Sunday, July 31, 2011

Going Solar

Back in London, at the Science Museum, we spotted little solar panels for 15 Euros each. At the time Courts said they wouldn’t be big enough to power anything, but once we left London we were on a constant search to find them again.

As far as hassles go, it’s not a bad one to have, but the biggest hassle of our nomadic existence is the battle for power supply. Campsites tend to either have easy, cheap wifi access or easy, cheap power supply. Never both, and occasionally neither. Wifi isn’t so much of an issue, it’s a nicety but not a necessity. It’s nice to check in with home, and of course set a few blog posts to publish. If it’s the right time of day we can call our parents although I still haven’t managed to talk to my Dad. Power is the biggie. We need a fully charged phone to use GPS and we’ve become experts at quickly scanning cafes and restaurants for power points before choosing a table.

When we reached Benicassim, we were stoked to find those little solar panels again. If it were me I would have just bought one as is, but because Courts has the gift of the gab, he ended up knowing the salesman’s life story and the salesman, Tim, knowing ours. All of the people there were lovely, running a family business and doing their first big festival – even the littlest kids were wearing company t-shirts and helping with errands.

Since Courts and Tim got chatting, we found out they had a limited supply of bigger solar panels and so began a daily routine of going back and forth between our tent and the stall, umming and aahing over the investment. While the little Pico solar panels were only 20 Euros, they would take 6 or so hours of full sunlight to charge and then only supply a boost of 75% battery to the phone, if that. But there were bigger, 80 Euro models with double the panel size and bigger batteries that would suit us much better. These ones came with caddies to charge camera batteries and would be suitable for charging everything except our laptop – phone, camera, headsets etc.

We went for it on the last day and got a really good deal on not only the Freeloader Pro we had been looking at, but on an even bigger panel that could strap onto the bike and rechargeable battery connections as well. We strapped it all on the bike when we set out for Barcelona and when we ran out of GPS battery 50km shy of our destination we were able to plug in and feed directly off the panel as we drove along.

Our little panel hasn’t been all smooth sailings though. We discovered when we got to Barcelona that the joins on the casing of the Freeloader aren’t stuck together in one place and part of the panel that should clip on in order to charge, unclips itself.

The first few times we used it, we would walk around town all day with the panel strapped to our day pack (the panel almost fully covers the backpack) only to get home and have it charge for 10 minutes and then die completely, empty. We knew there had been similar problems with the small Pico units and that fully charging them once via USB instead of sunlight seemed to fix the problem. Luckily reception took it overnight for us because at camp if we wanted to charge something we had to sit in the computer room with it the whole time and we wouldn’t have been able to fully charge it like we needed to.

Since then, it seems to have been alright. We strapped it to the bike when we left Barcelona and used it to power the GPS on the way. One of the biggest advantages of having it on the bike with us has been that we’re now able to take pictures and videos along the way with the phone, without worrying about using up the battery needed for GPS. With a pile of gear behind me, I have less need to hold on so tight, at least when we’re taking it easy, and can use one hand to film with the phone and then switch back to GPS.

We haven’t used the rechargeable battery connections yet. Well, we have, but we’ve been using them via the USB ports on my laptop, not the USB port on the panel. The solar panel may be handy but it definitely doesn’t hold enough charge to recharge the phone and batteries. We’re yet to have a day without either rain or it having to come indoors with us for other reasons, like if we’re in town and go into a restaurant, so it is rarely fully charged – in fact, I don’t think it’s been fully charged without the aid of USB since we got it 2 weeks ago.

Overall, it’s a cool little gadget to have. The biggest benefit for us is plugging in and feeding off it while we’re on the road, instead of finding an eatery to sit at for an hour like we used to. It’s definitely handy to give the phone a boost at night when we’re using it to read an ebook or listen to audio. The only recommendation I’d make is that you check the casing well before you buy it and that you test it out for a week at home first before you hit the road – a luxury we didn’t have.

*Note – While we did receive a great deal, it was not in exchange for this post. All views are my own and voluntarily published.

Penelope_nz's Barcelona, Spain photoset Penelope_nz's Barcelona, Spain photoset