Best Solar Generator for 2018
Get the Best Solar Generator for Your Needs
If you hate being left in the dark, why not consider buying one of the best solar backup generators?
Are you looking for the best solar generator, but aren’t sure where to start? Wondering what battery technology is best? How big should you go? What is the best solar generator? How exactly do solar generators even work? With today’s explosion in solar and battery technology continually lowering prices and making products ever more efficient, today’s solar power generators are pretty sweet. Most are portable, easy to use, and not too expensive (though there are some pricey options if you do want to go that route).
No matter if you’re looking to provide power during an emergency or blackout, or just want to keep your phone charged up on your next camping trip, there’s a wide array of solar generator sizes, features, and prices – you’re sure to find exactly what you need. Below you’ll find just about everything you want to know about solar generators. Read over our solar generator reviews to see what some of the best solar generators have to offer, calculate your own electricity usage to find the generator that best meet your needs. And figure out what a solar generator even is!
Top 3 Best Solar Powered Generators for 2018
What Exactly Is a Solar Backup Generator?
Just like standard gas-powered generators, solar generators are simply a way to produce electricity on command. Gas generators do this by simply keeping a small reservoir of fuel to power the generator whenever you need some electrical juice.
Solar generators work a bit differently though. Instead of a gas-fueled motor that can be turned on at any time, a solar generator uses a solar panel to harvest sunlight and convert it to electricity, and a battery to store that electricity for later use. Then, when you need to turn your lights on in the middle of the night, you’ve got electricity stored up and ready to go in your battery. The next day, when the sun is shining again, simply put your solar panels outside and you’ll recharge your generator’s battery.
“Solar generator” is really a misnomer, since, in fact, solar generators are comprised of three main components: the solar panel, battery, and inverter.
We’ve already talked about the solar panel and battery, but what’s an inverter? Solar panels and batteries utilize direct current (DC) electricity. That’s all fine if you have DC appliances, but everything we plug into our walls at home uses alternating current (AC) electricity. What to do, you ask? Simple! Add an inverter that can convert the DC power to more user-friendly AC. Now, you can charge your phone and watch Friends whenever you want.
In the last few years, solar/battery manufacturers have come up with some pretty slick solar generators that combine the battery, inverter, and solar panels into one all-inclusive, integrated solar storage system – a true solar generator. However, most manufacturers combine the battery and inverter into one system (which they’ll refer to as the “solar generator”) and sell the solar panel separately.
Here, we’ll follow the industry’s lead and refer to the battery-inverter combo as the “solar generator”, even if they don’t have a solar panel attached.
Why Can’t I Just Use a Gas Generator?
If you’re already familiar with backup generators, you might be wondering why solar generators are better than gas generators. That’s a good question! All the benefits stem from the simple fact that solar generators are powered by the sun – not gas. As such, you’ve got an endless supply of clean, no-cost electricity.
Solar generators produce no noise or fumes, so you don’t have to worry about bugging neighbors as your generator buzzes away or breathing in noxious gases while you eat. Since solar generators don’t produce any exhaust or pollutants, you can even bring your generator inside and use it right in your kitchen or living room. You can’t do that with a gas-powered generator!
On top of that, as solar generators contain no moving parts, they require much less maintenance than gas-powered generators, which need yearly tweaking, upkeep, and winterization. There’s no oil, no fuel, no air filters, no pull chains. Just plug it in and turn it on. It doesn’t get more simple than that!
And lastly, with a solar generator, as long as you’ve got sunlight, you’ve got power – no need to keep an extra can of volatile gas around for later use. You can go out in the woods and stay for 2 nights, 2 weeks, or 2 months. With a correctly-sized solar panel supplying electricity daily, you’ll never be without power.
On top of that, since your fuel is 100% free, once you shell out the cash for the generator, there are very little costs after that. No last minute trips to the gas station for you!
Of course, solar generators aren’t perfect. Their downside is in their limited electricity production. Generally speaking, portable solar generators top out around 2,000 watts in capacity. You can of course find solar backup systems that are much, much bigger, but they’re really too big to easily transport and therefore permanently installed on a premise.
