Portable Power Systems: The best off-grid batteries for overland travel and car camping
Show Notes for Podcast #70
Portable Power Systems: The best off-grid batteries for overland travel and car camping
Portable power systems are battery-powered all-in-one units with AD and/or DC power for overland trips as well as car camping. Some examples of these off-grid batteries include the Goal Zero Yeti 1500x, National Luna Battery Box, EcoFlow Delta, Renogy Lycan Power Box, Jackery Explorer 1000, and Dometic PLB40. The full portable power systems article detailing our lab and real-world test results is available in the Fall issue of Overland Journal.
My name is Matt Swartz and I owe my love of the outdoors to my Grandfather, a PHD Ecologist, and photographer who was years ahead of his time. Every visit to his house was filled with hiking adventures where we’d collect and identify insects, or trips to a nearby creek to fish and look for water snakes. We’d also regularly sit on the couch together, pouring over the latest National Geographic while my Grandfather provided additional commentary, always getting deeper into the science. His knowledge was endless.
With those early childhood experiences in nature, it feels fitting that I’ve built a life full of adventurous outdoor sports, travel, photography, and writing. From my first camping experiences on the East coast to bigger adventures, like exploring the West coast of South America, or hiking from the border of Mexico to Mammoth, California, I find that time spent outdoors gives me an incredible sense of well-being.One of my biggest pieces of advice to the aspiring adventurer: passionately pursue your dreams, and don’t let society convince you that a high net-worth is more valuable than a life full of rich experiences. @m.b.swartz
Scott is the publisher and co-founder of Expedition Portal and Overland Journal and is often credited with popularizing overlanding in North America. His travels by 4WD and adventure motorcycle span all seven continents and includes three circumnavigations of the globe. His polar expeditions include two vehicle crossings of Antarctica and the first long-axis crossing of Greenland. @scott.a.brady
This episode sponsored in part by:
Scott Brady: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to the Overland Journal podcast. I am your host, Scott Brady, and I'm here with my co-host for today, Matt Swartz. We're sticking with the Matt theme on cohosts, so I always get the name right. It's always a Matt... but Matt Swartz is quite different from Matt Scott in the fact that Matt, you have a long history in the outdoor space and a lot of time living out of vehicles, including a historic Cortez that you had. We did do a podcast with Matt and his partner, Amanda last year at some point, if you want to hear more about his travels and his experience on the road. One of the things that you learned about is how do you maintain all of these systems when you're in the middle of nowhere? How do you keep working? How do you be a creative and do the job that you and Amanda do when you're in the middle of nowhere and that's what we're going to talk about today. We're going to talk about portable power systems primarily, [00:01:00] but we're going to also talk a little bit about power systems in general for the vehicle, so thanks for being on today Matt.
Matt Swartz: Yeah, I'm excited. This is a topic that I think so many people have questions around, want to know more about. Electricity can be a little intimidating, honestly. You know, it can kill you, but it can also make your life a lot more comfortable and easy on the road, like you alluded to. You know, my background is in just general outdoor space, backpacking, rock climbing, things like that, and I came to vehicle-based travel in 2016 in the Cortez. That was our first vehicle we traveled in, and we did install a full standalone solar power system so that we could continue working on the road and also have some conveniences. Yeah, there's a huge amount of value in having an auxiliary or house power system in your truck, or RV, or camper. But there are a lot of options too, there there's no one right way to do it. There are a handful of ways to execute that.
Scott Brady: Yeah, and I think that we're going to start off by talking about the three basic [00:02:00] systems that we tend to see within vehicles. So there's going to be a dual battery system, which is the most common it's been around the longest. It's been used by over Landers for a long time and for purposes beyond powering electronics and how systems. So dual battery systems were used as an additional way to start the vehicle, if the primary starting battery had failed or gone flat. It was also way to augment available power for winching operations. If you were driving at low speeds at night, it used to be that vehicles had much lower outputs in their alternator. In fact, I think you mentioned about that in your Cortez was one of the challenges is that your alternator only put out so many amps from an older vehicle. They just really only can at times generate 30, 40, 50 amps when they're at idle. Whereas a modern vehicle, oftentimes put out many times that, but dual battery systems are the more traditional method of adding additional power to your vehicle and now there, [00:03:00] now we have dedicated house systems. So that would be similar to like what you did in the Cortez, and that we'll find in most camper systems, but they're also still very popular in SUV's where you have a totally separate house battery. It's oftentimes lithium ion. It's rarely if ever used for assisting with starting. It's a way to completely isolate the starting and vehicle systems from the camping and house systems, and it's typically supported while underway with some kind of a DC-to-DC charging system, so that way when the alternator starts putting out alter alternator level current at usually 13.4, 13.6 volts or higher then the DC to DC converter will kick in and it'll start charging that house battery system. Oftentimes those systems are augmented with solar that's maybe permanently affixed to the vehicle or solar blankets or solar panels that are [00:04:00] deployed while in camp and we're also seeing more and more vehicles using other solutions like wind generators and things like that, that can help provide additional power when you're even in bad weather with very limited sun. And then of course the third one, which is what we're going to focus on a lot more today, because it has become such a compelling option... is a portable power system. Like you see from Dometic and from Goal Zero and others, and Matt you were the primary research and testing editor for the article that we had in the fall 2021 Overland journal issue where you compared all of the primary, or the most notable power systems that were on the market. What did you find out in the beginning that maybe kind of shook some of your understanding of how this works?
