This article serves as a starting point to get in the know regarding “solar generators”. What is a solar generator? Do they actually work? What do I need to know before I buy one? What can I use them for? Read on and find out…
What is a solar generator?
At its most basic level, a solar generator is the combination of a large battery with solar panels. They work by capturing sunlight via your solar panels, storing the energy captured by sunlight into a battery, and then converting that energy into AC power for you to use. They typically come with wall outlets, USB outlets, and even DC outlets too.
While the term isn’t entirely accurate, as they don’t generate power in the way fossil-fuel-powered generators do, the term has stuck. We prefer to go by the term “portable power station”, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll be using “Solar Generator”.
Do solar generators really work?
In short, they work for anything a traditional generator can be used for without the fumes, smell, or high maintenance. While it’s true that a big limitation in the past has been output, with solar generators lacking when it comes to powering heavy-duty devices, this has been remedied in recent years with EcoFlow’s X-Boost technology. More on that later.
The key thing that sets solar generators apart from their archaic counterparts is that you’ll need to charge them rather than give them fuel. If you’re charging with solar panels, you’ll just want ones with an MC4 connector for maximum compatibility, such as EcoFlow’s range of portable solar panels, and of course, sun. You can read more about what kinds of solar panels you might consider here.
That being said, solar isn’t the only way to charge up. Almost all solar-powered generators can charge via wall outlets too, with some supporting a bunch of charging methods. In this way, solar generators are much more flexible than traditional generators. EcoFlow DELTA Pro for example lets you use wall outlets, car outlets, solar panels, Smart Generators, or even EV charging stations. Storing renewable energy is now easier than ever.
What should I consider before buying a solar generator?
Okay, so let’s assume you’re on board with the idea of solar generators replacing traditional gas generators, or perhaps as a generator alternative. What factors should you then consider with this new technology?
Capacity: The thousand-watt question
The first and most important factor you’ll want to look at is how big the battery itself is since you won’t be using a tank full of gas to power your appliances. A larger battery usually means more capacity, which is measured in ‘watt-hours’. The more watt-hours, the longer you can power your appliances before needing a recharge. Let’s take two extremes for comparison when it comes to capacity and portability:
EcoFlow RIVER mini
Perhaps the most portable solar generator going, RIVER mini is light, handheld, and comes in at 210 watt-hours. It’s almost like a giant powerbank with AC wall outlets on the side for larger devices. It’s great for short trips, camping, or just to throw in your backpack.
EcoFlow DELTA Pro
DELTA Pro — on the other hand — is the largest deviation from old-school generators. It comes in at 3600Wh and can be expanded all the way to 25,000Wh with extra batteries & smart generators. It can integrate directly with your home circuits via accessories and can power your home for days on end during an emergency. And, you can monitor it all from your phone. That’s a whole lot more functionality than a traditional generator.
How many watt-hours do I need?
Here, a bit of math comes in handy. Just add up the amount of watts your devices require and multiply that by how many hours you’ll need to use them for. Then, leave yourself a buffer for conversion inefficiencies. Here’s an example:
Let’s say an extended power outage hits and you need to power a fridge for 4 hours. A large fridge can use up to 200W an hour, especially if turn-on cooling is required. In this case, you need a battery with more than 1000Wh (200×4). A good fit here might be the 2000Wh EcoFlow DELTA Max, with 2000Wh you’ll be able to keep your fridge running throughout the blackout, with a spare 1000Wh or so left over to account for any inefficiency. With that leftover energy, you could even use your microwave and charge up your devices, too.
You can browse a bunch of solar generator sizes here, varying from 210Wh–3600Wh.
Output & Outlets: What can you run on a solar generator?
Different solar generators come with different sets of outlets and can run different things. At a minimum, you’ll want AC wall outlets so you can plug in your appliances with ease, as you would at home. However, newer offerings are much more convenient, offering fast-charge USB outlets, DC outlets, and even wireless charging pads. A good middle ground might be the EcoFlow DELTA, a 1200Wh power station that allows you to power up to 13 devices at once.
