Guide to Portable Solar Generators/Power Stations
Updated on September 24, 2020 to reflect the latest prices and product information.
GOOD AT MANY THINGS, GREAT AT NONE
Known by various names — portable solar generators, portable power stations, portable generators, power banks — these devices feature impressive versatility and act as super-high capacity multi-functional power banks. In addition to a regular AC power outlet, they are chargeable from solar panels (where the term “solar generator” comes from) and car cigarette sockets. Many have pass-through charging capability (able to charge and supply power simultaneously) and come with USB ports, flashlight lamps, and sometimes even cables for jump-starting a drained car battery.
Still, these are not “generators” in the true sense of the word — they are simply large power banks that can be charged various ways (solar, car, wall outlet). That’s why our preferred name for them is “portable power stations”, a name that suggests they are one rank in size above power banks, which are primarily intended for mobile devices.
Comparison of Top Products Available as of September 2020.
Jackery Portable Power Station Explorer 160
Rockpals Portable Generator
NinjaBatt Portable Power Station
Jackery Portable Power Station Explorer 1000
|Watt-hour (WH)||167 Wh||250 Wh||222 Wh||288 Wh||1002 Wh|
|Price ($/WH)||$150 ($0.90/Wh)|| $190
|$190 ($0.85/Wh)||$300 ($1.04/Wh)||$999 ($1.00/Wh)|
|Maximum output (W)||100W rated, 150W peak||250W rated,
|300W max.|| 1000W rated,
|Size||7.40 x 4.59 x 6.73 inches||8.9 x 3.9 x 6.3 inches||9.84 x 3.35 x 5.12 inches||7.4 x 5.9 x 5.5 inches||13.1 x 9.2 x 11.1 inches|
|Weight||3.97 lb||5.95 lb||5.6 lb||7.5 lb||22.04 lb|
|Charge time (outlet)||5 hours||7-8 hours||N/A||5-6 hours||7-8 hours|
|Solar panel input||12V-30V, Up to 42W||18V with DC 5.5*2.5mm MC4 connector||18V/Up to 100W||DC input including MC4 connector||14V-40V/Up to 150W|
|Manual (PDF)||User Manual||User Manual||User Manual|
– First, decide how many watt-hours (Wh) you’ll need and can afford ($0.76 to $1.00 per Wh).
– Next, decide what devices you’ll need to power and add the total estimated wattage (maximum output (W)).
– Then, take into consideration the size, weight (portability), and other features (USB ports, flashlight, solar panel voltage input range, etc.).
Read more below to find out more about our selection criteria and recommended applications for portable power stations.
High Capacity in Lightweight, Compact Design
How Long Will My Devices Run (Calculating with Wh)?
Not a Replacement for Gasoline Generators
Gas Generator vs. Portable Power Station
Solar and Car Charging
HIGH CAPACITY IN LIGHTWEIGHT, COMPACT DESIGN
Typically powered by lithium batteries, these portable power stations pack large amounts of power into a lightweight and compact size, especially compared to the heavy and large footprints of devices using lead acid batteries like uninterruptible power supply (UPS). The tradeoff for these features is a higher cost, but many new and similar products are continually being launched, resulting in competitive prices. These products are ideal for brief power outages or camping when a charging source is unavailable for a short time.
HOW LONG WILL MY DEVICES RUN (CALCULATING WITH Wh) ?
Portable power stations express their capacity as watt-hours (Wh), where 1 Wh means that 1 watt is used for 1 hour.
Because about 10% to 15% of power is lost during power conversion, which is normal for all power stations, use the following formula to calculate how long a selected power station will run your device.
(Power capacity of power bank (Wh)) x 0.85 / (Device wattage (W))
And so, if your device is averaging 60 W usage, for the 250 Wh power station above, we get 250 Wh x 0.85 / 60 W= 3.54 hours.
Notebook computers can vary widely between 25W and 120W (power-hungry gaming machines) and more. Tablets and cell phones typically use 3W to 6W.
Refer to this page for the wattage of typical household appliances, or you can use the Kill a Watt electricity usage monitor to measure your actual usage patterns at home to better plan for what to use in an outage.