While 2,000 watts is comparable to many popular gas-powered generators (like the popular Honda EU2200 Super Quiet for example), gas-powered generators have the ability to jump up to 6,000 – 7,000 watts and still be quite portable. To make a solar generator of that size you need a lot of solar panels and batteries, far too many to be portable.
All in all, if you need to run multiple energy-intensive appliances at once, a gas-powered generator might be your only option. But if you only need to power basic necessities like your phone, TV, microwave, and CPAP, a solar powered generator can easily cover your needs – all more quietly and cleanly than a gas-powered generator can.
How do you know if a solar generator can, in fact, cover your electricity needs? Keep reading to find out!
When Do You Need a Solar Powered Generator?
Generators are a simple way to keep your basic electric appliances and gadgets going when you don’t have access to grid power. And you can think of solar generators as simply a replacement for the louder gas-powered variety.
If the grid goes down or you’ve got an emergency situation where you don’t have access to the electric utility, a portable solar generator can be a real lifesaver – quite literally if you’ve got medical equipment that needs 24/7 power. As long as you’ve got sunlight, a simple solar powered generator never runs out of fuel and can be brought anywhere you need it – even right in the bedroom!
Beyond emergency situations, solar generators’ quietness and ease of transport are perfect for tailgating, camping, or any other situation where electricity isn’t easily accessible. GoalZero, a leader in ultra-portable solar generators, actively markets to the outdoors crowd and they’ve been met with huge success.
Whether you want to be prepared for the next storm or just post pictures to Instagram while you’re out in the wilderness, solar backup generators can certainly cover your needs.
How Big Should I Go?
After deciding you want to buy a solar backup generator, the next logical step is figuring out what size you need.
Solar generators come in all sizes, from just 100 watt-hour battery packs designed to keep your phone topped off all the way to 2,000 watt-hour generators that can supply power to several appliances and gadgets for hours.
If you’re looking to replace you gas-powered generator with a solar-powered equivalent, you’re probably looking at 1,000+ watt-hours. These generators are big enough to run microwaves, blenders, TVs, and of course your phones and tablets.
If you’re looking to save some cash, there are dozens of generators in the 300 to 500 watt-hour range – perfect for a weekend camping trip and other small/short-term uses.
The easiest way to figure out what size solar generator you need is to add up the watt-hours of all the gadgets you’d like to run off your generator. For example:
- Phone: 5 watts for 8 hours/day = 45 watt-hours
- LED lights (2): 18 watts for 3 hours/day = 54 watts-hours
- Microwave: 600 watts for 5 minutes/day = 50 watt-hours
- Blender: 500 watts for 15 minutes/day = 125 watt-hours
- TOTAL = 274 watt-hours/day
The above example is a weird life (you must really like fruit shakes), but it shows just how easy it is to calculate your own electricity usage. And in our example, you’d need a solar generator with a usable capacity of at least 274 watt-hours and which can handle a pull of at least 600 watts (for the microwave) at any given time.
If you want to get crazy and blend and microwave at the same time, you’d need a solar generator that could handle a continuous pull of 1100 watts. Most larger portable solar generators can handle around 1500 watts of continuous pull, so that’s certainly not out of the question.
As you can see, estimating and adding up your own usage is easy! If you don’t know the wattage of your different gadgets, you can typically find it on the label or just Google it for an approximation.
One last bit of advice: We’ll talk about this more below, but some solar generators use lead-acid batteries for their energy storage. These batteries are time-tested, rugged, reliable, and relatively low-cost, but you can only use about 50% of their total capacity regularly. If you use your battery’s entire storage capacity day-in and day-out, you’ll permanently damage the insides of the battery and it’ll go kaput very quickly.
With this in mind, in our example above we’d really need a lead-acid battery with a minimum capacity of 550 watt-hours.
Lithium-ion batteries, as you’ll see below, can handle deeper discharge – down to 80% of their total capacity. So for our example above, we’d only need a 342 watt-hour generator – much smaller than the lead-acid option above! This allows your whole system to be smaller, lighter, and possibly cheaper!
