Solar Generators 101

All the basic knowledge in one place that you need to choose the unit that is right for you and your campervan.

When I built Violet the Campervan in 2018 I knew that I needed an external source for power. At that time the choices were between building your own system or buying an expensive all-in-one solar generator. I chose the latter option, but I have been upgrading and modifying my system ever since. I have used a variety of brands and capacities, and so I thought I would share my knowledge with those who may be considering their first home-on-wheels.

My first power station was a Yeti 1250 plus two additional 100 amp/hr batteries. The setup was enormously heavy and only gave me 150 amp/hrs of useable capacity.

Why do you need a power source that is separate from your car’s battery system?

If you plan on spending any time living in a vehicle you won’t want to tax your car’s system for your charging and powering needs as this could result in a dead starter battery.  

A cell phone is now a necessity, and there are a multitude of other van items that consume power ranging from vent fans to 12-volt refrigerators. How much power you require will depend on your personal needs. If all that you are doing is charging your cell phone and headlamp, you don’t need much charging capacity. However, van dwelling additions like a 12-volt fridge and a roof vent fan will require a more robust system. Lastly, if you make your living while on the road you may need to charge laptops, drones, and camera batteries. Your house battery system should take into account what you need to run, what you need to charge, and how you plan to replenish your house battery when it is depleted..  

If your goal is to keep a cell phone charged for a week or less you can likely get by with a simple battery bank. These small bricks come in a variety of capacities and are reasonable in price. However, if you have greater needs you are probably going to need a power station, also known as a solar generator. These units combine the ability to recharge from the car’s 12-volt system, AC power, or solar panels. In addition, they provide a variety of 12-volt and 5-volt (USB) outlets as well as at least one AC outlet. The rest of this post will be about these devices.


Solar generators come in a variety of battery capacities. The greater the capacity the larger, heavier, and more costly the unit. Early solar generators used lead acid AGM storage batteries that had limited capacity and were very heavy. Their one advantage was that they could charge under very cold conditions.  

Newer solar generators use lithium batteries which are more efficient and lighter. Lithium batteries are constructed using a variety of chemistries. Usually, if the manufacturer says that a battery is a Li-ion variety, then it is the type of battery that is used in products ranging from cell phones to electric cars. In rare cases, these batteries can catch on fire (especially if they are poorly designed). However, in most cases, this is not an issue. Another lithium battery chemistry is called LiPO4. These batteries are theoretically safer and can be recharged more times than traditional Li-ion batteries. However, they are bigger and heavier than Li-ion batteries, which can make a high-capacity unit big, heavy, and bulky. 

The larger the capacity the bigger the unit. The Jackery provides 500 watt/hrs and the Bluetti yields 1700 watt/hrs.

A quality solar generator will have a good BMS (battery management system) that monitors and controls the health of the battery. For instance, a good BMS will prevent charging during freezing temperatures as doing so can permanently damage a lithium-type battery.

Recharge cycles

All batteries degrade a bit every time they are discharged and then recharged. Most manufacturers list how many discharge and charge cycles a battery can have before its overall capacity is reduced to 80%. Some units will be in the low 300-500 cycle range, while others can be recharged several thousand times before their capacity is reduced to 80%. If you are on a limited or fixed budget it makes sense to go with the battery system that allows for the most recharges. However, batteries are getting cheaper while growing in both capacity and technology. A battery with 1000 or more cycles will probably last the average user 4-5 or more years at which time they will likely want to upgrade to newer technology. In addition, if you are a weekend warrior a battery with a more limited 300-500 cycles will still last you many years.  

If you partially discharge your batteries before recharging them they will last longer. Remember, a battery will still have 80% capacity even after it reaches its cycle limit. Think of your cell phone which uses a lithium battery. As time goes on it holds its charge is less and less but, it is likely that you still use it. Eventually, its capacity becomes so low that you are forced to replace either the phone or its battery. It is the same with a solar generator. 

Regulated 12-volt power 

This feature means that the unit has special circuitry that keeps the 12-volt output constant, which can be important for some devices that won’t operate if the voltage drops too low. Old AGM batteries showed significant voltage drops over the normal course of their discharge cycle. Newer lithium batteries also drop, but that drop can be less precipitous.  

It is great to have a constant voltage from your 12-volt outlet, but that consistency comes at a price. The electronic circuitry that maintains the voltage does so at the expense of some additional power use. In other words, the solar generator consumes some power to regulate power. Many larger units use circuitry to regulate their 12-volt outlets. 

As an aside, when your car is running its 12-volt outlet is putting out over 13 volts so most regulated 12-volt outlets on solar generators regulate their 12-volt outlets between 13.2 and 13.6 volts, not 12-volts. 

