Solar Panels and Batteries: How to Stay Charged Outdoors

So, you know you want to get yourself some solar panels and batteries. But now what? When you're not an electrician and start looking at inverters, charge controllers, generators, and deep cycle batteries, you might start to feel a little out of your element. There’s no need to get overwhelmed though. Staying charged outdoors doesn’t have to be a chore. Once you know what all the pieces of a solar system do and how they work together, it’s not hard to figure out what you need to meet your needs.

Solar Panel

An obvious place to start, but solar panels are the backbone of your whole operation. The solar panel collects the sunshine and converts it into energy. How much energy depends on the size and wattage of the panel. What type of solar panel you invest in also depends on a few factors, like whether it’ll be for off-grid use or on-grid use, where it will need to play nice with a municipal power utility. You’ll also want to make sure your solar panel is compatible with where it will be used, as some are marine-grade and some have tilt mechanisms to help you follow the sun.

Renogy Solar Adaptor Kit

To connect your solar panel to anything that follows, you’ll need a solar adaptor kit. The reason this is a separate item is, so you can customize the length and gauge of the cable that will go between the solar panels and charge controller depending on your needs. A solar array for a house might need a much longer cable to reach the next component of your solar system, for example, than a solar array for a van.

Charge Controller

Charge controllers regulate your solar panels and batteries. A charge controller protects your battery from drawing more than it can handle off the solar panel and becoming overcharged. There are two types of controllers, PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) and MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracking). The main difference between the two varieties is price point and efficiency, with MPPT being the best at regulating the battery and PWM being the most cost-effective.

Tray Cable

Like the Solar Adaptor Kit, the tray cable varies in length and gauge depending on your needs. It connects the solar panels and batteries via the charge controller.

The Battery

The battery is just as essential as the solar panel—after all, without the battery, there wouldn’t be a place to store the sun’s energy for when the sun isn’t shining. Once you’ve got your solar panels and batteries safely hooked up thanks to the adaptor kit, charge controller, and tray cable, your solar system is complete—unless you plan on running AC appliances.

There are several types of batteries you can choose from, including AGM batterieslithium-iron batteries, and gel batteries. Which one you choose depends on the electrical load you’ll require, your budget, how much weight you can manage, the temperature at which you’ll be using the battery, and how much energy efficiency you'll need.

You’ll also want to consider if this setup is for a house, van, boat, or some other application. What would happen if the battery were to burst or spill? If you will be using your solar array in an environment where an (incredibly rare!) battery blowup could be a really big problem, consider a battery like an AGM that has a low amount of liquid inside.

The Inverter

The last, optional, piece of this puzzle is the inverter, which converts the power stored in your battery from DC to AC. This lets you go from the direct current (which your car also uses, incidentally, to power things like the radio) to an alternating current, which means you can use outlets and plug in your electronics just like you do when you’re on-grid.

Those are the essential components that let solar panels and batteries power your gear outdoors. While some systems are small and skip a few pieces, they all essentially work the same. For example, the Renogy solar backpack can charge a USB portable battery. With it, you can store energy to power your phone. That’s not so different, in essence, from a larger scale system that keeps the refrigerator running at your weekend cabin. Once you harness the power of the sun and store it here on earth, it gets a lot easier to keep things running no matter where you are.