What Is a Solar Generator? The Definitive Guide
Solar electricity is steadily becoming a popular form of powering electronics. For those of us who use solar power, it seems simple but, of course, knowing what a solar generator is, is a little more complicated.
Solar generators work alongside solar panels to act as backup power and keep parts of your system running in times of emergency outages.
The term “solar generator” can be quite confusing, as they don't create electricity. Rather, they’re a power storage unit that collects the power generated by solar panels.
In this article, we discuss what a solar generator is, how they work, the pros and cons of owning one, as well as how to choose the right one to power your needs.
What Exactly Is a Solar Generator?
To put it simply, a solar generator is a battery storage system that is portable and powered by panels.
A solar generator generally consists of a battery, an inverter, and a charge controller, and is usually installed alongside solar panels. It’s more of a small, portable “power station” as opposed to an actual generator, as it can’t generate electricity on its own.
These are similar to a battery bank but are usually only able to power smaller devices.
Like normal generators, solar generators are usually used in emergencies as backup power.
How Do Solar Generators Work?
Solar generators work with panels and are a form of electricity storage.
Solar panels capture sunlight and convert it into direct current (DC). This then goes through the charge controller.
The charge controller manages the voltage of the current to make sure that none of the equipment shorts out before it’s stored in the battery.
The electricity is stored in the battery until it’s discharged to power whichever device it’s connected to.
Once the electricity is needed, the inverter comes into play and converts discharges the current as AC (alternating current).
Pros and Cons of a Solar Generator
You Don’t Have to Pay for Fuel
Unlike generators that are powered by fossil fuels like petroleum or coal, solar generators are powered through stored energy that is generated from sunlight.
Since sunlight is free, this means that it doesn't cost a thing to power them once they are fully installed.
Since solar generators use sunlight, they are not burning fossil fuels and pumping carbon into the atmosphere.
There are also no pollutants that are created when the solar energy is stored and produced by the solar generator.
This means that they can run on 100% clean and renewable energy and are the best option out there in terms of sustainability and the environment.
Solar generators are generally small and don’t weigh much which makes them easy to transport and use at different locations.
For this reason, they've become massively popular in the vanlife culture as you can simply pack your portable generator into the back of your car and head off on your next adventure.
They Are Low Maintenance
Solar generators aren't made with any moving parts. This means there’s a lower chance that things will break or need replacing.
This is a big advantage, as it means that there’s little to no maintenance that needs to be done.
Because of the expensive materials needed to make solar generators, the initial cost of solar generators can be a turn-off for some. In some cases, a solar generator can end up costing double that of a gas-powered one.
So, if you aren't willing, or able, to put in a lump sum of money to purchase a solar generator, this can be quite a disadvantage.
That being said, it’s also important to remember that the costs thereafter are very minimal. Once you pay the initial fee, it doesn’t take long for you to earn your money back in savings.
Being able to rely on the energy in the sun rather than on municipal supplies means you’re free from having to pay exorbitant fees you have no control over. Even if you’re only using solar generators to power a fraction of the appliances in your house, that money ends up back in your pocket and will quickly make up for the cost of the generator.
Since a solar generator runs off batteries, the size of the battery supply can be limiting.
Powering your generator through the sun means that it can only recharge during the day. Fortunately, most modern solar generators allow you to plug your battery pack into a regular wall outlet so you can top it up at any time, provided you have a municipal supply.
They're also limited in terms of how much power they can supply. The capacitors in the battery only store a limited amount of energy, so even if you leave your generator plugged into solar panels for weeks on end, the upper limit of energy storage remains the same.
Usually, they won’t be able to run your entire home but rather can supply smaller appliances such as chargers, phones, and laptops. Some generator manufacturers like Jackery and Bluetti, have taken this into account in their designs.
They allow you to purchase multiple generators which can be connected in series or parallel, with each new battery adding more capacity to the overall storage of your unit.
Batteries Are Slow to Recharge
The batteries of solar generators can only be charged when the sun is out. This means that if you need more power at night time, or when it’s overcast, you’re not going to get it unless you’ve charged the generator beforehand.
Even when the sun is shining, solar batteries still take a while to charge. An average-sized battery usually takes about nine hours to charge, which is a long time to have to wait if you’re desperate.
When you start with a new solar generator, it takes a bit of planning to make sure that your batteries are fully charged. If you’re planning on taking your generator away on a weekend camping trip, it’s a good idea to make sure that your generator is charged at least a week before you leave.
This gives you the time to adjust and make other arrangements if the weather turns against you and you’re unable to charge the unit.
