Introduction

With the growing popularity of solar panels and their ever growing use (along with the push to get more out of solar panels) it was our desire to experiment with tracking the sun from dawn to dusk. This tracking forces the panel to face the sun for much longer periods of time. We wished to determine if solar heat would effect the performance of the solar panel. The experiment carried out here is to help us decide if tracking the sun is an efficient use of solar panels, or whether a fixed position solar panel, with no tracking mechanism, is just as efficient. Due to the amount of electronic circuit assembly this project is suited for individuals or groups with electronic circuit experience and software programming experience.

Equipment required

The following is an essential list of required equipment. The DrDAQ data logger and one external Temperature Probe from Pico Technology. A mechanical/electronic assembly for tracking the sun. I used expensive, colorful, little plastic parts purchased from a very large chain store in town (Toys-foR-Us). And of course, a personal computer loaded with your favorite software. I used National Instruments LabVIEW Graphical Programming Software.

View a detailed Parts List

Experiment set up

experiment

The experiment should be carried out on a sunny clear day of course. Understandably, that is why I waited for a cool fall day to do the experiment in Florida. The summer days are hot with a good chance of a thunderstorm.

The solar tracker should be setup to follow the sun from the east to the west. The solar tracker should have a good clear view of the sun from sun rise to sun set (no blockage from trees or buildings). The electronics should be in a "controlled" environment if possible. The controlled environment I used was a cool October Sunday in Florida.

See more photos of the experiment

Carrying out the experiment

I tested all the tracking and data logging software routines before running the experiment outside with the real tracker hardware.I setup the equipment outside once the day began to warm. This was because I tried to setup before dawn and things began to gather dew. First I manually set the tracker to the "full East" position then, I turned on the automatic solar tracker software. There was little movement at first and the tracker locked on the sun. The whole experiment worked very well. Since I managed to find a clear day, one with very few clouds and wind, all went as expected. However, I do not know what might have happened under other conditions.  There were no anomalies.

View a graph of our results

Questions and discussion of results

  1. What is the effect of Temperature on the output of the solar panel?
  2. What might have happened if the day became cloudy or the wind blew over the solar tracker?
  3. Why did the 5 volt regulator come on immediately and stay on for the duration of the experiment?

Results and answers

  1. What is the effect of Temperature on the output of the solar panel?
    The panel showed no output power loss due to temperature. The ambient temperature for the day was not tracked or monitored.
  2. What might have happened if the day became cloudy or the wind blew over the solar tracker?
    This question is open for all to experiment with. I did not get the chance to see what would happen on a cloudy day. I do know it will not work if the wind blows it over. It may burn up the motors since the panel cannot move and hit the limit switches.

Teachers’ notes

As indicated above, you will need students with electronic circuit and programming experience. It took me close to two months (part time of course) to carry out the experiment. This is a GREAT project for a team to do. It is naturally divided up into three separate items. The first item is the electronics, the second is the mechanical panel interface, and the third item is the software. I was able to build up each item individually, then integrate all three together once each item was complete. Using LabVIEW and the DrDAQ, I was able to code much of the project without the overall project being complete.

I used a lot of simulation of hardware to test the software and it’s branching. Most of the items used for the experiment were donated by OASES, a local not for profit organization for the education enhancement of all. Please check with any local colleges or technical groups in your area to support you project as well. They are a great source of miscellaneous items and knowledge.

Software description

Good luck and feel free to contact me for questions. robert.c.bowen@gte.net

Pico would like to thank Robert Bowen for submitting this experiment.