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  #1  
Old 07-17-2007
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I've been Solar Struck by the SolarStik

Yes, you heard that right.

If you remember the massive thread:
effectiveness of solar & wind

Brian was true to his word, and left me to play with a complete SolarStik. The first thing I have to say, is that if you've ever spent any time getting metal fabrication done, the photos we've seen of this totally do not get you ready to see the real thing. It looks like something that either fell off the ISS and survived the fall to earth, or something craftily stolen from a nuclear sub's powerplant. "Tim the Toolman" would go gaga over it.

Massively overbuilt, incredibly beautiful strong welds, and every part is either captive or attached with a fastpin and/or vinyl-covered steel leash. No tools required for assembly, nothing to drop overboard, lots of attention to separating the stainless and aluminum with Delrin(?) sleeves and washers to prevent bi-metal corrosion problems.

We were all wondering why a couple of solar panels and a pole would cost so much money. The answer is, that "pole" would probably cost more to fabricate in your local metal shop. Does anyone need or want that much overkill? Well...maybe. On a 40-60 footer, sure. I'm just saying there's a tremendous amount of expensive metalwork and design behind this, the "pole" is probably stronger than the mast or boom of many 28' boats.


I know, that was only half the question, whether the thing was overpriced. The other big issue was how come users were claiming to get more power out of it than most of us seem to think is possible anywhere on this planet. I've got answers for PART of that, and it seems to be that those wild claims aren't totally wild.

The SolarStik ships with a BlueSky SolarBoost "MPPT" charge controller. Big deal, a regulator is a regulator, right? Wrong. Part of that we figured out in the other thread. It turns out that MPPT controllers aren't just regulators--they take overvoltage from the solar panels, and convert it down to higher amperage at the voltage the batteries really need. There's some loss in the MPPT controller, and some variation among makers, and more variation by time of day, but apparently an MPPT controller can account for 5-10% "more power than those panels are capable of putting out". Not literally more power--but more useable amperage instead of dumping the extra voltage.

Then, it turns out there's another effect of MPPT controllers that even BlueSky wasn't talking about. MPPT controllers put out PWM (pulse width modulated) DC, not plain DC power. PWM-DC is more like an AC signal, it is simply not the same kind of power that a straight solar panel, or a panel with a conventional regulator, puts out.

One of their competitors (Morningstar) did some tests with/for Sandia Labs, who spend some of our tax dollars looking very closely at things like solar panels. See:

Addendum to Why PWM?

for their report, and there's a URL in there that links back to Sandia for some more unbiased reports that aren't quite as easy to read. Apparently when you use PWM instead of pure DC, and especially if you use it with AGM batteries, you can charge the battery more thoroughly and faster, as the "spikes" of DC don't cause local gassing the way a pure DC charger would. In their results, they showed batteries accepting higher capacity, up to 20% higher than even three-stage DC chargers.

In other words, use any PWM charger, including MPPT controllers, and if your battery was holding 200AH, you might see it holding 230-240AH after a few charge cycles from the MPPT controller.

The MPPT controller itself is using the solar panel's power more effectively (gaining 5-10% more amperage) and the PWM output from the controller is stuffing more amps into the battery (10-20% more) so yes, in theory, you could see folks "reading the meter" on the charge controller and concluding that they were getting 30% more power than they "should" be getting from solar panels, based on hooking up plain unregulated panels.

That magic doesn't apply just to the SolarStik--it apparently applies to all MPPT controlled solar panels, and the folks who make the controllers just aren't talking about it much. Unless you find Morningstar's web site or their tests with Sandia.

To make things a little bit more complex...you can't just "measure" PWM-DC with a plain multimeter. It isn't AC, it isn't DC, it's a special pulsating DC and regular meters are not designed to read that accurately. So, when the BlueSkies controller displayed voltage in/out, and displayed amperage into the batteries, I found it typically about 4% higher than my own "pretty good but not NIS-lab-calibrated" multimeter. The 4% difference is neither here nor there--for a boater reading the thing like a gas gauge. Whether the BlueSky controller was a bit optimistic (it consistently rounded UP to three figures, my meter uses four digits) or just needed calibration, dunno. BS will recalibrate their controllers for any original owner during the warranty period if that really concerns you. I figure, if you are trying to charge a battery bank near 50% cycle depth...a couple of percent either way really is not a concern.

So with a PWM controller pushing perhaps 20-30% more charge into the batteries, and a chance that the "meter" is misleading the user by another 4-5%?

