After further review….
I’ve trash-talked “solar generators” before. Besides having a dumb marketing department name, solar generators are underpowered for what they cost. Furthermore, the claims made by some sellers of these devices are fantasy if not outright fraudulent.
At least that’s how it used to be. Lately, after further research and hearing from Off Grid Ham readers, I’ve softened my position on solar generators. Yeah, I still have some misgivings, but I’m starting to see at least some limited value to these devices. What changed? What happened?
That was then, this is now.
Technology and economies of scale, that’s what happened. As the technology improved and manufacturers rolled out more products, the cost came down. Mind you, these are still pricey devices. But compared to just a few years ago, things are looking better.
Solar generators are becoming more mainstream. Last summer when I was on vacation in Las Vegas, Nevada, the maintenance crew at the resort I was staying at was using several portable battery power units to operate industrial carpet cleaning machines and large fans. I assume they were using portable power because it was easier and safer than stretching extension cords a long distance across a casino floor. I estimate the floor cleaner pulled 15 amps, maybe a little more. It was an impressive and practical use of battery power.
So, it’s clear that solar generators are no longer gimmicky, obscure devices for hobbyists, outdoorsmen, and technogeeks.
For this analysis we will examine two similar solar generators from two different manufacturers, Jackery and Goal Zero. I chose these two because both are very well known names you’ve probably heard before and are readily available in the United States.
The Jackery Explorer 1000 has a 46 amp-hour lithium battery, a built in MPPT solar charge controller, a full sine wave inverter, a status meter, and a variety of DC outputs including USB ports. You also get an AC charger and car charger. At face value, it’s a pretty neat package. What can we reveal by picking this one apart?
For starters, there’s the $1099.00 USD price tag. At this price, your “solar generator” does not include a solar panel. A 100 watt solar panel will run an additional $299.00 USD, and they recommend you have two of them. So, to make your solar generator generate anything, you’ll have to add $598.00 USD to the $1099.00 base cost. For those keeping score, we’re up to $1697.00 USD for a fully operational off grid device.
The manufacturer data sheet states that the battery will charge 0%-80% from the AC adapter in 7 hours, 200 watts of solar in 8 hours, and the car charger in 14 hours. These are long charge times; the car charger is essentially useless. Add more solar panels to reduce solar charge times.
The Goal Zero Yeti 1000X has a retail price of $1299.95 USD. It has the same output options and similar capacity battery as Jackery. An AC charger is included. Goal zero describes their products as “power stations” that can be turned into “solar generators” by adding an optional solar panel. They offer several sizes of solar panels; the 200 watt folding panel is $549.00 USD (larger panels are available). The entire package with solar panel will cost $1848.95 USD.
The claimed charge times are: Wall charger (120 watt) 9 hours; Boulder 200 solar panel 6-12 hours. These charge times are unacceptably long. Goal Zero offers a more powerful 600 watt AC charger for $199.95 and larger capacity solar panels too, but heck, we’re already over $1800.00 USD for this basic setup.
Keep in mind that the solar charge times assume you have strong, continuous sun on the panels for the entire charge cycle.
Comparing apples to apples.
It’s important to point out that the Jackery battery is 21.6 volts and the Goal Zero battery is 10.8 volts. Although the Goal Zero battery has twice as many amp-hours as the Jackery, it also has half the voltage. To keep the comparison accurate, I went by the watt-hours, which are very similar (1002 Wh for Jackery and 983 Wh for Goal Zero). When doing your own research, make sure you are accounting for any differences in battery voltage.
While we’re talking about batteries, not all lithium batteries are the same. Well known names like Panasonic, Sony, Mitsubishi, and others are batteries one can have confidence in. Smaller niche manufacturers such as Bioenno and Dakota Lithium also make very high quality batteries.
The market is flooded with batteries made by a variety of little-known manufacturers of unknown reputation. None of the solar generators I researched for this article specified the brand and origin of the battery. You don’t really know what you’re getting.
I sent emails to both Jackery and Goal Zero inquiring exactly what brand of batteries are used in their products. I was surprised to get a quick response from both. Here are their verbatim replies:
From Jackery: “Hello Chris, I am sorry for the delayed response due to many recent consultations. Your understanding is much appreciated. The Jackery products are Manufactured in China and designed in California-US. The Batteries are Li-ion NMC ( Nickel manganese cobalt ). Thanks for your waiting and patience.”
From Goal Zero: “Hello, Thank you for contacting Goal Zero! We do not have a specific brand that we use as they are custom Lithium Ion batteries that we use. But that is all the information that I would be able to provide.”
You can draw your own conclusions from these meaningless non-answers. Lastly, when contacting them I did not identify myself as a blogger or “influencer”. Jackery did send a follow-up email a few days later asking if my “issue had been resolved”. I didn’t have any additional questions, but I appreciated the effort.
Jackery offers a two year warranty, but the warranty does not include units purchased through an “online auction house” (not clear if this includes Amazon), and more strikingly, the warranty does not cover the battery itself unless you fully charge it within seven days of delivery and then at least every six months after that. How you would prove you followed these instructions is lost on me.
Goal Zero offers the same 2 year warranty, with the same “auction house” and battery exclusions. Furthermore, open-box items are warranted for only six months.
Build vs. buy.
Until now, a valid argument against solar generators was that you could build one cheaper than you can buy one. However not everyone can or wants to build their own equipment. Many people, for whatever the reason, want a plug-and-play solution and are willing to pay for it. You can still save money by going the DIY route, but that argument is getting thinner as commercially made units become more affordable.
Saving money notwithstanding, a big advantage to building your own equipment is that you can hand-pick everything that goes into it. There’s no need to settle for what someone else thinks is good enough. For many hams, and I place myself in this category, having purpose-built equipment made to your own standards is a very high priority.
You do not have to use solar panels sold by the same manufacturer that makes your generator. Even if you decide to buy a ready-to-go unit, It might be worthwhile to shop around and find less expensive panels elsewhere.
So are “solar generators” worth having?
The short answer is yes. I reverse my previous position. The long answer is yes, but there are a lot of serious caveats; any potential user of solar generators should go into this only after thoroughly understanding the details.
Here’s some of the issues you should very carefully consider before you plop down your hard-earned money:
- Your “solar generator” will likely not include a solar panel.
- You do not have to buy “their” solar panels. Look for a better deal elsewhere.
- The brand and quality of the batteries is unknown—this is a big one.
- Read the warranty carefully and be aware of significant exclusions.
- The charge times can vary greatly and in some cases are unacceptably long.
- The best way to get exactly what you want is to build your own.
- Be aware that some of the claims made by manufacturers regarding battery run times and power capacity are grossly exaggerated.
I’m still not a huge fan of “solar generators”. I will concede that for some hams, they are a reasonable solution. Shop carefully, do your homework, and you’ll be very satisfied with your decision.
What are your experiences with solar generators? Tell us in the comment section below.