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You are familiar with solar panels and how they are used to power homes and RVs. You may have also seen those ultra compact solar chargers that power mobile phones. Wouldn’t it be nice to have something in-between, more powerful than a solar phone charger but not as big as a home solar panel? Well, that’s where a portable solar generator or power station comes in, offering more power without the bulk.
A solar gen is a device that can power electronic devices with solar energy. Its function is similar to a regular gas powered generator, but it uses the sun or a charged battery rather than fossil fuels.
A solar generator is a cleaner, quieter alternative, so no wonder it is becoming more popular with RVers, campers, outdoor enthusiasts and homeowners.
A quick note about the use of the word “portable”. The term is rather loosely applied by manufacturers. Portable power stations such as the Jackery Power Station Explorer fit the bill of being lightweight, but you’ll also see 35+lb generators being marketed as portable. Of course the term is relative. If you have an RV then the weight is not an issue. It only becomes a concern if you camp light or want to hand carry it.
How Does a Solar Generator Work?
Portable and larger solar generators function the same way, but their features vary. This guide focuses on portable units but the principles apply to all types of solar powered generators.
A solar generator has solar panels that convert sunlight into electricity which is stored in a battery pack. The generator is equipped with AC, DC and USB outputs and inputs that allow it to run mobile devices, electronics and appliances.
A charge controller keeps current flowing into the battery safely. Because solar panels produce direct current )DC), an inverter is required to convert this into AC so it can be used by home appliances. A growing number of portable generators now include an inverter. Some offer a complete package with solar panel, controller, battery and inverter.
Parts of a Solar Generator
The following are the major components of solar generators. The capacity and specific features will vary per generator.
The battery stores the power the generator will use for charging. The power can come from a solar panel or electricity if the generator is charged by regular AC power or car lighter. Regardless, the stored energy will be available for use with a smartphone, laptop and other devices.
Battery capacity is measured in amp hours (ah) or watt hours (wh). The higher the capacity the longer you will be able to use the battery before recharging. Lead acid and lithium ion batteries are the most common types used by solar generators.
Lead acid batteries are more affordable, but lithium ion batteries have a longer lifespan. Large generators allow you to install additional batteries, but others do not. Portable units just have one battery.
A charge controller safeguards the battery. When the battery charges, the controller monitors the process to make sure there is no overcharging, over voltage, short circuit or other potential hazards. The controller is critical and needs to function properly for a solar generator to work.
There are two types of charge controllers, PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) and MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracking). PWM is the most commonly used and works fine in most cases. An MPPT controller is more efficient and offers protection, but it is also more costly.
For now PWM charge controllers are the standard but look for MPPT controllers to be more commonplace and eventually be the norm.
Solar panels are the most well known aspect of solar power. Solar panels are built of monocrystalline or polycrsytalline cells, but the purpose is the same. The panel draws energy from the sun and stores it in the battery. The stored energy can now be used during evenings or when there is no sunlight. This is how all solar panels and batteries work, whether it is for a generator or rooftop panels.
Because solar generators can be charged by a car charging port or wall outlet, solar panels are not necessary. But many home backup power generators have a solar panel for additional charging options. You can use a solar panel to charge any portable solar power station if it has enough power.
Batteries, inverter and inputs/outputs are present in large generators. Portable units may or may not include a solar panel and inverter. Most generators also have dual USB ports for charging USB devices and AC outlets for wall charging the generator.
Solar power is direct current. An inverter converts this into alternating current (AC) so it can be used by appliances. If a device uses DC an inverter is not required. But most home appliances run on AC so an inverter is often used with solar generators. Backup power generators may have this bundled while it is an option for portable power stations. Inverters come in different sizes.
Not all solar generators have an inverter. if you want to power household appliances with an inverter, make sure it is large enough to handle the total appliance load. The KInverch 5000W Power Inverter for instance, is sufficient to power basic appliances during an outage. It is definitely enough for most RV uses too.
