Generating power can be a problem with no electricity outlets for miles. The best solution is to use solar power. But do portable solar panels work? It’s great to be outdoors enjoying the freedom of the road or that perfect lonely spot. With nobody else around for a couple of weeks (hopefully). Just you, the family and mother nature relishing the time together and making memories.
But you are still going to want to produce power at night. To provide light to your camp or provide electronic entertainment for the kids. This is when you need to have had those portable solar panels working hard all day.
Do Portable Solar Panels Work?
“The short answer is yes they do work and very well. They may be smaller than solar panels fitted at a residence. But they are just as efficient at collecting sunlight to turn into electricity. Ok they are not going to generate enough power to run a domestic 4 ring cooker. But they can provide enough charging power for a camping grill, or a mini- fridge or a TV.”
How Do Portable Solar Panels Really Work?
The big thing you need to know about portable solar panels is that they do not directly power appliances. For instance you can’t plug it into a TV or fridge or any other appliance. It won’t work. They are designed to charge a battery which then provides electricity to power appliances. Neither do they store electricity for later use. That is the job of the battery they charge.
But portables fitted with a solar charge controller can directly charge electronic devices like a mobile phone. This is because the solar panel is charging the phone’s battery. This may seem obvious to you. But you would be surprised by the number of questions I receive with regard to this. So I thought I would give a more detailed explanation here.
Harvesting the sun
The portable panels collect sunlight through their photovoltaic (PV) solar cells. The resulting direct current (DC) can then be used to charge a battery. Although it is best to have a charge controller between the panel and battery. This is because the controller will regulate the flow between the battery and solar panel. It will also prevent the battery from being overcharged. Which will not only reduce the battery’s life but can also be dangerous.
DC rated appliances can then be powered from the battery. Such as camping coolers, grills, lights and kettles.
Adding an Inverter
Adding an inverter will allow you to power domestic appliances. Because the inverter changes the DC current produced by the solar panel and battery. Into alternating current (AC) that powers appliances you plug in at home. This is great because you can take your TV or coffee maker or CPAP on holiday with you.
It is important to know the power rating of the inverter. This is because the inverter’s output is directly related to the appliances wattage. What do I mean by that?
If your inverter has a power output of 600w for instance. You can only power appliances under 600w. The manufacturer may say the inverter has a higher “peak” output than 600w. This may be so. But it is not advisable to run an appliance that has a higher wattage than the 600w stated output. This is because it could damage the inverter and it will drain your battery very quickly.
What Size Portable Solar Panels Can Be Used?
The physical size and weight of portable solar panels can vary from extremely light to quite heavy. This depends on how they are constructed. There are usually two types of construction
Light Industrial Grade Polymers
These are usually a fold-up or a roll-up type of portable solar panel. This is where multiple smaller solar panels are sewn into a polymer frame. Usually made from high grade industrial strength PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) or nylon. Or sometimes a mixture of both. This makes them lighter, softer, very durable and small in size when folded up. They are usually less expensive than their more rigid metal and glass cousins. But the larger wattage solar panels constructed in this way fold in a concertina type fashion. And can be just as expensive as a metal/glass construction.
Metal and Glass
These are usually described as briefcase or suitcase. This is because there are usually 2 solar panels joined together That fold in the middle on metal hinges like a paste table. And held together with metal latches for transportation. They usually come with an outer carry case to protect them from knocks and bumps. The solar cells are encased in metal, usually aluminium and faced with glass. They are generally heavier than their polymer constructed counterparts
The 3 major styles of portable solar panels
These types of panels are usually described as portable solar chargers. This is because they are mainly associated with charging smartphones and cameras. They are a smaller type of solar panel that can be used for hiking, cycling and backpacking. Their major benefit being they can fold down to the size of a quality magazine. For example the Renogy 28w solar charger is 23.0 x 11.0 x 0.8 inch unfolded. And 11.0 x 7.3 x 1.2 inch folded. But weighs just 28.9oz/820 g. But larger foldable panels can also be used to charge solar power power stations
These types of panels are associated with charging portable power stations. Usually as part of a complete system produced by a manufacturer. For example the EcoFlow 160w panel is 61.8 x 26.8 x 1.0inch unfolded. Yet folds down to the size of a suitcase (28.8 x 15.5inch), And weighs just 15.4lbs/7kg. Some manufacturers do make these types of panels separately such as Dokio.