12-volt outlet types

Almost all solar generators will have a cigarette lighter style 12-volt outlet. Many will have additional 12-volt outlets in a variety of types that range from barrel plugs to aviator-type connectors. I like units that have these outlet options as I find that a traditional 12-volt cigarette-type plug can jiggle loose when traveling on bumpy roads. This can be a problem if you are powering devices like a 12-volt fridge. The more secure the outlet the better.


The batteries in a power bank may be 12-volts, 24-volts, or possibly some other voltage. Most units have 12-volt DC as well as USB outlets on them. A USB outlet’s output is 5 volts. Solar generators use converter circuitry to change from one DC voltage to another. Converters use a small amount of power to make this adjustment.


All solar generators have circuitry (an inverter) to convert DC power into the AC (Alternating Current) power that many household appliances use. In most cases, the inverters are of the pure sine wave variety. These inverters closely replicate the type of power that comes from a home AC outlet, and this pure power may be necessary for sensitive electronic devices like a CPAP machine. I have only seen one off-brand solar generator that used a modified sine wave inverter. Modified sine wave inverters produce an approximation of regular AC power and should be avoided if possible. Most inverters provide the standard 120 volts of power, but some may cheat the system a bit by only generating 110 volts. This lower voltage often works well enough for most things. Inverters use 10-20% (depending on their efficiency) more power than what is being used during the conversion from DC to AC. If the power used by an appliance is 100 watts the total draw on the battery will be between 110 and 120 watts depending on the inverter’s design.

Inverters are rated by their operating and surge outputs. Some units can be as low as 125 watts AC output, while others may have outputs that exceed 2000 watts. When some devices (especially those with motors) start-up they momentarily require a surge of power. Because of this inverters will also list the amount of surge that they can momentarily handle. For instance, an inverter may say that it has a 500-watt continuous output with a 1000-watt surge capacity. Capacity is not the same thing as use. For instance, a 100-watt appliance will only draw a bit over 100 watts (considering operating overhead) whether the inverter’s capacity is 200 watts or 2000 watts. However, large inverters may be a bit less efficient due to their larger components and complexity. 

All appliances list the maximum input of power that they use. This will be on a label that is typically on the bottom or back of the appliance. It is a good idea to exceed the requirements of an appliance. For instance, if an appliance uses 800 watts try to get an inverter that can sustain 1000 watts.   

USB outlets

In the recent past, all you needed was a standard USB type A outlet, as all USB devices using them. Now there are power ports that deliver enough power to charge a laptop and quick charge ports that allow faster charging of small items like cell phones. Some solar generators will just have USB type A sockets while others will have both A and C styles. Lastly, some units will provide a wireless charging station on the top of their case.  

There are ways to compensate for a lack of a specific port on a given unit. For instance, you can always use your laptop’s power brick and the AC outlet on the solar generator if you don’t have a 60 or 100-watt USB outlet on your unit. However, you will lose some battery efficiency in the process. In addition, you can buy little adapters that will convert a type A USB outlet to a type C USB outlet and vice versa. However, it is always best to power or recharge something in the simplest way possible.   


All units have displays to give you information about the status of your solar generator. All will indicate (in some way) how much charge you have left on the battery, and most will give you information on how much power is coming into the unit and how much is going out. Additional information like hours to discharge may also be listed.

Additional features

Some units will offer an Eco-mode that will power down the unit if it is left on but its not being used. Turn this feature off if you are using your unit to run a fridge as its power use is intermittent which could result in the solar generator turning off power to it.  

Some units have a feature called power boost that allows you to run higher wattage devices than the AC inverter’s limit by lowering the AC voltage. Using this feature can be tricky as this brown-out power may damage electronic circuits and motors due to overheating. However, it could be useful when powering simple appliances like an old fashion hotplate. 

Some units will work in tangent with an App allowing you to monitor and control your device from your phone. This can be a nice, but non-critical addition.

Lastly, some costly units are modular allowing you to add additional battery capacity. At this time if you have very great power needs for your camper it is cheaper to build a traditional electrical system rather than buy a modular unit.  This will likely change in the future.

Pass through charging

When most units are plugged into an AC outlet they will preferentially take their power from AC and not the unit’s battery. At the same time, they will charge the battery.


Ways to charge

Most, if not all, units will allow you to charge your batteries three ways (car’s 12-volt cigarette outlet, solar panels, AC/Mains power). Many units will allow you to simultaneously charge your unit using several sources at once, for instance, solar and your car’s 12-volt outlet. 

