If you want to adventure away from the electrical grid but still retain the ability to power and charge electrical devices, a solar powered generator might be the solution that you’re looking for.
Compared to a conventional generator, a solar powered generator has several important advantages. While conventional generators usually run on fossil fuels like gasoline, diesel, or propane, solar generators use the power of the sun, producing fume-free, environmentally friendly energy. They don’t weigh as much or make nearly as much noise as their conventional cousins.
Most solar powered generators are sold as a multi-component power station. They contain a solar panel and a rechargeable battery that can also be plugged into a wall or vehicle power outlet.
Here are eight of the best solar generators on the market, along with a buyer’s guide to help you better understand this exciting new technology and determine what product is adequate for your needs.
Portable Solar Powered Generator Buyer’s Guide
Whether you’re on the go or at home, a portable generator can help meet your energy needs. It’ll come in handy whether the power goes out at home or you absolutely need to charge your electrical devices on a camping trip. Traditionally, gas powered generators have been used to provide energy on the go, despite the fact that they are dependent on a fuel supply, noisy when running, and dirty because of their consumption of fossil fuels.
Recent advances in technology have made solar powered generators a viable alternative. Unlike conventional generators, solar generators run silently, don’t make a mess, and are not dependent on fossil fuels – reasons for which many buyers are increasingly interested in them. As with any new technology, solar generators can seem intimidating. This guide aims to change that, so that you can find the solar generator that is right for you. Let’s start by answering a few common questions:
How Do Solar Generators Produce Energy?
While solar panels have been around for a while, portable kits that use them to charge a battery compatible with all manner of devices are a relatively recent phenomenon. These kits are compact versions of larger systems that can easily be brought along on a camping trip or stored in the garage.
All solar powered generators have four essential components:
– Solar panels, which convert sunlight into electricity
– Some type of battery to store that electricity
– A charge regulator that keeps the battery from overcharging
– An inverter, which changes the direct current (DC) from the battery into alternating current (AC), used by most household appliances
Concepts to Consider Before Buying a Solar Generator
In order to figure out which model of solar generator is right for you, it’s important to have an idea of what you will be using it for. Consider the following questions:
– What devices will you want to be able to supply power to?
– Will you be using your solar generator as a backup power supply, or simply an extra source of power?
– How important will portability be for your planned use of the generator?
More often than not, buyers want to use a solar generator as a backup power supply or as a power source for outdoor activities.
Backup solar powered generators tend to have a greater wattage capacity so that they can support household electrical circuits and the appliances connected to them – refrigerators, TVs, lights, etc. They need to have several high capacity batteries in order to maximize their ability to store energy.
Portable solar generators, on the other hand, are designed to give you a power source while on the move. These smaller, lighter, more efficient generators can power mobile devices like phones and laptops on camping trips or at works sites, but won’t be able to provide the wattage required of a backup generator.
2) Battery Charge Capacity
Batteries are what allow energy collected by solar panels when the sun is shining to be available under cloud cover or at night. Their charge capacity is usually quantified in terms of amp hours (A-h). Because most appliances’ power usage is given in watts, a little bit of conversion math is necessary.
To convert amp hours into watt hours, it is necessary to multiply them by the battery’s voltage. For example, a 12-volt battery with a charge capacity of 60 amp hours would have a capacity of 720 watt-hours (W-h):
12V X 100 A-h = 1,200 W-h
Ideally, your battery should have more capacity than what you plan on using. With lead-acid batteries, it is recommended to only use two-thirds of capacity, while 90% percent of capacity can be used for lithium-ion batteries (more on this later). This type of usage will help to lengthen battery life. For a lead-acid battery with a 1,200 watt-hour capacity, you shouldn’t use more than 800 watt-hours.
At this point, it becomes necessary to see how many watts the appliances that will be connected to the battery will be using. A theoretical appliance – say a 100 watt laptop – could be powered continuously without any problems by the 1,200 watt-hour battery for eight hours (800W-h/100W = 8h). After that, it would be advisable to recharge the battery.