What to Look for in the Best Solar Generator For Your Needs
Before we move on to the best solar generators, let’s quickly review what you should look for in a solar generator. We’ve already talked about size and battery type, but there’s a few other facets to consider:
- Weight: Solar generators range from 10 to over 100 pounds. Your solar generator’s size/capacity is certainly the biggest deciding factor – the bigger the battery capacity, the heavier the system. However, battery type (lithium vs lead-acid) is also an important factor, as lithium can cut the weight of the entire system by half. If you’re planning on taking your solar generator with you on trips, spending a little extra on a lighter system (ie with lithium batteries) is probably a good idea.
- Inputs/Outputs: Almost all backup generators include USB ports, DC ports, and typical household outlets. Most generators also have input ports for AC household charging, DC vehicle charging, and charging via solar. It’s not a complicated task, but before purchasing, just confirm that the generator has both the input and output ports that you require.
- Functionality: How easy is the generator to use day-to-day? If you’re going to use it on roadtrips, does it have comfortable handles to move it from place to place? Smaller backup generators have integrated flashlights and can jumpstart cars – certainly a worthwhile addition when you’re stuck on the side of the road. Think through your own needs to make sure your generator will fit your lifestyle.
Alright, let’s dig in to some of the best solar generators available on the market today. Since most of our readers are likely looking for an alternative to gas-powered generators, we’ve focused in on larger (1000+ watt-hour) systems initially, with information on smaller options further down.
Best Portable Solar Generator
GoalZero Yeti 1400 Lithium Portable Solar Generator
GoalZero Yeti 1400 Lithium Quick Specs
- Capacity: 1425 Wh
- Battery Type/ Weight: Lithium-Ion, 43.7 lbs
- Includes Panels? No, but can add the GoalZero Boulder 100 Briefcase Panel for extra fee
- Pros: Lightweight and easy to transport, Wifi Connection
- Cons: Higher Price
GoalZero Yeti 1400 Lithium Review
GoalZero is at the forefront of the portable solar generator industry and the lithium version of their Yeti 1400 takes the sweetness to a new level with lithium batteries and Wifi capability.
First, let’s talk about the pros – of which there are quite a few. The Yeti 1400’s 1425 watt-hours of capacity is one of the largest options when looking at solar generators. With 1425 Wh, you can charge your phones, turn on lights, and power up some appliances with a bit of power to spare. Whereas a larger battery capacity like this would typically entail a very heavy generator if you used lead-acid batteries, the Yeti 1400 uses lightweight lithium-ion technology, allowing the weight to be cut down to just under 44 pounds, making it much easier to transport with your own two hands. You can easily just throw it in the back of the SUV for a camping trip or tailgating, or bring it inside and place it on the kitchen table if the power goes out.
The benefits of lithium batteries doesn’t just stop at weight. Compared to the typical lead-acid batteries (which, as we mentioned above, can only be safely discharged down to 50% or so), you can use 80% or more of lithium batteries’ capacity. That means, for the Yeti you’ve got about 1,140 watt-hours of power available at full charge.
Lithium batteries also tend to last longer than lead-acid batteries. All this lets you get more bang for your buck. The only real downside is that you’ve got to put out a few more bucks for lithium tech. And at around $1800, the GoalZero is certainly one of the more expensive options on our list.
At this price, you get a pretty standard 1,500 watt pure sine wave inverter that can handle 3,000 watts of surge electricity (read up more on inverters and surge power below). As the inverter is a pure sine wave inverter, you’ll be able to charge sensitive electronics (like CPAP machines, medical equipment, and some laptops) safely.
For ease of use, you also get numerous DC and AC outlets in varying styles (2 standard household plugs, 4 USB outlets, 1 car plug, etc) and 3 different inlet options. Solar panels aren’t included, but you can throw in a GoalZero Boulder 100 Solar Briefcase with your generator for a couple hundred bucks more. Alternately, you can just buy your own portable solar panel and save some cash. The Yeti 1400 Lithium comes with a 12 month warranty – not terrible but shorter than a few others on our list.