Matt Swartz: You know, I think. Just taking a step back. You know, we installed a standalone hardwired system in our RV because [00:05:00] it felt like at the time some of these standalone, you know, one-unit-does-everything solutions were a little bit limited in scope and what they could do, and I think that was what I was most pleasantly surprised about when I started doing the research for this article, was that these units are very capable by themselves. You know, they incorporate everything in a standard solar system. There's a charge controller to manage input from solar panels or a DC power source. So that could be, you know, coming from your alternator. They have an AC inverter in most of them, so you can get AC current to run household appliances. You know, the typical stuff you'd plug in in your house to the wall with the two-prong that's AC power, and then they also provide 12-volt output in the form of USB-A, USB-C or sometimes more standardized 12-volt interface like the Anderson power pole type plugs. Things that can handle higher amperage, like 30-amp output [00:06:00] to... you could theoretically power a hardwired system from one of these all-in-one units through a 30-amp plug.
Scott Brady: And that's actually what I've experienced in the Scout, which is such a great example of an OEM camper manufacturer deciding to askew the traditional house system with solar panels and everything else with separate batteries and they use a Goal Zero Yeti, they use the 1500 X.
Matt Swartz: That's this unit right here.
Scott Brady: Which is the unit right next to Matt there for those of you that are watching on YouTube, and it has been totally flawless in the Scout. In fact, it's been so reliable I just leave everything running in the camper with it just stored in off of the vehicle. So the camper has 180-watt solar panel installed on the front of it, so it allows me to leave the windows cracked ever so slightly so I don't get weather in that. I let [00:07:00] the 12-volt fan run all the time. So it keeps the camper constantly ventilated out for moisture and mildew and anything else that may happen, and what was really impressive to me and this again, kind of what you experienced, I had no idea they had come so far in the fact that they now have fully integrated solar charge controllers. It used to be that you could only use the Yeti or the Goal Zero panel with a specific amount of voltage and a very specific connector that went into the unit. Now they still have that same connector so that they are backwards compatible to their other products, but they also have an Anderson style charging port for the solar panels. So this is a totally different manufacturer of solar. It has a much broader range of solar voltage that the system can consume now, and it shows a, this like reassuring little blue flashing light that the solar panels are constantly providing power and I looked down and I'm getting 96 [00:08:00] Watts out of these panels, or I'm getting 105 or even if it's a cloudy day, I'm seeing 30 or 40 watts out of these panels and that's very cool. Yeah, and the other thing that was so surprising is that... and I don't know how many of the other Goal Zero products offer this, but the 1500X has an additional module that can be installed under where the lid is that allows for a DC-to-DC charger. So you install this additional auxiliary module, and it can take up to 50 amps of 12-volt current from the alternator to rapidly charge the battery system within the 1500X. So it's literally everything that I need for an expedition camper like that for the kind of power consumption that I do. I obviously don't run a hairdryer or a microwave or anything like that, so if you need just regular power consumption it does that and then, because it has an Anderson style, 12-volt outlet, you take the entire [00:09:00] wiring harness from the camper and you plug it into one port on the 1500X. It runs all the lights, the fans, the 12-volt outlet for the Wee Boost. It runs all of it off of that one box so that's pretty impressive.
Matt Swartz: And it gives you the flexibility to pull the brain, so to speak out of the camper, if you have issues, right? Like if there's an issue with the battery, with the charge controller, with the AC inverter, which are all contained within the Yeti, you just pull it out, send it to Goal Zero for service, and your wiring remains intact in the camper. You don't have to mess with any of that. I mean, yeah, it's really cool. Like you mentioned with that module for 50-amp input, they also have a module you can connect that allows you to daisy chain, external batteries for extra storage and they sell basically these systems that are designed to run your home in an emergency power added, and a bunch of manufacturers do offer that. You know, we were mentioning Yeti... or the Yeti [00:10:00] 1500 and Goal Zero specifically. I think because you know, that in the article was my editor's choice, you know, cost aside. It is the most expensive unit that we tested for that particular article. But it's just so rich with features and functionality that, you know, it was hands down for me the best one, but you know, Eco Flow a lot of these other kind of up and coming or established companies in the space are making external units that you can get, or I should say external battery storage that can be plugged into the base unit, so to speak. So you can just get crazy amounts of power storage, maybe not quite equivalent to like a Tesla power wall, but kind of aiming at that market. You know, people who want to be prepared for power outage at home.
Scott Brady: Or for a week in the back country with bad weather where you're not getting solar and you're not really running the vehicle. It's pretty impressive what you can get out of those. And I've not had any, any issues with mine, the only thing that I found with long-term use with the Yeti [00:11:00] is that they have got some kind of alarm on it that has nothing to do with the unit faulting or failing. Like all the numbers are good. The battery levels are, I think it's something to do with a Bluetooth or some kind of Wi-Fi connection or something.
Matt Swartz: And it does have both.
Scott Brady: And every once in a while, it'll start beeping and I've tried everything that... I mean, I probably need to just give them a call because there's no information about how to make it stop beeping, so... It's funny how those things come up. Like this is just like, as an information to the manufacturers, if you're listening. There's never a reason for something to just start beeping, unless it's a really bad. Like, show it on the display. You have this very rich display show the information that you're trying to communicate on a display, not at three o'clock in the morning.
Matt Swartz: One thing you also mentioned which I think bears repeating is the flexibility of these units. You know, you talked about kind of the cross compatibility, and I realized that [00:12:00] recently. Amanda and I were just down in Southern California with the Air Stream. We are staying at Soboba Flight Park... the hat that I'm wearing right now, the paragliding spot. But it was funny because long story short, we don't have an AC inverter in our Airstream. One of the great questions that remains, and it's not a question. Airstreams are not generally designed for people who are spending large amounts of time off grid. So it's an option, but they don't come with it. So anyway, we're carrying around a Yeti with us for AC power when we don't have shore power hookup and I actually didn't bring the Goal Zero panels with me. I had two Jackery panels with me and they worked with the Yeti system.