More on charging

It is critical to be able to quickly recharge your unit. If you are depending on your solar generator to keep your 12-volt refrigerator running you don’t want to wait 12 hours to recharge the unit. Older and cheaper solar generators can take a very long time to recharge from any source. This is OK if you charge at home and then use a unit on a trip without a need to recharge the unit. It is also OK if your power needs are fairly low. Otherwise, it is worth it to get a fast charging unit. Let’s look at some common ways to recharge. 

12-volt cigarette outlet charging

The 12-volt outlet on your car’s maximum output is about 120 watts of power, but most solar generators will accept less than that to make sure that they don’t overtax the car’s electrical system. Depending solely on the cigarette outlet is feasible only in situations when you need to replace a small amount of power. Naturally, using your car’s system to recharge your solar generator should be done with the engine running.  

In many cases, it makes more sense to recharge specific devices rather than a solar generator using the car’s 12-volt system. I tend to charge small gadgets like my cell phone, earbuds, or headlamp via the car’s system when driving. Remember, you can buy a 12-volt cigarette to a 5-volt USB converter if your car doesn’t have a built-in USB outlet. 

Solar charging

Many small units quickly charge with a 12-volt, 80-100 watt solar panel. Larger units can accept higher wattage solar panels which will allow for quicker charging. Some large units need solar panels that produce a higher voltage (beyond 12 volts) to charge. 

It is important to check the maximum wattage that a solar generator will accept from solar, as well as the voltage required. Some units will accept more watts than specified, but will still limit the charging rate. Older Jackery units could be over-paneled (you could connect several hundred watts of solar power) but they would limit the actual charging rate to around 65 watts via solar. 

There is a welcomed trend in better units to accept more watts from solar. However, some of these larger units require higher voltages to recharge properly. You can accomplish this by running several 12-volt panels in series. For example, two 12-volt panels in parallel will output at 12-volts, but when connected in series they will output 24 volts.  

If you are a van dweller or traveler you will have limitations on how many solar panels you can carry. I use 4, 12 -volt 100-watt solar panels connected in series giving me an output of 400 watts at 48 volts. Note that this is a theoretical output as no solar panel is 100 percent efficient. I have my panels flat on my van’s roof. My panels would be more efficient if I could aim them at the sun at all times. However, I like the convenience of having my system passive and always charging, even if it is suboptimal.

Mounting solar panels on the roof. I have 4 in total at 100 watts each.

I’m limited by my roof’s area, as I can only mount so many panels on it. However, portable panels also are limited. Your solar generator may accept 1000 watts of solar, but you are not going to want to carry and set up 1000 watts of solar panels.  

Portable solar panels are a flexible option that requires no installation. However, you have to set them up each time you use them and that can be a drag.

The bottom line is that getting a solar generator that generously allows for solar charging is best. However, you may not be able to fully utilize this feature based on your particular solar panel array.

AC/Mains charging

All units will come with either a charging brick or an internal charger. Some newer units have much more powerful chargers than older units (always check specifications) and this can dramatically decrease charging time, which is useful if you need to recharge on the go. As a gross approximation, a 200-watt (output) adapter will recharge a 1000-watt battery from zero in about 5 hours (1000/200 = 5 hours), whereas a 400-watt unit will do the same job in 2.5 hours (1000/400  = 2.5 hours). This is an oversimplification as units charge slower as they reach full capacity. However, the more powerful the AC charger the better. Some units will allow you to buy a second charger that you can connect to the unit to double your charging speed when connected to AC. If you are charging at home for a weekend trip it doesn’t make much difference how quickly you can charge. However, it can be a big deal on the road. A small unit that can quickly charge is a plus if you are recharging at coffee shops or libraries. Additionally, a big unit that you can quickly charge is plus if you have high power needs. 

Also, I use a separate free-standing AC inverter directly connected to my car battery. When I’m driving I recharge my solar generator via the solar panels on my roof as well as by the unit’s AC adapter connected to that inverter. The inverter set-up also assists when there is a string of cloudy days. I can drive or run my engine for a bit to top off my solar generator’s battery.  

MPPT vs. PWM controllers

When you connect a solar panel to a battery you need a solar controller. This device properly controls the charge from your panels so that you don’t damage your system. There are two types of controllers that are built into solar generators, MPPT and PWM. PWM controllers are simpler (and cheaper) and are used in less expensive units. MPPT controllers are more complicated (and more expensive) than PWM controllers. However, they are more efficient in adverse conditions. An MPPT controller will do a more efficient charging job on cloudy days or if your panels are partially shaded.

Built-in flashlight

Many units will have some sort of light built into the unit. This sounds like a silly feature, but it can be surprisingly useful, especially on smaller units that you may move around.

How much power do you need?

Generally, more is better, but more is also more expensive. Determine your use needs. You can add up the watts or amps needed. Watts and amps are related and interdependent based on the following formula: 

amps x volts = watts. 