Keeping this in mind, it’s important to pick a solar generator with a decent amount of battery storage. A good minimum to set in terms of storage capacity for the system is 1,000 watt-hours. Anything less will likely not meet your energy needs and potentially be unreliable.
3) Types of Batteries
As was mentioned earlier, solar powered generators have two common battery types: lead-acid and lithium ion.
Lead-acid batteries are the type used in most cars. They’ve been around since the nineteenth century and are relatively unexpensive. Their downside is that they don’t last nearly as long as lithium-ion batteries. Gel batteries – a slightly pricier variation of lead-acid batteries – are safer and require less maintenance, but still don’t last as long as the lithium-ion alternative.
Lithium-ion batteries are the batteries used in many portable devices, such as cell phones. They are lighter, smaller, and more durable than lead-acid batteries. As you’d expect, they are also more expensive, but their advantages make them the more popular choice.
4) Charge Regulators
The charge regulator, also known as the charge controller, manages the power being transferred from the solar panel to the battery in order to keep the battery from overcharging. As a byproduct of this regulation, some energy from the solar panel is lost. There are a couple of different types of charge regulators that are common in solar generators.
A simple charge regulator ensures that the number of volts flowing from the solar panel to the battery does not exceed the battery’s maximum voltage. If a solar panel is putting out 16 volts to a 12 volt battery, the charge regulator will disconnect the battery.
Three-stage, or Pulse Width Modulation, controllers send pulses of energy to the battery instead of a constant flew of electricity. The width of these pulses depends on how charged the battery is. They are more efficient than simple charge controllers and have become the industry standard.
Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) controllers offer the greatest efficiency, but are, unsurprisingly, also the most expensive. They are sometimes waterproof and come with an LED display measuring system efficiency. Their cost will likely be passed on to you in the price of the solar generator.
5) The Inverter
The inverter converts the direct current from the solar panel into alternating current, the type of electricity used by most household appliances. Usually, this means converting 12 volt direct current into 110 volt or 240 volt alternating current.
The best type is called a pure sine wave inverter. It uses advanced technology to produce a consistent flow of electricity that won’t damage even the most sensitive electrical devices. A less expensive alternative is the modified sine wave inverter, but there is some risk of wear or even damage to sensitive electronics.
6) What Size Generator?
To describe the size of a generator, manufacturers usually describe them in terms of running, or continuous, watts and starting, or surge, watts.
Running watts refer to the wattage that a generator will produce continuously. In order to figure out how many running watts you’ll need your generator to provide, add up the wattage requirements of all the devices you plan on powering.
Some appliances, such as a refrigerator, require a “surge” of additional wattage to get started before settling into a lower running wattage requirement. For this reason, it’s also a good idea to figure out the maximum starting watts needed by any of the devices you’ll be using the solar generator for, and make sure that your generator can handle it. Generally speaking, your solar generator’s starting watts production capability should be double its running watts production capability.
7) Solar Panels
Solar panel production is measured in wattage. It can be estimated by multiplying the panels wattage rating by the number of hours it is exposed to sunlight under close to ideal conditions.
For example, a solar panel rated for 100 watts exposed to eight hours of consistent sunlight at a relatively cool temperature would produce approximately 800 watts of power.
Since sunlight will vary over time, this calculation will only give you a fairly general estimate, and power production will be diminished under less than ideal conditions.
There are three types of solar panels commonly used by solar powered generators. They are the following:
Monocrystalline: Composed of single crystal silicone wafers, these are the most commonly used option. They are the oldest type of solar panel, and you’ll likely recognize their pattern of rows of black squares. They are the most efficient type of panel, and therefore the most expensive.
Polycrystalline: These solar panels are made from silicon fragments melted together, and have a bluish appearance. They are not quite as efficient as monocrystalline panels, but are less expensive.
Thin-Film: The new kid on the block in the world of solar panels can be made from a variety of different components, and will be black or blue according to which ones are used. As the name indicates, these panels are thinner than the other versions, and therefore lighter. They are also less efficient, but because of the price and weight difference, it is possible to make up this difference with more surface area.