If the Yeti 1400 Lithium is a bit over your priceline, GoalZero manufacturers an entire line of storage options in almost every size, from the tiny Flip 10 Power Banks to keep your cell phone topped off, to the mid-sized Yeti 150, 400, and 1250 (which uses AGM batteries).
The GoalZero Yeti 1400 Lithium backup generator is a top of the line product. It’s lightweight, high-quality, and looks great to boot. The company markets towards the outdoors crowd that wants an easily transportable, rugged power source and they’ve met with great success, with retailers like REI and Cabela’s carrying their products.
If you’re constantly on the move and are looking for a solar generator that can power your tools, appliances, and phones, you can’t go wrong – as long as you don’t mind shelling out the cash. Get More Information about the GoalZero Yeti 1400 Generator and Check Price at Amazon
Best All-In-One Solar Generator
Wagan ePower Cube 1500 Plus
Wagan ePower Cube 1500 Plus Quick Specs
- Capacity: 1200 Wh
- Battery Type/ Weight: Lead-Acid AGM/Gel Hybrid, 122 pounds
- Includes Panels? Yes (80 watts spread across 5 small panels)
- Pros: Integrated solar panels!
- Cons: Heavy, Flimsy housing, Might need supplementary panel with heavy usage
Wagan ePower Cube 1500 Plus Review
Wagan’s ePower Cube series (which includes the 1500 Plus and the smaller 1500) is an amazingly-designed piece of equipment. Everything you need to both capture and store your own solar electricity is contained within a single unit about the size of a cooler. Just wheel the generator out in the sun then flip and slide the panels open to start charging. It’s a simple as that. No wires to fiddle with and no other solar panels to worry about.
Wagan, a company focused on all sorts of gadgets for your car, energy, and health needs (and which can be found in stores like Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond), clearly took their time designing and developing this kit.
The generator comes with a 100 amp-hour AGM/Gel hybrid lead-acid battery. As you might have noticed, using lead-acid batteries keeps the cost low compared to lithium, but adds weight.
At 122 pounds, this thing is heavy! It looks like a cooler and it’s got wheels, but you’ll need a buddy to help put it in your vehicle or bring it upstairs. This isn’t Wagan’s fault – lead-acid batteries are simply heavy pieces of equipment. If you’re looking for less weight, go for the lithium GoalZero generator above – which clocks in at less than half the weight (and more power to boot!)
However, with this drawback comes a much lower price, at less than $1000. Certainly a steal, especially considering that it already comes with 80 watts of solar panels. When looking at $ per watt-hour cost, the Wagan ePower Cube beats almost all the competition.
While the integrated panels are certainly a sweet perk, 80 watts isn’t all that much power, and it’ll probably take a couple days to fully charge your battery. An 80 watt solar panel in Denver, CO, for example, will produce about 300 watt-hours each day (according to NREL’s PVWatts) – so it’d take about a day and half to fully recharge your generator if used down to 50% capacity (the recommended draw for lead-acid).
If you’re planning on using your solar generator frequently, you might want to consider an auxiliary solar panel to charge the battery more quickly. Thankfully, the generator can accommodate two additional 100 watt solar panels, for a combined capacity of 280 watts – more than enough to quickly get you back up and going.
Unfortunately, some buyers have reported that the plastic housing can be flimsy or weak, with some units even cracking during shipping (no surprise as the unit is so heavy). It would certainly be annoying to return your newly-purchased generator due to damage, but at the Wagan’s low price point, it’s probably worth trying it out.
If you’re looking for the easiest set-up for the lowest cost, the Wagan ePower Cube is a great option to consider. Get More Information about the Wagan ePower Cube 1500 Plus and Check Price at Amazon
Best Solar Generator for Price
Kohler enCube 1.8 Solar Generator
Kohler enCUBE18 Quick Specs
- Capacity: 1200 Wh
Kohler enCUBE18 Review
If you’re looking for a simple solution to your energy needs, Kohler’s got your covered. Their enCube1.8 is a basic-yet-burly piece of equipment that stores 1200 watt-hours of electricity at just over $1,000, a great deal for those who just need backup power without any of the fancy trimmings.
