For my world wide trip, I was considering taking many electronic articles with – pretty much you can name it and chances are I will be taking it. This includes the Raspberry Pi Tracking Systems, DSLR Camera, Laptop, Tablet, MP3 player, Mobile phone, an eBook reader and at one point I was considering a USB mini-fridge for a cold beer at the end of the day. In the past I’ve struggled to keep a few items going and have resorted to charging in public toilets, restuarants and everywhere that you could put two or three prongs in.
This time around I was considering a generating my own electricity – this was going to be a solar panel or dynamo system. I ruled out dynamo for a few reasons namely small (3W) supply, requiring a wheel to be rebuilt which on rickshaw I would be worried about and the charging kits are prohibitvely expensive. The only advantage they have is that they are reliable providing you pedal at 15 km/h which on a rickshaw isn’t always guaranteed.
Having contacted a few companies I was fortunate to get interest from Voltaic Systems. US, who were happy to lend their support with their products and a good discount to help me on my great journey.
I was originally considering a less powerful solution: a 10W Solar Panel with a V39 Battery Charger. Having bought a tablet with a DC 12 V input USB, this wouldn’t work and also I was considering a laptop because I find tablets incapable other than consuming media even after two months of familiarity. Instead, I opted for the more expensive V60 External Battery which for most people probably isn’t necessary and Jeff at Voltaic Systems kindly offered a Solar Panel upgrade to 16W.
Voltaic System’s V60 External Battery:
The kit provides a charging solution capable of charging laptops byand other devices which consume more power than a 5V USB charger at 1-2Amps. It can be operated as a standalone portable power supply but it is indended for use with their solar panel kit either a 3×3.3W Panel or 16.8W Kit.
It provides a substantial 16000 mAh capacity battery, capable of charging laptops and tablets twice over – obviously dependant on the device’s battery capacity and charging efficiency. Arguably, the V60 is much more than just a standard battery pack. It can deliver to meet higher power requirements, but it is designed to work efficiently with their solar panels having incorporated more sophisticated charging electronics inside.
The battery pack can offer higher voltages and currents than most other solutions (maximum power deliverable is 3A at 19V or 58W Max). The V39 on the other hand can only deliver a maximum 10W which is only capable of charging USB devices.
Their specification for the kit is available on their website.
The V60 retails in Europe at £130 or €149
16W Solar Panel Kit
The solar panel cells are manufactured by Bosch and use mono-crystalline silicon which provide improved solar efficiency over cheaper poly-crystalline cells. However, this adds to their expense. For individual solar cells, their efficiency is stated between 17.5-19% efficiency – solar energy converted to electrical power: see Bosch technical documents . Whereas Poly-crystalline tend to stat a maximumum efficiency of 14%.
The solar panel kit consists of three layers: a rigid aluminium panel with the solar cells sandwiched between a plastic ‘self-healing’ coating. From their website, their panel is waterproof, UV and scratch resistant – the plastic layer melts with heat from the sun giving peace of mind in more demanding conditions.
Underneath the panel there are small attachment screws that can be used to mount on difference surfaces depending on your application.
Unlike the 16W panel, the other kits use seperate panels and need to be attached together, but offer a voltage switcher that can allow you to charge your device directly at different voltages by switching between a series and parallel circuit.
A package from the states
The kit was dispatched from United States which offers a far better exchange rate compared to the British Pound and the Euro. Unfortunatly, I had to pay import VAT on the package because of customs and that also included a £16 handling charge. This couldn’t be helped, but the price from the European store is inclusive of any such taxes. Involement with customs, resulted in a delay.
The kit was packaged into two boxes. What seemed noticeable was the amount of packaging used – perhaps it was our special arrangements regarding delivery. This could be reduced considering the sustainable nature of the product.
The V60 is pretty comprehensive in terms of adapters that are included.
Their kit consists of:
- Mains charger
- Car Cigarette Charger
- DC Plug Adaptors
- USB adaptor cable
Admittedly the amount of cables made it slightly confusing and it was a bit of guesswork what plugged where, because the ends look similar. It would have been nice if they had included a very simple quick start guide with the solar panel itself or even colour coordinated cables, but that’s just a matter of convenience. I quickly found the correct adaptor for my tablet and confirmed the battery pack worked being already charged.
The V60 has a very sleek brushed aluminium shell and exudes toughness. The LED indicator in the top right indicates the current charge in a stylish manner and will also progressivly illuminate when being charged by mains or by the solar panels. The small details such as the rubber feet underneath for extra grip don’t go unnoticed and gives a good impression of quality construction. As well, the solar panel was rigid and the build quality definitely didn’t disappoint.
The only commentable problem was that the mains adapter is for an American plug socket, but I’d doubt this would be a problem if bought from their European store. It only requires finding a standard two prong cable adapter which seem to be a surplus in my house.
Ready to test
With the kit connected I took it outside, timed quite well with the sun coming out. Upon stepping outside the charging indicator came on instantly, so atleast I knew it worked. I was quite suprised how sensitive the solar panel was too.
Later in the afternoon when it became overcast, the charging indicator still came on. Although this is meaningless as it doesn’t indicate the actualy power generated by the solar panel. I left the V60 to discharge to prepare it for a test day.
Having barely discharged the battery (25%) after fully charging my tablet (Advent Vega), the V60 had three LED indicator lights ready. That day the weather was sunny spells with cloud. After leaving the kit around 3 hours after 3PM the indicator leds went up by one. Having left it to charge till dusk and the following morning the final led still didn’t appear. I’m not sure whether the sun was intense enough or the V60 has a slow charge cycle.
All lithium-ion batteries chargers should have a slow charge phase when their charge is around 80% of their capacity to increase their lifespan
Overall thoughts so far:
At this stage, I will admit the review needs some proper field testing to give a full verdict on how effective their kit is. I wish I could have been more scientific with my approach, but I don’t have the equipment to do so.
The difficulty is knowing how reliable the power generation will be whilst on the road, with my direction against the sun varying constantly. The solar panel will require some mounting on the roof canopy to provide the best inclination with the sun and its effectiveness will vary.
The other difficulty I will experience is the dwindling day light hours especially travelling through winter with a less intense sun. Nevertheless, I can forsee that the power pack would be invaluable as a back-up for a laptop and the solar panel would further supplement my power needs on the move, especially the raspberry-pi system which I am not prepared to turn off.
I am sure that when reliable electricity is difficult to find, the solar charging kit will prove to be a very valuable investment.
Thoughts for buyers
Look at your needs and how frequent you go travelling and the number of situations where you have come close to running out of power. Consider the number of gadgets taken with you and then you can justify if you need a solar charging kit and if sowhat size. For example, if you’ve can afford to go to cafes to use your laptop or stay at hotels, then a solar charging kit is probably not for you.
Instead, the V39 including smaller solar panels would probably suit most travellers / expeditions needing powered on the go. However the 16W Solar Panel can be more easily attached to your backpack, panniers. Browings, Voltaic Systems’ battery packs are more expensive than standard USB Lithium-Ion Batteries available on Amazon. However, there are very battery packs capable of powering and charging laptop systems.
For cycle tourers
I haven’t yet found an inexpensive means of converting electricity produced by a hub dyanamo to USB power. Some options that exist already
However, their niche application solely for cycling touring seems to make them inaffordable, which was the ultimate decision for going solar.
Later, I will update and adapt the review with my experiences when using the kit on my journey and the practical means of using it on a rickshaw.