The solar suitcase is well known in the recreational vehicle world. Because they can be used to effectively charge vehicle leisure and starter batteries. Their easy folding nature makes them ideal for this purpose. When coupled with a solar controller. They are also great for charging portable power stations. They are very robust and hardwearing and easy to store for transportation. For example the Renogy 200 Watt Solar Suitcase is 51.8 x 35.6 x 3.1inch unfolded. And 35.6 x 25.9 x 3.1inch folded. It weighs 35.9lbs but remember you do not have to carry it far to set it up
I am sure if you know about portable solar panels you could come up with other types of panels. But as a rule of thumb these three are the generally accepted types of design. And as you can see they do vary considerably in size and weight.
What Types Of Battery Will A Portable Solar Panel Charge?
There are a number of battery types a portable panel will charge;
- Battery types that can be charged with a USB connection such as a mobile phone or GPS
- Power banks are small portable batteries that can be carried around in your pocket. Or a handbag, or a backpack, or in your vehicle’s glove compartment.
- Leisure and starter batteries for an RV. camper, motorhome and boats. Plus the leisure batteries in a trailer/caravan or even for a home installation. For example in a shed, garage or other outbuildings.
- Portable power station. These are portable batteries that have a solar controller and inverter already built in. They vary in size, weight and power output ranging from 100w to 3000w. There are higher rated power stations but you would need to consider weight for portability purposes.
What Wattage Portable Solar Panels Are Available?
Portable solar panels come in lots of different output wattages from 5w to 300w. This is obviously a big range. But the higher the wattage the faster a solar panel will charge a battery. But remember as I explained earlier the higher the wattage the larger and heavier the panel will be. So when choosing a portable solar panel wattage you might need to think about its size and weight. Especially if you have a disability or a back problem.
If you do have a physical problem it would probably be prudent to choose a polymer constructed panel. This is because they are much lighter. And will cause you less discomfort when transporting and setting it up.
What wattage panels are best for each battery type
- A Mobile Phone
If you want to charge a mobile phone when you are out and about. You are best choosing a portable solar charger. They normally come in 15 to 70 watts. But remember if you are a hiker the higher the wattage the heavier it will be.
- A Laptop
Some higher rated portable solar chargers will charge a laptop. But unless you are using a power bank a 50 watts plus portable solar panel would be best.
- A Power Bank
You can charge a power bank with a portable solar panel. But when out and about. You would normally use a 15 to 70 watt portable solar charger
- A Leisure Battery
A leisure battery can be charged with a 50 watt portable solar panel. But this would be a bare minimum and it will be slow. It would be better to use a 100 to 300 watt panel.
- A Portable Power Station
As with a leisure battery a 50 watt panel is a bare minimum. But most power stations will have a recommended panel wattage. And the larger stations will need more than one panel to charge them.
My Closing Thoughts
With millions of portable solar panels having been sold around the world. And millions of satisfied customers I think that is enough proof that portable solar panels do work. A lot of the time people who are dissatisfied have an overly high expectation of what the panel can achieve. For example somebody who buys a 100w portable. Expecting it to charge a 500w power station in an hour or so. Is being unrealistic. Because most power stations wouldn’t charge that quickly while plugged into a mains socket.
As long as you are realistic a portable solar panel will work perfectly well. When off-grid and out and about enjoying yourself. You can learn more about charging various portable battery types with portable panels here:
I hope you enjoyed my post and have found it helpful. If you have any questions about how portable solar panels work. Or want to leave your own personal thoughts, please feel free to leave a comment below