You’ve probably seen Kohler’s faucets as you walk down Home Depot’s kitchen aisle, but the company produces generators as well, from small portable options for tailgating to massive backup systems that can power your entire home. At 1200 watt-hours, the enCube is one of their smaller generators and the only battery-based option they manufacture. 1200 watt-hours is still more than enough to power many of your appliances and you can even zap your food in the microwave or blow dry your hair if you want to.
The beauty of the Kohler enCube is its simplicity. The device really is a battery/inverter on wheels, without much adornment or any accessories. There’s no Wifi, there’s no solar panels, there’s no integrated lights.
Like the Wagan above, Kohler uses an AGM lead-acid battery in their enCube to keep costs low, which means greater weight (109 pounds) and less usable power when compared to lithium options. Like the Wagan, it’s got wheels for ease of transport, but you’ll probably want a buddy to help put it in your truck bed or bring it inside so you don’t blow out your back unnecessarily.
A simple LCD screen on the front tells you the battery voltage and power output, and 6 different output ports allow you to charge USB, AC, or DC gadgets. Turn the generator around, and you’ve got a positive and negative input to charge the system, and dedicated solar inputs as well (MC4 connections, the standard connection for most solar panels, meaning you don’t need an adapter).
The name “enCube 1.8” is somewhat misleading, as the device can really only handle 1.8 kilowatts of electricity for 10 minutes before it starts to overheat. In reality, it can handle 1440 watts of continuous draw and 3600 watts of momentary surge (pretty good compared to others on our list).
If you’re looking to keep all your solar generator equipment under the same brand umbrella, Kohler also sells two different solar panels to charge your generator: a 60 watt folding panel and a larger 150 watt panel. Kohler also manufacturers a panel-to-generator extension cord if you need to place your solar panels further from the battery, and a parallel connector to connect 2 solar panels simultaneously (though these are both common pieces of solar equipment which you can find just about anywhere).
Kohler’s enCube gets our “best buy” award for their well-made product as well as their incredible warranty – a full 3 years. That’s 3x longer than GoalZero offers. Get More Information about the Kohler enCube1.8 Solar Generator and Check Price at Amazon
Other Solar Powered Generators to Consider
The above options are pretty sweet, but they’re all fairly large. If you’re interested in solar generators that are a little smaller and more portable, we’ve got you covered too. All of the options below enjoy great customer reviews and all are either very cost-effective or a unique package that you can’t find elsewhere. Take a look and see which one fits your needs! Let’s start with the largest and go from there…
Peppermint Energy Forty2 Pro
Peppermint Energy started as a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for their solar generator “briefcase” – an all-in-one product containing the solar panels, battery, and inverter that you can simply open up and leave in the sun.
Today, you can find Peppermint Energy’s products on Amazon. They produce two different offerings, the 1,000 watt-hour Forty2 Pro and the huge 2,000 watt-hour Forty2 Pro+. As you can see, these are pretty big solar generators – and at 2 feet x 3 feet the briefcase itself is pretty big too. It’s an awesome, compact, all-in-one design similar to the Wagan ePower Cube above, but suffers from an extremely high sticker price. Still, it’s a pretty slick product. Imagine pulling that briefcase out at a meeting! Check out the Peppermint Energy Forty2 Pro+ on Amazon
Simpliphi Big Genny and Little Genny
Simpliphi is known mainly for their lithium batteries for home energy storage, but they actually started out by manufacturing portable, ultra-rugged battery backup kits for the film industry.
If you’re out in the wild and know you’re going to get banged, beat up, and left out in the rain and sun, their 1,140 Wh Big Genny or 296 Wh Little Genny might be exactly what you need. The battery and inverter are contained within a bright yellow, heavy-duty, water resistant case with wheels and a handle and which can slide underneath a seat.