Scott Brady: That's cool, and ten years ago that wouldn't have been the case. They wouldn't have been compatible, or they would have required some modification to work.
Matt Swartz: Yeah, and what I've found is most of these units now are smart enough, if you plug an input in, it has internal circuitry to identify the input to know whether it's acceptable to manage the [00:13:00] power from that, you know, and either it will not allow the input or it will give you some sort of a warning or an error. You know, you don't get that with hardwired systems necessarily. You have to know what plug goes where, what kind of voltages and amperages you can put into the system there. So these... I think that's one of the other big advantages, you know, they take a lot of the guesswork out of it, and coming back to safety, electricity can be a dangerous thing if you don't know how to work with it safely.
Scott Brady: Particularly at 120 volts.
Matt Swartz: Yeah. These just make it so much safer, you know? At least that's my experience too.
Scott Brady: No, totally. You don't even end up opening them up at all. They do have some limitations. One of the downsides is the fact that you've put all of your eggs in one basket. So when you have your own system, like you built in your RV, if it starts to behave differently because you installed all of it, you're like, ah... I know what that is. Or I can go to the local. RV [00:14:00] store and I can buy this one solar charge controller and replace it and now the whole system is back up and running. Whereas with these all-in-one units, that is something that's worth noting is if they do have a problem. Typically it brings down the whole system.
Matt Swartz: Right. I mean if this stops working, you're not going to open the case up yourself to deal with it, unless maybe you're an electrical engineer, but then you're also probably voiding your warranty, you know? So a perfect example is in a hardwired system, like the one we had in our Cortez, we got two 100-amp hour lead acid batteries... or AGM batteries. They were a hundred bucks a piece cause we got them used and they lasted us three years. That's the same amp hour capacity as this, and this is $2,000. Now this is a lot more than just batteries. So it's not fair to compare the two, but the point being, you know, batteries have a finite lifetime and in our system that was all put together piece by piece. We could easily replace just [00:15:00] one thing and with this, yes, if it goes down, you're going to have to ship it away, and you're going to need to wait. With everything you're going to run into those limitations.
Scott Brady: There's compromises.
Matt Swartz: There's trade-offs, you know I mean we were kind of talking about that before, even introducing electricity and then auxiliary electrical system into a vehicle is inherently putting more complexity into it, you know, and that's something you may have to deal with on the road if it doesn't function as expected.
Scott Brady: I remember, I was... for those that are listening that would kind of like to know a little bit about maybe one of the OG OGs of overlanding, there's a gentleman by the name of Tom Shepherd, he lives in the UK, and he is certainly a mentor of mine and someone that I have looked up to for decades because of his significant expeditions across the Sahara, Northern Africa, and other places around the world. But I was visiting with him in the UK, and he had built up this G-Wagon for travel in Algeria, and he was saying, I have a second [00:16:00] battery and I said, well what do you use for a dual battery system? And he kind of gets this twinkle in his eye and he brings the back seat of the passenger seat forward and there's just one of those mechanical switches that is off, battery number one, battery number two, and combine or all. Like, he was the dual battery system. It was a mechanical switch that managed all of his battery systems. Now if you think about it, that's the easiest most inexpensive, but it's also the most failure prone because like, I probably don't have the memory of things like that like Tom does where he probably has a checklist at the end of every day and he makes sure to shut this off or to turn that to where he needs it to be. But if you leave those two combined and you go out for a hike and you left the lights on, now the car doesn't start. That's the nice thing about some of these automated systems, but it is certainly possible to build an auxiliary battery system in your [00:17:00] vehicle, very inexpensively and I'm glad that you brought up the point that you did about the Cortez and those used batteries. Lithium-ion batteries are the hot new thing for a lot of reasons. They're super great, especially on the weight reduction and the size of the packaging reduction.
Matt Swartz: I was going to say, power density is good, the weight savings is huge, and the cycles. They get a lot more cycles in their lifetime than an AGM.
Scott Brady: They have a lot of built-in protection too.
Matt Swartz: They do, yeah. A lot of them now have these battery management systems built in that control the charging voltage and, you know, they monitor temperature for ideal conditions. They're obviously a bigger investment upfront, you know, they're many times the cost of AGM batteries or lead acid, but in the long run, they are a better investment at least as far as I've been led to believe.
Scott Brady: I think you're right, but to your point too is like, that's the opportunity because when we talk about a principle of overlanding like we are today [00:18:00] around portable battery systems, we also want to always make sure that we present what's the lowest cost option for the listener, because there are many times when a system like Tom Shepherd uses and he's one of the most accomplished overlanders on the planet. His is literally belts and suspenders. It is a switch that he turns mechanically with his hand, he has two batteries and a small length of wire, and that does everything that he needs it to do when he's traveling for months in the back country. You found some used AGMs. How likely is it that somewhere on expedition portal or some other forum, that there is a bunch of people who want to put in lithium batteries and they're selling their used Odyssey AGMs, and these are great batteries and you can buy them for a fraction of the cost of what they were new, and then you either put in a mechanical system or you put in a simple isolator or DC to DC controller and for a couple hundred dollars, you've solved a problem that can [00:19:00] also cost thousands in a different fashion. So there are other ways to skin this cat, and we don't want anyone listening to think that these portable systems that are very complex and have a lot of features and are very. Is the only way to go about this. There are less expensive ways.
Matt Swartz: Yeah, absolutely, and there are some great options kind of in the middle too like National Luna has this... it's like a portable...
Scott Brady: A power pack they call it or something.
