Updating my Solar install to allow Web Portal Access

Having the Bluetooth (BT) connectivity to my solar controllers was to me a necessity so I went with the Victron line of controllers after looking at what was available.   The issue that came up was very short range for the Bluetooth connectivity.  This was due to mounting them inside the electronics bay, a metal compartment at the rear of the bus!  That all aluminum bay is acting as a Faraday cage which made the connection from a phone or tablet a very short range affair.   Basically I can only connect to it from the RV’s bedroom located right above that bay.  I found that I could also add a Victron Bluetooth Dongle to one of the charge controllers and mount that up inside a bedroom cabinet allowing my phone to access it from the front seat of the coach.  That was nice but now that we have two controllers and the Victron Connect App cannot view both controller screens at the same time.  The App allows only one connection at a time.  That’s very limiting in my opinion when you have two controllers charging one set of batteries.

I had read about the Victron VRM portal that allowed a couple of their accessory devices, the Venus GX or the Victron Color Control GX to upload the solar data from multiple devices like controllers, battery monitors and many other devices Victron Energy produces to a website that you can access from anywhere with an internet connection.

I looked at buying one of those devices but they are pretty costly and didn’t feel the need to spend that kind of money just for the convenience.  So I starting looking around to see if there was another way to do the same thing.

Turns out there is.  Those devices firmware (actually their OS) is in the public domain. (GNU) so I looked around and found to find a device someone has ported it to.  I found it ported to Raspberry Pi (RPI).   Currently they are $38 so I pulled the trigger and ordered one to see if I could make this work for me.

I had a few old 2 GB microSD card (had a bunch of them from over the years laying around)  So I downloaded the Venus OS from a repository on the web.  I then burned it to a microSD card and once the RPI arrived I pushed it into the slot on the underside of the little board (RPI) and then plugged in a micro USB adapters power cord into the power port and an Ethernet cable into its port and powered it up.

Bamm, it booted up and finished with the Victron Logo on the screen and stopped at the command prompt.  I typed in ifconfig hit enter and it showed me the IP address it had received from my home networks router.   I walked back to my desk and put that address into my web browser and connected to the device.   (It was a bit more complicated for me because at first I downloaded a version of the OS that didn’t support that new RPI device.  v2.30 or above is needed)

That is the required version to run on the B+ device (newest device available when I did this, early 2019) is here in the development folder:   https://updates.victronenergy.com/feeds/venus/develop/images/raspberrypi2/   Those files change often so by the time you read this the working version may have been release to production and be here: https://updates.victronenergy.com/feeds/venus/release/images/raspberrypi2/ in the Released area.

I also had to get a couple USB to VE Direct cables that connect from the RPI’s USB ports directly to the Victron Controllers.   I used a phone power supply i had laying around to power it until I could get a power supply to hard wire into the bay.     Hard wired 12v to 5v power supply

In order to burn the image I downloaded I needed a minimum of a 2 GB microSD card.  If you don’t have any lying around this link will give you two cards for very little money.  SanDisk 32GB MicroSD HC Ultra Uhs-1 Memory Card, Class 10   2 GB cards might be found on EBAY.  But these new 32 GB ones are extremely cheap.

First thing I had to do to the card is format it, I used SD Card Formatter, the  newest one from there. I always scan new downloads with all my virus and malware scanners prior to running and unzipping them to my laptop.  After a  successful card format I used this free tool to burn the downloaded VenusOS image to that card.  Win 32 Disk Imager.   In all, I have $109 into the install now that its done.  1/3rd the cost of a Venus GX and 1/5th the cost of a Color Control GX device.   There may be a way to use Bluetooth to connect to the controllers negating the need for the special USB cables but I am not sure how to do that yet.  Maybe someone else can try and let me know.   We were leaving for the 59th Escapade the following week so I took the easy way and bought the two inexpensive cables from Bay Marine here in San Diego.

I was able to look at my charging information while attending seminars at the Escapade in Tucson.   I had setup my device to upload info every 5 minutes, you can lower that to every 1 minute but I only did that while testing it, then I moved it back to every 5 minutes.    Now I want to get my battery monitor talking to it before we head for Alaska this summer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Boondocking experiences after installing Solar on the RV

Let the testing begin!    Our first camping trip after I installed 640 watts of flexible Renogy solar panels and a Victron 100/50 charge controller was at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta campground October 3rd till the 14th.     We had signed up for an Escapee’s HOP (Head Out Program)  late last year when I couldn’t find more than a couple days in a row of available reservations.  Turns out they open the Balloon Fiesta Camping reservations up about a week after the last one ends so I was a couple months late to the party.  Luckily I found the ad for the HOP and they had a few openings.  I reserved a spot right then.

