Gear Review: Comparing 4 Popular Solar Panels

When you’re starting out to either build or expand your off-grid solar system, how do you know what panels to buy? You read customer reviews and Amazon ratings till you’re blue in the face, but the fact is many  of those reviews are from 1st time buyers who have nothing else to really compare the product to. I have experienced this very same dilemma over the past 10 months and decided to share my results with you.

4 mono panels

I started my system by buying a prepackaged 200 Watt system from Renogy. (Read the review here.) The system came with two 100 watt monocrystalline panels which seemed to work well (again nothing to compare them to) so when I went to expand I simply bought two more for $139 each. The Renogy panels had a 4.7 star Amazon rating and good customer reviews.  As I continued to expand, and of course so did the cost, I began to explore other manufacturers. My next purchase was two 100 watt polycrystalline panels from WindyNation for $112 each. They had a 4.4 star Amazon Rating with good  customer reviews. About a month later I purchased two 100 watt polycrystalline panels from Newpowa for $100 each. They had a 4.6 star Amazon rating also with good reviews. The last purchase I made was two 100 watt monocrytalline panels from ECO-WORTHY  for $115 each.  They too were rated very well with a 4.5 star Amazon rating and again, good customer reviews.

So all in all I purchased panels from four different manufacturers (so far) priced between $100 and $139 with Amazon customer ratings ranging from 4.4 to 4.7. So is there really any difference?

ECO-WORTHY.jpg

Since I will be purchasing another 5 panels over the next couple of months, I decided it was time to do some real world testing on these panels. I waited for a nice, clear sunny day so the panels would be operating at their optimal output. I began the testing at about 1 pm when the sun is directly overhead at this time of year. Each panel would be tested for 10 minutes wired directly to the charge controller through a 15 foot 10 gauge wire with it’s average output taken as the final rating. I then repeated this process using one of the other panels from the same manufacturer to be as thorough and fair as possible. Note: I actually conducted a third test on the Renogy panel as I was suspect of the two previous readings.

  • The results: WindyNation polycrystalline panel:
  • Amazon rating of 4.4 stars cost of $112 output of 80.4 watts
  • Newpowa polycrystalline panel:
  • Amazon rating of 4.6 stars cost of $100 output of 92.92 watts
  • Renogy monocrystalline panel:
  • Amazon rating of 4.7 stars cost of $139 output of 85.26 watts
  • ECO-WORTHY monocrystalline panel;
  • Amazon rating of 4.5 stars cost of $115 output of 94.5 watts

To put this all in perspective, if I were to buy the 5 panels I need for my system, the following would be the cost per watt generated:

  • WindyNation: $560, 402 watts =  $1.39 per watt
  • Newpowa: $500, 464.6 watts = $1.08 per watt
  • Renogy: $695, 426.3 watts = $1.63 per watt
  • ECO-WORTHY: $575, 472.5 watts = $1.22 per watt

And as always, your results may vary.

WN Newpowa poly

I should note that the build quality of all the panels is very similar with the Newpowa and WindyNation panels barely distinguishable from one another. I have spoken to Renogy’s customer service and found it to be very good, but I have not had opportunity or need to contact any of the others. Considering the results I will most likely purchase 2 more ECO-WORTHY Mono panels and 3 of the Newpowa Poly panels, but as with anything the price maybe different by the time I decide to make the purchase.

Disclaimer: I personally purchased all products through Amazon; none of the items were provided to me for testing.

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

Happy prepping!

Advertisements

Gear Review: Rolling Fox Tarp Shelter

The keys to survival remain fairly constant: food, water, shelter, security. If you carry a bug-out-bag or EDC bag you might want to consider adding this to your carry. This little shelter weights less than 2 lbs. and packs down into a very small package.

rolling fox

It’s called a tarp shelter because it’s basically a very light-weight tarp, yet unlike the traditional 8’x10’ tarp with 4 little O-rings on the corners this kit comes with a total of 16 tie down points, 4 metal stakes, and 4 9 foot pieces of paracord and a carry bag to keep it all together.

 rolling fox 4

The first time I went to use it I discovered that it didn’t come with any instructions, fortunately I didn’t really need them. It’s simple and easy to set up in a variety of positions depending on what you have available to use.

 rolling fox 2

In this case one tree as some level ground and we’ve got a pretty decent shelter from the elements.

The upside: compact, less than 2 lbs., easy to set-up/take down, excellent protection against rain and wind.

rolling fox 3

Downside: doesn’t provide much protection from the sun and light color makes it stand out in the woods; a darker color would probably solve both these issues.

Bottom line: for about $35 you can add this great little shelter to your bug-out-bag or like me just take in on longer hikes when that occasional summer storm might pop up. You can easily set up a quick effective shelter in the time it would take you to put on the rain gear. This shelter will accompany me on every hike from now on, period. I will add more photos and updates as I continue to put it to use throughout the summer.

Note: as of this writing the Rolling Fox Tarp Shelter is currently out of stock on both the company website as well as on Amazon; as always, we’ll keep you posted.

