Since installing a Biard 100W solar panel on the roof of the campervan, I’ve experienced the benefits of solar power while away with the family. I’ve also noticed a few downsides to a permanently fixed installation and the biggest problem came when we needed to park the van in the shade due to the sun’s heat or the physical location of the pitch – obviously when in the shade the panel doesn’t generate electricity. I recently had the chance to compare my fixed solution to a portable folding solar panel that was sent to me by BeamLED from Lancashire and here are my thoughts.
The Biard 100W Silver Folding Solar Panel Kit comes in a black material bag with the dimensions 630 x 540 x 70mm making it not too large to carry and fits very well behind the seat of the campervan. At 20kg it’s not something you can take on a hiking trip through the Peaks but it is light enough to move from a vehicle to the camping pitch.
First impressions are of a solid construction with an aluminium frame and black plastic corners. The two monocrystalline solar PV panels (I assume separate 50W panels) seem to be almost identical to the panels you would put on a roof and look extremely robust.
The two panels are held together by metal hinges that once opened, reveal a metal frame that when extended become the legs to angle the panel towards the sun. Each panel is wired into the PWM Solar Charge Controller that is bolted to the frame.
This is a 10A waterproof solar controller with a couple of status LED’s, a thermometer probe and a COM port. The lead for connection to your battery is two separate cables terminating in crocodile clips. I would be tempted to use a few cable ties on this spaghetti of wires, but it in no way affects the function of the solar panel. The COM port on the controller is used to connect a portable meter (mentioned later in this post) or to connect to a PC to setup and control all of the functions and logging. Using the COM port is optional and is not required to get you up and running.
Download the full EPSolar LS1024BP Manual.
After connecting the negative and positive crocodile clips to the leisure battery there’s not much left to do apart from ensure that the portable solar panel is positioned towards the sun. The LED’s on the controller indicated I had both battery power and electricity being generated by the solar array. Throughout the day you can move the panel if it falls into the shade and if you are positioned on a camping pitch under a tree, it’s not difficult to move the portable panel into the sun.
The only thing to do now is sit back and enjoy the thought that your battery is being recharged by the power of the sun – that and put the tent up or get the kettle on.
Depending on your setup you may be running 12v accessories direct from the battery rather than from the solar controller (although possible to do). The campervan has a complete power management system, so the solar panel can simply sit separate to that and charge the battery independently. Obviously whatever your system, be it professional or DIY, make sure you have the correct fuses fitted to protect you and the equipment.
Take a look at my board: 12 Volt Living on Pinterest where I add links to equipment that will run from a 12v battery supply.
Adding a MT-50 Remote Solar Meter
One of the things that I have missed from my fixed solar panel setup is the ability to see what’s actually going on and view the status of the system. I have simple voltmeters connected to let me know how much voltage is present in the battery but there is much more information to be had through the COM port, so I asked BeamLED if they would also send me a MT-50 Remote Solar Meter to help with the review.
Ideally suited to be mounted inside the campervan (or caravan, shed, house) this unit takes all of the readings from the controller and displays them on an LCD screen without the need to link the solar controller up to a PC. Most importantly, the state of the battery and details of the electricity being generated by the solar panel.
As can be seen in the above photo, the smiley face is indicating that the battery is “happy” and the panel is providing 20.5Volts, 0.3Amps – this was in low sitting winter sun and mostly behind a haze so it shows that the portable folding solar panel is doing a pretty good job in these lower light conditions.
Amongst many other things, the meter can control a lighting system (if connected) and will use the solar panel to turn lights on at dusk and off at sunrise or simply be placed on a timer. It also has a memory that will log the performance over a number of days while connected. The default settings of the solar controller allow the connected battery to be charged intelligently but the MT-50 can be used to customise the settings to suit the type of battery in use. Although this meter is not required to start generating electricity from the sun, it’s a fun and informative optional extra.
Please note, the MT-50 Remote Solar Meter from BeamLED is an optional £36 extra that is not provided with the folding solar panel kit.
Portable Folding Solar Panel – Conclusion
This is a good sturdy product containing technology that was historically much more expensive than it is today. For £220 inclusive you get a Biard 100W Silver Folding Solar Panel Kit complete with a waterproof charge controller and all the cables required to get you generating electricity as soon as it’s delivered and connected to a suitable battery. By buying from BeamLED you will also get free delivery, a 30 day money back guarantee and a massive 5 year warranty.
I started by stating that I wanted to compare a portable solar panel to my fixed panel on the roof of the campervan and here are my thoughts on the pros and cons of the portable system:
- When folded the size is easy to accommodate
- Ideal for people that don’t want to drill holes in their roof
- No cost of fitting/labour or extra materials and cables
- Easy to return under warranty as it’s not fitted
- All in one – if one component fails the whole thing can go back to supplier
- No need to take with you when going on a campsite without electricity or for short periods
- Easy to sell on
- Can park campervan in the shade and place the panel in sun
- A fixed panel on a tilting roof has the potential to be out of sun depending on the pitch
- You can chase the sun by moving the panel around
- The legs angle the panel for maximum efficiency
- It can be used for other things when not camping or you can loan it to your buddy (perhaps you could share the cost)
- It’s a target for theft (unless a bike chain/lock could be used)
- You need to store it when not in use
- You need easy access to your leisure battery
- I would like to see an in-line fuse on the positive battery cable (easily fitted)
- The battery isn’t being charged when parked at the SuperMarche
- It’s currently about £50 more expensive than a fixed solution (not including fitting)
I think both solutions have their merits and it’s dependent on your situation. A portable folding solar panel would be perfect for families using a tent when on a pitch without an electricity hook-up or for preppers, preparing for the impending zombie apocalypse. The fixed solution, once fitted can just be forgotten about.
I’m truly undecided. I really like both products and should really have tried a portable solution before taking the plunge and bolting one to the roof. One thing is clear, generating power from the sun can only be a good thing and the more the merrier.
Update: Here’s a 2018 review for a lightweight Campervan 12v Folding Solar Panel
Update: Providing the option to switch between solar panels easily …
Disclosure: This equipment was sent to me by BeamLED in return for a unbiased online review.
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