If you are a vandweller or adventurer, you know that there are a few things that you must have, and one of the most important is a source of power to run and charge your electronic devices. Many vandwellers have 12-volt fridges, fans, and lighting systems. All have devices that need to be charged.
If your needs are simple, there are many small battery banks that will do the job. However, if you desire creature comforts, like a fridge, you will need a bigger battery system as well as a way to top off your battery. If your travels take you away from traditional campgrounds, your recharging system will most likely consist of solar panels.
In 2018 I purchased a new Ram Promaster and had a basic camper conversion done at Wayfarer Vans in Colorado Springs. This conversion gave me a functional camper, but I have spent the last four years adding and subtracting to its build, refining the design to fit my needs.
At the start of my van journey, I knew that I wanted a fridge, and I also knew that I would be doing a lot of boondocking. In 2018 most vandwellers who needed power cobbled together their own systems using AGM batteries, solar controllers, converters, inverters, and solar panels. I didn’t want this hassle, and there seemed to be a new option on the block, the solar generator.
Now common, these devices were fairly novel in 2018. However, the concept seemed perfect for me as everything needed for a full electrical system was available in a simple plug-and-play box. The big player in the 2018 market was Goal Zero, a Utah-based company that built quality products.
My initial setup consisted of a Goal Zero 1250 Solar Generator (100 AH battery) and 300 watts of Renogy solar panels mounted on my campervan’s roof. I modified an existing storage bin in my van (a boot box) to become her power center. The Goal Zero did the job, but it had some significant drawbacks. Its 12-volt receptacle was not regulated, so I was always afraid that its voltage would drop and my fridge would turn off (this never happened in the two years that I used the unit). It used an AGM battery which was both enormously heavy and had a power usage limit of a maximum 50% percent draw, so its usable capacity was 50 AH, not 100 AH. In addition, AGM batteries have a limited number of recharge cycles. Lastly, charge time using any source was fairly slow for the Goal Zero.
I increased my battery capacity by daisy-chaining two more 100 AH AGM batteries giving me a usable capacity of 150 AH (50% of 300 AH), and I started to expand my electrical use. With this system, I could run a tiny microwave and use an induction burner at medium or lower power. I love the idea of free energy, and so my power needs expanded further by adding a Webasto heater (which uses power to run its fan) to the mix.
With my Goal Zero system, I was able to get by, but I always had to be very mindful of exactly what I was doing. Worse was the weight of the system. The Goal Zero was so heavy that I needed help to lift it out of the battery box, and with two additional and very heavy AGM batteries jammed into the box, it was impossible to do any troubleshooting when I was solo and away from home. The answer to these problems came with Bluetti’s Indiegogo campaign for the AC200. I can’t remember the exact cost of the unit, but it was very reasonable at the time. I bought one, replaced the Goal Zero, and I haven’t looked back. I have had the AC200 since 2020, and I feel that I can give a fairly balanced review. Please note that the AC200 has been replaced by the AC200P, which is similar to my unit, but the battery was changed from Li to LifePO4 and increased in capacity from 1700 AH to 2000 AH.
Pros of the Bluetti
-Significantly lighter (around 60 pounds) compared to my old Goal Zero. I can easily lift it.
-Lithium batteries can be discharged to 10%, so my available power is the same as my previous three battery super-heavy system.
-Depending on the battery’s chemistry lithium batteries can be recharged from one thousand to several thousand cycles. I think mine can be recharged well over 1000 times. This would give my battery a decade of life based on its current use.
-The unit can use up to 700 watts of solar for faster charging. I increased my roof solar to 400 watts, which is the max that I can fit on the van’s roof.
-The AC brick charges significantly faster than my Goal Zero unit. At approximately 500 watts/hour.
-You can buy an additional charger and double your charge rate to around 1000 watts/hour.
-You can fully charge your unit in 3 to 3.5 hours. In real terms, charging to 100% is faster than that, as I never bring my battery down to 10%.
-The 12-volt power supply is regulated, so I always have the correct voltage for my fridge and any other voltage-sensitive devices (like my Webasto heater).