A milliamp is 1/1000 of an amp.

Let’s say that all you need to charge is your cell phone which has a 5000 milliamp battery. If you had a simple 10,000 milliamp power bank you should be able to recharge it (approximately) 2 times. 

Many devices will list watts used instead of amps or milliamps. If your LED cabin lights use 10 watts and your solar generator is rated at 500 watts you can expect that you can run the lights for around 50 hours.

Please note that the above are approximations. No system is 100% efficient and all battery systems reserve some of their power to preserve the longevity of the battery.

Let’s look at some battery options and what they are suitable for.

Battery bank

These small and inexpensive units typically have USB outlets and come in a variety of capacities. They are recharged via a power brick that the owner provides. They may be all that you need if you are only recharging small devices like your phone. You can also buy small, inexpensive small solar panels in the 10-25 watt range specifically designed to charge USB devices like battery banks. Additionally, you can extend the battery time of your phone by turning off options like WiFi and Bluetooth if they are not needed.

Battery banks come in many sizes and are relatively inexpensive. However, they are limited in their functionality.
Small solar panels are inexpensive and can easily charge small battery banks if they include USB charging abilities.
Tiny solar panels on battery banks are more gimmick than anything else. They are just too small to be practical.

100-400 watt solar generators

These are very versatile units that are also relatively inexpensive. Cheaper units likely will not feature an MPPT solar controller or a regulated 12-volt power supply. Depending on their size they can provide many recharges of electronic devices, and also operate other things, like cabin lights, and USB fans. They are generally small and lightweight and are easy to carry from home to van, or van to a picnic table. I often use one of these to recharge my small electronics and to power gadgets, like a 12-volt TV that I sometimes carry. Because they are small they can easily be charged by a portable solar panel. Portable solar panels are great because you can angle and position them towards the sun. However, you have to remember to set them up, and you probably should not leave them unattended as they carry enough value to make them targets for theft. 

I use this small Bluetti to charge my small electrics and to run devices outside of the van, like my 12-volt TV.

500-1000 watt solar generators

These units can do all of the above, but they can do much more. In some cases, they may be enough to run a 12-volt fridge, and they have enough power to maintain bigger items like a laptop. If you are using many items on the road you may want a unit in this range. Many of these units feature the more efficient MPPT solar controller, have a regulated 12-volt power supply, and can accept a greater charge for faster recharging. Their AC inverters are usually in the 500-1000 watt range. However, always check a unit’s specifications.  

This Jackery 1000 is a popular unit that has a 1000 watt/hr battery and a 1000 watt pure sine-wave inverter (however, the output is 110v, not 120v).

Solar generators greater than 1000 watts

There are now some units that have 1500 watt-2000 watt (and beyond) capacities. These units can be heavy and expensive, but also very useful. Many of these units have very fast AC chargers and can accept high wattage from solar. Their AC inverters range from 1000-2000 watts (sometimes more), which opens up the ability to use many household appliances.  

I use a large power station (solar generator) to run a Webasto heater and a Dometic 12-volt fridge. I routinely use small electrics like an induction burner, coffee pot, microwave, and even a 3-quart electric pressure cooker. Be aware that I purchased these small electrics with an eye to how much wattage they use. For instance, my microwave’s output is only 650 watts and uses 950 watts of input power. My system can handle that load, but I only use the microwave for short amounts of time, in the 5-10 minute/day range (80-160 watts used). My coffee pot uses 600 watts of power and it takes less than 5 minutes to brew one K-cup of coffee (only 30 watts of power used). Using a small electric with a house battery is only feasible in short bursts and when I am in a situation where I can replenish my battery easily (access to shore power or on driving days or sunny days).

Under proper conditions, I can use small electrics like a coffee maker and an induction burner utilizing free energy.

When using my 1700 watt/hr solar generator and 400 watts of solar on my roof I have never run out of power. However, I’m very careful to monitor my battery. If I’m facing cloudy days I go into conservation mode when I reach around 60% battery capacity. At that time I’ll switch to my butane stove for my cooking and coffee needs, and do other things to conserve power so my battery is available for my fridge.  

Two years ago I replaced my Goal Zero setup with this Bluetti AC200 unit.

What brand to buy?

Well-known brands include Goal Zero, Jackery, Ecoflow, and Bluetti. I guess that many off-brands are made in the same Chinese factories. Generally, check the unit’s specification for all basic parameters including the amount of solar accepted, power of the AC inverter and charger, and life cycle for the batteries.. 

I hope that this has answered some of your solar generator questions. Happy camping and happy van life!


Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive

Last Thursday was a long day. I was helping my sister with a project that I foolishly thought would end by 2 PM. However, I arrived home after 5:30 PM, and the day’s main event was yet to come.