Yeah, I can see that some owners would be reporting incredible amp-hour claims for the SolarStik. Without having any idea why those numbers were happening, but swearing quite postively that those numbers WERE REAL.

It has been a very enlightening bit of testing for me. When I go solar, at some point, I don't know that I'd want a SolarStik. It's just massive, and while it probably would survive a rollover and cartwheel...I just don't know. I'm kinda hoping that Brain comes out with a "SolarStik Jr." for the rest of us, same quality, but maybe with some college engineering class figuring out how to pare it down to half the mass while still making it "strong enough". (Heck, even the finger grips in the carrying handle are half-inch-deep rounded and polished INDENTS sticking out above a piece of one-inch aluminum tubing.)

Now, what I haven't been able to get around to yet, and may not be able to finish up on, is clocking the output in real low sun angles, i.e. 6-10AM and 5-8PM. We all questioned how much that might affect the total output. From what I saw, aiming and rotating the panels every hour or so to track the sun made some difference. And the locks and adjusters and arm supports and all on the SolarStik do make that easy, again with a lot of expensive top quality metalwork. (Apparently the same equipment, with a terrestial tripod base, is being sold to military and emergency/disaster operations centers--and they've got no complaints about how rugged it is either.)

So yes, Brian dared me. Yes, he kept his word. And even if I'm not all done and don't have a full set of "pure" percents to come out with? I've got to say I can totally understand the price point, based on the fab job alone.

The radical output numbers? Not so surprising. Apparently MPPT and PWM are just "out there" and you've got to pull teeth to find out that they are inherently different--and the only way to go.

Aside from wishing for a "Junior" model my only concern would be on the BlueSky controller. It looks nicely made, but it doesn't seem to be "conformal coated" or really designed for use in salt air environments. It took three reeadings through the manuals to be sure of what and how I was setting things up, because they're very flexible but a bit confusing. And oddly enough, you can't just set the controller for "AGM" or "Wet Lead", you need to find the specs on your own batteries, and then go match them up through a menu system that takes a half dozen tries before you get the knack of it.

I don't know how BlueSky compares to Outback, Morningstar, and the couple of other companies producing MPPT controllers in overall terms or quality, efficiency, price...a whole other kettle of fish. And properly installed down below with the other electronics the BlueSky controller probably is fine--but considering the massive overkill on every other part of the SolarStik, I'd like to see "SolarStik Jr." ship with an MPPT controller that was designed for use in salt air, either potted or coated.

This is not at all your father's Oldsmobile!

Last edited by hellosailor; 07-17-2007 at 03:41 PM.
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Old 07-17-2007
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Thanks for the post HS... looking forward to seeing your numbers...and will you post some photos for CP, before he goes ballistic.
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Old 07-17-2007
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Thanks for the time and effort HS.

- CD
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Ok, so I have to ask Hello:

What size panels did you have? 50's? If so, were you actually seeing 80-100 ah/day? If yes, then is that number potential for ANY MPPT controller?

- CD
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Old 07-17-2007
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uh oh....looks like we're going to all be talking about the Solar Stik again.

Personally, I wouldn't care if it gave 500 ah day...the dang thing is so ugly I would rather stay home...
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Old 07-17-2007
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CD-

Probably only for the ones that do PWM DC. If the MPPT doesn't do PWM, a lot of the benefits are lost.
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Originally Posted by Cruisingdad
Ok, so I have to ask Hello:

What size panels did you have? 50's? If so, were you actually seeing 80-100 ah/day? If yes, then is that number potential for ANY MPPT controller?

- CD
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Old 07-17-2007
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OK, as most here know, I hate electricity and boat electronics and electrics and batteries and all that.

I really hate electricity. (Maybe because I work with it???), I don't read about it, I don't really care much about it too. and all the gear you guys drool over...

So my questions are:

1)Can someone post a photo of this Solar stick thing??? I have no idea what your're talking about.
2) It recharges your batteries with the sun, right?
3) what is a MPPT
4) and a PWM DC

I help people here, now its payback, I need help....not really just curious about what is this thing that gets you guys all excited.

Thanks
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MPPT— Maximum Power Point Tracking... a technology that increases the efficient use of the output from solar panels.

PWM DC— Pulse width modulated DC current, which apparently helps increase charge acceptance by batteries.

Yes, the Solar Stik uses two 50 W solar panels mounted on a 3-axis mounting system with a BlueSky MPPT charge controller.

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Old 07-17-2007
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OK, everybody at once.

