Category Archives: Solar Generator

Everything A Van Dweller Needs To Know About Power Stations/Solar Generators

One of the advantages of owning Violet the campervan since 2018 is that I have learned what works and what doesn’t when it comes to house battery systems. Naturally, that assumption is based on my particular needs. However, I’m pretty generic, so my needs are likely similar to many others. 

Who am I to inform you? Am I an electrical engineer or an expert in solar energy? Not at all. I understand electronics (I hold an advanced amateur radio license), am comfortable with technology, and have worked with various power systems in my van since 2018. In addition, I have tested quite a few solar generators and solar panels, as I’m an official reviewer for a large online internet marketplace (side gig). Based on this, I would call myself an informed consumer.

Individuals choose a part-time or full-time life in a vehicle for many reasons. Some enjoy the adventure; others do it for economics. Vehicles exist in various sizes, impacting what you can and can not do. Are you living full-time in a Prius or vacationing in a converted school bus? These are two very different environments. Lastly, different people have different desires. Some want a minimalist lifestyle, while others desire all of the comforts of home. A financially secure individual in a class C motor home who camps at RV resorts has completely different needs than someone boondocking full-time in their Astrovan.  

It is impossible to come up with a one-size-fits-all scenario because of this. In today’s post, my goal will be to help the reader to start thinking about their power needs as I offer some potential solutions. 

Fit yourself loosely into one of these three categories: 

-Minimalist: Your power needs are minimal. Your electronics consist of your smartphone. You don’t use a refrigerator and instead rely on daily shopping or only eating shelf-stable foods. You may have a few USB chargeable items, like a headlamp or light pucks. 

-Average user: You use a 12-volt fridge and may use other items like a vent fan. You like to travel with your tablet or energy-efficient laptop, but you don’t regularly do computer-intensive activities like video editing. 

-Power-user: You need a reliable and constant energy source to power your fridge and other electrical devices like a blender, induction cooktop, and microwave. You may have advanced electronics like a Starlink internet connection. You use a powerful laptop regularly. You consider your vehicle your home on wheels and want to live a life of modern conveniences.

It is essential to determine your van life situation. A weekend warrior can charge a large battery at home before and after a trip. A weekend warrior’s power needs will differ from someone who has to rely on their power system in a permanent boondocking scenario.

Where are you going to camp? Will you spend your winters in sunny Arizona or live in the often overcast Pacific Northwest? I have 400 watts of solar on my roof, and in an ideal sunny situation, those panels have an output of around 360 watts. However, their output can be as little as 10 to 25 watts on an overcast day. If you plan on spending a lot of time in cloudy environments, you will need more than solar panels to keep your battery system healthy. 

My friend helping me install 400 watts of solar on my roof.

Appliances can use different amounts of power at different times. Let’s look at a fridge for an example. A fridge running in a 70F environment will use less power than one that keeps your food cold in a 90F environment. A full fridge will be more efficient than one that is empty. Likewise, a fridge will use less power than a fridge/freezer. 

Some devices use constant power, while others use power intermittently. A roof fan uses continuous power. If it is rated at 35 watts, it will use 35 watts in one hour. A small electric pressure cooker may be rated at 700 watts. It uses full power to bring the unit up to pressure, but then it may power on only 20% of the time to maintain pressure. This can make it difficult to determine your power needs. The easiest solution is to use a wattage meter (“Kill-A-Watt”) to get a general idea of the wattage used based on the quantity and type of food you cook. 

A small electric pressure cooker can be very efficient as it only uses full power to get up to pressure and then cycles on and off to maintain pressure.

This is all that you need to know:

If you are an average or above user, get the largest power system that you can:

  1. Afford.
  2. Fit into your vehicle without compromising your living space.
  3. Keep charged by whatever means available to you.

Build or buy?

