When It Comes To Portable Solar Power Systems, Know Your Needs

by Nicola Temple on November 21, 2011

Portable solar power systems basically refer to any solar power system that allows charging on the go. This, I’ve learned, covers an immense diversity of technologies.

It includes palm-sized solar chargers for your cell phone as well as emergency generators that are towed behind a vehicle…and everything in between.

The first step in looking at portable solar power systems is to truly understand what your needs are. Not just now, but in the future as well (as much as anyone can predict the future of course).

The last thing you want to do in your endeavour to go green is stockpile a bunch of new gadgets, solar or not. It’s painful for the bank account as well as the environment.

In this article, I’ve tried to consider some broad “need” categories and I’ve compiled a list of technologies available that might be suitable.  Hopefully this will save you some initial time slogging through the internet in your endeavour to find a portable solar power system.

I need to charge small gadgets (phone, PDA, MP3 player) while on the go.

This is probably the category most people fall into; commuters, backpackers, and travellers that want to stay connected without having to rely on a power outlet. So, here are some solar technologies that may fit your specific needs.

Solar technology in the bag: Many backpacks and carrier bags are now incorporating thin-film solar technology into their design to enable you to charge your gadgets as you carry them. Something like this will run between $30 and $200 depending on the number of adapters, the quality of the bag, capacity of the battery etc.

  • Advantages: The photovoltaic cells are incorporated into the bag, so you don’t need to carry around an additional device. Handy if you’re looking for a new bag anyway.
  • Things to think about: The solar technology is then incorporated into the bag, so if you want to charge, you have to bring THAT bag. This style doesn’t leave you with much flexibility. Not all of them include a battery, which means you can’t charge if there isn’t sufficient sun.
  • One to look at: Blue Solar Backpack – looks like best bang for the buck. The solar panel is 6V and capable of charging some of the bigger cell phones. It comes with a 3,000 mAh battery that can also be charged by USB. It doesn’t charge laptops and it is on the smaller capacity side. This one goes for about $100 USD, compared with some of the top-end models that can be closer to $250.

Power up while peddling:  This is handy for bike touring, bike messengers, or commuters. Some bike bags now come with thin-film technology built in, but for the most part you are looking at something that straps on to an existing bag or a bike rack.

  • Advantages: Useful for long rides, when you have the time to charge and when you might not be able to plug in (such as touring).
  • Things to think about: Although a solar bike bag is a nice thought, you will likely get far more use out of something that can go from your bike, to your tent, to your backpack, to your windowsill.
  • One to look at: Voltaic Systems 1021 4W solar power charger – this offers some great versatility as it can be strapped onto the top of a bike bag or onto a bike rack, but it can also be strapped onto tents or backpacks, which allows you to convert existing technologies into solar technologies. The panel is waterproof, which is a nice feature for riding. It also comes with a 3,000mAh battery, which can also be charged by USB, giving some additional flexibility.
portable solar power systems

Portable solar power systems are extremely handy when trying to stay connected while off the grid. This is my husband hooking up the system we used while on an island in Belize to charge our camera batteries.

Separate solar: Basically this is a self-contained unit that’s sole purpose is charging. Often, when you try to combine functions (e.g. bag and solar charger), you get something that isn’t particularly good at being either. This is the route we went a number of years ago when we were going to be off the grid in Belize for a while and needed to recharge a few smaller devices.

  • Advantages: It’s an independent unit that can go with you anywhere – provides greater flexibility.
  • Things to think about: Think about all the devices you might possibly want to charge and where you want to charge them and then look for the product that covers as many of the adapters as you should need. There are two styles out there: a hard cased clam-shell design and thin-film technology. When looking into these, consider whether you will want to be able to strap the solar cells onto bags etc as thin-film is usually better designed for this.
  • One to look at: PowerTraveller PowerMonkey – This one includes a mains travel charger that works in 150 countries – perfect for a big traveller. Though it has a hard case, it comes with a Velcro strap that allows you to strap it to your backpack.

I need to charge my small gadgets, but it would be good to have back-up for cameras and laptops as well.

Essentially, you are just looking for something similar to the last category, but with a bit more juice to power up those devices that can be a bit more draining on power.

Back in the bag: There are very few bags with integrated solar technology that is powerful enough to charge a laptop. Many bags are advertised as solar laptop bags, but this usually means they carry a laptop, not charge one.

  • Advantages: The solar technology is integrated so you don’t need to get a separate device.
  • Things to think about:  Again, because it’s integrated into the bag, you have less flexibility with it. Also, it will likely be the most expensive bag you’ve ever bought unless you have a closet full of Louie Vuitton purses.
  • One to look at: The Generator by Voltaic – this was voted one of the top 10 green products by Popular Mechanics.  It uses high-efficiency cells and an efficiently charging battery that means one hour in the sun can translate to 45 minutes of laptop running time. Another nice feature is that the bag is made from recycled plastic soda bottles, adding to its green cred!

Separate solar: This is going to be the majority of your options out there. They will range from a small clamshell to big, foldout flexible systems. Consider just how mobile you need to be with this charger.

  • Advantages: Gives you the flexibility to use and set up the portable system separate from any bag.
  • Things to think about: The reviews on many of the smaller chargers suggest that despite product claims, they don’t actually charge laptops. It is very likely, that once again, you get what you pay for. It also seems that to get the charge you need for laptops, you are mainly moving out of the domain of small and discreet…and cheap!
  • One to look at: PowerFilm F15 – This runs for just under $400 USD, so it’s a serious investment. However, it produces 1.8Amps at 15.4 volts but only weighs 6 oz. It folds out to just under 11 inches by 10 inches, keeping it a manageable size.

I need to power my gadgets and luxury items (e.g. portable tv) while I’m on my boat or RV.

Now we’re just going up in price and size. The main decision point here is how often you want to move it around. Some of these systems are multi-panel that can weigh about 60 pounds, so not exactly something you want to be lugging around for the sake of it.

  • Advantages: Obviously at this point, the system is getting large enough that you could be looking into more permanent solar systems for your boat, RV and whatnot. The advantage of remaining portable is that you can take the solar power system between your recreational vehicles and then use it at home when you’re there too.
  • Things to think about: Portability as I mentioned above.
  • One to look at: Solar Easy Go – This was the most compact system I could find that is worth the look simply because of the James Bond factor! This device provides power for all your small appliances, including fans, TV, radio etc, and comes in a very spy-like aluminum alloy case.

I need to have back-up power for my home or cottage in case of emergency or power-outages.

This is where we get into solar power generators.

  • Advantages: This is a back-up power source that is a nice alternative to gas generators.
  • Things to think about: These generators have a lot of punch, but are not as conveniently portable, so make sure you are in need of something with this much power before you invest the money and storage space.
  • One to look at: UPG 852-1805 Ecotricity Portable Emergency Backup Power Solar Generator – this system has a high efficiency solar panel with 4 AC outlets and an 1800 watt inverter. The panel is on wheels for easy manoeuvring.

As you can see, there are a lot of choices out there for portable solar power systems. Before diving into one of these, it really is critical to carefully consider what your needs are. You don`t want to invest in something that only charges a couple of your devices, but you also don`t want to over-buy and end up paying a lot of money for something you really only ever use to charge your phone.

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