A Definitive Guide to Buying a Solar Powered Generator
Solar power is perhaps the greenest alternative to fossil fuels, and the need for a green alternative to gas and diesel can hardly be overemphasized. With growing concerns regarding climate change and greenhouse emissions, we need to switch to renewable energy sources, now more than ever.
The concept is nothing new. What if you could power your home with solar energy? While it certainly is plausible, the cost-effectiveness of these setups is often brought into question, and rightly so. A solar-powered generator attempts to solve that problem and brings you off-grid clean and affordable power.
If you’re planning on investing in a solar-powered generator but don’t know where to start, this post is for you. Read on, as we break down everything you need to know before you go shopping for your new alternative backup power source.
What is a solar power generator?
At its core, a solar generator makes use of solar panels to capture and convert sunlight directly into electricity and then storing that current in its batteries. But since this current is direct (which cannot be used to power your appliances and devices), it has to be converted into alternating or AC. A power inverter serves that purpose.
Said another way: it’s a box with a battery and power inverter – a box which can be used to charge your electronic devices and power your appliances directly.
A solar power generator can power a few appliances at once and charge your devices like smartphones, tablets, and laptops. So they can be better thought of as backup power, in cases when your grid is down, or if you’re planning on powering, say an RV.
What makes them so portable is the compactness of their solar panels – which are smaller than your average solar panel but meant for residential use. But regardless of their size, they should last you anywhere between two to three decades, so that’s free energy for up to 30 years.
And it’s not just the longevity that’s attractive; you can just install it and forget it. The sun will charge the batteries, and the batteries will power your home. There’s no need for buying and pouring (which is almost always a hassle) gas into your generator every few hours.
Why choose solar-powered generator over a gas-powered one?
Where solar powered generators outstrip gas generators is in safety and quiet operation. Unlike gas-powered generators, they don’t emit poisonous carbon monoxide, so they can safely be used indoors.
Secondly, gas generators can be loud – sometimes as loud as a lawnmower or garbage disposal, which can be disruptive. Solar generators, on the other hand, don’t make any noise.
It doesn’t just end there. Gas generators have moving parts – which means the machine will wear and tear in the absence of regular maintenance. Even solidly built durable generators require proper maintenance if you want them to last you a few years. But solar generators don’t have mechanical parts that would wear out, so they’re fairly low maintenance. What that means is you won’t have to buy and change air and gas filters, or change the oil every so often, or proof it against winter.
Then there’s the fact that you save a lot if you opt for solar power over fossil fuels. The difference might not be apparent readily, but it adds up over time. So if you’re playing the long game, solar power is always a smart investment.
And on top of all that, they’re lightweight and portable. In addition to relying on them as a backup in emergencies, you can also take them with you to your camping trips.
Speaking of camping, if you own gadgets or devices built for camping (the kind which run on DC), most solar generators feature DC outlets along with regular AC outlets.
Which size would be right?
What size your solar generator should be depends solely on how many devices or appliances you intend to charge or power with it. And unlike gas generators which generate up to 4000 W of power and still be portable, solar generators can only max out at 2000 W, if you don’t want to lose portability.
If you’ll only be using it to charge your electronics, a 500 W generator should do the trick, but if you want to keep a few appliances going at once, as in the case of a power outage, you’ll need 1000+ W. You’ll also have to figure out how long do you plan on running them on solar power.
But since every consumer would have different energy demands, you should work out your own estimated consumption and make the decision accordingly. If that sounds like too much work, you can use online tools to help you calculate how much power your appliances use.
Although a portable generator can power your appliances like washing machine and refrigerator for a couple of hours, if you’re expecting the power outage to last days, a portable generator simply won’t cut it.
If you think you need more power out of your solar generator you can go with a heavy-duty solar generator instead of a portable one. A solar backup generator can keep your lights on, keep your refrigerator going, and keep your TV running during emergencies.
But evidently, you lose portability because these backup generators are heavy and very difficult to move around.
Depending on the device on the receiving end, each of the generator parts can have a rating of 12/24/48 V. The inverter converts DC into AC and also steps up the voltage from 12/24/48 V to the standard 110 or 240 V.
So you’ll need to consider your inverter rating. What that means in other words, is that once the charge has been stored in the battery, it’ll be drawn by the appliances for use. The rating tells you how much power a given appliance can draw at a time.
Your first thought might be that the bigger that rating the better the setup is. But that’s not entirely true. The efficiency of the inverter is limited by the battery. If the battery your inverter is hooked to is a 500Wh, there’s no point in using, say, a 1500W inverter. As a rule of thumb, for an inverter with that rating, a 2000 W battery would be a good fit.
Which type of batteries to use?
You’ll find that most generators come with Li-Ion batteries. That’s because they’re the most economical option, and they last longer too. Some generators also utilize lead-acid batteries but they’re not as common. To extend the storage capacity, you can use multiple batteries using something called ‘chaining’.
Which accessories will you need?
A few generators you come across will feature built-in solar panels but there is a good chance that the make and model you choose doesn’t ship with solar panels – which is a good thing (more on that in a few). And if your household doesn’t already have solar panels installed, you’ll have to purchase them separately.
One caveat though. Make sure that the panels you buy are compatible with the generator, if they aren’t you might have to find some extra components to address the compatibility issue.
The size of the control panel which you’ll be buying is a different matter entirely. You see, the size of the panels would largely depend on the size of the solar generator you picked. But their size will also be determined by how quickly you intend to recharge your batteries.
The more quickly you want to recharge, the larger the solar panel would have to be. Straightforward enough. For instance, if the generator you chose is small, panel size of 80 watts should be enough. And conversely, for larger generators, you might need up to 180 watts of photovoltaic (PV) output.
Unlike the fixed solutions, a solar power generator affords more portability, whether it features integrated or separate solar panels.
You’ll also need a charge controller to regular how much input voltage the batteries receive. It’ll keep the system from overcharging. But bear in mind, you will lose a portion of power to this unavoidable regulation.
Pitfalls to avoid?
As mentioned above, try not to shortlist generators with integrated solar panels. The reason being that the heat from the panels will damage the battery and it won’t last as long. Secondly, do your research and put together the parts you need yourself. Not only it makes the repairs simpler, but it also means you’re getting the quality that you paid for.
To bottom line it for you, by switching to solar power, you won’t just be saving the environment, but also a lot of money. They can be a reliable backup source during emergencies, and if you picked a portable generator, you can take it along on camping trips, with the difference that other campers within half a mile radius won’t be irritated by the noise from a gas-guzzling generator.