What is a Solar Charger?
With all the gadgets you carry on a daily basis, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a source of free unlimited energy that you could tap into to keep everything juiced up and ready to go? With a solar charger, anywhere that you have access to sunlight, you can charge your smartphone, GPS, MP3 player or tablet with ease.
However, to get the best results, or sometimes any results at all, it is important to understand how solar chargers work. In this Informr Buyer's Guide, we’ll give you all the information you need to start enjoying the benefits of solar charging.
Solar Charger Basics
Solar chargers use photovoltaic cells to convert the energy of the sun into storable electricity. Whether they charge your device directly or store energy in a battery pack for later use, these cells are typically arranged on a thin wafer or flexible film to make them easy to carry and durable.
Solar chargers most commonly feature one of two types of cells:
Crystalline panels: These types of panels are more efficient in direct sunlight. Unfortunately, they are also less durable and less efficient in shade or low-light situations.
Thin-Film panels: While less efficient that the crystalline panels, these panels are very durable, light and capable of producing power in a variety of lighting situations. They are also available in endless configurations to provide more options in design and portability.
In most cases, solar chargers will include a number of adapters to allow you charge a variety of items. Other common accessories include carrying cases and hanging or mounting equipment.
Solar Chargers - What You Need to Know
So you now know a little about how solar chargers work. Before picking one up, its important to know a little more about the specifics of how these chargers work and what various numbers in the product descriptions might mean. Now we’ll dive into some of the common terms and features to help you find the ideal charger.
Watts and Amps? What Do They Mean?
There are a number of measurements to keep in mind when choosing a solar charger or dealing with any electrical item. While they might seem confusing at first, we’ll break down the common terms you are likely to see and give you some ideas of what to look for.
This is a measure of how much power is generated for use at a given time. While calculating this involves a number of factors, in general, you are most interested in the number on the product’s specifications.
In general, you will want a charger with a rating of at least 2 to 3 watts. This rating is the minimum for many modern devices, including smartphones. Low power devices, such as basic MP3 players, mobile phones or GPS units might charge below this rating. If you intend to charge larger items or high power items, consider a rating of at least 5 watts for ideal operation.
This measures the flow of electricity at a given time. You can think of this much like a garden hose or faucet. A larger hose provides more water at once, while a smaller hose provides less. In most cases, the amps of a solar charger will be reported in milliamperes or mA.
For a low power item, 500mA will work. Smartphones, Bluetooth speakers, tablets and other high-power items will require at least 1000mA, with some requiring up to 2100mA. Many will also support 2100mA charging for faster charge times.
Keep in mind that the item can limit its own charge rate. This means that a 500mA device will charge safely on a 2100mA charger but a 2100mA device will not charge at all on a 500mA charger. If you intend to charge multiple items, choosing a higher amp rating will provide more flexibility.
Battery Packs and Solar Chargers
Charge generated from solar panels isn’t constant. If the light changes, so will your charge rate. For this reason, many chargers include a battery pack to store the generated energy and provide a charge to any attached items in a smooth and consistent manner.
Battery capacity will be measured in one of two ways:
Milliamperes (mAh): With the rise in popularity of mobile devices, this measurement is becoming increasingly popular as it is the same measurement used for internal batteries. To determine how many times the pack will charge an item, simply divide the pack capacity by the internal battery capacity. In general, a 2000mAh pack will charge most small low-power items. Smartphones and similar items will require from 2000mAh to 4000mAh. Tablets and high-power items will require at least 4000mAh and can run as high at 8000mah for a single charge.
Watt-Hours: While less common, this measurement will often be used for chargers designed for rugged outdoor applications. Starting around 6 watt-hours, you can expect to charge small items. Smartphones require 8 to 10 watt-hours. For larger devices, a minimum of 30 watt-hours is recommended.
If the charger you are considering does not include a battery pack, we have a guide to help you pick the best one for your needs.
So we’ve taken the mystery out of all the numbers in the product description and you now have everything you need to pick out a great solar charger. But if you’re really looking for the best, there are a couple of additional items to consider. Now, we’ll cover the little things that separate a good charger from a great one.
Many solar chargers for outdoor use offer upgradeable batteries and panel arrays to allow you to increase or decrease the performance of your charger depending on your needs. If you are simply looking for additional storage capacity, without needing to purchase a high-end charger, consider picking up an external battery pack instead. As external packs continue to drop in price, this might offer a substantial savings over a more expensive model.
Charge More than Portable Gadgets
Solar chargers are not just for charging items with internal battery packs. Some models also include chargers for AA and AAA batteries as well. High-end chargers are available with 12-volt power outlets to allow you charge laptops and other items as well. However, be sure how useful these features will be for you as they often come at a premium price.
What Type of Solar Charger is Best for Me?
With the long list of design types available, matching the design of your charger with how you plan to use it is a great way to add a little convenience to your purchase.
These recommendations offer a balance of cost and functionality for a variety of usage scenarios:
Outdoor Enthusiasts: For use during camping, hiking or a day on the lake, consider a waterproof charger or backpack design. A folding design with multiple panels offer expanded charging abilities while still stowing easily in your gear, tackle box or even your pocket.
Office Work or At Home: Smaller crystalline panel chargers are great for use at the office where you don’t have to worry about durability issues. Many designs feature folding stands or suction mounts to allow for hanging near windows where light is plentiful.
Gadget Junkies: If you’re looking to charge multiple items or keep the latest tablet up and running without constantly searching out a power outlet, thin-film panel chargers offer multiple panels of charging power. Consider adding a high-capacity battery pack with multiple charge ports to help distribute your harvested energy amongst all of your devices.
Students: Solar chargers with clips or backpacks with integrated chargers are great for life on campus. While you’re in the quad with your friends, your tablet or phone are charging away on your back. Since the charger is part of the pack or will clip on the outside, you don’t have to worry about damage from books or running out of space.
So there you have it! From decoding the product description to matching the design to your lifestyle and gadgets, you have everything you need to go out and find the perfect solar charger. If you have any questions or we helped you find a charger you love, get in touch and let us know!