The Big/Little Genny Emergency Kit also comes with a 200 watt/80 watt folding solar panel so you don’t have to drive back into town to recharge. They’re not as easily accessible as others on our list (you can’t find them on Amazon), but if you’re going to be out in the elements, it might be worth searching it out. Check out the Simpliphi Big Genny and Little Genny
Jackery 500Wh Portable Solar Generator
Solar generator manufacturer Jackery probably isn’t a company you’ve heard of yet, but they’re growing fast. You can find them on Amazon and at outdoor retailer Cabela’s, and they’ve just partnered with Honda to supply them with solar generators..
Their 500Wh backup generator is simplistic, rugged, and easy to move with a handle right on top. The generator comes in around $1.20 per watt-hour of capacity – more expensive than the similarly-sized Renogy offering below – but with 100Wh of more storage capacity as well. For an extra $350, you can tack on an ultra-portable 100 watt folding solar panel as well.
The generator enjoys great customer reviews and is pretty easy on the eyes too. Check out the Jackery Portable Solar Generator on Amazon
Renogy Rugged Power Pack
Renogy is a well-known manufacturer in the solar industry, mostly focusing on equipment for smaller installations for off-grid systems, RVs, etc. Their 400 watt-hour Rugged Power Pack is exactly what it sounds like: a small, portable battery pack that can be thrown in the trunk for that long weekend. About the size of a toaster (2 slice, not 4), it’ll keep your gadgets powered up and can even jumpstart your car if you need it. You can recharge the battery via solar, a household outlet, or car charger.
If you’re looking for a mid-sized solar generator for short-term use, Renogy’s Rugged Power Pack sees good reviews, is small and lightweight thanks to its lithium-ion battery, and looks pretty sleek too. Price hovers around $1.05 per watt-hour of capacity – one of the cheaper lithium options on our list. Check out the Renogy Rugged Power Pack on Amazon
Chafon 346Wh Generator
At $1.04 per watt-hour, Chafon’s 346 Wh generator has even the Renogy above beat and still enjoys excellent user reviews. Charge it via your car, wall outlet, or solar (120 watt max) and you’re good to go. And as it’s smaller than the generators above, you’ll be on the go faster thanks to shorter charge times.
This small device comes with 3 AC household outlets, 4 USB outlets, and 4 outlets for DC appliances. You can also safely jumpstart your car and it comes with an integrated flashlight. All this to say, at this price and size, it’s perfect to just throw in the back of your car for a road trip or a couple nights camping in the wild. Check out Chafon’s 346Wh Generator on Amazon
Souaki 222Wh Portable Power Pack
If you’re looking for a small, cheap generator to keep your devices topped off when you can’t rely on having steady power, take a look at the Souaki 222Wh Power Pack (it’s so small they don’t even call it a generator). At this size, you can’t expect to run your microwave, but you’ll have more than enough power to charge you and your partner’s iPhones, a couple LED lights, and your camera. And at $0.85 per watt-hour of capacity, this is the cheapest of the smaller generators on our list.
Even at this low price, customers note that it’s well-constructed and sturdy. Adding on a folding solar panel from Souaki – you’d probably want the 65 watt option – and you’re ready to go off-grid semi-indefinitely. Check out the Souaki 222Wh Portable Power Pack on Amazon
Renogy Phoenix All-In-One
If you’re looking for an ultra-portable, ultra-small power pack, Renogy’s got you covered with the dramatically-titled Phoenix. Similar to the Peppermint Energy Forty2 above, this briefcase-inspired solar generator has everything you need in one ready-to-use stylish package – at a much more stomachable price (just under $500).
At just 190 watt-hours of storage, the Phoenix is the smallest backup option on our list. However, with this small size and integrated solar-battery combo, it’s also the most portable on our list, weighing just 12 pounds. While you’re paying more for the convenience and cool-factor, it’s a perfect fit if you want to avoid the hassle of keeping up with a separate generator, solar panel, and wiring. Check out the Renogy All-In-One Solar Kit on Amazon
Choosing the Right Components for your Solar Backup Generator
Now that you’ve got a basic idea of how solar generators work and what’s on the market, let’s take a deeper dive into the 3 main components of all solar generators: the battery, the solar panels, and the inverter.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re hopefully already familiar with the two types of batteries manufacturers use in solar backup generators: lead-acid batteries and lithium-ion. Each type has its own benefits and drawbacks.
