- Store almost all the excess energy we generate locally for later use.
- When the sun isn’t shining, grid charge the battery at off-peak times then draw it down at peak times to save on our electricity bill (peak grid power is slightly more than twice as expensive as off-peak grid power).
- Opportunistically survive grid outages, provided they don’t happen at the wrong time (i.e. when the sun is down and the battery is at 0% state of charge).
By their nature, ZCell flow batteries needs to undergo a maintenance cycle at least every three days, where they are discharged completely for a few hours. That’s why the last point above reads “opportunistically survive grid outages”. With a single ZCell, we can’t use the “minimum state of charge” feature of the Victron kit to always keep some charge in the battery in case of outages, because doing so conflicts with the ZCell maintenance cycles. Once we eventually get a second battery, this problem will go away because the maintenance cycles automatically interleave. In the meantime though, as my project for Hack Week 21, I decided to see if I could somehow automate the Victron scheduled charge configuration based on the ZCell maintenance cycle timing, to always keep the battery as full as possible for as long as possible.
There are three goals somewhat in tension with each other here:
- Keep the battery full, except during maintenance cycles.
- Don’t let the battery get too full immediately before a maintenance cycle, lest the discharge take too long and maintenance still be active the following morning.
- Don’t schedule charges during peak electricity times (we still want to draw the battery down then, to avoid using the expensive gold plated electrons the power company sends down the wire between 07:00-10:00 and 16:00-21:00).
Here’s the solution I came up with:
- On non-maintenance cycle days, set two no-limit scheduled charges, one from 10:00 for 6 hours, the other from 21:00 for 10 hours. That means the battery will be charged from the grid and/or the sun continuously, except for peak electricity times, when it will be drawn down. Our loads aren’t high enough to completely deplete the battery during peak times, so there will always be some juice in case of a grid outage on non-maintenance cycle days.
- On maintenance cycle days, set a 50% limit scheduled charge from 13:00 for 3 hours, so the battery won’t be too full before that evening’s maintenance cycle, which kicks in at sunset. The day after a maintenance cycle, set a no limit scheduled charge from 03:00 for 4 hours. At our site, maintenance has almost always finished before 03:00, so there’s no conflict here, and we still have time to get some charge into the battery to handle the next morning’s peak.
Now, how to automate that?
The ZCell Battery Management System (BMS) has a REST API which we can query to find out useful information about the battery. Unfortunately it won’t actually tell us for certain whether maintenance will be run on any given day, but we can get the maintenance time limit, and subtract from that the amount of time that’s passed since the last maintenance cycle. If the resultant figure is less than one day, we know that maintenance will happen today. It is possible for maintenance to happen at other times, e.g. I can force maintenance manually, and also it can happen more often than every three days if you mess with the allowed days setting in the BMS, so this solution arguably isn’t perfect, but I think it’s good enough under the circumstances, at least at our site.
The Victron Cerbo GX (the little box that controls everything) runs Linux, and you can easily get root on it, so it’s possible to write scripts that run locally there. Here’s what I ended up with:
One important point about installing things on the Cerbo GX, is that the root partition is overwritten during firmware updates, but there’s a separate data partition which is preserved. The root user’s home directory is symlinked to
/data/home/root, so my script lives at
/data/home/root/sched.py to ensure it remains present. Then we need to get it into
/etc/crontab, which doesn’t survive firmware updates. This is done by adding a
/data/rc.local script which the Cerbo GX runs on boot:
After a few days of testing and observation, I can confirm that it all works perfectly! At least, at our site, right now, with our current loads and daylight ours. The whole thing will want revisiting (or probably just turning off) as we get into summer, when we’ll be able to rely on significantly more sunlight to keep the battery full than we get now. I may well just go back to a single 03:00-for-four-hours grid charge then, once the days are nice and long. See how we go…