Matt Swartz: It was actually, yeah. If you look at the back, it's the final page of the article. But you know, I put it in there... I thought it was important to give it a nod because it's under $400 and it basically lets you take any 12-volt battery and hookup, a positive and a negative lead, and then it gives you a couple 12-volt outlets and I think...
Scott Brady: There's some USBs in there I believe.
Matt Swartz: It does. I don't think that one had an AC output built into it.
Scott Brady: It does not, but it does have a built-in dual battery system.
Matt Swartz: Right, and you can easily go to an ACE hardware [00:20:00] or a Pep Boys and buy yourself, you know, like a 300-watt AC inverter that plugs into a 12 volt outlet, and then for under $500 you have a 12 volt system that you don't have to have almost any electrical knowledge to put together. And you get AC and DC power. And you could do it with a used battery, like you just mentioned.
Scott Brady: A great example. And the National Luna stuff is known for its long-term durability. They build extremely robust, long-lasting systems because of the environment that they're designed for being in Southern Africa. So yeah, that's a great example.
Matt Swartz: One thing I'm kind of curious about, and I feel like with your knowledge of off-road and overland travel, you probably have a better understanding of this. How is a dual battery system different than a house battery system, or are they not different?
Scott Brady: They can be the same. Traditionally a dual battery system was used and they kind of first showed up around larger displacement engines, particularly diesels.
Matt Swartz: I was going to say because like, [00:21:00] for instance, in the Ram that I've got, it has two batteries. Like that's standard, that's the way it works.
Scott Brady: Yeah. So the primary reason why they showed up was that in cold climates, you have... your engine is 6.6 liters, something like that?
Matt Swartz: 6.7 yeah.
Scott Brady: 6.7 liters. Okay. And it's a diesel which has high compression, a minimum of 20-20 two to one compression. Some of them are a little higher than that. So you have a large displacement engine with a lot of compression that you have to turn at a high enough rate to get that diesel cycle to begin. So that's the reason why many diesel vehicles and particularly ones with larger displacement engines will have dual battery systems, and that is to increase the total available cold cranking amps for primarily cold climates. That's where it kind of started from. However there was recreational and there was back country applications. There was [00:22:00] farm applications and other things where they needed to be able to operate winches, or they needed to be able to operate other power devices out in the field where they wanted to be able to isolate the starting of the engine from the function of those other systems. In the four-wheel drive space, a dual battery system on something like a Jeep Wrangler would have been installed primarily to... I've killed my main starting battery because I've been winching. So you can do that. A winch will pull hundreds of amps a minute. So if you're not getting any power in, you can flatten... depending on the size of the winch, you can flatten a battery in a matter of just a few minutes, and now you can't restart your engine. So they would install a second battery, so then they could flip a switch, combine the two, restart the engine, let the batteries charged back up again, [00:23:00] or if you were at the end of a very complex winching operation and the winch was getting drawn down because the voltage of the system was getting dropped down. You could also combine them to give the winch that last little bit of extra energy to get through the obstacle. So that was typically why you would see a dual battery system in a recreational vehicle, or an early Overland vehicle was redundancy for starting and to support heavy winching operations.
Matt Swartz: And it could help with other things like driving lights. I imagine, you know, some of these high wattage driving lights probably pull a decent amount of power.
Scott Brady: 15, 20 years ago vehicles just didn't have that high of an output from their alternators, so a lot of dual battery systems were for just that kind of scenario. It's raining, it's cold, so you have your heater blower running, you have your windshield wipers running, you have your headlights and your auxiliary lights on, you're driving at low speeds, so low RPM, low output from the alternator. And [00:24:00] all of a sudden, all the lights start getting very, very yellow and very dim because the vehicles just didn't generate that much power. I remember my first land cruiser and FJ40 that I had, I think it had like a 35 watt... Excuse me, a 35-amp alternator. That was very, very low power. So a dual battery system on a vehicle like that was pretty popular, whereas today dual battery systems are most often used to support all of these complex electronics that we bring along. Fridges and everything else like that. And that's when you start to make the transition from thinking it as a way of supporting for drive mechanical support, like in winching, to I'm going to now run my house systems separately from the vehicle electronics. And that's one of the mistakes that people make the most often in my mind, is that they too heavily integrate the two. You want to make sure that your house systems are fully, if not very close to fully, isolated from your vehicle systems. You want to minimize [00:25:00] the number of electronics that run out of the factory 12-volt sockets. You want to minimize the amount of battery power that you're pulling from the starting battery. You want to have a separate house system, which could be a battery or one of these boxes like we're talking about today, and you want to have some kind of an isolation between the two. That way if you're watching Netflix for too long or whatever, you ran the blender too many times at night and you've flattened the house battery, you haven't killed your starting battery.
Matt Swartz: You don't even touch it. And that is...
Scott Brady: Keep them totally isolated.
Matt Swartz: I was going to say the isolator, you know, for people that are interested in setting up a system like this. I mean, that's a pretty inexpensive thing, and even to pay to have someone install that I imagine its that expensive in the scheme of things.
Scott Brady: And something like a National Luna dual battery system, or... there's some other great ones from Red Arc that are also mechanical or they're solid state from other manufacturers, there's some even some Mosfet solid state [00:26:00] battery isolators. There's a bunch of different options out there. There's another one called IBS. That is a great quality unit, and those are all very easy to install.
Matt Swartz: That's good to know. Yeah. In our RV, in the Cortez, we didn't even use an isolator. The two systems, the vehicle starter battery and our off-grid power. Were completely isolated from one another. And, you know, there were advantages and disadvantages, like I remember spending an extended time in Northern California where we had very little light. It was in the winter, you know, there was tree cover, and we just weren't getting the charging from the panels, even on a good day. If we have them integrated, we could've just started the vehicle and run it for, you know, 20 minutes and topped off the batteries. We didn't have that option. So there are advantages to having them connected to a certain degree. As you pointed out, you want to make sure they're separated so you don't risk drawing down your starter, as well as the house battery.