Grace graduated from university in May, and she is taking a gap year to build clinical hours and apply to graduate school. The application process for her degree is rigorous and involves hoops that she has had to jump through, including admission interviews. Many schools have virtual interviews, but some require in-person attendance, including one school located in Cincinnati.  

My goal in raising my children is to support healthy growth and independence. I want to give them every chance to be successful in life. I define success as having a meaningful job while incorporating balance. I understand that fulfillment involves more than money or a particular career. However, having enough cash and a satisfying career goes a long way. Of course, other happiness factors include healthy relationships, a spiritual life, self-growth, and the incorporation of life experiences. 

When it comes to their happiness, I can only point them in a direction. Each of my kids is unique and what they value varies. Importantly, I understand that my goals and dreams for them may not be theirs. My challenge has always been understanding what I want for them vs. what they want. My age, maturity, and life experience give me an advantage over their youth and inexperience, which I want to share with them. However, it doesn’t give me a right to control their futures; that destiny is up to them.

Six PM on Thursday, and Grace and I were about to start our drive to her Friday interview. We would be staying across the Ohio River in Kentucky as a two-night stay at a Cincinnati Holiday Inn Express was clocking in at $550 before taxes, which included the school’s discount.  Kentucky was cheaper.

My initial feeling about the trip was negative, but that emotion was based on my driving for over 5 hours in the middle of the night. We would arrive at 12:30 AM Central Time or 1:30 AM Eastern Time. I fortified myself with a McDonald’s coffee and faced the challenge. I also consciously and deliberately started to reframe the experience.

Yes, driving a long distance in the middle of the night would be a drag, but there were many positives. I could choose to focus on the negative or redirect myself. Grace is an excellent traveling companion. She is intelligent, thoughtful, and informed. She is an independent kid who has some of my obsessive responsible characteristics; I don’t have to worry about her or her actions.  

The long drive gave us the chance to catch up and allowed me to learn just a little more about her. We filled our time talking and listening to podcasts. The long drive also allowed me to call my sisters and check in with them. In addition, it gave me a chance to test a new cell phone carrier called Visible. Visible resides on the Verizon network yet it is very cost-effective, but it has a few restrictions. My family currently uses T-Mobile, but its rural coverage is poor. I do a lot of boondocking, and Visible could be a viable secondary option to maintain communication with the outside world. I’m currently on a two-week free trial and have already tested the plan in rural Wisconsin with success. The trip to Cincinnati would allow me to check coverage in Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky.   

I hope you see the active path that I’m taking. I’m reframing a negative feeling and pushing it into the positive zone.  

What about other aspects of this adventure? Grace’s interview started at noon and was scheduled until 5 PM; what was I supposed to do during that time? Our hotel was too far from campus for me to return to it, and I was uncertain about the neighborhood where the school was located. I assessed some possibilities. I could explore Cincinnati, but I had already done this on several other trips. Anyway, it is more enjoyable for me to do those types of activities when accompanied by others. I could tackle some hiking trails, and I have done that in the past, but I didn’t want to leave Grace hanging if her interviews ended early. I wanted to be there to support her and help her process her feelings about the school.  

As a physician, I have to complete many hours of CME (Continuing Medical Education) credits every licensing period. In the past, it was necessary to travel to conferences and meetings, but with the advent of the World Wide Web, CMEs are as close as my laptop. I would go to the school’s library and work on some CMEs when Grace was in her interviews. I would choose to be productive rather than bored. 

The university’s campus was small but charming. Founded by the Sisters of Charity in the 1920s, most of the campus now had a decidedly 1970s look with light brick architecture and a mid-century post-modern style. There was a Catholic feel that I found comforting. I have attended secular schools for most of my education, and the sight of some religious imagery gave me a sense of peace. It appeared to be a  school that taught values in addition to facts. 

A helpful groundskeeper directed me to the library, and with my messenger bag in hand, I entered. The room was expansive, with large tables and enormous windows that streamed in soft diffused light. I found a study carrel in a hidden corner, connected to wifi, and went to work. After about 4 hours of intense learning, my old brain had had it. I was ready for a break, and luckily Violet, the campervan, was prepared to accommodate me. I strolled to her, grabbed a cold Diet Coke from her fridge, and lounged on her bed. Soon, I received a text message from Grace that her long interview was over. It was time to pick her up.

That evening we dined at an iconic Cincinnati classic, Skyline Chili. Then off to our room to talk, watch TV, and rest for our morning drive back to Chicago. Our return trip was a repeat of our earlier drive and just as delightful. We were back in Naperville by mid-afternoon Saturday, exhausted but happy.

