How they work. Solar panels are made up of individual solar cells that convert sunlight into energy. That energy comes in the form of direct current (DC) electricity, which is used to charge and replenish your boat’s batteries. Typically, several panels are joined together, creating a ‘solar array.’
What to look for. There are common three types of solar panels – amorphous, monocrystalline, and polycrystalline.
While amorphous panels are the least expensive, they are the least efficient and take up the most room. They can also lose up to 30 percent of the power-generating capabilities in their first year—they actually degrade when exposed to sunlight!
Polycrystalline panels take up roughly half the space to produce the same power as their amorphous counterparts, however, they can vary widely in quality. Look for panels with the highest rated wattage for their size. A smaller footprint means a more efficient panel.
While monocrystalline panels are also available with different grades of cells, they are almost always more efficient than poly panels. They also typically last longer, making them the wallet-friendly choice.
The solar charge controller is a critical component in your Marine solar system. The controller maintains the life of the battery by preventing overcharging. When your batteries are low, the controller provides a full flow of current from your solar panels to replenish your battery banks. When your batteries achieve a 100% charge, the controller limits the current flowing from your solar panels to the batteries.
There are different types of solar charge controllers. While simple one or two stage controllers will shut off solar current when your battery is full, Pulse Width Modulated (PWM) controllers offer more functionality. They provide greater control of the current flowing from your solar panels and better ‘trickle charging’ of your batteries at an economical price. These controllers are good entry-level controllers for occasional use.
Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) controllers are more expensive than PWM, but provide a wider range of benefits. They are up to 30% more efficient than PWM and provide even more control and expandability options.
We suggest PWM controller with smaller, entry level solar setups, and MPPT for larger ones. As with most solar components, when choosing the right solar controller for you, it comes down to personal preference and practicality.
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Power Inverters. While your boat’s batteries generally provide 12 volt DC power, many of the appliances you run in your boat require 120 volts AC (like in your home). Making this conversion is the primary role of your boat’s power inverter.
There are several things to consider when choosing your boat’s power inverter. First, while most older inverters use ‘modified sine wave’ technology (to recreate the AC power profile in your home), many appliances and sensitive electronics run better on the power produced by newer, ‘pure sine’ inverters. While more expensive, pure sine inverters provide more assurance that all your current and future devices will run optimally.
We recommend choosing an inverter from a company with a proven track record and reliable customer support. Your inverter should have a full range of safety certifications (such as CSA and UL) to ensure safe operation within your boat.
More elaborate converters also give you the capability to charge your batteries when you’re plugged into shore power or running a generator. Some even allow you to ‘pass through’ AC current directly to your appliances when you’re plugged into shore power, or to draw shore power and battery power at the same time.