Scott Brady: Our goal is to get remote and it's so interesting, these... even a fridge, there's so many of these systems that take so much power [00:27:00] and you can lose track of time that the hike takes a little longer than you think, and you forgot some lights were on or whatever. It's very easy to flatten a battery.
Matt Swartz: Yeah. We've had a couple of times where we did, we drew our batteries down too low. And when they get low... and I've noticed it with these battery boxes the all-in-one units, as well as standalone system. The low-end recharging feels like it takes forever. If you get down to the 15-20% range, it's like exponentially longer to get charge into the battery then if you keep them towards the top end of a power storage.
Scott Brady: And that makes sense, electrical current is more efficient the higher the voltage. So if you're starting with a very low voltage battery, it's going to recharge more slowly at the lowest voltage than it will at the highest end of the voltage. So the first 25% is going to take a lot longer than the last 25%. And it's also important for those that are listening to understand what [00:28:00] is the limits of your batteries, each manufacturer should have a way of expressing what they consider to be inappropriate level of depth of draw. So a traditional AGM, like you had in your RV, those are going to normally be around 50% depth of draw. It's going to depend on the manufacturer of the battery, but it normally is right at 12 volts. So people will think like, oh I'm only at 50%. Well no, if you're at down at 30% and you're at 11.6 volts or 11.4 volts, you're already starting to do damage to the batteries. That's where these lithium’s are very clever and they're very smart and something like on the Yeti from Goal Zero, it's very intelligent and how it communicates its current state of charge.
Matt Swartz: Yeah. From my research that I did for the article using this as an example again, when it says zero on the display, it's not actually zero. They build in that buffer to help you prevent damage to the batteries. Although lithium [00:29:00] can be drawn down fairly low without damaging the batteries. And the cool thing with this is you can go into a smartphone app, and you can adjust that, you know. You can adjust that. This one you can also update charging profile. There's a lot of stuff you can do that kind of futureproofs this to a certain degree, which is cool. Yeah, the AGMs I mean...
Scott Brady: Very sensitive to that.
Matt Swartz: They are. Yeah, and we drew ours down too far and you notice it affects the overall life of them. Like you said, 50%. So our 200-amp hour AGM setup is really the same power as a 100 amp hour lithium battery, give or take. They're so similar in that way.
Scott Brady: It's really important when you install like the Victron battery monitoring gauge in your vehicle, or when you buy a camper that you asked the camper manufacturer, what is the set to. Is it set to... is 0% at the manufacturer's limit for depth of draw or a 0% means the batteries now at 10% or 10 [00:30:00] volts, and I've done a bunch of damage to it. So I actually like to put most of those gauges reflect them in voltage. These are 12 volt systems. If you go below 12 volts on a battery, With some exceptions like lithium you're starting to do damage to the battery itself.
Matt Swartz: Sure. I actually found some interesting results around that too, because when you get into 12-volt applications, a lot of appliances rely on... that voltage needs to be 12 or higher for them to function properly. And one example of that is, for instance, we were running an ARB fridge in our. And our system is an AGM system and so all of our 12-volt outputs were coming directly from the battery. They weren't regulated. So what happens with that is when the voltage of the batteries gets too low, if you're running the ARB fridge with the 12-volt power source, it actually will just turn off, even though the battery's not dead, so to speak and that was a surprise to me. Once I learned that I realized the value of running that off AC [00:31:00] power occasionally because the AC inverter can pull power from the batteries when they're below 12% and still output that 120 volts. Now on all of the units that I tested for the article, that was one of the things that I was really interested in. I thought to myself, if the voltage drops below 12 volts, will they still power a 12-volt appliance? And so I plugged 12-volt fridges with the 12-volt connectors into all of these. I also used a multimedia and I tested and all of the 12-volt outputs on these units are regulated. So what happens is even if the battery drops below 12 volts, it still puts out a standardized voltage somewhere in the neighborhood of, let's say 12.4. I don't understand electrical engineering enough to explain to you how that works.
Scott Brady: So it's up voltaging it, which costs additional power. So if you're trying... it's like you would do from going from 12 volts to 120 volts, you're consuming power to up voltage it [00:32:00] to that next level. So that's interesting, so it even accelerates the rate that the battery is running out of power.
Matt Swartz: It is an advantage, because if you have a 12-volt appliance that you need to run, and the battery drops below 12 volts. You can do that. I mean, I've seen the voltage on the battery on the Yeti drop, like down into the 10-point whatever range, and it will still put out power. And that's like maybe when it gets down to 20%. And with this, as far as I understand, you're not doing any damage, the system will stop working basically at the point where you would do damage to it. I think you can affect long-term function of the batteries, you know? So I shouldn't say you're not doing any damage, but it will still function.
Scott Brady: It will have some fail safes in place it sounds like.
Matt Swartz: It does. Yeah. It tries to keep you from destroying it.
Scott Brady: And so what did you think of... We've talked a lot about the Goal Zero. What were some of the other units? It looks like you [00:33:00] also evaluated the Renogy. How did that one work? That one's like on wheels with a cart kind of a thing. It's much bigger unit.
