Many van lifers, including the two of us, jumped straight into using solar to power our electronics. Solar power can be one of the best solutions for a van because once you’ve got the setup it’s portable, practically free and clean to use on a daily basis.
But installing electricity is complicated. There is a lot of planning that has to go into running wires. It can be downright dangerous if done incorrectly and often involves drilling holes or making permanent changes to your vehicle.
If you want to avoid the hassle of electric and just hit the road; a solar generator is a great alternative to look into.
What is a solar generator? (and what it’s not)
A solar generator is essentially a battery system in a box. This is not to be confused with a gas generator. Solar generators do not generate power, as their name implies. They simply store electricity that is given to them for later use. In fact, this electricity can come from many sources; Solar panels aren’t even an essential component!
Think of a solar generator as a plug and play power device.
A solar generator comes with almost everything a full electrical system has: a battery, inverter, charge controller, battery monitor and wires all in one box. The only thing its missing is a solar panel!
Because “generate” is a misleading term, we will refer to them as power stations in the rest of this article. Power stations can be used with portable solar panels or integrated panels attached to the roof of your vehicle. They can even be used as a back-up battery to your current setup.
Who is a power station good for?
Car campers or weekend warriors
Any car camper can take advantage of a power station. These all-in-one devices can be charged at home and then thrown in your car to have power for the whole weekend. Use a power station in this way to keep a portable fridge running, charge an ebike or power a fan at your campsite.
Additionally, they are a versatile companion when boondocking. You can set them outside, take them to the beach, or power stereos and speakers far away from your vehicle.
Van lifers who don’t want to do in depth electric system research
Some people don’t have the time, desire, or confidence to draw up a wiring diagram, purchase components individually and string it all together. Power stations take away a big part of that equation.
You can still have solar panels attached to the roof of your van and run a refrigerator and fan inside the car. A power station replaces all of the ‘in-between’ components and leaves you with one box to plug everything into.
What are the benefits of a power station?
Plug and Play: Portable power stations come with all the parts of a traditional solar system without the tedious task of assembly. The battery, inverter, charge controller, monitor and wiring are all packaged as one. Simply plug your laptop, phone, refrigerator or television directly into the box and you’re good to go.
Safe: You don’t need to know much about wiring or how to design a power system with a power station. The only thing you need to keep track of is the charge.
No noise: Like a traditional solar system, power stations are silent and you’ll be able to sleep or work in peace.
No fumes or liquid fuel: This is probably the biggest advantage to solar power in general. Solar is a clean source of energy that can be stored safely in tight spaces.
Portability: Power stations are small and relatively lightweight. With a portable power station you are not limited to permanently fixing the device inside the vehicle. Once it’s charged up, you can power your devices anywhere.
More use options: A power station can be used for short trips or hardwired for permanent builds.
Long-lasting: When properly stored, a most power stations can sit for long periods of time – even months – without being maintained.
What are the disadvantages of a power station?
Less power for your money: When you buy a power station, you’re paying for convenience. The price of buying each individual component of a solar system is going to be significantly less expensive overall than purchasing it as an all-in-one box.
Stuck with the component selection: With a power station, there are less customization options to tailor to your build. You won’t have the freedom to switch out or upgrade components. If the powered box comes with a PWM charge controller for example, you won’t be able to swap it for an MPPT. The same goes for battery types.
Upgrades and repairs: With a traditional solar system you have the option repair components over time if they break. With a power station, you don’t have that luxury and the whole thing must be serviced or replaced at once. Some boxes do allow you to string multiple batteries together but this is not idea for balancing reasons.
Less flexibility with sizing: There are a variety of capacities that you can purchase when it comes to powered boxes. Each year, power stations are getting larger and more efficient. However, in general you will still be limited to a smaller setup than a traditional solar panel system.
There are few companies that produce powered boxes larger than 1000Wh. This is plenty to power a 12V refrigerator, but if you’re looking to go bigger you should build your own system.
Less clean to integrate into a planned build: With a hardwired van, you can have a monitor at the front of the vehicle, batteries in back, and wires running through the walls to solar and electrics. It’s easier mount fixed components out of the way because you don’t need to access them.
With a power station, the entire electrical setup sits in a pre-made box. All of your components and solar panels plug into the same face making for messier wire management. This is a minor detail but something to be considered.
How to charge a portable power station
Charging a solar power station can be done in three ways: with a solar panel, a household outlet (shore power), or a 12V car outlet.
This is the most common way to charge a power station. Most brands you purchase the power station through will have recommended solar panels in mind. Solar components are fairly universal, so as long as you’re sticking within the specs the power station will work.
Solar panels are the best option if you plan to spend time camping off-grid.
Tip: You can charge the powered box faster by placing solar panels in direct sunlight, tilting them in the direction of the sun, and keeping them clear of dust, snow and shade.
Solar suitcases are portable solar panels that work the same as standard solar panels but come with a carrying case and fold up nicely.
This is the best solution if you are a car camper or weekend warrior. A power station can be charged with a household outlet before shorter trips with no solar required. Then you simply charge it again when you return home.
12V car outlet
Some power stations give you the option of plugging into a 12V DC car outlet. Many times this will require purchasing a 12V adaptor. Car plugs only output a few amps so realistically it would take hours to charge a power station in this way (the bigger ones take 24 hours from empty).
