House & Home

My Amazing DIY Solar Generator

Posted October 12, 2012 1:29 p.m. EDT

I remember the inspiration for building my solar generator clearly. It was close to 20 years ago and we were camping at the dunes in Oregon. Our campground neighbor, in a huge RV, ran his generator for about 2 hours one evening. Needless to say, it was annoying beyond compare — we go camping for peace and quiet.

We later found out from overheard conversations that the RV people were using the gas generator to charge the camcorder. Apparently they did not have a DC adapter or know about a thing called an inverter. One of the campers on the other side of them, also in a big RV, explained how the inverter works. An inverter plugs into a cigarette lighter socket (or they can be hardwired) and converts 12 volt DC into 120 volt AC. The other RV camper said they charge all of their things while they are driving. Brilliant, eh? Well I took this idea a few steps further and set up something that is completely solar powered and portable.

More Modern Needs
20 years ago I did not have a camcorder or a digital camera. My photography was old school and used film…you might remember how primitive that seems today. Just a year of so after I got my first digital camera I picked up a simple inverter for my truck and we charged things while under way. This concept works great if you are road tripping and spend a good part of your day driving. But recently we have spent a bit more time in a "base camp" type trip. Not driving a few hours each day limits the potential for keeping the camera battery topped off.

My solar generator is comprised of a single 12 volt, 10 watt solar panel that feeds a sealed 12 volt gel battery. To keep the battery in tip top shape, the current is routed through a small charge controller. The whole set up fits neatly into an aluminum attaché sized case. I use it now to charge my camera batteries via the inverter (which I borrow from my truck) or use it to charger things directly via the generator's cigarette socket. I picked up a "car adapter" for my laptop and my sweetie uses her car adapter for her iPhone. 120 volt items are covered with the inverter and the item specific car adapters fill their roles. To power even more devices I have a cigarette socket adapter with a USB port.

Portable and Silent
A couple years ago we did a big tour of four states here in the west. In many of the National parks we stayed in they have "generator free" campgrounds. These are always our first choice as tent campers. "Generator free" refers to noisy, smelly gasoline powered generators.

One of our best camps was in Zion where we spent 4 full days and nights. I was doing a lot of time-lapse and infrared photography using two cameras and that required lots of camera battery charging. The portable nature of my generator allows me to position it to track the sun. On that trip I could recharge the batteries during coffee and breakfast and then be ready for a full day of shooting.

Emergency Power, Too
Back here at home we have used the solar generator to power our computer's DSL modem during power outages. The battery is not large enough for big appliances, but the 5 watt draw of the modem is easily handled. With the modem up and running our laptops and email can keep us in contact with family during winter storms, and prolonged power outages. I have also used my solar generator at our off grid cabin to supplement our entertainment. My girls have a small portable DVD player that has a car adapter; they can watch movies up in the sleeping loft with out having to tap into the main DC system that I use for music, etc.

A few weeks ago the Discovery Channel's Web page picked up my solar generator story along with a few others. Have a look, and leave a comment to ask me anything about my solar generator.

Kevin Stevens is a Denver-area remodeling contractor and tile contractor.

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