What Is A Portable Solar Generator/Power Station And How Do They Work?
Portable power stations have become popular in the past couple of years. They’re popular not only among campers and travelers but homeowners buy them as well to have an emergency solution in case the power goes out.
One popular misconception when it comes to power stations/solar generators is that they can recharge themselves with the help of the sun. This is not true. To recharge a solar generator you need to connect solar panels to it, unless it has solar panels built-in like the Renogy Phoenix (click to view on Amazon).
It’s rare to find a solar generator with solar panels built-in, and unless you can see that the power station obviously has solar panels on it like on the Renogy power station above, you should assume that it doesn’t. And while you can find kits that include both power stations and solar panels, don’t expect it to include panels if it’s not clear in the title.
Related Post: Do Solar Generators Come With Solar Panels?
A portable power station, also known as a solar generator is a portable box with three main components.
The first component is the battery, the second component is the inverter, and the third is the solar charge controller.
Each component is important in its own way, so let’s talk about their roles and how they work.
Note that there is no difference between a portable solar generator and a portable power station, and I will be using both words down below.
The battery consists of one or more cells that store power. Newer solar generators are usually equipped with lithium batteries, which are more lightweight than the typical deep cycle lead-acid battery often found in cars and RVs. Lithium batteries are also safe to discharge to a lower voltage without permanently damaging the battery.
Modern electronics like phones, tablets, and laptops use lithium batteries. There are different kinds of lithium chemistries, and if you’re interested in learning more about lithium-ion batteries, I recommend reading this post over at the Battery University.
Being lightweight and able to discharge to low voltages are two main benefits of a lithium battery in a portable power station.
The battery size or capacity is often talked about in amp-hours or watt-hours. The more watt-hours, the more battery capacity.
What to look for – Make sure it’s a lithium battery and not a lead-acid battery. If you’re looking for the one with the most battery capacity, look at the number of Watt-hours (Wh). The more watt-hours, the more battery capacity.
A common feature on a solar generator is AC outlets. These outlets look like the wall outlets found in a home and can power 120V electronics.
Since the battery is often wired in a 12V configuration, the power station needs a way to change that 12V DC battery power to 110/120V AC power. This is what the inverter does. It can be turned on and off with a button on the power station.
There are three kinds of inverters, but the most commonly used ones in solar generators are the pure sine wave inverter and the modified sine wave inverter. The pure sine wave inverter produces a cleaner current for sensitive electronics, which is why it’s the kind I recommend.
An inverter is not 100% efficient when converting the 12V DC power to 120V AC power, but about 80-90%. So it’s a better idea to use the USB or DC ports on the power station when possible, instead of powering the AC outlet with the inverter.
Related Post: Can A Solar Generator Run An Air Conditioner?
The inverter has a rating of how many watts it can output, in other words, how much the maximum amount of watts you can plug into AC outlet on the power station is.
Most companies advertise the inverter rating together with a surge watt rating, for example, “500W/1000W peak watts”. A power station with this inverter rating is capable of outputting 500W in total continuously through its AC outlet(s), and up to 1000W for a short amount of time, often less than 30 seconds.
So the inverter will run a device that uses more than 500W, but not for long.
What to look for – Pure sine wave inverter is better for sensitive electronics than modified sine wave inverters. The higher the inverter rating, the more total watts the AC outlet can power.
The Solar Charge Controller
The solar charge controller is the reason that the power station is often called a solar generator. It’s a component between the input port on the power station and the battery.
It protects the battery from overcharging when you plug in a solar panel.
There will be either a PWM charge controller or MPPT charge controller in the power station. MPPT is the better option because it’s more efficient. The difference is especially noticeable when the sun is weaker, like in the morning, evening, cloudy days, and during the winter months.
Most solar generators can not produce electricity on their own, because that would require solar panels to be placed on the box itself. There are products like that, like the Renogy Phoenix (click to view on Amazon), but I recommend connecting separate solar panels to the power station and storing the battery in the shade, not in the sun with the solar panel.
The solar charge controller has a maximum input amperage rating, a voltage rating, and sometimes a maximum watt input rating. These ratings are important to know about when you decide what solar panel(s) to pair with your power station.
Related Post: Honda By Jackery HLS 290 Vs Rockpals 300W
Some charge controllers can only handle 50W, while some can handle 500W. Even though a power station can only handle 50W input, it’s ok to use a 100W panel as long as the VOC rating is within the limits.
With portable power stations, a common rating that companies use when it comes to how many solar panels you can use with a certain charge controller is the open-circuit voltage, also known as the VOC rating.
If the company advertises that the power station can handle 14-24V solar panels, you need to make sure the VOC rating of the panel you pair it with has a VOC spec above 14 but below 24V.
What to look for – The charging time is important, so look for how many input watts the charge controller can handle.
Consider how long it would take to recharge the battery if you max the solar input, it shouldn’t take more than ten hours of sun, in my opinion. If you already have a solar panel, check its VOC rating and make sure you choose a solar generator that supports it.
Also, if possible, choose a power station with an MPPT charge controller and not a PWM charge controller.
Other common features are USB ports, DC outputs, built-in handles, and safety features.
There is often a safety feature that protects the inverter and disables the AC outlets in case the devices plugged in are drawing too much electricity.
Another common safety feature protects the battery from discharging to a dangerously low voltage.