Inputs and Outputs
Inputs. Solar generators are charged through their inputs. Power goes into the input and the energy is stored in the battery. The most common inputs are:
- Solar panel port
- AC outlet
- DC vehicle charging
Solar panel and AC outlets are virtually standard in generators. DC inputs are less common but can added as an extra / optional feature.
Outputs. This is where you plug electronic devices to charge. All generators have an AC, USB and DC port. The only difference is the number.
Screen Display. A screen display provides information about the system. Details include how much power is left in the battery and how current is flowing in the generator. The information the display provides comes from the charge controller which oversees the current storage.
What are the Different Types of Solar Generators?
These generators come in all forms, shapes and sizes, but there are two basic types: portable and home/power backup.
The portable units are often used by campers. They are lightweight with a carry handle and shaped like a box. You can put one in a bag so it’s ideal for road trips, hunting, fishing, RV living, outdoor exploration and off grid living. It’s also an ideal companion for solar phone chargers.
A portable solar generator is for you if:
- You want solar power on the fly
- You are a camper, RVer, backpacker, hiker, student, professional who needs an on the go charger
- You want an easy to carry and store solar charger
- You need solar power for emergency, camping and general travel
- You only charge small devices like smartphones, laptops, GPS, radio, lights etc.
- You want a convenient, clean energy source
- You won’t run a fridge, washing machine or any large appliance
If the answer is yes to most or all of these, then you should get a portable solar generator. There are a lot of options to choose from, and there is bound to be one that fits your needs.
Backup Home Power Generator
A solar power backup generator is larger, with multiple batteries, controllers and a powerful inverter. Some may have a solar panel built in. As the name makes clear, these generators provide backup power for homes in case of a power outage. They work just like regular generators except it runs on solar power.
Compared to portable units, solar power backup generators can produce thousands of watts and have a very high battery capacity. The trade-off is the size and weight. These generators weigh at least 30 lbs and can go up to 60 lbs or more depending on how many batteries are installed.
A solar power backup generator is for you if:
- You want emergency backup power for your home
- You want to charge several medium to large appliances (TVs, AC, fridge etc.), totaling thousands of watts
- Your area is prone to blackouts
- You will not be moving the generator around
- You don’t mind paying more for extra batteries and a high powered inverter
- You need several AC outlets
- You have a high powered solar panel to match the generator
If you say yes to these, then a solar power backup power generator is ideal. By keeping the batteries charged, you will have a constant source of power even if there is a blackout for several days. The amount of power you have depends on the capacity of the solar panel, inverter and batteries.
Portable vs Home Solar Generator
The difference between portable and solar power backup generators gets blurred all the time though. Combining several portable generators can produce thousands of watts. Manufacturers have also been using various means to reduce generator weight without sacrificing power.
For now though, we can still distinguish between portable generators and home power backup units by size and power. For campers and outdoor lovers, portable is clearly the way to go. If you have an RV or another vehicle, you can opt for the 40-60 lb solar generators. And if you need a backup for home, you can get as big as you want.
What is a Solar Generator Used For?
A portable solar generator can be used the same way as a solar charger, but with more power and versatility than you might expect.
You can use a generator to charge more than a phone. These generators can power a laptop, camera, radio and other devices. Most have dual USB ports for charging any compatible device.
No need to detach the solar panel off the roof if you need to charge. With a compact generator you can leave your RV and bring solar power with you. It is small enough to fit in your backpack and won’t slow you down.
Almost all these generators have a built in flashlight. Most even have SOS modes. And of course you can use the generator to keep your phone powered in case you need to call someone. If you are out in the woods or boondocking without access to electrical power, a solar station is essential.
Want to go bird watching? Want to go back to nature and enjoy the cool breeze in beautiful RV parks? Using solar power is a good way to go about it. Charge your camera and snap images of nature’s finest. Use a solar powered station light to explore caves or charge the panel as you hike. The possibilities are endless.
