While we all like to get away from the powered devices in our life when we head for the hills it’s inevitable that we’ll bring along some sort of electronic gadget. Between cell phones, GPS, two-way radios, range finders, and an assortment of other personal electronics, we all carry something from time to time. Woods Monkey takes a look at two solar panels by PowerFilm designed to keep those personal electronics up and running while out in the wild places.
Solar panels have come a long way since their commercial introduction. No longer the bulky, heavy, stiff objects they once were, today’s solar panels are flexible, light, and best of all, affordable. Among the top makers of solar panels in the current market is PowerFilm. Since 1988, PowerFilm has been pushing the envelope, and is a current supplier for solar panel power devices for the US Military. Up for review here are two offerings from PowerFilm, a fold up 10 watt compact panel, the F15-600, and a larger, weatherproof, roll up 14 watt panel, the R14. For the sake of simplicity for you the reader, I’ll simply refer to them at the 10w and 14w units.
The 10w unit consists of twelve separate solar panels, in two columns of six, wired together to produce 10 watts of power from the sun. Folded up, the 10w unit measures 3.5”x10.5”, and roughly 1.3” thick. Subsequently, I later discovered that the 10w unit would fit easily in a standard 50cal ammo can, no doubt a result of its military pedigree. Completely unfolded, the 10w solar panel measures 23.7”x21”, and lays flat on whatever surface you have. The 10w panel weighs in at only ¾ of a pound, making it extremely handy for a backpacker or traveler. Both the 10w and 14w PowerFilm units come with a standard female cigarette lighter style plug.
The 10w unit is sufficient to charge cellphones, MP3 players, PDA’s, handlheld video games for the kids, iPod/iPhones, two way radios, and GPS’. It will also handle most digital cameras and satellite phones, as well as electronic books like the Kindle. Think of it this way, if you can charge your device off of a USB port, the 10w panel will handle it easily. Typical output for USB 2.0 ports is 500mA (mili-amps) of current, with normal power output of 2.5 watts. The 10w panel provides 10watts of power, at 600mA, which is well above the needed power for USB compatible devices. After all that mumbo-jumbo, I would stress if you’re still unsure about which panel you’ll need PowerFilm’s website makes figuring out the best panel for you application a breeze.
The construction of the 10w panel is impressive. While not waterproof, it is very durable and water resistant. PowerFilm recommends wiping it dry if it becomes wet, and in use, I found wiping it clean and dry very simple. With grommets at each corner, the 10w panel can be tied down, or hung from a tree or whatever else is handy. In use, the 10w panel is impressively powerful. I was able to charge my iPhone 4 from 55% to 100% in under two hours. Truthfully, I think it was closer to an hour and a half, but I wasn’t checking it that often. What is especially impressive is that the 10w panel easily charged my Yaesu VX-8R handheld Ham radio. This radio has a fairly large battery, and draws a lot of current from the charger. While the radio will not charge from USB sources, the 10w PowerFilm solar panel didn’t have a problem getting the Yaesu radio up to full power from completely dead, in about 4 hours. This matches what the radio will typically do when charged off an 110v wall charger!
I received both the 10w and 14w panels just before a 1300 mile airline trip. The PowerFilm 10w panel was packed in my backpack, along with my Yaesu VX-8R Ham radio, iPhone 4, and various cables, chargers, and antennas. After being surprisingly left alone by TSA, the backpack and all contents were shoved under my seat, and the trip was under way. The 10w panel didn’t get treated much better for the next ten days. I charged my phone, Ham radio, family member’s phones, tested a satellite phone and digital camera. The 10w panel powered them all up, and charged what was needed. Back in Colorado, the 10w panel was used on a shooting range to charge my iPhone 4 being used for a shot timer with great success. I also took it along on several trips back into the Bureau of Land Management land near my home with my old Bronco. Testing out there yielded similar results; the 10w PowerFilm panel is a compact unit capable of powering any small to medium sized electronic device.