First off, no digicam here except the low-res one in the cell phone. If I took pictures, they'd look horrible. SD picture doesn't do them justice, and I've suggested to Brian that he REALLY needs some good professional pictures, close enough up to show detail and some human scale in them. You can, for instance, see the carry handle (on the main pole, between the tripod base and the panels) in SD's photo. What you can't see is that it looks like The Incredible Hulk gave a 1.5" aluminum pipe a death grip, and left his fingergrip embedded halfway through it. Nor can you see the welds, some of them beautifully lapped and as wide as your little finger. Or that the pole is in fact tapered aloft. I thought this was for windage, but Brian explained that they have to cut it open to do some of the welding inside, and then tapering it as they welded it back shut became a simple option, which also saves some weight. But--it just looks tapered, no sign of the welding involved.
You know how some baots just have beautiful woodworking & cabinetry? Or the way Sabre puts a teak dust bin grill at the base of the companionway, to catch all the junk you trek in? And you'd never notice it unless you happened to look at it, close enough to see it. Sorry, I'm not going to break out the old 35mm. and start doing that job.

SD-
Numbers. Well, here near forty north, with an oppressive sun, a weatherman's UV index of 9, and not perfect but pretty damn good clear skies, I was recording about 63 watts from 10AM - 1PM, loosely tracking the sun. That's right, 63 watts from a 100 watt panel set, according to my multimeter, about 4% more according to the SolarBoost numbers. Nothing near the 90 Watts guaranteed by BP, or the 100 Watts maximum rated. (the panels are labelled with both typical and maximum outputs.)
And again, I have to stress that I'm measuring PWM-DC with an instrument that is designed for pure DC, so I know the numbers I'm seeing are wrong. Not sure which way, but wrong. I didn't get a chance to do a full day of drain-and-refill real charge storage measurement.
IIRC from the various solar charts, up here we're supposed to get about four equivalent hours of full output from the course of a whole day, versus six down in Florida. That would be...about 250 Watt-hours up here, indicating 375Wh down there in sunnier climes. Or about 73 Amphours at 13.6V here, and closer to 100AH down there. If I get better numbers or a longer run to measure the effects of early/late day hours, I'll post them. Won't be this week. Even if someone is reading the BlueSky panel (which as I said reads higher than my meter, no idea which is really more correct with PWM-DC) they shouldn't be seeing more than 4% above that--but, if they are reading from the "fuel gauge", they may be seeing another 10-20% gain in stored amperage, because the PWM-DC is allowing the battery to take a higher charge, per Morningstar's paper. Kinda reminds me of the first time I got gasoline in Canada, and not knowing anything about Imperial Gallons, I was amazed at the great mpg I was getting.

"Probably only for the ones that do PWM DC. If the MPPT doesn't do PWM, a lot of the benefits are lost." ABSOLUTELY! But every mention of an MPPT controller that I've seen, indicates they are all using pulse width modulation or something similar, since they all essentially transform power, and you can't do that without monkeying with the DC and using PWM or pulsed DC or even AC at some point.

I wouldn't call the SS ugly, but "big" and "industrial" do apply--in the nicest way. It just ain't svelte, and it could be mistaken for a yawl mast on a smaller boat. Where those two big panels also make a nice replacement for a bimini top.

Also of note, if someone is onboard all day and moving the panels as intended, that's also going to have a big effect compared to flat panels that are simply randomly moving as the boat points into the wind. Angling and aiming the panels is something else that was well-reported in the university, etc. lab results all linked from the monster thread. For someone who is just parking the boat and leaving it--this won't be any advantage. For someone onboard and willing to just nudge the panels every hour when they walk past (or tack)...big difference. A difference you can't get with simple flat panels.
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Old 07-17-2007
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Quote:
Originally Posted by sailingdog




Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh my wife came here runing because I was making so much noise.....its almost mid night......sorry

You have to be kidding me, right??? is that what you guys are all excited about???

Man I woke my son Luis he was sleeping...man I peed my underwear laughing...that stuff looks like the crap Neil Armstrong took to the moon, and left there!!!

I am still drying my eyes from laughing...the last time I laughed like this was in the movie Dodgeball when the guy throws a wrench at one of the players head....

You are telling me people actually put that stuff on their boats?????

Man you Americans are really funny...do I have premission to spread this around my freinds?? Please???

Thanks for the photo, that was really cool.

I can imagine CD runing to the home depot to buy one of those...

sorry, I really am out of your World....


Sorry I mean no disrespect to who makes that, (NASA??) I just can't imagine that on a boat!!! Sorry again.

Last edited by Giulietta; 07-17-2007 at 07:04 PM.
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