Two-Axis Solar Tracker

Solar panels are an amazing piece of engineering, but without exactly the right conditions they can be pretty fickle. One of the most important conditions is that the panel be pointed at the sun, and precise aiming of the panel can be done with a solar tracker. Solar trackers can improve the energy harvesting ability of a solar panel by a substantial margin, and now [Jay] has a two-axis tracker that is also portable.

The core of the project is a Raspberry Pi, chosen after [Jay] found that an Arduino didn’t have enough memory for all of the functionality that he wanted. The Pi and the motor control electronics were stuffed into a Pelican case for weatherproofing. The actual solar tracking is done entirely in software, only requiring a latitude and longitude in order to know where the sun is. This is much easier (and cheaper) than relying on GPS or an optical system for information about the location of the sun.

Be sure to check out the video below of the solar tracker in action. Even without the panel (or the sun, for that matter) the tracker is able to precisely locate the panel for maximum energy efficiency. And, if you’d like to get even MORE power from your solar panel, you should check out a maximum power point tracking system as well.

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Lighting The Great Indoors With A Solar Security Light

Look at any list of things to do to make your house less attractive to the criminal element and you’ll likely find “add motion sensing lights” among the pro tips. But what if you don’t want to light up the night? What if you want to use a motion sensor to provide a little light for navigating inside a dark garage? And what if the fixture you’ve chosen is a solar fixture that won’t quite cooperate? If you’re like [r1ckatkinson], you do a teardown and hack the fixture to do your bidding.

[r1ckatkinson]’s fixture was an inexpensive Maplin solar unit with PIR motion sensing, with the solar panel able to be mounted remotely. This was perfect for the application, since the panel could go outside to power the unit, with the lamp and PIR sensor inside. Unfortunately, the solar cell is also the photosensor that tells the unit not to turn on during the day. Armed with scratch pad and pencil, [r1ckatkinson] traced the circuit and located the offending part – a pull-down resistor. A simple resistor-ectomy later and he’s got a solar-powered light working just the way he likes it.

A simple hack, but effective. Seeing off-the-shelf gear modified is always a treat. Of course there’s something to be said for the more home-brew approach to security lighting, too.

Upgrading an Old Camera with a New Light Meter

[Marc] has an old Voigtländer Vito CLR film camera. The camera originally came with an analog light meter built-in. The meter consisted of a type of solar panel hooked up to a coil and a needle. As more light reached the solar panel, the coil became energized more and more, which moved the needle farther and farther. It was a simple way of doing things, but it has a down side. The photo panels stop working over time. That’s why [Marc] decided to build a custom light meter using newer technology.

[Marc] had to work within the confines of the tiny space inside of the camera. He chose to use a LM3914 bar display driver IC as the primary component. This chip can sense an input voltage against a reference voltage and then display the result by illuminating a single LED from a row of ten LEDs.

[Marc] used a photo cell from an old calculator to detect the ambient light. This acts as a current source, but he needed a voltage source. He designed a transimpedence amplifier into his circuit to convert the current into a voltage. The circuit is powered with two 3V coil cell batteries, regulated to 5V. The 5V acts as his reference voltage for the display driver. With that in mind, [Marc] had to amplify this signal further.

It didn’t end there, though. [Marc] discovered that when sampling natural light, the system worked as intended. When he sampled light from incandescent light bulbs, he did not get the expected output. This turned out to be caused by the fact that incandescent lights flicker at a rate of 50/60 Hz. His sensor was picking this up and the sinusoidal output was causing problems in his circuit. He remedied this by adding two filtering capacitors.

The whole circuit fits on a tiny PCB that slides right into position where the original light meter used to be. It’s impressive how perfectly it fits considering everything that is happening in this circuit.

[Thanks Mojay]

Hackaday Prize Entry: Arduino MPPT Controller

Imagine you’re building a small solar installation. The naive solution would be grabbing a solar panel from Horror Freight, getting a car battery and AC inverter, and hoping everything works. This is the dumb solution. To get the most out of a solar you need to match the voltage of the solar cell to the voltage of the battery. How do you do that? With [Debasish]’s entry for The Hackaday Prize, an Arduino MPPT Solar Charge Controller.

