STEEM Mobile Update: Solar Panels Arrived!

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I meant to take these photos outside, but it arrived after dark. Which is distressingly early, being that it’s winter where I am. So it’s indoor photos that you’ll get instead. As you’ll know from past articles I’ve tried out lots of different solar devices over the years and have strong opinions about portable solar.

Namely, go big or go home. Those little index card sized solar power banks are terrible. PV efficiency has gotten surprisingly good (over 23% efficient now! The PV on my solar backpack from just a few years ago is only 14% efficient) but you still need a lot of it to have a good experience.

By “a good experience” I mean charging stuff in the same amount of time it takes to do it at home, from a wall outlet. That’s a tall order for PV, given that only 1kw of energy falls in the form of sunlight onto each square meter of surface area.

But then, at 23% efficiency, a solar panel one square meter large would produce only 230 watts, and that’s under ideal cloudless conditions in the middle of Summer, angled directly at the sun. So a solar panel the size of an index card is a bad joke, taking as much as a week to charge the Chinese power banks they come attached to.

I don’t fool around with stuff like that. Having bought my suitcase battery from Jackery, I did some homework about what the best solar charging option would be. I didn’t want to buy their solution because $600 for 102 watts of PV is somewhat outrageous given that I can buy a bare 100 watt rooftop solar panel for less than a third of that price.

But the suitcase battery requires an unusual voltage to charge efficiently from solar, which naturally only Jackery’s own folding solar arrays provide. So being that I’m doing well lately, I caved and bought theirs, curious about what could make it worth such a steep price.

Lots, as it turns out. It comes in a nice zipping canvas carry case, as you can see in the main photo.

Here it is out of the bag. It folds shut and secures with magnets, which I thought was a nice touch. It was the first of many. This turned out to be a remarkably polished gadget, all told. Build quality is good, and while none of the small niceties is by itself worth the extra cost over a bare panel, all of them together make a good case for it.

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Here it is unfolded. Hard to get a sense of scale from this picture but it’s draped atop and totally obscuring a computer chair. It’s a bit over three feet long, by two feet wide. It’s about as big as is practical for a man portable solar array. Probably, though I was zealous to go even bigger, it would’ve been a mistake to.

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It comes with integrated USB and USB type C out, which is a plus. Directly wiring those into the unit means less conversion steps between the panels and the devices I want to charge, which means less of the meager power coming from the panels is wasted. I’ll need every last milliwatt.

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Here’s where the main output cable stows. This was a nice touch to keep water, dirt, etc. off the cable while it’s not in use. Another one of those little design touches which add up to…well, not quite $600, but close. I am at least not as outraged by the price as I was when I first saw it.

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Here’s the cable that connects the panels to the suitcase battery. It stashes neatly in its own little side pocket of the included carry bag. Now that I have the cable I can take it to a Radio Shack if there are any left and have them identify the plug for me. This way, should I ever wish to build myself a larger solar array than this, I’ll know what plug it will need to charge this battery pack.

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Here it is connected to the suitcase battery. Supposedly under ideal conditions it will fully recharge it in 7 hours. I am expecting closer to 10, but ready to be pleasantly surprised. If it manages it in 8, I’ll be impressed and delighted as that’s about a full day’s worth of sunshine. Charge all day, then use the power from the battery all night.

It just exactly fits without issue in the rooftop container which now protrudes from the top of my car like an aerodynamic tumor. I really couldn’t have gone much bigger, but still there’s an itch in my brain. It says “Bigger! Bigger!” It’s never enough. There’s really no such thing as too much PV.

Could I charge my car from this? The answer is no. The battery outputs a maximum of 300 watts, and my car’s included level 1 charger won’t even turn on unless it receives a minimum of 600 watts. I can, however, charge my ebike from this. It might turn out to be a good way to keep my ebike charged if I take it out into the wilderness to shred some trails.

Each full charge of the suitcase battery would recharge my ebike’s battery by half. So at the very least, I would need two full days of solar charging the suitcase battery (and using that to charge the ebike at night) to totally refill the ebike’s roughly 1 kwh battery from empty to full.

Still, probably I will never use all 50 miles of range in one day, so that’s an extreme scenario. More than likely the suitcase battery will be enough for the ebike, my laptop and many other applications during the same trip.

I feel satisfied it was worth the money and about the best I could do for a portable solar alternative to, say, a gas generator. When camping someplace with electrical hookups for the car, I won’t need it (and will be parked under tree cover anyways).

However when I camp off-site, the car’s battery will be depleted from the drive and there’ll be no place to plug it (or anything else) in. So, having an alternate means of powering the various amenities I’ve loaded this car with will be invaluable.

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