I write this to remind myself and to encourage you. Just about everything has both a positive and negative side. Some people are proficient at focusing on the negative, no matter the event. These folks can turn anything into a burden by finding potential disasters or inconveniences at every turn. I choose to be different and consciously work on seeing the positives in life. Driving to Cincinnati in the middle of the night was a drag, but the benefits far outweighed the negatives. Grace has received positive responses to her graduate school applications, and she is confident that she will be going to grad school after her gap year. That is wonderful. Spending time with her is always positive, and it feels terrific to be supportive of her. In addition, I personally benefited by knocking out hours of CMEs when I was captive on campus.   Lastly, I got to test out some technology and travel in Violet. I love the idea of taking my little house on wheels with me wherever I go.

I would encourage you to focus on the positives of your life. You have control over how you feel and how you react to situations. You can choose to live a life filled with negativity and drama or one of productive expectation. At the end of the day, I always try to take that fork in the road.



The mid-century campus had a decidedly Catholic feel.
The library had large windows that streamed in soft diffuse light.

Just a fun reminder!

A Different Viewpoint

I’m a creature of habit. I find an efficient way to do something and I repeat that behavior until it no longer works. I clean the house the same way every week, I take a shower the same way, and I structure my early morning activities similarly every day.

At times I’ll change a behavior when it is no longer offering what it did in the past. I used to grocery shop at Walmart as it had everything I needed and the prices were reasonable. However, inflation and product shortages have resulted in higher prices and poorer selection. In addition, Walmart now forces customers to self-checkout. This is a minor pain when I purchase a few items but a major one when I have a week’s worth of groceries. Because of these changes I now shop at a different store.

There are situations where I will deliberately change a behavior for the sake of change. I feel that doing so increases my flexibility and creativity.

I love photography and I enjoy architectural photography. Exterior shots and interior shots have different challenges, but both require some effort to make a potentially boring image visually interesting. That additional spark can be added in many ways. You can change the characteristics of the image by adjusting or reducing its color saturation, by changing the angle that you view the object, or by controlling the distance from the object.

I enjoy going to other towns and documenting them in pictures. I especially like small to mid-sized older cities as they offer many interesting structures. Recently, I went on a photo walk accompanied by my wife and one of my daughters. They came along to help me celebrate Father’s Day.

On such adventures, I would normally bring a camera with a wide-angle zoom lens as this would offer me the greatest flexibility when trying to capture large structures. However, this time I deliberately opted to take my old Fuji X100S. That camera has a fixed (non-zoom) lens equivalent to 35 mm. If you are a photographer you know that this is a good lens for street photography, but not necessarily great for architectural photography as its angle of view isn’t quite wide enough.

So why would I do such a thing when I have other cameras that would be better suited to this situation? Such a move forces me to look at the entire project differently. It makes me break away from old patterns and it encourages me to adopt new techniques. I have to learn new skills. In other words, I have to think outside of my usual comfortable box and grow just a bit in order to successfully face this new challenge.

In life, it is important to balance efficiency vs. growth. If I always do the same thing over and over again I become more efficient at doing it. This is a good thing. However, if I change things up a bit I have to force myself to think differently and view things differently and that is also good.

Such an exercise can be expanded beyond creative tasks. What if I allowed myself to listen to someone with a different political viewpoint? It is likely that I will become more tolerant of their opinion. How about making an effort to learn more about someone else’s culture? it is likely that I will not only understand them better, but I’ll also enrich myself with this new knowledge.

This growth method can be used in all sorts of different ways. Even the act of driving home via a different route can broader my horizons. Recently, I started to take a different route from 75th street to my home. In the process, I discovered several beautifully wooded blocks that I was unaware of despite living in Naperville for over 30 years. Driving down those blocks calms me instead of agitating me in the way that my former traffic-laden path did.

Today, I am suggesting to you to deliberately change some of your routine actions or behaviors. Naturally, I want you to think of the consequences of any adjustment that you may do, and I would ask you to be reasonable and rational in your decision. Such a change can be a one-and-done option, or it may be a permanent or semi-permanent change. The purpose of such an exercise is to have you expand your boundaries and to break the constraints that your old habits enforced. Why would I ask you to do such a thing? To live purposefully is to grow.

Below are some of the architectural photos that I deliberately took using the wrong camera. I hope you like them.



The Small But Mighty Bluetti EB3A

Once upon a time, most power stations/solar generators were relatively small in their battery storage capacity, but over the years, major players like Bluetti and Jackery have concentrated on bigger and more expensive units.

Bluetti was the first company to offer a large device loaded with the most desirable features, like very rapid charging, an MPPT solar controller, a high wattage AC inverter, and a regulated 12 V power supply in their AC200 unit. I’m a part-time vandweller/traveler, and I use an AC200 to power my house-on-wheels. That unit energizes my house lights, Dometic 12V fridge, Webasto heater, and even an induction cooktop. However, it is big and bulky.