Matt Swartz: Yeah. You know, so the Renogy is cool. The Renogy... it feels a little dated. If I'm being honest, compared to some of the units that are available now, and I think that's just because they have put a little bit more effort into their commercial and standalone units in the 12 volt and solar space. You know, they're super well-known for solar panels. They make a really affordable, decent quality solar panel. I think you can get them for like under a hundred bucks on Amazon, you know, a rigid solar panel. And they make a lot of solar components that are good quality and affordable, so I think that's where the majority of the company's effort is not in units like this. Now I still think that they're all in one power solution this likened power box that we tried was great. It worked well. It's got a lot of USB-As, it's got a lot of 12-volt barrel inputs, which feels, again a little [00:34:00] dated. USB-C is kind of becoming a standard in the 12-volt space for USB charging, the, the 12-volt barrel adapters. There are not that many things out there that you would utilize for that. They have some, there are some...
Scott Brady: A fridge, I guess, would be one that you'd plug in.
Matt Swartz: Yeah. But you know, in my experience even the fridges, there's like a... I think it's called like a hella adapter. These are smaller. They're really small diameter, like for running like led string lights and stuff. Yeah.
Scott Brady: They're kinda like the round one on the...
Matt Swartz: Yeah. You can see them. They're right above the USBs there. So it's more like if you think about let's say like a little USB speaker that has a 12 volt adapter with a barrel plug barrel style plug it's those round ones. So they have limited use, I think in general, the cool thing about the Renogy though is it will charge lead acid batteries. So you can have auxiliary 12-volt batteries and it will manage charging them. [00:35:00] And definitely the handle and the wheels are great. These things are all pretty heavy, you know what I mean? I think they're like anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds. So wheels are smart.
Scott Brady: Is the Renogy lithium?
Matt Swartz: The Renogy is lithium, I believe. Yeah. I think they're all, everything we tested is lithium, as far as I know... as far as I remember. I'm just looking, trying to glance down at the article. I believe I put it in there.
Scott Brady: Maybe it's on the chart.
Matt Swartz: 24-amp hours, 44.8 volts.
Scott Brady: Oh, if it's 44.8 volts it's gonna be lithium.
Matt Swartz: Yeah. I think everything, everything I tested was lithium. But yeah, so the Renogy was good. Has a lot of outlets. It was somewhat limited in terms of the information that it provides on the display. You know, that's where... coming back to the Yeti again, it got the editor's choice for a lot of reasons. And that was one of the other reasons, you get so much information on the display. [00:36:00] The Renogy gives you some information. It doesn't, if I'm remembering right, it doesn't estimate time till empty. It doesn't tell you how much power you're drawing. It just tells you in a percentage of what the batteries are at.
Scott Brady: And I liked that about the Goal Zero a lot to know how many Watts is coming in and how many Watts are being consumed. That's a great way to plan for how your day is going to go.
Matt Swartz: Yeah. Definitely. I mean, you can extrapolate that, you know, plug in my device, turn it on, see what it draws. It will estimate how much time is left, but you know, you also know the power density. You can do some math and figure out how many hours it should run for it. If you want to figure that out.
Scott Brady: And what I did on the goal zero is since it has the small Anderson connection, I put one of those power works meters between that and the wiring loom for the camper. That way I can see what exactly is the camper drawing, as opposed to laptops that are plugged in, or other accessories that are plugged into the Goal Zero. I can see exactly what the campers [00:37:00] consuming, which was pretty interesting insights.
Matt Swartz: Thats pretty cool, yeah. Also, it's fun to validate any number that you see on the display with an external device. I mean, we did that for the test, you know, I used... it's not fancy, but one of those kilowatt meters for our AC load testing and there is a variation between what that tells you and what the display tells you on the units. I mean, it would be super fun to do this again and to actually pull an electrical engineer in, have them open up the units and do whatever testing needs to be done to validate a lot of these numbers, because again, as someone who doesn't have an education around electronics, there's only so much I'm really comfortable doing with these. But yeah, so Renogy was cool. I think the Dometic was an interesting one and a lot different than, than most of the units in that it doesn't do AC output. It is just a 12-volt output. And because of that is much smaller.
Scott Brady: It is. Yeah, it's a very compact unit. Super robust handle. I [00:38:00] mean, I like the fact that it's as compact of a footprint as it is. It's got kind of an interesting panel on the top and like, you have to hold it, you have to like... If you don't know. You got to hold the power button for quite some time it starts doing its things.
Matt Swartz: Yep. It's a capacitative touch screen. So there's no tactile feedback which is, you know, it's again, there's limitations with all of these. That was probably the thing I liked least about that unit, but the size is very compelling. You know, everyone's got space for one of those in their rig.
Scott Brady: Quick access to the fuses. Do you remember on this Anderson plug on the back, it says that it's an input, but can you also use it as an output as well? Is it a way to tie it in with a dual battery system?
Matt Swartz: I don't believe so.
Scott Brady: The energy only goes one way.
Matt Swartz: As far as I remember on that one. You know, the best use case for that, I think it's made by Dometic. Pair it with a fridge, you know, it will [00:39:00] run a fridge for a couple of days. It just makes it simple.
Scott Brady: And it has USB on there. It didn't have any USBC, which I think would be an advantage whenever they come out with their next version of the model. But the thing that I did really like about it was the handle, how easy it would be to create some brackets to securely Mount it in the back of a vehicle. It would work well in a small vehicle. So pretty clever in that way.
Matt Swartz: Yeah. For someone who just needs 12 volts for maybe a phone, a camera battery, and a fridge, you know, it does all of that and it's small and it's easy to carry around. Yeah, I like that one a lot. You know, I think one of the other ones that's really worth considering and, you know, for a couple of interesting reasons is the Eco Flow products. The Delta is the unit that I tested. The Delta kind of crushed all of the others in its recharge time. Most of these take anywhere from 5 to 12 hours to recharge the Delta recharges from 20% to [00:40:00] 100% and under two hours, which is really cool. And it's, it's very simple how it does that. It has an integrated charger that accepts like 1700 Watts of AC power. Most of these other ones, the AC chargers that are standard that come with them except the maximum of maybe 400 Watts AC. So it's not like a mystery how they do it. It's the fact that it can accept 1700 Watts. And that's really cool because maybe you want the standalone system. And you don't want to figure out a way to recharge from panels, but with this, I mean you can go and find an AC outlet somewhere and plug in for under two hours...