Rolling Fox Tarp Shelter

Gear Review: Renogy 200 Watt Complete Solar Kit

It seems prepping and Solar Power often go hand in hand, so despite my long held opposition to alternative energy, I began to do some research (I will post some links at the bottom of the article.) There are a large number of players in arena, but thanks to some extensive reviews and recommendations over at the TinHatRanch.com we decided to take our chances with a Renogy kit. Aside from the positive reviews, Renogy had (at least on Amazon) the only ‘complete kit’ that was actually a complete kit. Yes, several claimed to be complete, yet require at minimum a battery to actually function. The Renogy kit cam with 2 100 watt monocrystalline panels, 30 watt PWM charge controller, 500 watt inverter, 12v 100ah sealed GEL battery and all the cables and hardware needed to hook it all up. Being skeptical I ordered a few extra cables ‘just in case,’ but wound up not needing them. Here is a link to the unit as we purchased it: Renogy 200 Watts 12 Volt Complete Solar Panel kit Monocrystalline with Charge Controller +Mounts+ 100AH Gel Battery+ 500W Pure Sine Inverter

20170308_150719_resized

The panels seem well constructed and as I stated are of the monocrystalline variety vs. the polycrystalline as they are promoted as being more efficient particularly in low light. I guess I just have to take their word for it on this one.

charge controler

The charge control is a very basic 30 amp unit with only light indicators for battery type, battery status, and charging status. A upgraded version would be preferable, but the unit does it’s job as intended.

20170309_055346_resized

The inverter is a basic 500 watt unit, nothing fancy, but a larger unit than is contained in most solar kits in this price range. At 500 watts it will run most small electronics and can easily run more than the 2 panels can generate.

20170309_055342_resized

The battery is the biggest surprise here as none of the other kits actually came with a battery, none. This 12v 100ah sealed GEL battery is a little beast weighing in at nearly 70 pounds with a claimed 10 year lifespan. Oddly, the stats claim a maximum recommended charging of 20 amps in a system that is expandable up to 30 amps, but so far so good.

Set up

Surprisingly the kit actually came with all the cables, z-brackets, and fuses necessary to get the unit up and running in just a couple of hours. My only complaint is that the tray cables are not color coded for simplification nor are the cables on the back of the solar panels. Yes, this was easily overcome with some red electrical tape, but details can make a difference. The kit came with instruction manuals for each unit instead of one manual for the kit. However, their help line was extremely good.

Overall I am very pleased with the kit as an easy way to get started with solar. If you are well versed in solar, then you would be better off purchasing individual parts to better customize the system to your needs. However, this is a great way to get started without breaking the bank.

Update: we have added 2 more panels, another 100 watt battery and upgraded the fuses to meet those needs. Now 8 weeks into the project, I would still recommend this kit to anyone taking their first journey into solar energy.

Hope you found this helpful.

Here are 7 great videos on the subject from the TinHatRanch.

Solar Part 1

Solar Part 2

Solar Part 3

Solar Part 4

Solar Part 5

Solar Part 6

Solar Part 7

Product Review: Kill A Watt Energy Usage Monitor

 

Whether you are looking to go off the grid, create a back up power system or just save on electricity; the Kill A Watt monitor is a great tool. You have to know how much energy different gadgets and appliances burn in order to know what you can power with what or what is running up that electric bill.

 kill-a-watt-2

You simply plug the unit into the outlet and plug the item you want to check into it – simple. You can set it to measure Volts, Current, Amps and more. You can even input your local rate per KWH and calculate your Hour, Day, Week, Month and Yearly cost of whatever you are testing. What we found most useful was being able to see real energy usage as opposed to what the owner’s manual says. A 300 watt appliance may not actually use 300 watts every hour; a 300 watt item used 5 minutes a day only uses 25 watts. For example: our new All-in-One Desktop” target=”_blank”>All-in-One PC is rated at about 65 watts (an hour), but actually uses 35 watts when in active use and 18 watts in sleep mode (I used to hate sleep mode). Add this to the 5 watts for the modem and 5 watts for the wireless router; we’re pulling 45 watts when in full use and 28 watts when idle. Watching Netflix on the PC turned out to be WAAAY more efficient than turning on the TV. We found that our rarely used TV/Entertainment center was burning nearly 50 Watts (per hour) while sitting idle – more than our all in one desktop PC when in use. Yes, most electronics use at least some power even when turned off. We found that adding power strips and keeping them turned off when the items are not in use eliminated this waste (or you can simply unplug them.)  

 kill-a-watt-3

Knowledge is power, just the exercise of testing and learning what gadgets are burning how much energy, led to 14% or $35 reduction in our electric bill in just the 1st month. That may seem small to you, but that’s $420 a year that was previously wasted and could better be spent elsewhere.

Bottom line: if you’re looking to reduce (or replace) your energy usage, this is the place to start. I picked mine up at Home Depot for about $29, Amazon has it for about $27.00.

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

Happy prepping!

Gear Review: FoodSaver V3240 Automatic Vacuum Sealing System

I know, I know; you would probably prefer to read about some cool new survival gadget, multi-tool, etc., however, anyone serious about food preservation should definitely consider purchasing a vacuum sealer.

