There are several factors and features to consider when purchasing a solar generator for your van life. Let’s take a look at each of them.
1. Operating wattage (power output)
One of the most important things about your solar generator is how much power it can output continuously. This will ultimately determine which and how many devices you can power. If your device’s wattage exceeds the operating wattage, you won’t be able to power everything.
You’ll find the operating wattage somewhere in the generator specs. This value is usually the same (or close to) the battery capacity. For example, a 600Wh battery typically has 600 watts of operating power.
In addition to operating wattage, peak wattage will be listed and should be considered.
Many devices require additional power (often referred to as “surge” power) the first time they start up and then consume less power for the remainder of the active time. This is most common for appliances with AC motors, such as refrigerators and microwaves. These devices should list surge consumption somewhere in their specifications. Make sure your solar generator can meet the requirements.
2. Wh (battery capacity)
The battery capacity in a solar generator is measured in watt-hours (Wh). This is how much power your generator can provide on a single charge and helps you estimate how long you can charge your device. For example, with a 500Wh generator, you can power a 100W device for about 5 hours.
This is an approximation and you probably won’t get that much. This is a good rule of thumb to help you estimate your needs. If you have power-hungry devices and/or want to power them for longer, you’ll need a larger battery capacity.
3. Charging time
Different solar generators will charge at different rates. A faster speed will get you back to using the generator sooner. Generally speaking, the charging rate will be listed in the specifications of the solar generator.
Of course, each charging method has its own charging time. These times may also list combo charging methods if available. Solar charging rates depending on available sunlight.
Generally speaking, the charging time of a solar generator varies from 4 hours to 24 hours. Charging with an AC adapter is usually the fastest, and solar is the slowest.
4. Inverter type
One of the important components of a solar generator is the inverter. The inverter takes DC power from the battery and converts it into AC power that can be used by your device.
There are two different inverters: modified sine wave and pure sine wave. A pure sine wave accurately reproduces “natural” alternating current and can be used to power any device, even sensitive medical equipment.
A modified sine wave inverter creates a rougher approximation of AC power, which is not suitable for sensitive equipment. This has led to cheaper inverters, but they can only be used to power simple electronic devices like lights.
Most solar generators use a pure sine wave inverter, which is the recommended choice for most people. However, if you just need to power simple equipment and want to save some money, look for a solar generator with an improved sine wave inverter.
5. Battery Type
The batteries in a solar generator are the same ones you’d find in a vehicle, such as a house battery pack in a car or camper. There are two different types of batteries: lead acid (LA) and lithium ion (LI).
Lead-acid batteries are an older technology, but still the most common type of battery used in automotive applications. Because they use older, fairly simple technology and cheaper materials, lead-acid batteries are very affordable. But they can only discharge to about 50% of their full capacity. LA batteries charge slowly and need to be replaced every few years.
Lithium-ion batteries are a new technology with many advantages. These batteries can discharge up to 80% or more, charge faster, operate more efficiently, and last 10 years or more. The downside of lithium is that they are more expensive. However, they don’t have to be replaced as often, balancing the higher cost.
Due to their advantages, most solar generators use lithium-ion batteries. But generators with lead-acid batteries can save you money, and despite their drawbacks, lead-acid batteries are still effective and reliable.
6. Dimensions and weights
The size of a solar generator is important for several reasons. You need to make room for it in your camper. Compare your available space with the size of the solar generator you’re buying so you’re sure there’s room for it.
There’s a good chance your solar generator won’t stop in just one place – that’s where weight becomes a factor. Portability is a huge advantage of a solar generator, but the heavier your generator, the more difficult it will be to carry it around on any outdoor activity.
If carrying a solar generator on a hike or other excursion is essential, look for a lightweight generator. If your generator is mostly left in or near the camper, a heavier generator won’t be a problem, and it will have a higher capacity.
7. Exports and ports
Being able to charge your solar generator in a number of ways is very convenient. But you have to plug the device into a generator to use that power.
Solar generators will have a variety of ports and sockets. It would be best if you double-checked that you have enough ports and sockets for the power you want and the right kind.
The most common socket types for solar generators are:
- Standard 110V AC outlet
- 12v DC car socket (aka “cigarette lighter” socket)
- USB-A port (larger, older, unidirectional USB)
- USB-C PD port (smaller, newer USB plugged in either way)
You can also find other less common types of outlets:
- 30 Amp AC outlet (aka “Shore Power” outlet; this is the large 3-prong plug used when 30 Amp RVs are plugged into campsite electrical facilities)
- Other types of DC receptacles for less common cables such as coaxial power connectors
- Wireless charging output
8. Extra Features
Everyone loves something extra. These extra features can help you decide to choose one solar generator over another. You can find all kinds of extra features on solar generators. One of the best features to find is scalability.
Many solar generators allow you to connect additional batteries to the generator to increase capacity. If you add batteries, they must be the same type as the batteries in the generator. In other words, you cannot connect a Jackery 750w to a Yeti Goal Zero 200w; they must be the same make and model.
Another thing to look out for is the charger that comes with the device. Some solar generators will include a DC charger and an AC charger, but you will have to purchase a separate DC charger for other generators. In some cases, manufacturers may offer more powerful chargers that can charge faster than regular chargers.
Some solar generators are also available in kits that include solar panels. Typically, these will be portable “briefcase” style solar panels. This is a huge advantage as you get everything you need to use a generator and save money.