A solar powered generator converts solar energy into electricity for running various kinds of gadgets in your home or office like lights, computers, or smartphones. The solar portable generators discussed in this article come in different sizes and power output, although, they are generally lightweight and portable. While gas or oil burning generators are limited by the supply of fuel, solar generators are limited by climate conditions and the amount of available sunlight.
There are three major components to a solar-powered generator. The first essential part is the solar panel or more technically, the photovoltaic module. The solar panel captures the sun’s energy, which is used to either charge a connected battery or the electric device (usually very small devices like MP3 players or smartphones and tablets depending on the size of the solar panel) directly.
The battery in a solar powered generator must be a continuous (deep cycle) battery and rated for 12 volts. A deep cycle battery is one designed to provide steady current over a long period of time. This would be different say from a car battery, which is designed to provide a surge of current (a very large amount of current for a short period of time) to turn the engine over for starting. In a car, the alternator takes over to power the car allowing the battery to maintain its capacity for a long time. On the other hand, a deep cycle battery is designed to discharge “deeply” over and over again. Basically, a deep cycle battery is meant go through several discharge/recharge cycles over its lifetime.
Most appliances use alternating current, while a battery provides direct current. To convert the battery power to alternating current, a solar generator also has an inverter and at least one AC jack for plugging in appliances. The greater the size and efficiency of the solar panel, inverter and battery, the more usable power you will be able to get from the generator.
Why A Solar Generator Over Fossil-Fuel Generators?
You will find many reviews on this site of fossil-fuel generators, primarily gas powered ones. While the inverter generators are much more quiet and typically more environment friendly than traditional generators, they are still loud and emit exhaust. Solar powered generators, on the other hand, are silent and produce no exhaust! This is probably the most important feature people are seeking in solar powered generators. Secondly, it is possible to reduce your electric bill if regularly used at home to power appliances. Finally, being quite small and portable, they are great for outdoor use.
Given this brief overview of solar powered generators, let’s take a look at one of the most popular brands out there and some of the generators they offer. Goal Zero was started in 2009 with the goal of getting reliable power to all people, including those who are off the grid or are without power due to emergency situations. Over the last ten years, they have provided Goal Zero batteries and lights and solar panels to hundreds of families around the world following major natural disasters and brought solar power to villagers in remote parts of India and Africa. Today, they offer several models of solar powered generators and solar panels. We will review a few here.
Goal Zero Yeti 400 Solar Generator Kit w/Nomad 20 Solar Panel
The Yeti 400 solar generator can provide power for your devices in three different ways: through a USB port for USB powered devices, 12V for medium 12V powered devices and through an AC Inverter with a plug just like wall receptacles in your home providing up to 300 watts of pure continuous AC power. It is fairly small and portable weighing only 29 lbs.
The Yeti 400 can also be charged using three different methods:
It can be connected to a compatible solar panel. This particular kit includes a Boulder 20 Watt solar panel along with the Yeti 400. This and other solar panels can be purchased separately and in different sizes at Amazon. The solar panel itself has a USB port for powering hand held USB and 12V devices (find more information on this solar panel below). The Nomad 20 will charge the battery of Yeti 400 solar generator in 40-80 hours depending on the amount of sunlight and positioning of the panel. Here’s a chart showing charge times when using different solar panels:
- Nomad 20 Solar Panel 40-80 hours
- Boulder 15 Solar Panel 53-106 hours
- Boulder 30 Solar Panel 26-52 hours
- Escape 30 Briefcase 26-52 hours
- Boulder 90 Solar Panel 9-18 hours
It can be plugged into a regular wall outlet to charge. The Yeti 400 solar generator battery can be fully charged in only 5 hours this way. You may want to use this method, when short on time or when weather conditions hinder the effectiveness of the solar panel.
It can be plugged into your car’s 12V adapter and fully charge in 13 hours. This feature comes in handy, when you’re on the go.
What Can I Power With A Yeti 400 Solar Generator?
The Yeti 400 is ideal for powering and charging tablets, laptops and DSLR cameras. It will work with a CPAP and can power TVs and lights also.