This Maximum Power Point Tracker uses a buck converter to step down the voltage from the solar cell to the voltage of the battery. It’s extremely efficient and every proper solar installation will need a charge controller that does something similar.

For his MPPT, [Debasish] is using an Arduino Nano for all the math, a DC to DC buck converter, and a few MOSFETs. Extremely simple, but [Debasish] is connecting the entire controller to the Internet with an ESP8266 module. It’s a great example of building something for much less than it would cost to buy the same thing, and a great example for something that has a chance at making the world a little better.


The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

Modern Spin on an Old Technology

It seems that the longer a technology has been around, the more likely it is that all of the ideas and uses for that technology will be fleshed out. For something that’s been around for around 5500 years it must be especially rare to teach an old dog new tricks, but [Sebastian] has built a sundial that’s different from any we’ve ever seen.

Once done with all of the math for the sundial to compute its angles and true north based on his latitude and longitude, [Sebastian] used Autodesk Inventor to create a model. From there it was 3D printed, but the interesting part here is that the 3D printer allowed for him to leave recesses for numbers in the sundial. The numbers are arranged at such angles inside the sundial so that when it’s a particular hour, the number of the hour shines through the shadow of the sundial which creates a very unique effect. This would be pretty difficult to do with any machine tools but is easily accomplished via 3D printing.

[Sebastian] wanted a way to appreciate the beauty of time, and he’s certainly accomplished that with this new take on  the sundial! He also wonders what it would be like if there was a giant one in a park. This may also be the first actual sundial build we’ve featured. What does that mean? Check out this non-pv, sun-powered clock that isn’t a sundial.

Thanks to [Todd] for the tip!

Solar Charge Controller Improves Efficiency of Solar Panels

The simplest and easiest way to charge a battery with a solar panel is to connect the panel directly to the battery. Assuming the panel has a diode to prevent energy from flowing through it from the battery when there’s no sunlight. This is fairly common but not very efficient. [Debasish Dutta] has built a charge controller that addresses the inefficiencies of such a system though, and was able to implement maximum power point tracking using an Arduino.

Maximum power point tracking (MPPT) is a method that uses PWM and a special DC-DC converter to match the impedance of the solar panel to the battery. This means that more energy can be harvested from the panel than would otherwise be available. The circuit is placed in between the panel and the battery and regulates the output voltage of the panel so it matches the voltage on the battery more closely. [Debasish] reports that an efficiency gain of 30-40% can be made with this particular design.

This device has a few bells and whistles as well, including the ability to log data over WiFi, an LCD display to report the status of the panel, battery, and controller, and can charge USB devices. This would be a great addition to any solar installation, especially if you’ve built one into your truck.

This is [Debasish]’s second entry to The Hackaday Prize. We covered his first one a few days ago. That means only one thing: start a project and start documenting it on

2015 THP Inspiration: Renewable Energy

Most of our energy comes from dead algae or dead ferns right now, and we all know that can’t continue forever. The future is by definition sustainable, and if you’re looking for a project to change the world for this year’s Hackaday Prize, you can’t do better than something to get the world off carbon-based fuels.

mhqyqz7The simplest solar builds can be as fun as a redneck hot tub – a solar thermal water heater repurposed into a heated swimming pool with the help of a pump and JB Weld. You can even build a hose-based version for $100. They can be as useful as a Maximum Power Point Tracking charger for a solar setup – a few bits of electronics that ensure you’re getting the most out of your solar cells. You can, of course, access solar power in a roundabout way with a wind generator built from a washing machine and a 555 timer.

carben-mainGetting energy from the sun is one thing, and putting it to use is another thing entirely. We spend a lot of energy on transportation, and for that there’s a solar power bike, an electric scooter, or a completely open source electric car.

Building the machines that make sustainable energy possible or even just the tools that will let us use all that energy are just a few ideas that would make great entries for The Hackaday Prize. You could go another direction and build the tools that will build and maintain these devices, like figuring out a way to keep these batteries and generators out of the landfill. Any way you look at it, anything that actually matters  would make a great entry to The Hackaday Prize.