Weight can vary substantially among solar powered generators, and will depend on whether they are intended to be a backup generator or portable generator. The lightest portable solar generators can weigh as little as 20 pounds, while heavier backup models weigh more than 200.
Solar panels will usually be the greatest weight contributor, with more and heavier panels usually producing more power and being more durable but also decreasing mobility. The battery is a secondary concern, although lithium-ion models weigh less than lead-acid batteries.
Solar powered generators that are designed to be mobile will normally have parts that fit conveniently into some sort of wheeled container. Solar panels sometimes fold up into an easily carried suitcase, and batteries come with a carrying handle.
Keep in mind what you intend to use the solar generator for when considering the importance of portability. If it’s main function will be as a backup power source for your home, a lack of mobility won’t necessarily be a problem and can logically be sacrificed for better power production.
Solar generators provide a good deal of wattage compared to some other portable generators. Many allow you to attach more than one battery, increasing their wattage capacity even further.
Solar powered generators can provide the starting and running watts necessary to support midrange appliances such as TVs, computers, and even refrigerators. Their batteries’ storage capacity will allow you to run these appliances for a relatively long amount of time.
Conventional, fossil fuel powered generators tend to make a lot of noise, while solar powered generators are virtually silent, something that neighbors and companions will surely be thankful for.
Fossil fuel powered generators produce carbon dioxide and other unhealthy gas emissions, meaning they’ll have to be positioned outside and away from areas where people gather or cook. Solar powered generators do not run off fossil fuels or produce gas emissions, and the battery can be placed inside the home, which might save you the need for an extension cord.
Solar generators are becoming more and more portable. You can now bring one on a camping trip without worrying about ruining the ambiance with noise and fumes.
Portable solar powered generators can often be paired together, supplying enough power to run numerous basic appliances.
Should you find yourself without sunlight, solar generator batteries can also be charged from a standard wall outlet or automobile auxiliary power outlet, giving you stored energy that can be used in case of an emergency.
Solar generators often can be purchased as a complete kit, with all the elements you might need packaged together for utmost portability. They are not dependent on any other fuel besides sunlight, meaning that you won’t have to rely on gas stations or power lines in case of a natural disaster. Because of this independence, along with their durability, solar powered generators are sometimes called “a one-time investment.”
Solar powered backup generators, unlike their portable cousins, tend to be fairly heavy, as most backup or standby generators are.
Portable solar generators can’t produce as much power as backup solar generators or heavy duty conventional generators, and are not intended to run major appliances that need lots of wattage.
Solar powered generators are dependent on the size of their solar panels for power production, causing an inherent trade off between power production and mobility. Smaller panels will take a significant amount of time to fully recharge a high capacity battery.
A Guide to Using a Portable Solar Generator Safely
Generally speaking, using a solar powered generator is safer than using a conventional generator. That being said, there are still a few safety guidelines that it’s important to follow.
1) As with any new gadget, it’s important to read your solar generator’s operating manual carefully before setting it up. It will probably save you some time in the long run as well.
2) Check all of the power cords in your solar generator kit for damage or frayed wiring. These cords will be conducting electricity, so it is important that they be in good condition to avoid burns or fires.
3) Don’t mount or climb on your solar panels. If you need to clean them and have trouble reaching some parts, get a step ladder and a soft brush.
4) As long as the sun is shining, your solar panels are collecting power and converting it into electricity. Flipping off the utility disconnect switch does not change this. Treat your solar panels and accompanying cables as always being “live.”
5) Avoid using extension cords with multiple sockets. Plug your devices directly into the generator outlets, that’s how it is designed to work.
6) Don’t try to install your own transfer switch; call a licensed electrician instead. This procedure will require a permit and inspection in many places.
Solar powered generators are a great one time investment that will give you an independent power source for the foreseeable future. Some of that will depend on you, of course, and your ability to find an area where your solar panels can get maximum exposure to sunlight. Once you do that, you’ll have energy for your most important appliances, be it on a camping trip or at home.
Take advantage of this buying guide – the solar generator models reviewed here are some of the best on the marketplace. Then pick out the model that is right for you, and you’ll be on your way to harvesting environmentally responsible energy and saving a few bucks to boot.