Building a battery system will be less expensive than buying an all-in-one solar generator, but only if you build the system yourself. Hiring a technician to create a custom system can be costly. The technical knowledge to develop your system can be acquired by reading articles and watching YouTube videos. It is essential to match your components and to do things correctly. You need to use the correct gauge wire and many other considerations. Although I have the skill to build a system, I have always used solar generators for my van’s house power needs. The remainder of this post will focus on solar generators as they are the easiest and best solution for many. Your mileage may vary. 

Solar Generators.

The price of solar generators has dropped considerably over the last few years. I love their “plug-and-play” ability and portability. All of the parts of a solar generator are matched, so everything works well together. Typically, their footprint will be smaller than a comparable custom system. Their downside is that if one component fails, it can take down the whole system. However, I have never had that happen in my years of van life.

Battery types.

Lead acid/AGM batteries.  

The original battery type used in solar generators These batteries are heavy and have many disadvantages over newer battery chemistries. However, they can operate and charge at a wider range of temperatures than newer battery types. For many, this technology is obsolete for a vehicle’s house battery needs.

My first solar generator was a Goal Zero Yeti 1250. It was super heavy due to its AGM battery and I could only use about 50% of its power at any given time.


This is the battery chemistry of choice for most. There are several chemistries for this battery class, but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll split them into two types: Lithium-ion and Lithium Iron Phosphate (LifePO4).

Lithium-ion batteries are often used in electronics (like phones) and EVs (electric vehicles) because they are more energy-dense than LifePO4 batteries. This means the batteries are both smaller and lighter than a LifePO4 system. There are cases where these batteries can enter an uncontrollable self-heating state and catch fire. This will more likely happen with poorly manufactured batteries with cheap BMS (battery management system) circuitry. 

I then moved on to this Bluetti lithium ion battery. it worked well, but it had a few quirks that bugged me. I now use a Pecron E3000 battery that I like.

LiFePO4 (lithium iron phosphate) batteries are not likely to enter into an uncontrollable thermal cascade. Additionally, they can be charged and discharged many more times than a lithium-ion cell. However, they are significantly bulkier and heavier than a similarly capable lithium-ion battery.

Both battery chemistries are reasonable to use in a solar generator. If you need the lightest/smallest package, go with lithium-ion. If you want the safest option that will also last longer, go with LiFePO4. The overall trend in solar generators is to use LiFePO4 batteries.

Lithium batteries can be discharged to around 10% of their total charge compared to lead acid/AGM batteries, which should only be discharged to about 50% of their capacity. Solar Generator companies will list how many times a battery can be discharged and recharged before it degrades. They usually list the number of charge cycles before a battery is reduced to 80% capacity. However, other companies fudge these numbers and will give you the number of cycles to 70% capacity, so be aware of what you are reading. If you are a part-time van dweller, most solar generators will last you many years. If you live in your van 365 days a year, use a battery system that can be discharged many times before its performance degrades. 

How big of a battery system should you get?

As stated above, as much as you can. However, here are some basic guidelines.

First, a caution. Solar generator manufacturers sometimes list the power of their unit’s AC inverter front and center. They may say something like “1000-watt solar generator,” but the actual battery bank may only be 600 watt/hour, while the AC inverter is 1000 watts.  

Look for “watt/hours” to determine the capacity of a solar generator. However, knowing an inverter’s power is also essential, as a larger inverter can allow the end user to use more powerful appliances, like a small microwave. Watt/Hours tells you how much power storage you have; inverter size tells you what you can run on AC.

You lose some of your battery power in “translation,” additionally, the unit’s BMS will never allow for a full battery discharge. Therefore, the actual run time will be less than the calculated run time. For example, you have a 500-watt/hour unit. The overall runtime of an appliance that uses 500 watts will be less than an hour (500/500 = 1.0 hour, minus overhead energy use), and the overall runtime of an appliance that uses 250 watts will be less than 2 hours (500/250 = 2.0 hours, minus overhead energy use). 

The 300-watt/hour range systems are great for charging cell phones and running simple devices like USB fans. They are small, so they recharge quickly. Their size makes it possible to take them into public places (like a coffee shop, workplace, or library) and discretely charge them. Naturally, do this only with appropriate permission.

