If you’re heading out on a weekend camping trip or live in a campervan full-time, you’ll need a way to power your devices. Whether that’s a laptop computer, a few smartphones, or a 12-volt refrigerator, electricity these days is a lifeblood. A solar generator, or power station, is a great way to get some juice while off-the-grid.
Solar powered generators are quieter than gas-powered generators, don’t stink, and don’t require you to lug around a bunch of fuel. They’re also easy! You don’t have to set up an entire electrical system in your vehicle. Just charge up that solar generator using solar panels, your car’s cigarette lighter, or a household power outlet and you’re good to go.
There are solar generators to fit all types of budgets and needs. Some work perfectly for smaller devices, like a laptop, and others are powerful enough to charge a fridge.
The type of solar generator you choose will have a lot to do with your personal usage and needs.
What is a solar generator?
A solar generator is basically a box that has all the components of a full electrical system. There’s a battery, inverter, charge controller, battery monitors and wires. A solar generator takes power from the sun (using solar panels) and converts it to electricity you can plug right into. Keep in mind that you don’t need solar panels to charge a solar generator. Most can also be charged with your car’s 12-volt electrical system (cigarette lighter) or a wall outlet in a house or RV park.
Solar generators come in a variety of sizes depending on exactly what you need to charge. For example, a fully-charged Yeti Goal Zero 400 can charge a smartphone 20+ times, and keep a portable fridge running for 7 hours. The larger Inergy Kodiak 1100 charges a smartphone for over 100 hours, a laptop for over 20 hours, a fridge for over 33 hours, and an electric blanket for 14 hours.
A portable solar generator is great for people who like a way to charge devices on a camping trip, or for van lifers who don’t want to install a complicated electrical system.
They’re also very popular for people who need to run a medical device, like a CPAP, when they’re camping. Even the smallest portable generator can power a CPAP device for up to 8 hours.
The benefits of using a portable solar generator while camping
- Environmentally-friendly. A solar generator can be fully-charged using the sun, which makes it extremely environmentally-friendly. No need to use expensive fossil fuels, like gasoline, to run this generator.
- Saves money. Buying enough gasoline to power a generator can take a lot of money, especially with gas prices going up these days. A solar generator may seem like a lot of money up front, but you’ll save in the long run.
- Very quiet. We’ve all heard those noisy gasoline-powered generators in campgrounds. Solar generators make zero noise, so are the perfect campground companion.
- Smell and fume free. Who wants to sit in the middle of a beautiful forest and smell fumes from gasoline? Solar powered generators have zero stink.
- Portable. Want to go sit on a rock with a view and get some work done on your computer? A portable solar generator can be light enough to carry to an ideal spot.
- Doesn’t require an elaborate setup. Some people spend a considerable amount of time building out an electrical system for a campervan. A solar generator requires no setup. It comes completely self-contained and ready to power your devices.
- You can use them indoors. Solar powered generators are great to use indoors as they don’t have any fumes like a gas-powered generator. You can safely use one to power your computer or fridge right inside your vehicle or tent.
The negatives of using a solar powered generator
- Slow to charge. Charging up your solar generator can take a significant amount of time. For example, the larger Yeti 1400 takes days to recharge using solar panels and 18 hours plugged into a household power outlet. However, the Inergy Kodiak 1100 claims it charges in just five hours, so pick the one that’s right for you.
- More expensive. A solar generator is built for convenience rather than for price. A diy solar setup is much cheaper, but harder to install.
- Not as easy to fix. If one thing goes wrong in your solar generator, it’s much harder to fix. You might even have to replace the entire thing. If you set up your own electrical system and the battery goes out, all you have to do is replace the battery rather than the entire unit.
- Less power. The battery housed inside a solar generator doesn’t pack as much punch as a battery bank of deep-cycle leisure batteries. Some say the deep-cycle battery bank has eight to ten times the power as a solar generator.
Tips on picking the right solar generator
There are a few things to keep in mind before picking a portable solar generator for your campervan’s power needs. Here, we’ll show you what to think about.
- The type of battery. Solar generators come with two types of batteries. Some use a lithium battery, while others use lead acid. Lithium batteries are lighter, smaller, more efficient and more expensive. Lead batteries are much heavier, can’t go below a 50% charge, achieve fewer charges overall than a lithium battery, but are cheaper and easier to replace. Which battery you go with largely depends on your budget.