The solar industry has used lead-acid batteries for energy storage for decades. Thanks to their ongoing popularity, they’re affordable, sturdy, and reliable. However, with all these benefits, there are a couple major downsides. First off – as you might have noticed with some of the generators above – lead-acid batteries are heavy. Really heavy. A lead-acid battery will typically weigh twice as much as a similarly-sized lithium battery.
Secondly, you can only really use about 50% of your battery’s total capacity. If you regularly use more than that, you run the risk of permanently damaging your battery and it’ll die a quick death. So, if you buy a 500 watt-hour lead-acid battery, you really only have about 250 watt-hours of usable capacity. In the energy industry, this is known as a battery’s Depth of Discharge, or DoD. The higher the percentage, the more usable storage the battery offers.
Lastly, lead-acid batteries can off-gas dangerous chemicals, so they have vents on top of the battery to release that gas (you’ve probably noticed the vents on top of your car’s battery). Vented batteries can’t be placed on their sides and they can’t safely be used in enclosed areas – two limitations that aren’t so good for solar generators.
With this in mind, solar backup generators use sealed lead-acid batteries, which are designed to prevent off-gassing and are therefore safe to bring indoors and place in any position you’d like. Sealed batteries can either be Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM), Gel, or a hybrid of the two. While their internal construction is different, the end result is the same: a lead-acid battery that can be brought inside and set on your kitchen table. Now that’s more like it!
Lithium-ion batteries are the counterpoint to lead-acid. Everything lead-acid batteries are, lithium-ion is the opposite. Lead-acid is heavy, lithium is extremely lightweight. Lead-acid batteries need to be vented, lithium is naturally much safer. Lead-acid’s DoD is quite poor (around 50%), while lithium-ion generally enjoys 80% DoD, giving you much more usable energy for the same nameplate capacity.
That’s quite a few benefits, right? However, the opposites don’t stop there. Unfortunately, while lead-acid is fairly cheap, lithium costs quite a bit more. Looking at $/Wh of the generators above, expect about 40% higher costs for lithium.
Even at this higher price, manufacturers are finding lithium technology’s lighter weight and greater portability easily outweigh the premium cost – especially for the smaller generators. Which battery technology to purchase depends on your own needs, but if you can swing the high sticker price, solar generators with lithium batteries are going to give you more bang for your buck (thanks to their better DoD) and are much easier to throw in the back of your car – meaning you’ll probably use it more frequently too.
Your solar backup generator cannot function without a power source. If you’re looking for an off-grid solution, either for emergencies or out in the wilderness, solar panels can cover all your needs. And nowadays panels are cheaper than ever.
Cost varies depending on type and size. If you lead an active lifestyle and your main reason to get a solar generator is to have energy on the go, you’ll probably be interested in semi-flexible, foldable solar panels. These can be more expensive than your ordinary solar panel, but have the convenience of portability and ease-of-use.
Most encase the solar panels in a sturdy cloth and/or plastic covering to protect the fragile solar cells so they can withstand bumpy trips in the trunk of your car, squashed inside a backpack, or left out in the elements during a storm. Foldable solar panels come in sizes up to about 100 watts – typically big enough for all but the largest solar generators. As these panels are designed for on-the-go users, they typically come with integrated output wires and holes or loops at the corners to hang from backpacks or tents.
You can find dozens of manufacturers – including many of the companies above – making foldable solar panels, so just hop online and do some research.
If you’re looking for emergency power and plan on using your solar generator at home most of the time, consider saving some cash and purchasing a rigid solar panel with a sturdy stand. With their glass fronts and rigid aluminum frames, these solar panels are heavier and bulkier than the flexible, folding solar panels above, but they’re also a bit cheaper as well.
If you’ve already got a solar panel, you can buy your own mounting stand, like the Renogy’s Adjustable Solar Panel Tilt Mount Brackets so you don’t have to buy a completely new setup.