Small battery banks are simple to use and can easily charged at a coffee shop or library. Get one that has fast charging capabilities.

Systems in the 700-1500 watt/hour range are helpful for the average van dweller. They are reasonably priced and have enough capacity to run your fridge even if you have a cloudy day or two and your system can’t get enough solar. Higher capacity units may be enough to power some electric appliances.

Systems in the 2000 watt/hour and beyond range open up the possibility for power use. These units typically have large inverters to energize power-hungry devices like a small microwave or an induction burner. 

Features to look for in a Solar Generator.

-The ability to accept higher-powered solar panel systems. More input will mean faster charging.

-The right size pure sine wave inverter (as opposed to modified sine wave inverter) that converts DC power to the AC power home appliances need. 

-A regulated 12-volt power output. Batteries will drop their voltage as they discharge. Some appliances (like 12-volt fridges) and medical devices (like CPAP machines) need a constant voltage to operate. A regulated output accomplishes this. However, this circuitry will use more battery in the regulation process.  

-Fast charging from an AC source. Some newer solar generators can recharge very fast when plugged into shore power. Older design units may take many hours to accomplish what a more recent device can do in a single hour. I have an older Jackery that charges at 65 watts/hour, while my new (and very high capacity) Pecron can charge at almost 1000 watts/hour. 

-Pass-through charging allows you to use your devices simultaneously while charging.

-The right port complement will make your life easier. For instance, if your computer can charge via USB C, having this available on your solar generator will be more efficient than using the power inverter to convert DC to AC for your computer’s power adapter and then having the adapter convert it back to DC for your computer’s charging circuitry.  

-The right-sized inverter. An inverter converts the DC current from your battery to the AC house current that many appliances use. If you plan on using power-hungry appliances (like a small microwave), you will need an inverter sized to accomplish this. For instance, a typical 700-watt (output) dorm microwave requires an input power of around 1,100 watts. A solar generator with an inverter with a capacity of 1500 watts would be the minimum requirement in this situation. 

Note that AC Inverters use energy to convert battery DC power to AC power. Larger inverters use more conversion power than smaller units. Therefore, you want to pick a solar generator with an inverter that is “big enough” but not so large that you are wasting power by just keeping the AC on. 

Pro Tip:  If you are changing from one solar generator to another, pay attention to the new unit’s solar panel requirements.  Low Watt/Hour units often require low voltage solar panels in the 12-24 volt range, while larger units typically require solar panels that may be in the 36+ volt range.  If you have multiple solar panels it is simple to increase your panel’s voltage by connecting them in series instead of parallel.  Two 18 volt panels connected in series will yield 36 volts (18 + 18 = 36 volts). 

Pro Tip: I only turn on the AC when I need to run something that needs it, and I immediately turn it off when I am done. Continuously leaving an inverter on can drain a large battery bank in a day, even if it isn’t powering any appliances. Beyond my AC-powered cooking appliances, most of the things that I use are run on DC power (fridge, fan, heater). 

All appliances list their maximum power draw on a label located on the back or the bottom of the unit. My current solar generator has a 2000-watt inverter built in, which is enough for my “all-electric” van’s needs. I can carefully use an induction burner, microwave, coffee pot, and even a three-quart Instant Pot, but only one at a time.

My current Pecron battery has 3,000 watts of power and a 2,000 watt inverter. I use it minus its trolley.

-There may be other solar generator features that could be important to you, like the ability to control the unit with an app or a wireless charging pad for your phone. I like newer units that have their AC recharging circuitry built into the unit (instead of an external power brick). However, I don’t consider that to be a mandatory requirement.

You can go small if you are creative.

People do operate 12-volt fridges with small solar generators. However, they do this with compromise. Some use two small 300-watt/hour units. They use one to run the fridge while they charge the other one with a folding solar panel. Others use small solar generators and load their fridge with purchased ice (turning it into a temporary ice chest) when they have a run of cloudy days. The less you rely on electricity, the smaller the system that you need.