Along with the 10 watt foldable solar panel, PowerFilm also sent a larger, 14 watt rollable solar panel for review. These larger panels are built with marine grade components and designed to withstand use around water. Both the 10w and 14w solar panels feature weatherproof connections, but the rollable series from PowerFilm are built entirely weatherproof. While not as compact at the foldable panels, the rollable solar panels are incredibly rugged. I don’t doubt that there are many folks among the Woods Monkey readers that venture into the great outdoors with off-road vehicles, RV’s, campers, and boats. We all enjoy the outdoors differently. If the space is available, I would highly recommend the rollable series of solar panels. They’re just that tough!
Measuring 42”x14.5” unrolled, and weighing in at only .98 pounds, the 14w panel puts out 14 watts of power, at 900mA! Albeit slower than a traditional wall charger, the 14w solar panel will put out enough power to resurrect a dead car battery! And yeah, I confirmed this with a field test of a totally dead battery. Not only that, but you can do it in the rain, or out on the lake, or on top of your RV, without worrying about the panel at all. Featuring grommets on all corners, I was able to tie the 14w panel from tree-limb to tree-limb, ensuring full sun for hours.
One afternoon I pulled the battery from my old Bronco after days of wiring testing and fiddling. The battery barely kept the lights on, and wouldn’t power the starter at all. While working in my garage, I set the 14w panel up charging the trucks battery using the included O-ring battery terminal connector. PowerFilm states that the solar panels will still produce power with cloudy skies, the power output will just be reduced based on how much sun the panel is receiving. After an afternoon of full sun, interrupted by occasional clouds, the battery fired the truck right up. This proved its worth right there, and the 14w panel will be accompanying me on every trip with a motorized vehicle into the back country.
During one drizzly afternoon, I set the 14w panel upon my back deck and ran the charging cable in my sliding patio door. The 14w panel sat for three hours in drizzly, cold, Colorado rain and suffered no ill effects. When the weather was too cloudy for the panel to charge my Ham radio, the radio simply stopped pulling a charge. I even tied the 14w panel to my deck rail for an entire day. With the weather proof qualities of the 14w panel, it could safely be left in a similar set-up for an extended period of time. All PowerFilm model come factory equipped with a blocking diode to prevent reverse draining of batteries in these conditions. However, it is always a safe practice to disconnect the solar panel from the device when not charging.
I see the rollable solar panels from PowerFilm being very beneficial for several other uses of the Woods Monkey. If you own a boat with a trolling motor, you know how much of a hassle it can be to ensure those batteries are charged. You also know how disappointing it is to be catching fish and hear that motor wind down because it’s out of juice. The rollable panels from PowerFilm could be constantly charging the batteries the entire time the boats on the water. The included instructions describe how to set this up, and the necessary O-ring battery terminal connector is included with the 14w panel.
One use I’m particularly interested in is pairing the PowerFilm rollable panel up with a deep-cycle marine battery for an emergency power supply. This would enable me to power lights, radios, and other devices in the dark and recharge the battery in the day. For family camping outings, this simple set up would be silent, require no maintenance other than daytime charging. This could keep a few lights on around camp for the kids at night, listen to a radio, charge a laptop or portable DVD device, and with the use of an inverter, power dozens of other devices. You may just see a future Woods Monkey article on this exact thing!
If a solar power source is something you need, give PowerFilm a good look. They’re made in the USA, which if you know me at all, is the most preferred quality of any piece of gear I’m ever interested in. PowerFilm also produces a daisy chain cord, allowing you to connect multiple PowerFilm panels together for up to 20 amps of output! PowerFilm is military quality, and available in compact, foldable units, or weatherproof, rollable panels for a multitude of uses. Some online research turned up a wide range of prices on PowerFilm products. The best price on the F15-600 10 watt foldable panel I was able to find was $130.00, but prices ranged up to $200! So do some checking around. The R14 14 watt rollable panel is available around $220 from eBay sellers, and under $250 elsewhere, some offering free shipping.
Check out PowerFilm products at www.powerfilmsolar.com
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