Few things are more annoying or distressing than a low power indicator on your phone or laptop. If you don’t have access to AC power, what will you do? With a solar generator you can be in the middle of nowhere and still charge your device. With a good sized battery capacity you don’t even have to wait for daylight.
Power a cabin
Do you want to live off the grid? Having a solar generator is one way to get started. A portable unit cannot power an entire cabin, but a large solar generator can. You may then use the portable one to charge devices.
Disasters and calamities
A natural disaster can knock out electrical lines, but with a solar power station you still have access to power. This can be a literal life saver in emergency situations.
Power a campsite
A lot of campers are now switching to solar generators because it’s more convenient. You don’t have access to electrical outlets, so what do you do? That is where these generators come into play. Rather than fill your backpack with batteries, just bring a solar generator and it can charge all your gadgets.
Students, workers and professionals
For students, office workers, construction, field workers, doctors and other professionals, a portable solar generator is a valuable assistant. Whether you are in the office, school or in the field, having a generator to charge a device is handy.
A solar charger can do that yes, but a solar generator provides more power and higher battery capacity. That last point is important. You can charge a generator at home with a USB or the AC outlet. When full, you can use the battery to power your devices even if it is cloudy or night. You only need to use the solar panel to recharge the battery if it is low on power.
The applications above are for single portable units. You can increase the power of the generator by using more than one, though in the cases above that will not be necessary. The point is there are a lot of things you can do with a portable generator whether it is in the office or in nature.
What are the Benefits of Solar Generators?
Solar generators provide the same benefits as any solar powered device, but it is portable. Let’s take a look at some of the ways these generators can benefit you.
Portable: these generators weigh less than 5 pounds. You can carry it without strain or put it inside a trunk, backpack or bag. Backpackers have to count every pound as the weight becomes a factor the longer you hike. With a portable generator you don’t have to sacrifice a lot of space or weight in your backpack. For convenience it is hard to beat.
Power: solar phone chargers are ultra light, but they don’t provide much power. A backup generator does but it’s too big. A portable generator hits the sweet spot, not too big and not too small with just the right power. Capacity ranges from 100W to over 400W so you can pick and choose.
Versatility: a single generator can serve various needs. From charging mobile devices, powering CPAP machines, gaming consoles, radios, camping utilities and more. They’re light enough to bring hiking and durable enough to withstand the rigors of long rod trips. Solar generators are at home in the city or in nature. As long as it is charged you can use it, even without sunlight.
Quiet: diesel generators are noisy, regardless of the size. Solar generators run quietly, big or small. The only way you’ll notice one of these generators is running is it charges your devices. With an inverter you might hear a slight hum but that is all. A solar generator lets you sleep at night at home, in a tent or RV.
No pollution: clean, renewable energy is the hallmark of all solar power. Solar generators offer a clean and reliable alternative to their gas powered counterparts. You can use these for as long as you need without increasing your carbon footprint. It is not only convenient for you but also good for the environment.
Inexpensive in the long run: portable solar power stations have become more affordable. While solar generators may still be costlier than gas generators, they save you money in the long run. Remove the upfront cost and you don’t pay for anything. With a gas generator you have to shell out money for the fuel, and that does not come cheap.
All-around charger: solar generators can charge almost all consumer electronics. You can hook up an inverter to run appliances. You can use its flashlight for emergencies. You can keep it as a power backup in your RV or home. And because you can carry the generator anywhere, it becomes an excellent companion wherever you go.
Backup power supply: do you live in a hurricane prone area? Do brownouts or blackouts occur often? A solar generator makes a huge difference.
You can keep a portable unit charged and when there’s a power outage, use it to charge your phone and other essentials. Want more power? You can get a large solar power backup generator with enough watts to run large appliances. With an inverter you can run literally any home appliance as long as the battery capacity is sufficient.
Solar Generator Buyers Guide
There are a lot of affordable, portable solar generators to choose from. But which is right for you? To find out, here is our detailed buyer’s guide.