- The weight. Solar power stations can vary widely in terms of weight. Some are only 20 pounds, so can easily be lifted and moved around, but others pack up to 100 pounds and come with their own special cart for moving.
- The power capacity. It’s important to read the specs carefully when picking your power station. First, figure out what exactly you need to charge, and compare it with the amp hours on the solar generator. If you just need to charge a laptop and a few phones, you can get away with a smaller power station like a Yeti 400 or Jackery 500. But if you want to run a blender, power a fridge constantly, or run a bunch of lights, you want a more heavy duty power station like the Inergy Kodiak 1100 with more amp hours and a higher-capacity inverter.
- Does it come with an LCD display? If you’re concerned about how much juice is left in your power bank, you might want to pick one that comes with an LCD display. Some solar generators also come with an app so you can monitor right from your smartphone.
How to charge your portable solar generator
Solar generators can typically be charged three ways: with solar panels, a household outlet, or a 12-volt plug, like your car’s cigarette lighter.
Solar Panels: Solar panels are the most eco-friendly and off-grid way to charge your solar generator, but can also take the longest depending on the size of your power bank and the number and power of solar panels you use. For example, solar panels come in a wide range of watts, from 28 to 200. Be sure to check the number of inputs your generator has to figure out how many solar panels it can take at once.
Household outlet: A household outlet, or 110AC power, will charge your solar generator the fastest if you have access to one. If you’re living in a campervan, you can find 110AC power outlets at certain campgrounds and RV parks.
12-volt cigarette lighter: This is the least efficient way to charge your solar generator, but it works! If you’re on a long road trip, you can try plugging your generator into your car’s cigarette lighter. Beware, though, some generators can’t be charged this way, so be sure you read the owner’s manual on whichever generator you choose.
The best solar generators on the market in 2019
There are several companies on the market making high-quality solar generators. To keep things organized, we’ll start with the lower-power units and move up to units with higher capacities and inverters.
Yeti Goal Zero 400 (Lithium or Lead-Acid)
Many van lifers love this portable Yeti Goal Zero 400. Coming in at only 29 pounds, it packs enough punch to charge a smartphone over 20 times, a headlamp over 70 times, a laptop 3-5 times, or a small fridge for 7 hours. Campers also report this device can charge CPAP all night, no problem.
A variety of ports on the Yeti 400 can charge up to 7 devices at once, with a 300 watt continuous, 600-watt surge pure sine wave inverter. You can easily keep track of your power station’s capacity with a bright LCD display right on the front.
Need more power out of your generator? If you buy the lead-acid version, you can string other lead-acid batteries to the unit for a longe run-time.
According to Goal Zero, the Yeti 400 charges in five hours from a wall socket, 13 hours connected to your car’s cigarette lighter, and 8 hours from Goal Zero’s monocrystalline solar panels.
The Yeti 400 has one input port from which you can attach a solar panel. Yeti recommends using either a 50-watt or 100-watt solar panel to charge the Yeti in 1 to 2 days.
Here are the recommended solar panels. (other brands can be used, but you may have to purchase an adaptor)
Pros of the Yeti 400:
- Lightweight and portable, at only 29 pounds
- 180-day warranty for battery cells and 1-year warranty for Goal Zero products
- LCD display to monitor your power bank’s usage
- Faster charge time than larger units
Cons of the Yeti 400:
- The 12-volt charger is sold separately
- Battery has a capacity of only 33 amp hours, which some say is quite low
To learn more about the Yeti 400, check out this YouTube video:
Anker Powerhouse 400 (Lithium)
The Anker Powerhouse 400 claims it’s the smallest portable generator you’ll find on the market, and we have to agree. At only 9 pounds, this is a lot of power in a tiny package. The Anker Powerhouse has 434 watt-hours of power, enough to charge a laptop up to 6.5 times or recharge your phone 24 times.
This isn’t necessarily a solar generator – it’s recommended you charge this with a wall socket – but it does have an output that can be connected to a solar panel.
The Anker has a handy LCD display so you can monitor just how much juice your power pack has left.
Recommended solar panel:
- The lightest portable solar generator on the market – only 9 pounds!