Due to these safety features, it’s hard to damage a power station.
The worst damage you can do is plugging in a solar panel with a VOC rating too high for the charge controller. This can burn the charge controller and render it useless.
Solar Generator/Power Station Recommendations – From Small To Large
There are a ton of solar generators on the market, but here are a couple, from small to large, that I recommend.
Note: Scroll left/right on small screens to see the whole table.
If you have questions about any of the products above, please leave a comment.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is More Important, The Battery Capacity Or The Inverter Rating?
Let’s say that you have to choose between a 300Wh battery with a 500W inverter and a 500Wh battery with a 300W inverter.
If you’re only going to be using devices that require less than 300W (TV, laptop, phone, tablet), there is no reason to go with the larger inverter, and the larger battery will be more worth it.
Related Post: Goal Zero Yeti 400 Vs Jackery Explorer 500
But if you want to be able to power electronics that will use between 300-500 watts (desktop PC with monitor, TV and gaming consoles) then you’re going to need the 500W inverter.
The first thing you should consider is how many electronics you want to be powered at the same time.
If you don’t know how many watts your devices use, it’s often stated on the device itself or its power brick. You can also plug your devices into a P3 Kill A Watt and it will show on the screen how many watts the device is using.
Can I Plug A Power Strip Into A Power Station With Only One AC Outlet To Power Two Or More Things?
Yes, as long as you stay below the maximum amount of watts the inverter can output continuously. A common feature on a power station is a screen that shows input/output watts, so you can monitor how much you’re using.
Do I Need To Buy Solar Panels For My Solar Generator?
Not if you don’t want to charge it with solar panels. They can be charged with the included wall charger, and most can be charged with a car charger (although not all brands include the car charger).
Can I Use A Solar Panel With A Built-in Solar Charge Controller?
It’s not recommended since the power station has a solar charge controller already.
Can You Plug An RV Into A Solar Generator?
I have written a post that answers this question, click here to view it.
How Do I Connect Solar Panels?
The panels I recommend in the table above are compatible out of the box with the power station I listed by it. Some plug straight into it, while others require the use of the MC4 adapter included by the manufacturer.
When using other third-party solar panels it depends on the brand, I have written a post about how to connect third-party panels to popular power station brands that you can view by clicking here.
Related Post: Use Third-Party Solar Panels With Goal Zero
How Long Does A Power Station Last?
There are two ways to read this question, the first one is how long a power station can power a certain device. The second way is, how many charge cycles can a power station go through before the battery is worn out?
To answer the first question: It depends on how big the battery is and how many watts the device requires. If you know the watt-hours and the wattage of the device, divide it for a quick answer. For example, a 500Wh power station can power a 50W device for 10 hours, since 500/50=10. Remember that inverters are not 100% efficient, so for a more realistic number, you would multiply the hours by 0.85 (for 85% inverter efficiency), which would be 500/50=10*0.85=8.5 hours.
Related Post: Can A Goal Zero Yeti 400 Power A TV?
If you have no idea how many watts a certain device uses, use a P3 Kill A Watt (click to view on Amazon) that will tell you exactly.
To answer the second question: To throw a rough number out there, I would say that the average I have seen is 500 cycles to 80% capacity. What that means is that after the battery has gone from 100% to 0% 500 times, the battery will have 80% of the capacity it had when it was new. So a 500Wh battery would have 400Wh of useable watt-hours.
One thing you can do to extend the lithium battery’s life is to never discharge it below 20%. If it’s a lead-acid battery the recommendation is to keep it above 50%.
Can You Use A Power Station While It’s Charging?
Some models can and some can’t. I recommend asking the manufacturer of the specific model you’re looking at if it’s not advertised on the product page or in its specifications.
How Long Does It Take To Charge A Solar Generator With Solar Panels?
You can get a rough answer to this by dividing the maximum input watts of a power station with its battery capacity in watt-hours. For example, 540Wh/60W=6 hours.
What Is The Difference Between A Power Station And A Power Bank?
Power banks are usually lithium batteries as well that can charge devices. The difference is that most power banks only have USB ports and not AC outlets.
Can A Solar Generator/Power Station Power A Refrigerator?
Residential refrigerators and freezers use around 700-1200W to start, and 100-500 to run. So if you want to power a large fridge or freezer, I recommend a power station with at least a 1500W inverter. An example of that is the Goal Zero Yeti 1000.
Related Post: 5 Ways To Charge A Goal Zero Yeti Faster
Some of the power stations I listed above in the table can run a residential refrigerator.
Do Solar Generators Include Solar Panels?
In most cases, no. I have written a post that answers this question further and where I also list power stations that do include solar panels.
Can I Bring A Solar Generator On An Airplane?
If flying in the United States, a lithium battery up to 100Wh is allowed on an airplane. To fly with larger batteries you need to get approval from the airline.
Related Post: Can I Take Jackery Power Banks/Stations On An Airplane?
How Well Do Solar Generators Work?
It depends on the brand and model, there are solar generators that are very low quality that won’t work very well, while there are good power stations from reliable brands that will at least perform what the specifications say it can.
What Are The Best Solar Generator/Power Station Brands?
There are pros and cons to every solar generator, and there is no perfect product out there. But I like Goal Zero, Jackery, Rockpals, and Suaoki.
Please leave a comment down below if you have any questions or anything to add.