatively new.

However, over a period of a few years, the solar panels and batteries will degrade in their performance (batteries more so than the solar panels), whilst new obstructions that cut out sunlight may now be causing problems.

You may also be suffering with excessive dirt on the solar panels themselves, which can significantly reduce the amount of energy the solar array can generate. Pigeons and cats are the worst culprits for this!

Your site may have a new obstruction that is blocking sunlight at a certain time of day: a tree that has grown substantially since you carried out the original site survey, for instance.

Alternatively, you may have made a mistake with the original site survey and not identified an obstruction. Unfortunately, this is the most common mistake made by inexperienced solar installers. It is also the most expensive problem to fix. This is why carrying out the site survey is so important.

To identify if your system is not generating as much power as originally expected, check the input readings on your solar controller to see how much power has been generated by your solar panels on a daily basis. If your solar controller cannot provide this information, use a multi-meter with data logger to record the amount of energy captured by the solar panels over a three-to-five day period.

Solutions

If you have identified that you are not generating as much power as you should be, start by checking your solar array. Check for damage on the solar array and then give the array a good wash with warm, soapy water and polish using a water- and dirt-repellent glass polish or wax.

Check all the wiring. Make sure that there is no unexplained high resistance in any of the solar panels or on any run of wiring. It could be a faulty connection or a damaged cable that is causing the problems.

Carry out another site survey and ensure there are no obstructions between the solar array and the sun. Double-check that the array itself is in the right position to capture the sun at solar noon. Finally, check that the array is at the optimum angle to collect sunlight.

If you are experiencing these problems only at a certain time of the year, it is worth adjusting the angle of the solar panel to provide the maximum potential power generation during this time, even if this means compromising power output at other times of year.

Check the voltage at the solar array using a multi-meter. Then check again at the solar controller. If there is a significant voltage drop between the two, the resistance in your cable is too high and you are losing significant efficiency as a result. This could be due to an inadequate cable installed in the first place, or damage in the cable. If possible, reduce the length of the cable and test again. Alternatively, replace the cable with a larger and better quality cable.

If none of that works, you have three choices:

·       Reduce your power load

·       Increase the size of your solar array

·       Add another power source (such as a fuel cell, wind turbine or generator) to top up your solar electric system when necessary

Damaged wiring/ poor connections

If you have damaged wiring or a poor connection, this can have some very strange effects on your system. If you have odd symptoms that do not seem to add up to anything in particular, then wiring problems or poor connections are your most likely culprit.

Examples of some of the symptoms of a loose connection or damaged wiring are:

·       A sudden drop in solar energy in very warm or very cold weather. This is often due to a loose connection or damaged wiring in the solar array or between the solar array and the solar controller

·       Sudden or intermittent loss of power when you are running high loads. This suggests a loose connection between batteries, or between the batteries and solar controller or inverter

·       Sudden or intermittent loss of power on particularly warm days after the solar array has been in the sun for a period of time. This suggests a loose connection somewhere in the array, a damaged panel or high resistance in a cable

·       Significantly lower levels of power generation from the solar array suggest a loose wire connection or a short circuit between solar panels within the array             

·       A significant voltage drop on the cable between the solar array and the solar controller suggests either an inadequate cable or damage to the cable itself

·       Likewise, a significant voltage drop on the cable between the solar controller and your low-voltage devices suggests an inadequate cable or damage to the cable itself

·       If you find a cable that is very warm to the touch, it suggests the internal resistance in that cable is high. The cable should be replaced immediately

Unfortunately, diagnosing exactly where the fault is can be time-consuming. You will require a multi-meter, a test light and plenty of time.

Your first task is to identify which part of the system is failing. A solar controller that can tell you inputs and outputs is useful here. The information from this will tell you whether your solar array is underperforming or the devices are just not getting the power they need.

Once you know which part of the system to concentrate on, measure the resistance of each cable using the ohm setting on your multi-meter. If the internal resistance is higher than you would expect, replace it. If any cable is excessively hot, replace it. The problem could be caused either by having an inadequate cable in the first place (i.e. too small) or by internal damage to the cable.

Next, check all the connections in the part of the system you are looking at. Make sure the quality of the connections is good. Make sure that all cables are terminated with proper terminators or soldered. Make sure there is no water ingress.

Weak battery

The symptoms of a weak battery are that either the system does not give you as much power as you need, or you get intermittent power failures when you switch on a device.

In extreme cases, a faulty battery can actually reverse its polarity and pull down the efficiency of the entire bank.

Weak battery problems first show themselves in cold weather and when the batteries are discharged to below 50–60% capacity. In warm weather, or when the batteries are charged up, weak batteries can quite often continue to give good service for many months or years.

