Hardware store goods and an mbed combine help solar panels track the sun

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If you have the space, and can build a tracking rig cheaply you’ll be able to get a lot more out of your solar panels. That’s because they work best when the sun’s rays are hitting them perpendicular to the surface and not at an angle. [Michael Davis] hit both of those stipulations with this mbed powered solar tracker.

At a garage sale he picked up an antenna motor for just $15. The thing was very old, but still wrapped in the original plastic. It’s beefy enough to move his panels, but he first needed a way to mount everything. After checking his angles he built a base out of wood and used galvanized water pipe as an axle. Cable clamps mate his aluminum angle bracket frame to the pipe. This frame holds the panels securely.

To track the sun he used two smaller cells which aren’t easy to pick out in this image. They are monitored by the mbed microcontroller which measures their output in order to point the assembly in the direction which has the most intense light. A couple of limit switches are included to stop the assembly when it reaches either side.

This technique of using small solar cells as the tracking sensors seems to work well. Here’s another project that took that approach.

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$4 volt meter from a dollar store pedometer

[Paulo]’s got a few solar panels on his shed, and while he does have a fairly nice setup with a battery charge controller, he found himself looking around for a panel voltmeter. Of course you can buy a panel voltmeter for under $20, but [Paulo] wanted something that fit his 4-4-4 plan; his voltmeter should cost under $4, draw less than 4mA, and last for 4 years. The jury is still out on the 4 year qualifier, but he did manage to meet his other goals by repurposing a dollar store pedometer as a voltmeter.

The pedometer in question is a very simple device. After inspecting the PCB, [Paulo] found it operates by looking at a trigger pin and incrementing the number on the display each time the circuit closed. [Paul] designed a very small PIC12F-powered circuit that reads the voltage of his batteries and triggers the pedometer’s LCD for every 10th of a volt. To display 12.6 Volts, [Paulo]’s code triggers the LCD 126 times, for example.

After wiring up the reset button so the display will go back down to zero for each new reading, [Paulo] encased his new volt meter in a plastic box. It’s not exactly a fast way of measuring voltage, but seeing as how that won’t change very fast, it’s the perfect solution for [Paulo]’s solar charger setup.

How to make that old satellite dish cook all your meals

Grab that old satellite dish out of the dark corner of you garage and get those hot dogs ready. [Share alike license] is going to show us how to turn the dish into a solar cooker.

Harnessing the sun’s power requires a reflective surface. Although the image above makes it look like a mirror finish, this is really just covered in foil tape. This is what’s used to seal duct work and can be had for a few bucks at any home store. You’ll notice the dish is pointed up quite a bit more than it would have been when receiving satellite television. The mount on the back of the dish has been turned 180 degrees to allow for this. You want the rays to be focused on the bottom of the cooking area instead of the side and this will do the trick. A small grate was added just below the pinnacle of the receiver tripod. For now it has only been used to boil a pot of water. We’d like to see it grilling up some dogs but you’ll have to figure out a way to catch the drippings. We wonder if a transparent baking pan would block too much of the heat energy?

This is a great way to add purpose to neglected equipment. But if you’re serious about solar cooking you need something more along these lines.

Upgrading a solar lamp to charge an iPad

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[Phillip] and the crew at Voltaic Systems took a look at the Sunnan solar powered desk lamp from IKEA a while back, and while they thought it was pretty useful, there were definitely some things they wanted to change.

First on their list of revisions was to increase the capacity of the stock battery pack. Taking the lamp apart and unscrewing the pack’s lid revealed a set of 3 AA cells, which they swapped out for higher-capacity models with more than double the watt-hour rating.

A beefed up battery is a good start, but the lamp’s tiny solar panel has no hope of topping off the batteries outside of Death Valley. To ensure that they get a nice full charge, a small jack was wired into to the battery pack, allowing the group to connect any size external solar panel they pleased.

Finally, [Phillip] and Co. wanted the ability to charge an iPad2 from the lamp’s battery pack. They hacked in a small USB connector and a slightly modified MintyBoost board to provide a little extra juice to their tablet.

While they are still testing the modifications, they say that everything is working nicely, citing that the extra battery capacity and charging abilities are a great addition.

A Solar-Powered Automatic Chicken Coop

Although we’ve featured many chicken-related hacks here, this chicken coop features a solar-powered door to save one from having to open up the coop in the morning.  As [chrisatronics] puts it “keeping chickens has one major drawback: You have to get up with them in the early morning and open the door at the coop. Everyday. Including Sundays and holidays.” This would help explain why so many people seem to be hacking their coops.

Solar power may be an interesting idea in itself, but when coupled with the fact that a chicken coop isn’t necessarily near a power supply, this becomes a very expedient solution. Controlling the setup is a MSP430 microcontroller (programming featured here for Linux) with a salvaged windshield wiper gearmotor. [Chrisatronics] did a great job writing this hack up, so if you want to try this yourself, make sure to check out the article.

Also, don’t forget to check out the video after the break for the ‘coop in action! Continue reading “A Solar-Powered Automatic Chicken Coop”

High efficiency solar charger circuit tops off those lead-acid batteries

Make your next project solar-powered with this charging circuit. It’s completely through-hole, and there are no microcontrollers that need to be flashed. If you can source parts and are handy with a soldering iron building this will be a breeze.

Both the maximum system voltage and the low voltage drop out are configurable. After assembly, you just need to attach a regulated power supply to the load terminals. Tune the power supply to the max voltage and turn a potentiometer until an LED comes on, then repeat the process for the drop out voltage. Board artwork for the two-sided PCB and a schematic are available from the page linked at the top. If you’re not into etching your own circuit boards you can buy one for around $10.

[Thanks Murray]

Building a solar power heliostat

[Frits] has been working on an solar panel heliostat (in Dutch, check out the translated page here).

The heliostat uses a small PICAXE to control the motor, along with an DS1307 real-time clock to make sure the motors start at dawn. Instead of using optical encoders or magnetic sensors, the angle of the heliostat is measure with a pot attached to the drive shaft. [Frits] did a lot of data collection to figure out that this method is accurate to about 1 degree – just fine for something that doesn’t need to be exact.

According to [Frits] this heliostat will put out 12 to 50 percent more electricity than a fixed panel. Although the build does seem a little bulky, putting it on a  house with a roof pitch of 23.5° would greatly reduce the horizontal profile.

A video of a solar panel rotating at 15 degrees/hour isn’t that interesting, so [Frits] posted a clip of 6 mirrors slewing around fairly fast to demonstrate his system. Check it out after the break.

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