Don’t be foolish and plug in a power-hungry heating device. Assuming even that the auto power-off function of the portable power station is not activated, you could use up your stored power in less than an hour. For example, a typical electrical blanket at 200 W would use the power of the 300 Wh generator in only 1.275 hours (300 x 0.85 /200). Then, the generator would need to be recharged (taking about 7 hours usually), but if it has pass-through capability, you can still use it while charging.
A full gas generator can run at least TWO to THREE times longer than the highest capacity power station below. Plus, it can be recharged (= refilled with gas) in minutes, compared to 7-8 hours for the power station. To see what we mean, let’s compare the Honda EU1000i (model with inverter for providing safe power to your electronics) with the high-end Jackery Portable Power Station Explorer 1000.
GAS GENERATOR VS. PORTABLE POWER STATION
Honda EU1000i Gas Inverter Generator
Jackery Portable Power Station Explorer 1000
|Maximum Power Output||1000W||1000W continuous
|Run Time||2490 WH based on:
5 hrs at 1/2 load (4.15A) on 0.5 gal of gas
|Other Advantages||– Can provide nearly continuous operation of high-load appliances such as refrigerators (max. 8.3A) with breaks for refueling only.
– If gasoline is readily available, it is quick and easy to “recharge” (=refill) this generator compared to the 7 hours needed to recharge the portable power station
– Inverter provides stable power supply for sensitive electronic devices
|– Extremely low noise (sometimes slight buzzing or fan sound)
– Lightweight (only 22.0 lb vs. 46.5 lb dry weight of gas generator)
– No worries about gasoline spoiling, oil changes, and other maintenance
– Can be used inside the home, whereas the Honda gas generator MUST be used outside due to danger of carbon monoxide poisoning
|Price (Subject to Change)||$999
As you can see, with a half-gallon of gas, the Honda EU1000i Gas Generator provides (120V outlet) total supplied power of 2,490 WH (1/2 load), which is about 2.5 times as much power as a fully-charged Jackery Portable Power Station Explorer 1000. The maximum power output of the Honda EU1000i Gas Generator is identical to that of the Jackery Portable Power Station Explorer 1000, and this means that means that they can both can run your refrigerator (typically rated 540W), heating appliances (typically 100W or more), and still have capacity to spare.
However, the power station will be out of service for 7 or 8 hours while recharging, but the gas generator can be filled up with gas in a few minutes and used again!
From my experience, portable power stations are convenient for short power outages, but you’ll still need a gas generator for extended power outages. Best of all, combine the two by using multiple portable power stations within the house and then recharging them periodically with the gas generator. (However, if you are considering this option, you may want to consider installing a natural gas generator in your home. Costs typically start at $5,000.)
Remember — although the portable power station can be used inside the home, the gas generator MUST be used outside due to the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning.
SOLAR AND CAR CHARGING
Although charging from solar panels or your car is not ideal, this could be useful for camping or as a backup option.
Most portable power stations have a range of accepted input voltages from solar panels or a recommended voltage. Check that your solar panels match this range and you have the required connector, or better yet, purchase your solar panels from the same manufacturer as your portable power station for ensuring full compatibility and connectivity.
For example, solar panels are available from Suaoki and Jackery in addition to their portable power stations.
PASS-THROUGH FUNCTION — Not Recommended for Use as Full-time UPS
Although many of these portable power stations have a pass-through function which enables use as a UPS, you’d be foolish to use it as your full-time UPS. For example, the Jackery Portable Power Station and similar models feature 167 WH (watt-hours) of power and have this pass-through function, but for a similar price you can get a UPS like the Tripp Lite 1500VA UPS Battery Pack with about 70 WH. Although this UPS has less WH than the portable generator, it is packed with UPS-specific features such as LCD screen with power monitoring, surge protection, and more. Plus, the battery in a UPS can be replaced (typical lifespan is 2 to 3 years) for about $20-$25, which will save you money in the long run. The batteries in portable power stations CANNOT be replaced, and that’s why these are more suitable for occasional use, instead of the daily charging and draining that would occur as a UPS.
Instead, the pass-through function is best for situations where you need to charge your power station and also draw power at the same time, such as when camping or during an outage when you have access to a single source of power (solar, car, or electric power).
If you want something more portable (such as a size that will fit in a backpack, see our analysis of portable external batteries for gaming (high-performance) laptops.
Also, under current TSA regulations, NONE of the power stations featured above would be allowed in carry-on or checked luggage. However, please check the latest regulations before departure.
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