Small-Scale Solar Power

I work at Burners Without Borders, as well as working on the Comfort & Joy power grid, and lots of other similar projects. This means people often ask me for advice on how to set up their own solar system. I’m going to show you a simple way to get lights and charging going indefinitely.

Note for disclosure that if you decide to buy the things on this page, Amazon will give me a cut. This does not impact the price you pay. It just helps a student pay the bills.

The first step in the process is to get a solar panel. This is the Anker 28 watt USB solar panel, resting on top of my Kodiak.

Anker 28w solar panel

Now when Anker says 28 watts, it does not mean you’re going to get 28 watts. It means best case scenario for one second a day when the panel is perfectly aligned towards the sun, you can get up to 28 watts depending on weather, shade, etc.

As you can see, even with full sun directly hitting the 28 watt panel, I was only getting about 3 watts. This is very normal especially if you’re somewhere dusty or shady. You have to make sure to get a lot more capacity than you need because you will never get all of what your system is rated at.

Power GuageBy the way, I highly recommend this power meter. It comes in super handy for projects like this. In the future I might even get a second one to measure the power output to the lights and accessories.

Alright so let’s look at where the power goes when it comes into the tent…

Battery and Power DistributionTo the right, you can see two 15′ black USB extension cords. One of them comes in from the solar panel, through the power meter, and then into the battery’s charger port.

This is a very special battery because it can do charging and discharging at the same time. Normally this is an expensive feature, but this is the cheapest one I could find with enough capacity to comfortably handle all my needs even with a few days of clouds.

After the battery, the power goes to two cords. One of these is a phone charging cord. The other is a switched USB hub. These switches control power going to internal lights, external lights, and some disco lights.

Here’s what the courtyard looks like in front of the tent. You can see the lights hanging around the area, with an eno hammock hung between a set of atlas straps. I can’t recommend these enough as they provide safety for you and safety for the trees. Using paracord or other improvised straps can hurt the trees and hurt you.

Courtyard Lights

Final Thoughts

With this setup, I finished a week of camping with a full charge. I ran the lights every night, and charged my phone every day. This was more than enough to power all my needs during this trip. Probably it would be enough for several more people to share the same system.

I highly recommend this simple solar setup for anyone who is looking for simple lights and phone charging on a budget.