Like many in the area, I’m an outdoors enthusiast who is always looking for new products for my adventures. One item I keep looking in to is portable power, but it’s a pain to decipher which type would work best for me. Should I mess with a generator, or go with a battery pack? What are my solar options, and why do they seem so expensive?
Here's a brief overview of my portable power source discovery and a review of the best device I found, just in time for Colorado's camping season.
Generators, Battery Packs, and Solar Panels, Oh My!
Gas-powered generators are popular devices in the RV'ing community. Not only can they generate all the power you need to run an RV's worth of electrical gear, but they're also fairly portable (at least in the smaller sizes) and they never “run down” like battery systems.
Still, a gas generator doesn't make a lot of sense for my infrequent camping adventures:
- Gas-powered generators are expensive to buy and can be expensive to maintain too, at least if you buy a bad one
- These generators are frequently loud and always smell bad
- Many campsites prohibit or severly limit the use of gas generators now, at least in Colorado
- While some gasoline or diesel generators are “greener” than others, none of them can generate power without also generating emissions that both smell bad and can cause carbon monoxide poisoning in close quarters
- Managing to keep these fueled is sort of a PITA
While I think a generator would be a nice thing to have in case of an emergency (they came in quite handy for a lot of people in Colorado following last fall's flooding), I can't justify the expense of both buying and maintaining one of these gadgets.
Battery packs come in a few shapes and sizes. On the “low” end, you've got jump start boxes that double as portable power packs for campers. On the high end, Goal Zero makes something called a Yeti 1250 that looks very cool.
After a little research, I zeroed in on battery packs because:
- They're generally affordable
- They're essentially maintenance free
- They can be charged from any number of sources – you can charge one up at home before you go camping, charge one from your car, or charge from a solar panel
- They're quiet, they don't create any emissions, and they don't require any fuel
- After looking at a handful of battery packs available online, I decided to try out the ArkPak.
The ArkPak is basically a battery box with a high-speed charger, inverter, and a range of power connection options. To use the ArkPak, you'll need to buy and install a deep-cycle lead acid battery. I bought a pretty big battery (in terms of capacity) at my local WalMart for $110, strapped it into the ArkPak, hooked it up, and dived in.
While the ArkPak has been available in Australia for a few years now, the box is new to the US market. It shows, as there aren't a whole lot of reviews of the device online. TinyHouseBlog reviewed the ArkPak here, as did my colleague Tim Esterdahl (who reviewed the device on TundraHeadquarters.com here). Beyond that, I had to look to some forums in Australia to hear what real people thougth of the device.
Since neither of these reviews was on the Internet when I got my ArkPak, I had to go by the published specs:
- The device includes a 150W inverter with a 120VAC plug
- The built-in battery charger is rated for as much as 6 amps
- There's an LCD screen on the box that indicates charge, charging mode, etc.
- The box includes two 12V “cigarette lighter style” power sockets, plus a standard USB charging port
- According to Ark, the device can hold a battery rated up to 130ah
Of all the listed specs, the last one really drew my interest. Most of the power packs I found had batteries rated from 20-100ah. The higher the number, the more power the device can hold. A refrigerated cooler or camping refrigerator can pull as much as 80W of power at any given time. If you have a 20ah battery, you can run a refrigerator pulling 80W for a few hours...maybe even a whole day if you let it run off your car for a while before you plug it into the battery pack.
But a 130ah battery? That will run a refrigerated cooler for a week.
Setup and Use
Once your battery is installed in the ArkPak, the LCD illuminates and a cooling fan kicks on. The fan isn't loud, sort of like a computer cooling fan.
The LCD panel will display the battery's charge status, and if you plug the ArkPak into the wall (it comes with a standard 120VAC wall adapter) the LCD will indicate what's being done to charge and maintain the battery.
NOTE: If you buy a battery pack for camping, be sure to leave it plugged in when it's not in use. Most of the camping battery packs use a lead-acid battery, and lead-acid batteries will discharge even when they're not in use. If they discharge below 25%, they will be permanently damaged (assuming they're designed for a deep-cycle).
When I first installed my brand new battery, I was surprised to learn that it wasn't quite fully charged. The ArkPak placed it at about 88% charge. After an hour or two, the battery charge was up to 100%.
My 37” LCD can run for ours off the ArkPak
The ArkPak has sustained my 15” laptop for more than 3 days in one sitting, and that's with the computer on 24/7 (and running backups at night)
My refrigerated cooler works great with the ArkPak – “barley sodas” stay nice and cold, as does any food I drop in the cooler. As long as I don't open the cooler much, the ArkPak can run the cooler for as much as 6 days.
Likes and Dislikes
When I first found out that the unit didn’t come with a battery, I was a little annoyed. All of the portable power packs I studied included a battery except for the ArkPak. However, I think this might actually be a strength. If the battery in the ArkPak fails, I can just go buy a new one. With a lot of the other units I looked at (including the Goal Zero portable power packs), a battery failure would require me to either a) get the portable power pack serviced or b) throw it away.
I really like the price. I looked at two Goal Zero products before getting the ArkPak – the Yeti 400 Solar Generator and the Yeti 1250. While the 400 is comparably priced (it's actually a little less than the ArkPak, once you account for buying a batter), it's battery is only rated at 33ah. The Yeti 1250 has a 100ah battery, but it retails for a mind-numbing $1400. For $1400, I can buy an ArkPak and a battery, and have money left over a new tent, a couple of sleeping backs, and a decent backpack (well, almost).
I don't like the 150W inverter. While I can see why a low wattage inverter is beneficial (lower wattage means the battery lasts longer), there aren't a whole lot of devices that can run on 150W or less. I was surprised to see that my large LCD TV can run on less than 150W, but beyond that none of my 120VAC appliances will work. The 150W inverter is basically only good for running a laptop, charging a tablet or cell phone, and perhaps running a TV (something I wouldn't do while camping, but would totally do while tailgating).
I like the ease with which I connected a 100W solar panel to the ArkPak. Setup was easy, the panel I purchased is powerful enough to charge the ArkPak in about a day, and the combination of ArkPak, battery, and solar panel (with charger) was less than $700. I did a detailed write-up of the solar panel on TacomaHQ.com, which you can read here.
I don't like the plastic case. It's not bad, but it scuffs easily and it doesn't fit together very nicely. I looked at a Goal Zero unit at REI, and it looks and feels much nicer.
Still, at the end of the day, it's all about “bang for the buck.” Despite the ArkPak's shortcommings, it's an excellent value.
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
If you're looking for an alternative to a gas-powered generator, look no further. If you're looking for a portable power pack you can take boating, camping, tailgating, etc., the Arkpak is worth considering...especially if you're looking for a box that can run a camp fridge for a few days.