Some Maintenance Tips For The Yeti 400 Solar Generator
Ideally, you would want to connect the Yeti 400 to a power source between uses, using one of the methods described above. This will prolong battery life and ensure that it’s fully charged whenever needed. If this is not doable, it is recommended to fully charge it at least every three months. It should also be stored in a cool and dry place.
Temperatures below freezing, however can impact the battery capacity. If you happen to be off the grid in below zero weather conditions, one way to keep the battery capacity at its highest would be to place it in an insulated cooler using solar panels for its power source – the natural heat generated by the solar generator in an insulated container will improve the battery capacity and prolong the battery life.
The Nomad 20 Solar Panel
The Nomad 20 solar panel is fairly compact and portable fitting into a daypack when folded and weighing only 2.5 pounds. It will charge USB and 12V devices like cellphones and iPods and is ideal for charging Goal Zero power packs and solar generators. While it is rated for 20 watts, a good rule of thumb for true power output for most solar panels is 75% of their rated output. In this case, you can expect 15 watts consistently. Up to four solar panels can be chained together to improve charging times.
Sometimes, interruption in charging may occur. This is often resolved by adjusting the angle of the panel and re-plugging the device. Also note that the panel does not hold a charge and so can only produce power when exposed to sunlight. It will generate the most power when it is exposed to the most direct sunlight. Therefore, clouds and windows would reduce the collection capability of the solar panel. To store power, the Nomad 20 can be used to charge a Goal Zero power pack.
Goal Zero Yeti 150 Solar Generator Kit With Nomad 20 Solar Panel
While the Yeti 400 is probably the most popular of the Goal Zero suite of solar generators, the Yeti 150 is still handy for smaller applications. It has the advantage of being smaller, weighing only 12 lbs but can produce only 80 watts of continuous power. It can be charged using the same methods described above for the Yeti 400, i.e. connecting to a solar panel, a wall outlet or a car 12V adapter. Charge times for the Yeti 150 are much shorter, as the battery capacity is much smaller.
This kit also includes the 20 Nomad solar panel. Here are some other recommended solar panels and charging times for the Yeti 150:
- Nomad 20 Solar Panel 17-34 hours
- Boulder 15 Solar Panel 22-44 hours
- Boulder 30 Solar Panel 11-22 hours
- Escape 30 Briefcase 11-22 hours
- Boulder 90 Solar Panel 3-6 hours
What Can I Charge With A Yeti 150?
The Yeti 150 is ideal for powering small electronic devices like small laptops, iPads, smart phones, and LED flashlights.
Goal Zero 39004 Yeti 1250 Solar Generator Kit
The Yeti 1250 provides 1200 watts continuous power and is the most suited for backup power with more applications. It weighs 103 lbs, but this kit also includes a cart for transporting. The kit comes with four Boulder 30 solar panels, carrying cases for the solar panels and a tripod for mounting and aligning them with the sun. Therefore, even though it is much heavier and larger than the generators mentioned above, it is still pretty portable. While providing silent and safe power (even indoors) without fumes or fuel to store, this generator can power critical home appliances like refrigerators, freezers and health care equipment.
It can be charged using the same methods as the 400 and 150. Using only a wall outlet, it will fully charge in 16-20 hours. See the list below for charging times using solar panels:
- Nomad 20 Solar Panel 125-250 hours
- Boulder 30 Solar Panel 80-160 hours
- Escape 30 Briefcase 80-160 hours
- Boulder 90 Solar Panel 27-54 hours
Some Concluding Thoughts
Technology has come so far making solar power a more practical and affordable alternative to fossil fuel generators. Of course, it is still a more expensive option (you can compare costs with other generators reviewed on this site), and you are dependent on weather conditions for efficient capture of solar energy, something you don’t have to worry about with a fossil fuel generator.
Like with so many decisions in life, we must consider the pros and cons of each option. While portable solar generators definitely have the limitations mentioned above, the advantages are also tremendous, depending on what you value most in your generator! No noise, no fumes and no fuel to purchase, store and transport! That is pretty cool.