-The unit has a 2000-watt pure sine wave inverter. I can run my induction burner at its full power without worry. Naturally, excessive use will quickly drain my battery.
-Induction charging pads are available on the top of the unit for phone charging (sadly, they don’t seem to work with my particular iPhone).
-A 60-watt USB C port is available for charging small laptops or iPads.
-The display panel provides tons of information for the geek in me.
-The availability of a powerful inverter has opened up the world of free energy. I not only use an induction cooktop and microwave, but I also have a little Keurig-type coffee maker and even a small electric pressure cooker.
Cons of the Bluetti
-The display is always on; you can’t turn it off. If you are light-sensitive, this could be a problem at night. Naturally, you can cover the display with something like an index card to darken it.
-The unit requires a higher voltage from solar instead of the 12 volts required by other units. I had to rewire my solar panels in series from parallel to give me around 48 volts of output. In itself, this isn’t a big deal. However, I carry some smaller battery banks that I can’t charge with my solar array because they require 12 volts.
-My biggest concern with the Bluetti is phantom power loss. The unit has to be on to accept solar charging. In fact, if solar is plugged into the unit, it will switch itself on. If the unit is on with no load (both DC and AC power turned off), it will drop (on average) from 100% charge to about 90% in 24 hours. This is a very significant draw. If my battery charge is lower, the percentage drop is even greater. I have read about this phantom loss concern in Bluetti’s forum, so I know that it isn’t specific to my unit. I have also contacted Bluetti about it. The only option given was to turn off the unit, which is not always practical.
If I’m running my fridge, I not only have to deal with the power usage from the fridge but also an additional 10%+ reduction from other sources. Those sources include the phantom loss and any overhead loss incurred by the unit’s voltage regulation circuitry.
If the unit is completely turned off, it continues to lose power, but at a much slower rate. This is in contrast to other solar generators that I have used that will maintain a 100% charge for months when off.
I can easily recoup the phantom loss if I have full sun exposure. In addition, I have a 2KW inverter connected to my car battery. If I am driving, I’ll switch the inverter on, which connects to the Bluetti’s AC brick allowing me to charge from both solar and AC.
However, there have been times when this power loss has been an issue. I was recently camping for a weekend in a partially shaded area. I was stationary for the entire weekend. I was very conservative with my power use and only ran my Dometic fridge plus very light usage of my house lights. In addition, I used a 650-watt microwave (950-watt input) once for about 3 minutes during the entire weekend. I used a small battery bank to charge my phone (more convenient). Finally, I idled the car for about 25 minutes once during the weekend to power my car’s inverter to charge my Bluetti.
Total time off-grid was from Friday at around 4 PM to Sunday around 11 AM. By Sunday, my battery was at 50%. This battery usage was acceptable but a bit troubling. If I was going to stay at that site any longer, I would have had to have moved the van into the direct sun (options were limited), or I would have had to go for a drive to charge the Bluetti via my car’s inverter.
I hope that this phantom power loss has been eliminated in newer units. Ten percent is 170 watts of lost power. The lower the battery, the greater the percentage loss. For instance, at 50% capacity, I have 850 WH. A 170-watt loss is now 20% of my total capacity. This phantom loss was not present in my Goal Zero or smaller units (like my Jackery 500) that I use, so it is unclear why this is happening with my Bluetti unit.
There are so many things that I like about my Bluetti AC200. However, the phantom power loss is a concern; I have found workarounds for it. My favorite features (compared to my old Goal Zero 1250 system) are its lighter weight, smaller overall footprint, fast charging, and 2000-watt pure sine wave inverter.
The Bluetti is competitively priced for a brand-named unit. However, there are now a number of no-name brands that are more reasonable. With that said, buying a no-name brand can be a bit of a crap shoot. I saw a review where a unit could not be turned off of eco-mode. It would turn off if it didn’t constantly have a draw on it. This could be a real problem using an intermittent draw device like a fridge. I watched another review of a different unit that didn’t allow for pass-through charging. In addition, no-name units often have very poor product support.
If you are looking for a solar generator to complement your car or van setup, it is very reasonable to consider Bluetti. Mine has served me well since 2020.