If your solar controller shows that you are getting enough power in from your solar array to cope with your loads, then your most likely suspect is a weak battery within your battery bank, or a bad connection between two batteries.

Start with the cheap and easy stuff. Clean all your battery terminals, check your battery interconnection cables, make sure the cable terminators are fitting tightly on the batteries and coat each terminal with a layer of petroleum jelly in order to ensure good connectivity and protection from water ingress.

Then check the water levels in your batteries (if they are ‘wet’ batteries). Top up as necessary.

Check to make sure that each battery in your battery bank is showing a similar voltage. If there is a disparity of more than 0.7 volts, it suggests that you may need to balance your batteries.

If, however, you are seeing a disparity on one battery of 2 volts or over, it is likely that you have a failed cell within that battery. You will probably find that this battery is also abnormally hot. Replace that battery immediately.

If your solar controller has the facility to balance batteries, then use this. If not, top up the charge on the weaker batteries, using an appropriate battery charger, until all batteries are reading a similar voltage.

If you are still experiencing problems after carrying out these tests, you will need to run a load test on all your batteries in turn. To do this, make sure all your batteries are fully charged up, disconnect the batteries from each other and use a battery load tester (you can hire these cheaply from tool hire companies). This load tester will identify any weak batteries within your bank.

Changing batteries

If all your batteries are several years old and you believe they are getting to the end of their useful lives, it is probably worth replacing the whole battery bank in one go. Badly worn batteries and new batteries do not necessarily mix well, because of the voltage difference. If you mix new and used, you can easily end up with a bank where some of the batteries never fully charge up.

If you have a bank of part-worn batteries and one battery has failed prematurely, it may be worth finding a second-hand battery of the same make and model as yours. Many battery suppliers can supply you with second-hand batteries: not only are they much cheaper than new, but because the second-hand battery will also be worn, it will have similar charging and discharging characteristics to your existing bank, which can help it bed down into your system.

If you cannot find a part-worn battery, you can use a new one, but make sure you use the same make and model as the other batteries in your bank. Never mix and match different models of batteries, as they all have slightly different characteristics.

If you add a new battery to a part-worn bank, you may find the life of the new battery is less than you would expect if you replaced all them. Over a few months of use, the performance of the new battery is likely to degrade to similar levels to the other batteries in the bank.

Before changing your battery, make sure that all of your batteries (both new and old) are fully charged.

Put a label on the new battery, noting the date it was changed. This will come in useful in future years when testing and replacing batteries.

Once you have replaced your battery, take your old one to your local scrap merchants. Lead acid batteries have a good scrap value and they can be 100% recycled to make new batteries.

Inverter issues

The symptoms of inverter issues can include:

·       Buzzing or humming sounds from some electronic equipment when powered from the inverter

·       Failure of some equipment to run from the inverter

·       Regular tripping of circuits

·       Sudden loss of power

If you are experiencing buzzing or humming sounds from electronic equipment when powered from the inverter, or if some equipment is not running at all, it suggests that the inverter is not producing a pure AC sine wave. If you have a grid-tie system, the AC pure sine waveform generated by the inverter may not be perfectly coordinated with the waveform from the grid. This would suggest poor quality power from the grid, a grounding issue or a faulty inverter.

If you have a stand-alone system and have purchased a modified sine wave inverter (or quasi-sine wave), it may be that you cannot resolve these issues without replacing the inverter. Some electronic equipment, such as laptop computers and portable televisions, may not work at all using a modified sine wave inverter, whilst other equipment will emit a buzz when run from these inverters.

If you have sudden and unexplained tripping of circuits when running from an inverter, or experience sudden loss of power, there are a number of things to check:

·       Does the tripping occur when a heavy-load appliance such as a fridge switches itself on or off?

·       Does the tripping occur when the inverter cuts in at the start of the day or when it cuts out at the end of the day?

·       Does the tripping occur more often on very warm days or after heavy rain?

Unfortunately, circuit tripping and sudden power loss often only occurs when a combination of events occur, which can make diagnosis time-consuming and difficult to get right.

The most common reasons for circuit tripping or sudden power loss are temperature-related issues. Inverters can generate a huge amount of heat. The hotter they get, the less power they produce. If the inverter is running too hot, a sudden peak demand can be enough to shut the inverter down momentarily. If the inverter runs too hot for too long, it will shut down for a longer period of time in order to cool.

If this is the case, you are going to have to provide your inverter with more ventilation. If you cannot keep it cool, it may also mean that you require a more powerful inverter in order to cope with the load.

If the issue occurs during sudden rain or on very hot days, you may also have a grounding problem. Check the inverter with a PAT tester to ensure that you are not getting a ground leakage from the inverter itself. If you are, check all the connections from the DC input of your inverter.