Scott Brady: While you're having lunch.
Matt Swartz: You're topped off. Yeah. You can do that at a coffee shop. You know, you can do it at a cafe pretty easily.
Scott Brady: I'll give you a good example of the use case for that unit. I, with recently purchasing a sailboat, which as they say, it's like the best day of your life is when you buy a boat and. The second-best day is when you sell it. But so I'm like I'm in the middle [00:41:00] of all of these projects on this sailboat and there's no 120 volt, there's very limited 12 volt on the boat. So I'm like I'm going to take one of these test units, and just like, I've never used this product. I'm going to go use it while I'm working on the boat, and this thing is fantastic. I mean, it has multiple 120 outlets...
Matt Swartz: You get 6 120 outlets.
Scott Brady: It effortlessly runs my Nespresso. So I get...
Matt Swartz: That's all you need.
Scott Brady: It had my heart at a properly functioning Nespresso machine. So I mean, this thing effortlessly does that it has a bunch of USB-C outlets. So that runs like when I need to charge the nav systems for the boat or when I need to charge a phone or camera, a drone. If I need to run my iPad pro, if I'm doing work on the boat, it does all of those things, just absolutely effortless and it's a surprisingly compact package.
Matt Swartz: It is. I was going to say, I think [00:42:00] the form factor of that one is really smart too. It's narrow, you know, it can fit on a shelf. It can fit into some areas that maybe these bigger units can't easily fit. And it's also flat on top. That seems like a silly thing, but being able to securely rest your phone or a USB device on top of the battery that's charging that is hugely valuable, you know? Some of these have flat tops, some don't some have fixed handles, like, you know, the Jackery is great in a lot of ways, but it doesn't easily lend itself to stacking things on top of it. Not that a manufacturer would necessarily recommend stacking things on top of these, but the reality is little things like that in the field go a long way.
Scott Brady: When you have limited space, it can be an additional surface. The only thing I noticed that I didn't care for that much about the Eco Flow was the fact that all of the USBs are on one side and all the 120s on the other side. So if you do want to use it like slid back into a cabinet or whatever, you're now covering all of those ports on [00:43:00] the other side or vice versa. The way that I've got it set up on the boat which is just basically under the companionway step. It's not a problem, but I could see how that could very easily become a concern of like, oh, the one that I need is hidden by all these bags or whatever.
Matt Swartz: And I believe I pointed that out in the article that was one of the limitations, but they have since released some new products. I think like the, the Delta Max. Which may have addressed some of those issues about AC and USB ports to one side. They also just released... it might've been that max or even an additional unit that you can now take to an EV charging station and charge with a car charger. Same concept as, as this unit, this one can take in 1700 Watts AC the one that goes to the EV charging station, it can take in a huge amount of power in a short period of time, which is really smart, and I've since seen a couple of the other manufacturers start to [00:44:00] integrate that charging technology Jackery, which I think is a, is a great kind of bargain option. You know, it's not too grand. It's about a thousand dollars for the one we tested for this article; they now have units that have integrated AC charging that let in a lot of power. So they charge much quicker. And that again is... it's a really great thing, especially for folks who are like not full timing, you know, weekend warriors. People who just want to charge up their battery quick and have it last for a weekend. That's such a valuable feature to have.
Scott Brady: And it seems like, the Jackery is really popular. I see a lot of people using them. You think it is because the price point is so accessible.
Matt Swartz: I think that's part of it, for sure.
Scott Brady: It's one of the most popular ones I see out there.
Matt Swartz: It is. To be fair, I think they did a great job of marketing it too, you know, they got it in the hands of a lot of full-time travelers right off the bat. They said, here, take this out. We know it's going to work well in the field and so a lot of people have been using them and I'm sure getting good feedback because we've seen them adopt some of these features like that quick charging, you know, they've done that faster than some of the other [00:45:00] manufacturers. But yeah, the price point. I mean, it's hard when you look at all of these as a whole, most of them are over a thousand dollars. So to find one right around the thousand-dollar price point is it's a little more accessible. I'm not going to call that cheap. For what you get? It feels like a good...
Scott Brady: A 46-amp hour battery. It looks like it has regulated solar input as well. It's got USB 3.0, it's got USB-C.
Matt Swartz: Yeah. I mean, it's got all of the features that you would really want in one of these, it the one we tested didn't have an output for integrating it with a hardwired system, but I believe some of their newer ones and some of their, you know, higher levels of units. This was the 1000, they have a 1500, they have a 2000, I think some of those do like a 30-amp output if you wanted to integrate them into a hardwired system, like your scout camper.
Scott Brady: That's I mean... and they're just super popular.
Matt Swartz: Yeah. They're great. They [00:46:00] offer a lot of different ones, too. They have some really tiny ones, you know, for people that just want to be able to maybe keep a laptop and a camera battery charge. They have ones that are that small and their solar panels are great too. That it's a folding design. It's got a built-in kickstand to keep it at a 45-degree angle. So it's pointed right at the sun. I mean their whole ecosystem of products is pretty well thought out.