Beyond just outlets, you’ll also want to consider how much the solar generator outputs. Older, cheaper models tend to lack output, meaning you won’t be able to power larger appliances such as microwaves. However, all EcoFlow solar generators have high output capability and come with X-Boost technology allowing for surges in output requirements. DELTA Pro, for example, can even power appliances that require as much as 4500W. That’s AC units, heaters, and the like all covered.
Battery Chemistry: LFP vs. NCM Batteries
An important factor that you might not know about coming from a fossil fuel generator is battery chemistry. Different solar generators use different kinds of batteries. The two main ones are NCM batteries and LFP batteries. Each has its own advantages.
Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP) Batteries: The workhorses
LFP batteries — named after their elements (LiFePO4) — are designed for long-term, regular use. If you’re looking for a solar generator to be used as a home battery, you’ll likely want an LFP battery since you’ll be cycling it multiple times a week. These have a cycle life almost 5 times that of the NCM alternative. The sacrifice LFP batteries have is that they’re heavier, so if you opt for an LFP battery, make sure it’s easy to transport. EcoFlow DELTA Pro is a good pick here with its luggage-like design.
Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt Oxide (NCM) Batteries: Flexibility first
NCM batteries can be smaller, lighter, and work just fine in temperatures as low as -20°C. They’re the default pick for most portable solar generators as they are easy to carry around, throw in your trunk for camping, or move around the house. EcoFlow’s RIVER series is all NCM batteries, as is the DELTA series excluding the Pro variation. The downside here is that lower cycle life of around 800 cycles before degradation to 80% capacity. That won’t be as big a factor if you’re only using yours for trips.
Solar Input: What solar panel do I need?
Solar-powered generators don’t necessarily work with any solar panel. You should check the solar input that your solar generator supports to ensure that you can use the solar panel you have or intend to buy. EcoFlow’s solar generators all have high solar inputs for their size. Ranging from 100W for the tiny RIVER mini, to 1600W for the largest model, DELTA Pro.
Just like with fossil-fuel generators, solar generators are used for a ton of applications, here are three of the most popular applications:
Solar generators for home backup
Blackouts are on the rise across the US, and energy prices set to increase due to scarcity and inflationary pressures. As a result, people are using solar generators to power their home appliances as a source of renewable, emergency power. In general, larger portable power stations like DELTA Pro are a good go-to for full home backup, with smaller solar generators such as DELTA being good for powering the essentials.
We wrote a dedicated article on this here, that’ll take you through how people backup their homes with solar generators.
Solar generators for camping
Another popular use for solar-powered generators is camping. The attraction is that you can take your campsite to the next level with outlets. We take them for granted indoors, being able to just plug in whenever we need them, now we can do it in the wild. Just make sure not to check your slack messages, perhaps boil yourself a brew instead.
Here, you’ll likely want to opt for a power station that puts portability first such as RIVER Pro, since you’ll be carrying it around with you. However, if you’re going all out, DELTA Pro or Max works here too.
We wrote a full article exploring this topic further here.
Solar generators for RVs & Vanlife
Did you know vanlife is booming? Since the pandemic, people are looking for alternate ways to travel, and some have even taken the move to the road permanently. Solar generators and RVs or vans are an ideal match. They provide power to your setup, paired with portable solar panels attached to your roof, you’ll have renewable energy on the go. Here, your pick depends on your needs. Large RVs might warrant a large power station, with small vans only requiring a kilowatt-hour or two for a few small appliances and devices.
Here’s some more detail on the topic with another piece we put together.
Which solar generator is right for you?
With all that in mind, you’ll be starting to formulate an idea of what you need. Calculate how many watt-hours you require, then weigh up your priorities following that. Outlets, solar compatibility, charging methods, and of course portability. To make the choice a little easier, we’ve put together two articles for some further reading, one on the more portable river series, and the other on the DELTA series.