What is a solar generator & how do they work?

When most people think of generators, they think of loud machines that run on gasoline or natural gas. Many generators are like this, but some generators run on solar power. A solar generator technically refers to any generator that runs on solar energy, but what most people mean by “solar generator” is a compact, easily transportable machine made up of solar panels, a solar charge controller, batteries, and an inverter.

Because they are lightweight and quiet, solar generators are perfect for powering road trips and camping. Bring a solar generator along, and you won’t have to worry about your iPhone or laptop running out of power. You can also power a mini fridge and other smaller appliances. Some people also use solar generators as backup power during an outage or other emergency, though most will not be able to power your entire home or even some larger appliances, such as a dryer or washing machine.

If you’re interested in purchasing a solar generator that can function as a backup source of power during an outage, you should first make sure you understand your home’s electrical usage. This will help you determine if a solar generator is right for you, and what kind best meets your needs. To calculate your home’s electrical needs, try using AlltimePower’s free backup power calculator.

How does a solar generator work?

Solar generators work by converting energy produced by the sun into energy that can be stored and used in your home. Once photons, or particles of light, hit a solar panel, they knock electrons loose from atoms. The electrons are turned into direct current (DC) electricity. That charge is then passed through the charger controller, which regulates the voltage of the electricity as it is passed into the battery to protect it from damage.

Next, the batteries store the electricity in the form of chemical energy until it’s connected to an appliance. The charge is then passed through the inverter, whose job it is to turn the DC electricity into alternating current (AC) electricity. The converter must also step up the voltage rating from 12, 24, or 48 volts to the voltage needed by the appliances, which is usually a rating of 110 or 240 volts. The electrical current then travels through the extension cord to power electrical devices.

As this process illustrates, solar generators are very different from traditional, fuel-powered generators. Whereas an internal combustion engine like the one used in a fuel-powered generator burns fuel to move a piston and create mechanical energy, solar generators convert sunlight directly into mechanical energy. This makes solar generators much quieter and cleaner, but also less powerful, than their fuel-powered counterparts.

Advantages and disadvantages of a solar generator

The unique way in which solar generators create and store energy creates certain advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious advantage is that solar generators require no fuel, meaning you won’t have to worry about paying for or storing gasoline or propane connecting it to natural gas lines. It also means that you won’t need to worry about pollutants, such as carbon monoxide. In fact, solar generators are safe enough to run indoors. They are environmentally-friendly and make very little noise.

Because solar generators don’t have moving parts, they also require less maintenance and are likely to last longer than fuel-powered generators. You may thus save money on both fuel and repair costs. However, they tend to be more expensive. On average, a solar-powered portable generator costs $2,000, while a gasoline-powered portable generator costs just $1,000. Nevertheless, when compared to the cost of a whole-house generator, portable solar and fuel-powered generators are both a relatively inexpensive investment.

One of the main disadvantages of solar generators is their limited power output. A solar-powered generator may be able to power your refrigerator for a few hours, but it won’t be able to power larger appliances, such as a washing machine or dryer. It can also take a long time to recharge: about 9 hours on a sunny day. For these reasons, a portable solar generator may not be your best backup power option.

Other kinds of solar power

Portable solar generators are not your only option when it comes to solar power. If you want to enjoy the advantages of clean, quiet solar energy while also being able to power your entire home, you may want to consider installing a backup battery system along with rooftop solar panels. This will allow you to power most or even all of your home using just solar energy during an outage.

There are also solar backup generators that are designed to be used in case of an emergency or outage. Though portable, solar backup generators are heavier and more expensive than traditional solar generators. They also have a higher wattage capacity and are able to power more devices. If you want a solar generator that can power many of your appliances during an outage but don’t want to put solar panels on your roof, a solar backup generator may be the perfect choice for you. 

It’s also possible to install a backup battery system that is powered by both fuel and solar power. Though expensive, these systems can power an entire home for days, and in some cases, can even allow you to take your home entirely off-grid. Once installed, they are quiet and inexpensive to run, and they can significantly reduce your utility bill throughout the year.

Factors to consider before your purchase

If you decide to go with a portable solar generator, there are many options to choose between. Most options have all-in-one designs that include the solar panels, inverter, charger controller, and battery; some solar generators, however, do not come with solar panels and require you to buy them separately. Be sure to find out whether this is the case before you make your final purchase.

In addition to cost, there are three main factors to consider when choosing a solar generator: its portability, its battery storage capacity, and its inverter rating. Portability is the most straightforward: you’ll want a generator that is lightweight and easy to move around, especially if you plan to bring it with you on trips. You may want to look for one with wheels and handles to make it even easier to transport.

You’ll also want a generator with a higher storage capacity so that you’ll be able to power your devices for a longer time without having to recharge the batteries. The last thing you want to happen is for your solar generator to run out of charge when the sun isn’t out. Finally, you’ll likely want a generator with a higher inverter rating. Generators with a low inverter rating may not be able to power high-wattage appliances. Before buying a generator, make sure it has an inverter rating that matches what you would need to power the items you want to run.

The best solar generator brands

When looking for a good solar generator, it’s often a good idea to stick to brands that specialize in solar power, such as Goal Zero. The Goal Zero Yeti 400 Portable Power Station is designed to be user-friendly and easy to transport, but it has a relatively low battery storage capacity and inverter rating. It’s ideal for powering smaller appliances, like phones, tablets, and laptops, when traveling, but not well suited to backup power use. The Goal Zero Yeti 1400 has a higher price tag, but it can also store more power and charge larger appliances.

Kalisaya is another brand that produces excellent solar generators. Their KaliPAK 401 is lightweight but powerful and includes added features like a mini power kit and remote control from iPhone or Android apps. The KaliPAK 601 is the brand’s larger, more powerful, and more expensive alternative. For comparison, a fully-charged KaliPAK 401 can recharge an iPhone about 64 times, while the KaliPAK 601 can recharge it about 93 times. 

Other reputable brands that sell solar generators include Peppermint Energy, Wagan Tech, and Suaoki. The Peppermint Energy Forty2 includes one of the longest-lasting solar batteries on the market at 2000 watt-hours. The Wagan Tech Solar ePower Cube has a 1500 watt battery and contains two terminals that allow for solar power expansion. Finally, the Suaoki Portable Power Station is smaller and more portable, with a battery capacity of just 150 watts. Designed to be carried like a handbag or suitcase, it is perfect for travel. 

Finding the right solar generator for you

Regardless of which brand you choose, it’s important to make sure that the generator you pick fits your power needs. When choosing a generator, keep in mind how you hope to use it and how much power you will need it to produce. You wouldn’t want to buy a solar generator only to find out that it doesn’t produce enough power to run appliances important to you.

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