If you’re looking for an easier system, take a look at rigid solar “suitcases” with stand hardware pre-attached and ready to go, like Eco-Worthy’s 120 watt folding panel. If the power goes out, simply pull the panels out of the garage, open them up, set them in the sun, and plug in your solar generator. It really is that easy.
The size of your solar panels really depends on how much electricity you need and your location. If you’ve got a big backup generator (1,000+ watt-hours) and live in a perpetually rainy area, you’ll need more solar panels to charge up your system in an acceptable time frame (typically a day to a day and a half).
Like sizing your generator, best practice is to size your solar panel on your estimated daily electricity use. Say you’ve got a 1,000 Wh generator, but you only regularly use 200 Wh of electricity each day. You could safely purchase a solar panel that can produce 200 Wh every day or so and come out okay.
If you’ll mostly use your generator during the summer months, a 50 watt solar panel can easily produce 200 watt-hours/day on a nice sunny day. Just do the math and figure out the smallest solar panel that can fit your needs. The National Renewable Energy Lab’s PVWatts Calculator gives you all the information you need by estimating the amount of electricity a solar panel (of any size) can produce in any area of the US. Very useful.
The last main component of your solar generator is your inverter. Just to run through it again, the inverter converts the DC electricity produced by your solar panel and stored in your battery into AC electricity used by most of our home gadgets and appliances.
Just like any electronic gadget, there are cheap inverters and premium options. With solar generators, the inverter is already completely integrated into the whole system, so you don’t really get to decide what inverter you want. However, there are two main components you should be aware of before deciding on your generator:
Pure sine wave vs modified sine wave: You might’ve seen some solar generators boasting that they have a “pure sine wave inverter”, What the heck is that? AC electricity is constantly moving back and forth and scientists measure that movement, known as frequency, in hertz. In the US, our frequency is 60 Hz.
Pure sine wave inverters perfectly match that gradual up and down slope. It’s more complicated to exactly duplicate that pattern, so pure sine wave inverters are more complicated and therefore more costly. Some sensitive electronics like CPAP machines, medical gizmos, and some laptops can only run off inverters that produce pure sine wave electricity.
Most electronics though, can run on modified sine wave electricity – basically lower quality electricity. Modified sine wave inverters are cheaper than pure sine, so if you’re on a budget certainly consider this.
If you rely on equipment that needs pure sine wave electricity, then you’ve really got no other option. However, if you’re just looking to power up your electronics and run your blender, modified sine wave will likely do you just fine.
Inverter Power Rating: You also need to watch for the inverter’s power rating, measured in wattage. This is the amount of power that your inverter can spit out at any given moment. A 1500 watt inverter can provide 1500 watts of continuous power. A 500 watt inverter can provide 500 watts. Pretty simple, right? Figuring out how big your inverter needs to be is easy. We already calculated an example at the beginning, but let’s run through it a bit more in-depth. First, find your gadget with the highest wattage and add the wattage of all the gadgets you’ll be using at the same time. For example:
- Portable Refrigerator: 60 watts
- LEDs (5): 50 watts
- Phone Charger: 5 watts
- Hair Dryer: 1000 watts
- Total = 1,115 watts
So you’d need an inverter that can handle at least 1,115 watts of electricity. However, that’s not all. You probably noticed that the generators above also tout the “surge power” they can handle, typically about 2x as high as their rated power. Some appliances need a huge burst of electricity initially to get going. Without that surge protection, you’d fry up your inverter in half a millisecond. Unless you have a very surge-heavy appliance, most inverters can handle any surge power your appliances need.
And that’s it! You now know everything you need to go out and find that perfect solar generator for your life! Whether you’re prepping for the inevitable zombie apocalypse or just want to keep the lights on in your camper van, just remember to calculate your energy needs then buy the solar generator to match. After that, you can rest easy knowing your life is powered by the sun!
Top 3 Best Solar Powered Generators for 2018
Did you find this information and our picks for the best solar generators in 2018 helpful? Have any questions about solar powered generators that we didn’t answer? Let us know in the comments below.
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