A vacuum sealer is not going to replace Mylar Bags for ultra long term storage, but they are great for your short to midterm storage particularly if you a freezing fruits, vegetables and meat. Removing all the air, unlike using regular freezer bags, prevents the dreaded freezer burn that lowers the quality of your frozen food supply.

The unit is super easy to operate, just use the built-in cutter to create the size bag you want, use the ‘Seal’ function to seal the bottom of the bag, fill with whatever you wish, then use the ‘Vacuum Seal’ function to remove the air and seal the bag. For a proper seal be sure to always leave at least 3 inches of room at the top of the bag. The ‘Vacuum Seal’ function has options for Normal or Gentle and Dry or Moist depending on what it is you’re preserving. The unit also has 2 rubber feet and 2 little suction cups that keeps it from sliding around your counter.

vaccum-sealer-open

We have used the unit to preserve peaches, apples, blackberries, blueberries, pineapple, corn, green beans, pasta noodles, dried beans and even dry cat and dog food. Yes, dry dog food. Dry dog food doesn’t have a very good shelf life, about a year, but the quality deteriorates quickly once opened. To save money we buy the large bags, put some in regular large freezer bags for daily feedings and vacuum seal the rest for longer term storage. This routine allows us to save money by buying in bulk (and reducing trip to the store) while still preserving quality.

cat-food-sealed

cat-food

I often find good deals on steak (and I LOVE steak) sold in ‘Family Packs,’ but being married to a vegetarian used to prevent me from taking advantage of those deals, not any more. As advertised, vacuum sealing the meat prevents freezer damage and according to their website lengthens safe storage to 2 years vs. 6 months with regular freezer bags.

t-bones-unfrozen

t-bone-frozen

The FoodSaver brand replacement bags that are sold by the manufacturer are rather pricey, but we found a great deal on replacement bags on Amazon. These bags don’t fit in the top of the unit like the originals, but are much more affordable and get the job done.

This unit has excellent performance, is priced under $100 on Amazon and qualifies for Prime shipping. Buy yours here!

Gear Review: American Red Cross FRX3 Hand Crank NOAA AM/FM Weather Alert Radio with Smartphone Charger

Communication and an understanding of what’s actually taking place during a crisis are key to your proper response and ultimately surviving it. In times such as these it’s imperative to stay informed so you need some way to connect to the outside world even when hunkering down in a crisis. We’ve chosen this American Red Cross Hand Crank radio as part of our preparedness plan.

radio-4

It can be charged with a wall charger, USB, solar, hand crank or will run on 3 AAA batteries. Note: the AAA batteries will drain if you keep them inside the radio. If the unit is charged, it will charge your cell phone like a battery pack without the need to crank. The small solar panels do a great job of keeping it charged if you simply leave it in the window as we do. We hope to never have to use the crank feature to actually power the radio, but in our experience approximately 2 minutes of cranking will net you 3-5 minutes of radio use.

radio-5

The radio has AM/FM and 7 weather bands. The reception was fairly strong with the extendable antenna even though I live in a mountainous area. Note: the reception seemed better when the radio was plugged into the wall charger.

radio-2

The unit also includes a 3 LED light; 2 that can be used as a flashlight and one as a flashing distress signal.

Note: the rechargeable battery pack (seen at the bottom left of the photo) that comes with the unit is NOT plugged in  when it comes out of the box.

radio-3

Overall the unit performs as advertised. There are higher quality radios available and cheaper radios available, but for under $50 we think this is a solid performer for the money. The unit has a 4 star rating on Amazon and qualifies for Prime shipping.

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

Happy prepping!

Gear Review: Levin Solar Phone Charger

A dead cell phone is never a good thing and even worse in an emergency. We purchased 2 of these little solar phone chargers about a month ago and have been quite pleased with their performance. I have to admit that at $17 each I wasn’t expecting a lot as regular power banks often cost more. That being said, you have to take into account the limited output of solar panels in general and particularly one of this size.

solar-charger-2

The unit should be fully charged using a wall unit before using the 1st time, but after that you can use as you would any other power bank or charge it using solar only. We keep one in each car, placing it on the dash whenever the vehicle is parked. I read a few reviews that claimed it actually ‘melted’ doing this but we haven’t experienced anything remotely like this. It typically charges my Galaxy 7 at a rate of about 1-2% a minute to a max of around 70-75% when fully charged. While this isn’t exactly great performance it’s decent for what it is.

solar-charger-1

The unit also contains a LED light which is quite bright and has an ‘SOS’ feature to it, which basically means it flashes. Kit came with a USB cord and a little clip to hang it from your gear, but the compass is basically useless. The unit seems pretty tough and has survived me dropping it on multiple occasions with no signs of damage. While I wouldn’t plan on using this for charging my cell phone on a daily basis it’s a pretty good back up when regular charging options are not available. Note: the user manual is practically useless.

solara-charger-3

Hope you found this helpful!

Update: we’ve found these little chargers so useful that we’ve added 2 more. We still keep one in each car, but we also keep two in a southern facing window as extra back up.

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

Happy prepping!