- Useful to power small devices on a camping trip
- Reviewers say it works very well with a CPAP machine
- 18-month warranty
- Some say the digital display is hard to read
- Can be tough to charge with solar panels – you’ll need to find an adaptor
- Some reviewers say it has a hard time powering certain 12 volt devices
Jackery Explorer 500 solar generator (Lithium)
A bit more powerful than the Goal Zero Yeti 400, the Jackery Explorer is a 500 watt-hour solar generator than can charge a smartphone 40+ times, laptops 3-6 times, TVs over 3 hours, and mini-fridges for 9 hours. This device has a high-powered, built-in flashlight on the front, making it perfect for camping trips.
This solar generator is super-light, coming in at just a little over 12 pounds!
The Jackery Explorer can be charged with solar panels or plugged into a wall outlet, and takes 6-8 hours to charge fully.
Recommended solar panel:
- Very light, only 12.45 pounds
- High-powered flashlight on the front of the unit
- Rugged, with splash-proof exterior
- 2-year warranty
- None found
Inergy Kodiak 1100 (Lithium)
The Inergy Kodiak solar generator is an impressive device with a powerful inverter and battery capacity, and only weighs 20 pounds! This powerful portable power bank can charge a smartphone for over 100 hours, a laptop for over 20 hours, a fridge for over 33 hours, and an electric blanket for 14 hours.
Comes with a 1500 watt pure sine wave inverter that can surge up to 3000 watts.
This solar generator can be charged using solar panels, a wall socket or your car’s cigarette lighter. Charging times vary, with the wall outlet being fastest at 5 hours until full charge. Inergy says this is 50% faster than any other solar generator on the market.
Many van lifers, RVers and people who live off-grid rave about the Inergy Kodiak 1100.
We couldn’t find bad reviews anywhere, and if you want to try it for yourself, the 30-day money back guarantee is astounding.
Recommended solar panel:
- High capacity – can charge smartphones, laptops, fridges, microwaves, blenders, Instapots, power tools, etc
- Only 20 pounds
- Can be beefed up even more using lead acid or AGM batteries
- Fast charging – fully-charged from a wall outlet in 5 hours
- Great reviews and customer service
- 1-year warranty
- 30-day money back guarantee
Inergy has offered a special 20% DISCOUNT to The Wayward Home readers. To get this amazing discount, just enter the code “wayward” upon checkout.
CHECK PRICES ON INERGY’S WEBSITE
To learn more about the Inergy, check out this video:
Yeti Goal Zero 1400 (Lithium)
If you love Yeti products but want a more powerful solar generator than the Yeti 400, the next on the list is the Goal Zero Yeti 1400 lithium. This solar generator has three times the capacity of the Goal Zero 400 with 1425 watt-hours. This portable power bank can charge a smartphone 70+ times, a headlamp 230+ times, a laptop 23+ times or a portable fridge for over 23 hours. Like the Inergy Kodiak, the solar generator has a 1500 watt inverter with surge capacity up to 3000 watts.
This solar generator can either be charged in a wall outlet or with solar panels, but cannot be charged in your car’s cigarette lighter. It could damage the unit.
One major benefit of this device is it comes with an app, where you can monitor usage, turn on and off, and even control individual ports right from your smartphone.
If you want to move this generator around a lot, be prepared to lift 43 pounds.
Recommended solar panels:
- High capacity, and can charge a variety of devices, from smartphones, to power tools, to medical devices to microwaves
- Comes with an app so you can control the unit from afar
- Bright LCD display to accurately monitor your device’s usage
- 1-year warranty
- CANNOT BE CHARGED USING 12 VOLT CIGARETTE LIGHTER (could damage the unit)
- Takes a super long time to charge. 25 hours plugged into the wall and up to several days with solar panels
- Heavy, weighs 43 pounds
Solar generators are a great way to get some extra power for camping when you don’t feel like setting up an electrical system with individual components. Most of them can be charged three ways, which makes them handy for a variety of circumstances.
For smaller devices like smartphones and laptops, we’d recommend the Yeti Goal Zero 400 power station, but for larger needs, like to run a portable fridge, blender, power tools, etc., we’d highly recommend the Inergy Kodiak 1100.
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