- ‘For home backup power: as we explained earlier, get a 3000W power station minimum
- For tailgating and camping: a 300W-500W generator will suffice. That is plenty of battery capacity for days of use.
- :For vans and RVs: it depends on what you need to power. An 800W-1800W generator is ideal. But if you only charge small devices you can scale this down.
- For backpacking, hiking, trekking: for a 2-3 day trek a 150W should be enough. But again it comes down to how much power you will need. Only you can know the answer by calculating how much solar power you will need.
How to Choose Solar Batteries
The guidelines above should give you a headstart on how much capacity is required. But here are a few more things to keep in mind.
- Battery capacity is given in watt hours (wh) or amp hours (ah)
- Multiply ah x battery volt to get the watt hours
- Divide watt hours by battery volt to get ah
When you get the results, add another 50% to the total. Why? Because solar generators should be charged at the 50% mark. You have probably heard people use a generator battery all the way to 0%. That’s not good for the generator in the long term. Recharging halfway through prolongs its usefulness so it is better to get 50% more of your required wh or ah.
Lithium ion or Lead Acid? Lithium ion is the best battery available. It is more expensive than lead acid but has a long cycle, needs less frequent recharges and can last many years longer. Lithium ion also needs little to no maintenance. But if you are on a budget and do not mind a bit of maintenance, lead acid batteries can still work.
Inputs and Outputs
Most solar generators have two, a wall outlet and solar panel port. That is sufficient, but a growing number have DC car chargers built in or available as an option. What most people do is charge the generator at home with an AC outlet so it’s already at full power.
If you have the right battery capacity, it should last for a long time. If you have to recharge you can use the solar panel port. But a DC charging port is a nice extra especially if you have a vehicle.
AC,DC and USB outputs are standard features by now, but the question is how many should it have? It depends on your particular requirements.
If you only charge your phone and laptop, a DC and USB port are all you need. But if you bring a lot of devices – or you have companions – look for a solar power station with as many different outputs as possible. Having multiple outputs is also ideal for long camping weekends.
Display Screen Quality. Most generators have an LCD screen and that is good enough. Size varies, but it should be large enough for easy reading. The screen should have pertinent information about electrical flow, power and notify you of possible overcharge, overheating or other potential problems.
Solar Power Kits. You have probably come across solar panel kits online. Do not confuse them with solar generators. These are DIY packages consisting of a solar panel, charge controller and the necessary connectors, brackets and wiring. Most of them do not have an inverter or a battery. If you want to get a kit, make sure it is compatible with your battery and inverter.
Charge Controller For Solar Generators
The solar charge controller serves as the voltage regulator. It plays a critical role in optimizing battery performance. Basically it comes down to two options, PWM or MPPT.
A PWM controller draws current above the batter voltage level. An MPPT controller pulls current at the maximum voltage level possible. An MPPT is more efficient, but it is going to cost more. For portable solar stations however, a PWM controller is sufficient. But if you can get a generator with an MPPT controller, that would be great.
Inverters For Solar Generators
Solar panel is direct current (DC), so an inverter turns DC into alternating current (AC). You will only need an inverter if you charge AC devices like fans, light bulbs, motors and other electrical appliances. Laptops, smartphones and tablets use DC. Modern TVs have an AC/DC converter.
An inverter must provide typical power and surge / peak power needs. Refrigerators, air conditioners and motors need surge power at startup before settling into typical power needs. A fridge might require 1000W for typical power but require a surge capacity of 2000W or more.
Add the total watts of every device you want to run on the inverter then double it for the surge requirement. Example (watts may vary):
- Heater 1000W
- Refrigerator 1000W
- Laptop 60W
- Light 100W
The total is 2160W. But a refrigerator needs another 1500 to 2000W of surge power, so get a a 3000-355W inverter.
Portable solar generators have really taken off the past few years, and we expect them to become more popular. These generators offer the best compromise between the bulky solar power systems atop houses and the compact solar chargers. With multiple ports and high capacity, a portable solar generator makes for a great travel companion.