I have always carried a smaller Rockpals 300 WH unit with me for other needs. It sits next to my bed to charge my iPhone, Apple Watch, and AirPods. I also use it to power my WeBoost cellular booster when my car isn’t on and to run my small portable TV/Projector. However, the unit is aging and has limited capabilities. Its display isn’t very useful, and recharging by any method is a slow process.

Enter the Bluetti EB3A with its small size and approximately 270 WH capacity. Bluetti has loaded the EB3A with features found in more expensive units. This makes it not only much more versatile but also more practical. For brevity’s sake, let me expand on some of those features using bullet points:

-The EB3A features a regulated power supply which means that its voltage will never drop as the battery discharges as can be the case in unregulated power supplies. This feature is important as some devices will  shut off when a battery’s voltage drops as they think they are protecting a car’s starter battery from going dead.  

-The EB3A has a 100-watt USB C port that can allow direct charging of higher need devices like a laptop. It also has two standard USB A ports, but for some reason, it does not have quick charge USB A ports.

-The EB3A has a wireless charging pad on top of the unit.

-The EB3A has a 600-watt pure sine wave AC inverter. Most similarly sized battery banks have a pure sine wave inverter, but many will shut off if a load exceeds 300 watts. Six hundred watts open up the possibility of using appliances and devices that have higher power needs. Naturally, running something at 600 watts will quickly deplete the EB3A’s small battery, but this feature could be useful in certain situations. For instance, running a small single-cup coffee maker which may require 500-600 watts but only runs for about 5 minutes to make a cup of coffee.  

-The EB3A also has a feature called “power-lifting,” which employs an electrical trick of dropping voltage and increasing amperage to operate AC devices beyond 600 watts. However, this feature needs to be used with caution as it could damage electronics that utilize sensitive computer chips. However, some may find it useful for powering “dumb devices.” For instance, it could allow you to use a simple soldering iron when fixing something on the road or occasionally run a basic small hot water kettle. 

-The EB3A can connect to the Bluetti App, allowing you to monitor and control the device remotely. 

-The EB3A features an MPPT solar controller and can handle up to 200 watts of solar charging. Similar units may use a less efficient PWM solar controller or will limit their solar charging to a slower rate. For instance, the Jackery 500 will maximally charge at only 65 watts via solar, even if it is connected to a larger solar panel. 

-The EB3A can be recharged for 2500 cycles before its battery capacity drops to 80%.

-The EB3A can very rapidly charge via AC/Mains power. This, by far, is its coolest and most outstanding feature. You can bring the EB3A from zero to full charge in a bit over an hour and even faster if you combine AC plus solar. Many other units take many hours to do the same. If you are a traveler or vandweller this feature alone makes the EB3A a worthwhile purchase. You can take a nearly depleted unit and quickly fully charge it while doing a little work at a coffee shop or the library. If you have an adequate inverter in your car, plus some solar panels, you can very rapidly recharge your battery during a drive or commute.

Obviously, this unit has a small overall capacity compared to 1-3 KW units from Bluetti and other brands. Those units start at $1000 and quickly move upward as they are designed for high-demand operations. However, this smaller unit may be all that you need if you’re more of a minimalist traveler. It should easily recharge your small electronics (like your phone and tablet) and provide power for other needs, like your cabin lights or a USB fan. In a pinch, it could power higher need items like a fridge or vent fan, but only for a limited time due to its smaller watt/hour (WH) capacity. 

The sub-500 WH power station market is now dominated by unproven brands that offer limited capabilities. The brand-name Bluetti EB3A combines a small package with a full set of high-end features, and because of this, I recommend it.

Accessorizing Violet

I love Violet the campervan. She is perfect, yet I’m always modifying her. I guess that is the way many relationships are… both constant and changing at the same time.

Although her main “bones” were forged at Wayfarer Van Conversions in Colorado Springs in 2018, I have been adding and subtracting to her build since that time. Some of the changes that I made that I thought would be great actually turned out to be ho-hum, while other changes that I thought would be so-so turned out to be great additions.

I understand that what works for me may not be someone else’s cup of tea. However, I offer the following as an idea springboard for potential new van builders. You may disagree with me; you do you.

Violet is constantly changing so it is likely that she will be further modified as time goes on. Her most recent addition is a Moodshade, but it isn’t mentioned in today’s post. Why? Because I haven’t set it up yet so I don’t feel that I can share my honest opinion.

You will also note that I’m not including any links. I’m not interested in making a few pennies by being an “affiliate.” I’m just trying to spread the gospel of the wonders of life in a van.