Ways to recharge your solar generator.

Rooftop solar panels

I have 400 watts of solar power on my van’s roof, and this has served me well.

Advantages: Set and forget. My panels are always charging my batteries when the sun is present.

Disadvantages: It can be expensive (if you use a professional installer) or mildly complicated (if you do it yourself) to mount. Being flat on the roof, the panels have a sub-optimal angle for solar charging. They don’t generate power if I’m parked in the shade.

Folding solar panels.

Advantage: No installation, simple to use. You can place them at the proper angle to capture the most solar energy. You can place them in the sun while keeping the van in the shade.

Disadvantages: May not have a high enough voltage needed for larger solar generators. Clunky. They can only be used when you are stationary. They can be stolen. 

Here I’m testing some folding solar panels. They come in a variety of designs and wattage levels.

Secondary Inverter.

I have an inverter connected to my car’s battery, and my solar generator’s charging brick is connected to the inverter.  

Advantage: I can run the AC appliances independently off this unit if I idle my van. When I drive, I can charge my solar generator at a high rate. Caution, as some brand-X inverters are not what they say they are. I had a 1500-watt unit that could only produce around 900 watts of power. I now have a Xantrex unit that was at least twice as expensive, but it does the job. 

Disadvantage: An additional expense. It may stress smaller vehicle’s electrical systems. 

I can use this power inverter to charge my solar generator or independently power my appliances if needed.

Car accessory (cigarette lighter) socket.  

Advantage: Using this is as simple as plugging in a patch cord into your cigarette lighter and then into your solar generator.

Disadvantage: At most, you can only charge at 10 Amps ( 10 Amps x 12 Volts = 120 Watts). In many cases, your system will only allow you to charge at 65 watts. This may work for small solar generators or folks who are constantly driving, but more is needed for most. 

Inverter Generator.

These are relatively small gas generators that have a pure sine wave AC power output.  

Advantage: You can keep your battery charged regardless of sky or shade conditions. They are very efficient, so a little gas goes a long way. Such a generator could charge up a solar generator for a relatively small cost. Honda is the class leader but is expensive. There are a number of Chinese brands that offer a similar capability for a fraction of the price of a Honda unit. However, they may not have the longevity of a Honda. I have a cheap Chinese unit, but I have never needed to use it. 

Disadvantage: These generators take up space, and you also have to carry gasoline.  

A typical inverter generator.

AC Mains Power.

Advantage: If you have access to regular AC power, use it to keep your solar generator topped off. I take advantage of AC power whenever I am able. I just plug the solar generator’s charging brick into the AC to keep the solar generator’s batteries fully charged. 

Disadvantage: You have to have an outlet handy. This won’t be the case in many National Parks or in any boondocking situations.

Be sensible.

When you have to rely on a potentially unreliable power source, it is important to have some sort of backup. Although I do the majority of cooking with electricity, I also have a small butane stove. Additionally, I have battery operator lights and even a battery-operated fan. On a recent trip with my son, my 12-volt fridge mechanically failed. Luckily, we had enough emergency shelf-stable foods to “carry on.” There are no emergencies for those who are prepared. 

If you have a run of cloudy days you can always use an a different method to cook with. Be prepared.


We all know the big brands, which are often excellent products. I have used Goal Zero, Jackery, and Bluetti systems, and they are good. Off brands are mixed, but most are OK (I have tested many). Some less-known brands stand out. I have been especially pleased with my current Pecron system, and I have also heard good things about the Oupes brand.  

I have changed my power system several times, initially out of need, now more out of tweaking interest. However, most users can be “one and done” with a little thought.

I hope that this post has helped new van-dwelling get an understanding of the ins and outs of van-life power.  

With my friend’s help I recently rebuilt my kitchen to accommodate my “all electric” life style. I cook with electricity around 90% of the time (even when boondocking).
My induction cook top pulls out of the kitchen for ease of use.

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!


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.