Small Solar Can Give Big Results…If You Play It Right.

Call now! Operators are waiting! small solar power

You’ve probably seen the campy ads hawking small solar power systems and “solar generators”. These ads make some remarkable claims and the manufacturers are deliberately vague on the technical specifications of these products. They further fuzz up the facts with unrealistic depictions of hypothetical situations. small solar power

I especially get a chuckle from the TV commercial showing happy, cheerful kids playing a board game in a large, well-lit house during a power outage and raging storm outside. The entire house is powered by, we’re supposed to believe, the advertised product which is a small battery pack weighing almost nothing and fits under the bed. Are small solar power systems worthwhile, or are they junk? As anyone with at least one functioning brain cell should suspect, the truth lies somewhere in the middle grey area.

Pictures are better than words. small solar power

This video was recently posted to the Off Grid Ham YouTube channel. It’s just over three minutes long and demonstrates the power of small scale solar.

Small scale solar has been addressed on this blog before, and my advice is still the same. If you are looking to take amateur radio off grid with solar, your best option is a purpose built home brew system made from components that you personally selected for your application.

Furthermore, a DIY system is almost always less expensive. If you don’t care about cost and just want a plug-and-play “solar generator,” then by all means go drop several hundred dollars for a glorified battery in a box (you’ll lay out another few hundred on a matching panel to charge it). To be fair, it’s a very cool looking box but in the end you’re only paying for looks so in that regard you’re getting your money’s worth. small solar power

I’m not knocking the functionality of these products. They actually do work very well if used within reasonable expectations. I’m sour on them because of their breathtaking price tags and marketing that vastly oversells their capabilities. The ads are targeted to non-technical people who will not bother or know to ask the right questions. Technically-savvy people who know what to look for will have a hard time finding even basic specifications such as amp-hour ratings on batteries. The information is usually dumbed down with generic statements like, “runs a laptop for twelve hours!” small solar power

The bottom line: They work, if you keep it real.

small solar power

Off Grid Ham original photo ©2017

The bottom line is that small solar power systems do work, up to a point. Forget about powering your house through a storm with anything that will fit under a bed, unless there is physics-defying alien technology out there I haven’t heard of yet. But if you need to run a QRP radio, charge up your handhelds, and have some juice leftover for other needs, a little 50-150 watt solar setup paired with a modest battery should suit the job just fine. And you don’t need to plop down six hundred-plus dollars to do it.

In the video a continuous 50 watt load is easily supported by the small system. It gets better: The system in the video is overbuilt for a 50 watt load. I used it for demonstration purposes, but you could get by with much less.

When less is more.

I get questions from amateurs with hopes of building large, powerful off grid power systems. These goals are valid in some situations, but most hams do not need as much as they think. Radio amateurs looking to go off grid would serve themselves well by doing some homework and building their own small solar power system. Prior to running out and spending big bucks on a high-powered system, or an over priced “solar generator,” take a serious look at what you’re really going for. Off Grid Ham has several articles that will guide you through simple, inexpensive, and effective solar power. The internet is also brimming with great DIY ideas too. Use your head before the credit card and don’t get sucked in by the marketing hustle solar product manufacturers will try to feed you. You’ll be very happy with the results.


This Off Grid Ham article gives extensive details, schematic, and parts list for the small solar power plant in the YouTube video.

This Off Grid Ham article shows you how to build a cheap, light, and easy to build DC power pack.

Lastly, The Off Grid Ham 100 Watts for $300 is the most popular project on this website and is a great value for the money.



4 thoughts on “Small Solar Can Give Big Results…If You Play It Right.

  1. Randall Krippner

    I’m glad you brought this up because I’ve been bombarded of late with ads pushing “solar generators” from closeout places like Woot (Amazon’s discount service), and I imagine a lot of other people are getting this pushed at them too. To be fair some of them are pretty nice and are probably genuinely useful, but they aren’t “generators” and they aren’t “solar”. They’re just a battery in a box. They still have to be charged somehow, either via your house electric service or an optional solar panel that costs as much or more than the “solar generator” does. The ads can be ridiculously misleading.

    There’s nothing wrong with these “solar generators” as long as people realize what they actually are, which is basically nothing more than a battery in a box, and that they understand that their capacities are seriously limited. I had someone ask me about one of those setups once and he actually got mad at me when I started to actually do some calculations to point out to him that, at best, it would only run a few lights and maybe a low amperage appliance, not most of his house and certainly not his furnace, refrigerator and freezer. The one he was looking at couldn’t handle 120V loads in excess of something like 1.5 amps and the average refrigerator draws about 7, I think.

    Speaking of batteries, I got a new one for my FT-818. I got a “real deal” as they say on a close out on some 12V UPS replacement batteries, gel-cells. I’d have to go look up the actual numbers but according to my calculations one of them fully charged should keep the 818 going for days and would even keep the 450 going for a significant amount of time as long as I don’t transmit too much. It’s a bit bulky and heavy for backpacking but great for throwing into the trunk of the car with my fishing gear.

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Well, you pretty well summed up the theme of my article! My gripe is not the devices themselves. The problem is the ridiculous over-the-top claims and high prices. One outfit is selling a “battery in a box” for $300. It’s a freakin’ 13 amp-hour battery! Yes, it’s a lithium battery. But even then, wow. You can get a 13-15 amp-hour lithium battery and find a box for it for a lot less than three hundred bucks.

      1. Randall Krippner

        Indeed yes! A LOT less. The one I just picked up is a deep cycle “gel cell” rated at 18 amp-hour. It’s about 7″ x 3″ x 7″ and weighs about 11 lbs. Too big for backpacking but perfect for me for throwing in the car to power my gear when I go fishing. Cost me a whopping $28 and I’ve seen what looks like the same one selling on Amazon for about $36. I just chuck the 818, loop antenna, battery, etc. into a duffle bag, along with the laptop, and set up on a picnic table or take along a small folding table at a remote little lake or river. The Lenovo laptop battery lasts about 5 hours, and the gel cell will run the 818 for a lot longer than that.

        Or I will once the weather warms up a bit. It hasn’t gotten much about 50 here yet and still freezing overnight. I’m getting cabin fever and one of the few things I can do safely is go out into the countryside and play radio or go fishing.

        1. Chris Warren Post author

          If people knew the markup on commercially made “solar generators” and how easy & inexpensive it is to DIY, their heads would explode.

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