Fast forward ten months and we were camping there with our barely tested new solar panels charging our house batteries.    First thing I noticed was around noon the first full day there, they stopped charging the battery.  I checked the side compartment with the charge controller and I saw that one of the breakers on the battery side of the controller had tripped.  The devices I bought were supposed to be 50 amp breakers,  but from what I could tell, it tripped around 30 amps.  Not a good sign.  I clicked it back on and we started charging again.  

I started researching breakers and determined that I probably should have bought 60 amp breakers for that part of the circuit and better quality ones.   So I started calling local distributors, but none had them in stock, so I gave up for a bit.  

Next day it happened again, the same breaker tripped.  I could see this was going to be a chronic problem unless I replaced it.  Again I started looking online for a replacement and at the same time wondered where I could have it delivered.   After all, I was in a sea of RV’s.  No way for UPS to find us. 

A few  days went by while I called just about every electronic and electrical supply house within 90 miles of Albuquerque.    I also kept googling.  And then unexpectedly about 30 pages of results later, I found an ad for a 60amp breaker at an unlikely place called Sportsman’s Warehouse.   I called their local store, and to my surprise, they had a bunch in stock!   That afternoon I drove over and bought one immediately.   Turns out they were in the fishing section of the store for trolling motors, MinnKota MKR-19 Circuit Breaker 60A.   I replaced the faulty breaker that afternoon.  

Of course, once that was in place, the next day the breaker I had previously installed on the negative side of the circuit tripped.  I had only put that breaker on there as a switch so I could turn off both the negative and positive sides of the circuit.  Humbug!  So I went back to the store and bought a second one and installed that on the negative side of the circuit.   The issue with these particular breakers for me was no button to trip them manually, which is one of the main reasons I bought the problematic ones.  They had a button to press to trip them, so in effect they were also a switch.   I had seen other solar install pictures online where those same cheap breakers were used for solar hookups, so I figured they would work.   Geez,  was that a wrong assumption.

By now we are just a couple days from the end of the fiesta, so I decided to shop for one online that had the manual trip lever to install prior to us leaving for our next trip.   I eventually pulled the trigger on the Bussmann CB185-60 breaker and had it shipped to the house once we arrived back home.   I will be leaving the MinnKota on the other side of the circuit till I can find a suitable surface mount switch.

Now that I was no longer tripping breakers, I could really see what the panels were capable of.   One of the days I happened to look at the console and see over 540 watts of power being generated and almost 40 amps going to the batteries.  That was pretty amazing because the panels are flat mounted on the RV roof and the sun was getting low in the sky as it’s the middle of October.    Solar panels should be angled toward the sun for optimum production, but I decided early on in my research that I wasn’t climbing up on the roof to tilt them up and put them down each time we moved.   Once I committed to flexible panels that was fairly moot anyway.

While we were there, I experimented using the generator in the morning to charge the batteries up to around 80% SOC (state of charge), which is around the point the onboard charger drops out of bulk charging mode.  At that point I shut the generator down to let the solar panels attempt to top the batteries off during the rest of the sunny day.  Only using the generator while the charger is in bulk mode should be the most efficient use of the diesel generator.   Once the charging switches from bulk into the absorb charging mode, the charge amperage drops fairly quickly.  Even when the charger is only pushing 10 amps into the batteries, the generator seems to be under the same load as when it’s charging them at 125 amps in bulk.

I am now starting to more fully understand the difficulty of fully charging our batteries via solar . Adding more panels will help, but in reality I probably can’t fit enough panels on the roof of my RV to get it done in the middle of winter. 

The chemistry of batteries prevent them accepting the full amperage of the panels once they get above 80% charged state where the controller shifts into absorption mode.   More panels will get you to 80% quicker, but then the battery chemistry kicks in and effectively starts pushing back and the controller starts dropping the amperage going to them.  So if you calculated you could push 40 amps for 4-6 hours of the day (240 AH) and less AH before and after those hours, then in theory I figured we can push all those AH into the batteries during those six hours,  but that’s not reality.  As soon as those batteries hit around 80% SOC, the amount of charge accepted quickly drops.  So if your batteries are depleted below 80% SOC,  say at 60% SOC, you can really push in those amps for a while; but when they hit that 80% threshold, the amps  drop, and they drop in an almost linear line down to just a few amps and then hit float charging.

My experiment running the generator in the morning was my charge controller switched from bulk charging to float charging way too quickly, almost no time was spent in the absorb phase of charging from the panels, which should be the bread and butter of solar.   I started to search for an answer to that, and what I found out so far was the amount of time the charge controller stays in absorb is determined by the voltage the charge controller sees when it wakes up due to first sunlight in the morning.  The higher the voltage it sees when it wakes up, the shorter the time it stays in the absorb phase; and the generator made the controller see much higher voltage when it woke up, so the absorption time was cut to almost nothing.  

But that was learned a bit too late in the game, so this will continue when we dry camp in Quartzsite the middle of January.