Battery charging takes place in 3 basic stages: Bulk, Absorption, and Float.
The first stage of 3-stage battery charging. Current is sent to batteries at the maximum safe rate they will accept until voltage rises to near (80-90%) full charge level. Voltages at this stage typically range from 10.5 volts to 15 volts. There is no "correct" voltage for bulk charging, but there may be limits on the maximum current that the battery and/or wiring can take.
The 2nd stage of 3-stage battery charging. Voltage remains constant and current gradually tapers off as internal resistance increases during charging. It is during this stage that the charger puts out maximum voltage. Voltages at this stage are typically around 14.2 to 15.5 volts.
The 3rd stage of 3-stage battery charging. After batteries reach full charge, charging voltage is reduced to a lower level (typically 12.8 to 13.2) to reduce gassing and prolong battery life. This is often referred to as a maintenance or trickle charge, since it's main purpose is to keep an already charged battery from discharging. PWM, or "pulse width modulation" accomplishes the same thing. In PWM, the controller or charger senses tiny voltage drops in the battery and sends very short charging cycles (pulses) to the battery. This may occur several hundred times per minute. It is called "pulse width" because the width of the pulses may vary from a few microseconds to several seconds. Note that for long term float service, such as backup power systems that are seldom discharged, the float voltage should be around 13.02 to 13.20 volts.
Most garage and consumer (automotive) type battery chargers are bulk charge only, and have little (if any) voltage regulation. They are fine for a quick boost to low batteries, but not to leave on for long periods. Among the regulated chargers, there are the voltage regulated ones, such as Iota Engineering and Todd, which keep a constant regulated voltage on the batteries. If these are set to the correct voltages for your batteries, they will keep the batteries charged without damage. These are sometimes called "taper charge" - as if that is a selling point. What taper charge really means is that as the battery gets charged up, the voltage goes up, so the amps out of the charger goes down. They charge OK, but a charger rated at 20 amps may only be supplying 5 amps when the batteries are 80% charged. To get around this, Statpower (and maybe others?) have come out with "smart", or multi-stage chargers. These use a variable voltage to keep the charging amps much more constant for faster charging.
A charge controller is a regulator that goes between the solar panels and the batteries. Regulators for solar systems are designed to keep the batteries charged at peak without overcharging. Meters for Amps (from the panels) and battery Volts are optional with most types. Some of the various brands and models that we use and recommend are listed below. Note that a couple of them are listed as "power trackers" - for a full explanation of this, see our page on "Why 120 watts does not equal 120 watts".
Most of the modern controllers have automatic or manual equalization built in, and many have a LOAD output. There is no "best" controller for all applications - some systems may need the bells and whistles of the more expensive controls, others may not.
Battery Charging Voltages and Currents
Most flooded batteries should be charged at no more than the "C/8" rate for any sustained period. "C/8" is the battery capacity at the 20-hour rate divided by 8. For a 220 AH battery, this would equal 26 Amps. Gelled cells should be charged at no more than the C/20 rate, or 5% of their amp-hour capacity. The Concorde AGM batteries are a special case - the can be charged at up the the Cx4 rate, or 400% of the capacity for the bulk charge cycle. However, since very few battery cables can take that much current, we don't recommend you try this at home. To avoid cable overheating, you should stick to C/4 or less.
Charging at 15.5 volts will give you a 100% charge on Lead-Acid batteries. Once the charging voltage reaches 2.583 volts per cell, charging should stop or be reduced to a trickle charge. Note that flooded batteries MUST bubble (gas) somewhat to insure a full charge, and to mix the electrolyte. Float voltage for Lead-Acid batteries should be about 2.15 to 2.23 volts per cell, or about 12.9-13.4 volts for a 12 volt battery. At higher temperatures (over 85 degrees F) this should be reduced to about 2.10 volts per cell.
Never add acid to a battery except to replace spilled liquid. Distilled or deionized water should be used to top off non-sealed batteries. Float and charging voltages for gelled batteries are usually about 2/10th volt less than for flooded to reduce water loss. Note that many shunt-type charge controllers sold for solar systems will NOT give you a full charge - check the specifications first. To get a full charge, you must continue to apply a current after the battery voltage reaches the cutoff point of most of these type of controllers. This is why we recommend the charge controls and battery chargers listed in the sections above. Not all shunt type controllers are 100% on or off, but most are.
Flooded battery life can be extended if an equalizing charge is applied every 10 to 40 days. This is a charge that is about 10% higher than normal full charge voltage, and is applied for about 2 to 16 hours. This makes sure that all the cells are equally charged, and the gas bubbles mix the electrolyte. If the liquid in standard wet cells is not mixed, the electrolyte becomes "stratified". You can have very strong solution at the top, and very weak at the bottom of the cell. With stratification, you can test a battery with a hydrometer and get readings that are quite a ways off. If you cannot equalize for some reason, you should let the battery sit for at least 24 hours and then use the hydrometer. AGM and gelled should be equalized 2-4 times a year at most - check the manufacturers recommendations, especially on gelled.
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