Using a car outlet is a possible; though not efficient solution.
Power stations cannot be charged directly with the car’s alternator. This is another disadvantage if you do a lot of driving.
What to look for in a power station
There are numerous companies on the market that make power stations. The top two things you should look for is the power station size and its components.
How much power should you get?
Jump to the tech specs on a power station and take a look at these numbers:
- Battery storage capacity
- Solar input
The solar input will tell you how many watts of solar you can hook to the power station, The battery storage will tell you how much energy can be stored total. You should have a rough estimate in your head of how many Watt hours you will need to power your devices. If you don’t know, take a look at our electricity calculator.
In general, if you’re planning to power larger devices like a 12V refrigerator, vent fan and other electronics take a look at power stations over 500Ah. If you’re just looking to charge up a cell phone, laptop or tablet, choose a smaller power option.
What kind of battery does a power station use?
Generally, power stations will have either a lithium or an AGM battery inside. Keep in mind that while a lithium battery is going to be more expensive, lithium can be discharged up to 90% or more and will recharge faster.
An AGM battery should only be used and stored down to 50% of its capacity. This will greatly affect your charge capacity. AGM batteries are becoming less common in power stations as lithium technology becomes cheaper.
What you see is what you get with a power station, so keep in mind the internal components. Often these will come with base models of charge controllers and inverters. The features you should check are
- Battery type (Lithium or AGM)
- Battery monitor
- Charge controller type (PWM or MPPT)
- Inverter size
- What adaptors does it come with?
- Can it be controlled with an app?
- How many charges can you get?
- What is the warranty or suggested lifespan?
Top Rated Power Stations
If you’re looking for a portable power station large enough to charge a 12V fridge, fan, lights and entertainment devices, there are two companies to consider: Goal Zero and Inergy.
|Inergy Kodiak 1100||Goal Zero Yeti 1400||Goal Zero Yeti 3000|
|Inverter||1500W (3000W Surge)||1500W (3000W Surge)||1500W (3000W Surge)|
|Charge Controller||PWM||PWM (MPPT Upgrade)||PWM (MPPT Upgrade)|
|Weight||20 lbs||46 lbs||68.6 lbs|
|Warranty||1 year||1 year||1 year|
Goal Zero and Inergy each produce large power station setups that are ideal for a campervan. There are few differences between these setups so we recommend looking at the battery capacity and choosing a setup that is closest to your needs.
All three power stations listed above use the same battery type as well as similar 1500W pure sine inverters with 3000W surge. Each offers a 1 year warranty on their products.
Inergy Kodiak 1100
A benefit to the Inergy Kodiak is that it allows for battery expansion. This gives you the opportunity to try out the powered box for a while, and if you find the battery supply is not cutting it you can always add more.
The Inergy is also the smallest and lightest of the three but also comes with the most outlets. With the Kodiak you’ll get six 110V AC plugs, four USB outlets and two 12V DC car sockets. That is more than enough space to plug in every device in your vehicle.
With the Kodiak, it’s recommended that you use up to five 100W solar panels to power the box. Inergy sells solar kits, which is about as simple as it can get when it comes to installing power.
A power station this large is perfect for powering your entire campervan. That means a refrigerator, vent fan, lights and entertainment. Aside from the battery capacity of these three models, there is little difference between the devices.
Goal Zero Yeti 1400 and Yeti 3000
The goal zero yeti products are similar in build, but the 3000 takes it up a notch with over double the battery capacity of the 1400. Both come with a 1 year warranty and the same 1500W, 3000W surge pure sine wave inverter.
Yeti powered boxes cannot be wired for battery expansion. What you see is what you get with these products. However, unlike Inergy, Yeti do have an MPPT upgrade option for their charge controller.
Each of these Yeti power stations come with two AC plugs, two USB outlets, two USB-C outlets and one 12V DC car socket.
One thing that sets the Yeti apart from the Inergy products is the addition of Wifi. Goal Zero has its own wifi app that pair with the Yeti and can give you information on the battery level, and power input and output. You can also turn ports on and off which would be really useful if you don’t want to have to reach into the trunk or behind a cabinet every time you want to make adjustments to the power station.
Like Inergy, Goal Zero sells their own recommended solar panels to use. They also sell solar station kits so you can buy it all at once and avoid the guesswork. With the Yeti 1400 you can use up to 4x100W of solar and with the Yeti 3000 you can use up to 8x1000W of solar. The more solar you use, the faster the powered box will charge.
Smaller Power Stations
Aside from the large portable power stations, there are numerous smaller options available if you are only looking to charge a few items like a laptop, fan or cell phones. The main differences between these products are going to lie in the battery capacity.
It’s also important to choose products from well-known and reputable companies. Because powered boxes either work or they don’t, we recommend purchasing from a company with a warranty in place.
|Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium||Anker Powerhouse 400||Jackery Explorer 500|
|Output - AC||300W PSW||120W PSW||300W PSW|
|Weight||16 lbs||9.25 lbs||12 lbs|
|Warranty||1 year||18 months||2 years|
A power station (or portable solar generator) works great for weekend warriors or people who simply don’t want to have to deal with the fine details of electricity. Price-wise they’re going to be more expensive than building your own solar setup. A larger power station setup will be adequate for running a 12V refrigerator, vent fan and charging small electronics. Smaller power station setups will work well for keeping phones and laptops charged.