I’m sure you’ve seen those portable solar panel kit systems that give you everything you need in one package, for one price, and appear to be a complete plug-and-play solution. I’m going to explain why solar panel kit systems are not the best choice for the off grid ham.
Although I will not be referring to specific brands or models, all the information in this article is derived from actual products that are easily available on the market right now and are very popular with radio amateurs and preppers/survivalists.
There are two basic kinds of solar panel kit systems: The inexpensive, cheaply built models found at home improvement & hardware stores, and the higher end “solar generators” that are very well made but come with breathtaking price tags that can go well over four digits.
The main problem solar panel kit systems present to the off grid ham, no matter how much they cost or how well they are made, is low power output for the money spent.
Good looks really are skin deep.
One popular “best solar generator” retails between $439-$459. All you get is a 33 amp hour battery and an inverter wrapped in a really slick looking portable enclosure with a built in digital voltmeter and some outlets. The recommended 20 watt solar panel, which is not included, will vacuum another $200 out of your wallet. That’s right folks: A solar generator that does not include a solar panel.
There is more bad news: A 20 watt panel on a 33 amp hour battery translates into really slow charge times. There are mathematical formulas for figuring out how much solar you need for a given size battery, but a general rule of thumb that has worked well for me is that you should have at minimum one watt of solar for every amp hour of battery. Therefore, the 20 watt panel is 40% too small. This rule assumes that you are not letting the battery go completely dead before applying a charge.
Solar generator: Marketing word games.
I must debunk a ridiculous advertising scam: Solar generator is a foggy marketing term used to make ordinary photovoltaic stuff sound better than it really is. There is nothing about a “solar generator” that makes it special or technically superior to other, ordinary solar panel systems. Do not take the bait and pay more on the premise that you are getting more, or better. The manufacturers are simply playing word games.
What you need to know: “Solar generators” are usually very well made and have nice features such as USB ports and integrated inverters but sell themselves mostly on clever advertising language and stylish presentation as opposed to actual performance. For $650 I would expect something with a decent charge time that can do more than support small electronic devices. Considering what really counts, overall power capacity and solar charging capability, solar generators do not even come close to giving the radio amateur a good value for their dollar.
The bargain systems: You get what you pay for.
Another very popular 45 watt kit system retails for $199.00 and is frequently on sale for $129.00. Even when on sale, I would not go for it. These solar panel kit systems include three low end fifteen watt panels, a junk charge controller, and some lights you do not need. You’ll still have to add $50-$80 for a battery.
On the positive side, the 45 watt solar capacity is adequate. With careful power management you should be able to stay ahead of a 33 amp hour battery.
What you need to know: The budget-priced solar kit systems are ok for kids’ science or scouting projects, occasional ham radio use such as Field Day, or experimenting. For powering mission critical communications, do you really want to put your faith in something that came from a retailer famous for cheap throwaway stuff?
As an off grid ham, you need something that is long term reliable and produces a respectable amount of power. As a regular everyday person who works hard for your dollars, you want good value for your money. These two goals are not mutually exclusive but neither the expensive solar generators nor the budget-priced low end solar kit systems are going to satisfy both needs.
The Off Grid Ham 100 Watts for $300 Solar Power Plant detailed in my last article is an excellent alternative that checks all the boxes. It’s only a little more costly than the budget systems. Even if you add an inverter you’ll still come in well under what a solar generator costs while getting a lot more watts for your cash.
Key Points–What You Need To Know.
- Solar panel kit systems are underpowered for most off grid ham purposes.
- Budget priced solar panel kit systems sold at home improvement stores are not of good enough build quality for serious off grid ham use.
- Higher priced “solar generators” are good quality but do not produce enough power to justify their cost.
- Solar generator is a marketing & advertising term that has absolutely no special technical meaning and should not be taken to indicate any advantage over traditional solar panel based systems.
My purpose is not to belittle anyone’s decision to buy these products. I do want others to have a clear understanding of where solar panel kit systems fall short.
Based on what I see posted on internet forums and YouTube, and through my personal conversations with other hams, it’s clear that too many radio amateurs, survivalists, and preppers are under the misguided belief that solar panel kit systems are their only and/or best option.
Look beyond the price tags and attractive packaging and sales hustle. Ask yourself: What am I really getting for my money? Is this the best I can do?
Another excellent post, Chris. Beware of the marketing guru’s, regardless the product. Most are just out for our money, and it always behooves us to do our homework and understand the basics involved in the product/service. Otherwise we have no one to blame for a poor choice but ourselves. I know that makes it difficult, but that’s the bottom line. It’s always the weakest link in the chain that produces the problem, and in the case of emergency power, a problem can quickly lead to a life-threatening situation. Thanks for your valuable input on these various important topics, Chris, it helps us all become more knowledgeable. But it also reinforces the idea that we are all responsible for our design/purchasing decisions. It’s not enough to just read labels. If we go off-grid for a portion or all our our energy needs, we are responsible for providing a reliable power supply to meet those basic needs- be it for light, heat, water, communications, whatever. The first consideration is identifying what we need, the second is cost, and the better we understand the fundamentals technologically, the better we can compare alternatives available in the marketplace. It ain’t easy! Thanks again.
As I mentioned in my article, I am not looking to make anyone feel foolish for having one of these kits. I simply want to point out what the manufacturers will not admit and encourage radio amateurs to approach all their buying decisions with a critical and deliberate attitude. Ham radio has a very deep pool of talent and technical knowledge, so there is no reason for anyone to go it alone or rely on information from sources that do not necessarily place the customer’s best interests first. Thanks very much for your reply; I hope you’ll stop by Off Grid Ham again…and bring a friend!
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