Let’s look at some of the good and the less good changes that have been made to Violet the campervan.

I have 400 watts of solar on Violet’s roof. That is the maximum that I’m able to fit, but if I could have more I would add more. On a clear sunny day, I have an abundance of free power. However, on a cloudy day, the panels may only generate 25-50 watts of electricity. I like having panels on the roof, although they are more difficult to orient than free-standing ones. Yet, they are always working and I never have to set them up. I also have a folding panel that I can use…but frankly I haven’t done so in 4 years. The roof panels have been enough and when the skies are cloudy I just conserve a little more.
I installed a side window on Violet’s sliding door and I’m grateful that I have it every time I drive her. Not only does the window add light to her cabin it also gives visibility when I”m backing Violet out of a driveway or parking space.
I also added these rear windows, but I almost always keep them covered. If I had to do it again I would have forgone the expense of adding them.
The yellow arrow points to Violet’s rain guards. I think that this simple addition is a must. I can crack the windows open around an inch for ventilation. No rain gets in and the windows look completely closed from an outside observer’s point of view.
Anyone who owns a campervan will tell you that having a fan is needed. Small USB-type fans can work in a pinch, but a roof exhaust fan is a game-changer. This is a Fantastic Fan vent fan, which was the popular brand when I added it. Now, many vandwellers put in a similar Maxxair fan. These fans don’t use a lot of power, but their use is constant. They can drain your house battery if you leave them on continuously. You can save some power by running them at a lower speed. However, I find that running them at full tilt makes the biggest cooling difference. I usually run mine for several bedtime hours which is enough to cool things off.
This little door stop was easy to install and allows me to open my sliding door 1/3rd of the way. In the past, if I wasn’t on perfectly level ground I only had two choices, fully open or fully closed. I really like this addition. I found the stop on Amazon.
Here we have the tale of two modifications. I thought I would really like to have a sink, but I never use it. It is more practical for me to carry water in jugs and I wash my dishes using the “vinegar method.” I added the induction burner so I could reclassify Violet as an RV; I had planned on removing it once I passed the inspection. However, I have found that the little burner works great and I use it all of the time.
When boondocking I like to listen to the radio, however, I don’t want to run down my car’s starter battery by using the in-dash system. Additionally, I can’t get good reception using a portable radio inside Violet’s metal shell. This year I mounted an antenna on her roof and installed an inexpensive second car radio which uses Violet’s house battery for power. It has been a very welcome addition.
I also put in an aftermarket cruise control. It was surprisingly easy to install and it has been a fantastic addition on long highway trips.
This BlueParrott trucker-style Bluetooth headset wasn’t cheap, but it was definitely worth the money. It does a great job at canceling road noise for the person on the other end and is far superior to anything else that I have tried including AirPod Pros. If you like to make calls while you are driving I would advise getting one of these.
There are a couple of things to note in this photo. The bed platform was built by Wayfarer. It works well, but I wish that the mattress was just a bit thicker. My friend and I build the organization box below the bed and that has worked out great. I’m one of those “everything in its place” kind of guys and I love having separate areas for my pantry (the wicker baskets), storage (the Rubbermaid containers on the left), and the fridge. My Dometic fridge is on a slideout and that gadget has worked well. However, its price has gone up since I bought it and so I would consider a Chinese clone in the future. We also converted the Wayfarer “boot box” into the van’s power center and it houses a Bluetti AC200 1.7 kilowatt Solar Generator. I’m pretty happy. with the Bluetti and I wrote a complete review on it a few weeks ago. Yet, I’m always looking for more power.
I didn’t like the stock radio so I changed it out for this Kenwood unit which has built-in GPS. Why have a dedicated GPS unit when I could just use my phone? Because I’m often in places where I don’t have a good enough cell signal for the map app to work. This radio also gave me Car Play and many other features that I like. Its addition was definitely a plus.
I had the dealer install this trailer hitch when I bought the van. It has many uses, but I have never used it.
The yellow circle highlights my WeBoost cell booster antenna. I think this was a marginal purchase as it was expensive yet only slightly useful. It can take me from being able to sporadically send a text message to being able to do so more consistently. However, other important tasks like loading web pages can still be impossible.
Another feature that I added “right away” was an external power port. It turns out that it is easier to run an extension through the sliding door. Additionally, I mostly boondock so I don’t have access to AC power much of the time. The port above the power connector is a water inlet that I had to add to have Violet classified as an RV. I used the port once to demonstrate that it worked and I have not used it since.
My wife loves having the front seat swivel. It is a relatively simple DIY project to re-mount the seat.

These are just a few of the modifications that I have made to Violet the campervan. It is my hope that it will help new van owners decide on some of the additions that they may want to make.