If you fail to do so, you could find yourself left in the dark.
How Are Solar Generators Different to Gas Generators?
If you are wondering what the difference is between a solar generator vs a gas generator, and which is better, we have got you covered.
A gas generator can be used on-demand when there’s a power outage. They are usually large enough to power an entire home, and since they run on fossil fuels, they can be topped up instantaneously, and provide power for however long you need.
Gas generators normally run on petroleum, diesel, or refined gas.
There are various pros and cons to both of these generators, and you need to weigh them up to see which one would be best for you.
We have already discussed the pros and cons of solar generators, so we’ll quickly go through gas-powered ones.
In terms of the pros, gas generators can run many large appliances, they provide a steady power supply and can carry on running for as long as you need them to, and the initial costs are normally not so high.
In terms of the cons, gas-powered ones are normally loud, they emit a high amount of pollutants, they break more easily, so maintenance is often required, and you have to pay for the fuel it requires.
Ultimately, they’re unsustainable. As a species, we have to reckon with the fact that continuing to burn fossil fuels to power our homes is leading to the destruction of our planet. The only way to combat this is to invest in clean, renewable energy.
Solar Hybrid Generators
We’ve spoken about solar generators, and we’ve spoken about gas generators, but what exactly are solar hybrid generators, and how do they differ from normal solar generators?
Solar hybrid generators are, quite simply, a combination of the two. They combine the environmentally friendly design and low costs of a solar generator with the reliability and power of a gas-powered one.
These types of generators are particularly beneficial for the winter months when there’s limited sunlight during the day.
How Do I Know If Solar Is Right for Me?
If you are a keen camper or want to go boondocking and live off the grid, then a solar generator would be a great fit for you.
To suit these needs, you need to rely on a few appliances that don’t draw a lot of power. Not only is this going to make your life easier by allowing you to power everything you need from one generator, but it’s also likely all that’s going to fit into your van.
Solar generators are only able to supply fairly small appliances, so they aren’t ideal if your goal is to power an entire house. But if you are looking to just keep your devices charged and a few small appliances going, then a solar generator will be right for you.
What Type of Solar Generator Should I Get?
There are a large number of ones available, all with different qualities and perks.
The type of generator you get depends on what you need to power, and the environmental conditions you will find yourself in. The best thing to do is figure out how big your solar array is, what you need to power, and how likely you are to have unexpected outages and then go from there.
Nonetheless, no matter which solar generator you decide to choose, the one thing that we recommend above all else is to get an EMP proof solar generator.
An EMP, which is an acronym for electromagnetic pulse, is a quick surge of electromagnetic energy. An EMP carries a huge amount of energy which will disable any appliances you have connected to that circuit, sometimes permanently.
This is why we recommend investing in a solar generator that is EMP-proof, such as the Lycan Renogy solar generator.
Alternatively, you can purchase solar generators such as the MaxOak Bluetti EB240 [Base Camp Kit] or the EcoFlow Delta 1800 [Base Camp Kit] that both come with EMP bags to protect your generator.
What to Consider When Buying a Solar Generator
In addition to everything mentioned above, there are a few different aspects that you should focus on when choosing an option.
The Purpose of the Generator
The reason for getting a solar generator varies for everyone, and it is important to understand what yours is.
As we mentioned, solar generators are better for powering off-grid camping and boondocking, as opposed to entire households.
The Size and Solar Input
The solar input of the system refers to the input from the solar panels. When sizing your generator, you need to keep the size of your panels, as well as what appliances you are going to be powering, in mind.
How Much Power You Need
You need to make sure that the output from your solar generator matches your needs in terms of powering your appliances.
To make sure you can run everything you need, we advise calculating how many watts your appliances need This is an easy calculation
For example, the average refrigerator uses around 600 watts. A generator’s capacity is measured in watt-hours (Wh). A 2,000 Wh generator would be able to run a 600 W fridge for 3⅓ hours (2,000/600).
The wattage of your generator is also a limiting factor to what you can power. More energy-hungry tools can use upwards of 3,000 watts, which few capacitors can store. But if you’re in a pinch, you might have no other choice.
Generators with powerful inverters can output more watts than they can store. This allows you to run heavy equipment, even if it’s only for a short time.
For this reason, it is important to figure out what you’ll need to power, and size accordingly.
Solar generators are a sustainable, cost-effective way of powering your devices and helping you to live off-grid.
There are various advantages and disadvantages to having one, and it is important to weigh these up and correctly size it to meet your needs.
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