Scott Brady: Well, let's talk about some of the other ones that you've seen on the market. Recently. You've got some additional considerations in the article. I guess the one that I'd like to bring up is that Red Arc is starting to pay attention to the success of these things. So they've developed some battery boxes as well that are going to be coming, they're available currently in Australia. They've developed some solar panels as well, and of course they have their own DC to DC chargers. They have a DC to DC and an AC to DC charging system with integrated solar panel management as well. So Red Arc has got more solutions than before they have a traditional [00:47:00] solenoid operated dual battery system as well. So it'll be interesting to see what Red Arc comes up with in the next couple of years around these integrated systems like this, cause they've done such a good job with the other overland components, so that'll be interesting to see. What were some of the other ones you didn't test or that weren't included in the review that you liked?
Matt Swartz: One of the ones that, that I think is really compelling comes from this company called Inergy, which is based out of Idaho, and I had one of their earlier models called the Kodiak. It was similar power density to these. Like, I believe it was around 100-amp hours. AC output, 12-volt output, and their newer one is called the flex. And it's cool because it separates the charge controller AC and all of the plug interfaces from the battery. So basically the battery is a base and the top, you just like sit it on the battery. It plugs in. So you can have multiple batteries and [00:48:00] you can Daisy chain them easily. I would have loved to test that one. Those guys, their production model is more of like a Kickstarter kind of thing. So they don't necessarily have the inventory on hand to be able to send them out. But I had a good experience with that Kodiak, so I think they make a good quality product, and from what I understand, their customer service is great. They're not as well known in like the Overland and vehicle-based travel space. They're more of like a home unit or at least that's how they market themselves. But, you know, again, being able to have multiple batteries is pretty compelling for people that are maybe spending lots of time off grid or who just want more power in one of these all-in-one systems. So that's one that's definitely worth looking at there are a couple of... especially if you go and search on Amazon, there are so many companies, mostly based in China that are producing these kind of all-in-one units. So beyond the Inergy, you know, it's really hard to say, I mentioned a few others, there's this Omni-off-grid, Blue Eddy, Sunbox labs I think is a US-based one. But there are a lot of other [00:49:00] options out there. You know, the one thing I would just tell people to consider, if you're looking at these alternatives that are maybe a little bit more affordable, because they're newer in the space. Customer service and support could be very valuable to you if you have an issue, because again, you're not going to disassemble this to fix it if something goes wrong with it. And that's one of the advantages with these established brands is a lot of them have US-based customer support. There's probably going to be a person on the other end of the phone that you can get in touch with or via email, whereas some of these more affordable options that just your kind of come from overseas that don't really have the customer support system in place here. They may be difficult to work with if you have issues.
Scott Brady: And on such an investment, like a product like this, you want to make sure they're going to stand by it, and I do remember a few years ago we had a small issue with one of the Goal Zeros and I didn't go through the PR channels or anything. I just called up customer service. I like to do [00:50:00] that when I have an issue with a product, just to see what would a typical consumer would experience, and they're like, oh yeah, no problem. We've actually seen that issue happen. The battery was bulging a little bit in the case, they're like, we've seen that happen on a couple of these things. No problem. We'll send you out an RMA. Done. Sent a new unit, so they were really great. And I know that companies like Dometic and that will also be that way as well... what an interesting development that we've seen over the last couple of years, I mean this has really come in like barnstormed this whole segment because 10 years ago, you didn't really see stuff like this. Goal Zero was just coming into this space about 10 years ago, and now these things are everywhere and they're all also typically the solution that people are picking. So I think it's important to talk about it. What do you think are some other considerations about how to reduce the cost of this kind of investment? Do you [00:51:00] think that people will oftentimes buy too much capacity or how do you best determine the capacity that you need for your vehicle?
Matt Swartz: That is a good question and I mean, that really is the starting point, right? That's what you do when you're going to install or design and install a hardwired system. You really start by looking at what you need to power on a daily basis. The math is not too difficult. I was able to do it. I used to do terrible at math. So if I can do it, anyone can do it. But you know, you look at the devices, you look at the power consumption, you multiply that by the number of hours you plan to run them. And before long you know how many amp hours you need and then you can go from there. You know, obviously it's easier to go overboard and have that buffer if power is really important to you, but unless you're...
Scott Brady: Adds a lot of expense...
Matt Swartz: It does, and unless you're going way off the grid, power's usually within reach. You can also go back to something as simple as [00:52:00] like a 300-watt AC inverter that plugs into your auxiliary power outlet on your vehicle and you just run your vehicle when you need power. So you don't kill your battery. That makes it really simple, and then it's just on demand, you know, you just get it when you need it and then you don't need power storage, which is really the advantage of these, right? It's like the power is there. You don't have to be running a gasoline engine or a diesel engine to generate more power and there are advantages to that too. It's nice and quiet. There's no fumes.
Scott Brady: But it definitely replaced these... and then more so these with a solar panel have almost completely replaced the need for a generator in the back country.
Matt Swartz: Just do the math, you know, do some Googling. Look for some resources, do the math, figure out what you're going to need and go from there.
Scott Brady: Yeah, and then buy the unit that's appropriate to your requirements. Maybe up-sizing it slightly to allow for some redundancy or some additional capacities should the [00:53:00] requirements around your trip change or the weather conditions change. But for the most part, you don't want to overbuy because these can consume a lot of money, which can be used for fuel and border crossings and other interesting activities as a traveler.
Matt Swartz: When you can save the money for the trip.
Scott Brady: Yeah, for sure. Well, thanks Matt. You did such a great job on this article. Again, for those that are listening, you can find the article in the fall 2021 edition of Overland journal, and it's the magazine that in many ways supports the podcast that you're listening to. So becoming a subscriber or picking up a back issue and enjoying this content that the team works so hard to put together goes a long way towards helping the podcast as well. So we thank you all for listening and we will talk to you all next time. [00:54:00]