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what is Solar Generator

What Is A Solar Generator? Eliminating The Confusion

A solar generator is a compact portable electric power station with a built-in battery bank that stores power generated by solar panels (or another source) and outputs that power on demand through integrated ports and outlets.  

Most solar generators are designed to run small appliances for a few hours a day and to recharge electronics, and some are large enough to run an entire household perpetually on nothing but the power of the sun.

Solar generators with solar panels are becoming more common in home backup/standby power and off-grid backup power applications, too.   

In this brief guide, we define what a solar generator is and contrast it with other popular solar power solutions including solar kits, home solar power systems, solar batteries, and more.  

In addition, we walk through the components of a solar generator & discuss the key features & capabilities you should consider when buying one. 

What’s In This Guide


What Is A Solar Generator - And How Does It Work?

Put simply, a solar generator is an integrated portable power source appliance that receives power from solar panels, an AC outlet, or a DC power source such as a car battery and stores that power in an onboard battery bank. 

Once charged, you plug electronics and appliances into the outlets on the solar generator to use the stored power.  

Most solar generators are sold as a completely integrated power station that includes all of the components needed to provide power on-the-go plus optional solar panels to charge it. 

For a more detailed explanation, let’s break down a solar generator into its major components. 

The Battery 

how does a solar generator work

The battery is the heart of a solar generator. 

Many people actually confuse solar generators for solar batteries, but they are different. A solar battery is just one of the components of a solar generator.

Virtually all solar generators today contain a lithium battery of some sort — either lithium-ion, lithium phosphate iron (LiPO4Fe) or lithium-polymer.  Here is a great explanation of the differences. 

The size or capacity of the battery is expressed in watt hours (Wh) or amp hours (Ah). 

The bigger the capacity of a solar generator, the more electronics you can power or charge. 

The most popular models can supply from 300Wh to 6,000Wh of energy before needing to be recharged.

Larger-capacity solar generators usually include multiple battery banks arranged in a grid that can support bigger appliances that draw a lot of power. 

The Inverter 

what is Solar Generator

The battery in a solar generator stores electricity in the form of DC power. 

But most appliances that you plug into the solar generator outlets use AC power. 

To convert the DC power in the battery into usable AC power, an inverter is added to the solar generator. 

The inverter determines how much power you can draw from the battery. Thus, it determines what appliances you can power with the solar generator. 

Take the BLUETTI AC200P Portable Power Station, for example.  

It packs a 2000Wh lithium-ion battery and a 2000W AC inverter. That means it can power any appliances that are rated at 2,000W or less. 

The Jackery Explorer 500 is a smaller solar generator with a 500W inverter. It’s more suited to low power appliances that draw no more than 500W. 

Note: The inverter supplies power only to the AC outlets. Other outlets (USB and DC) don't need power conversion, as they are powered directly from the battery’s DC power. 

Solar Charge Controller 

what is Solar Generator

A solar charge controller is the bridge between solar panels and the battery in the solar generator. It regulates the amount of power feeding into the batteries from each solar panel.

To avoid overcharging or damaging the battery,  the solar charge controller adjusts the current and voltage from the solar panel to ensure the battery charges safely and efficiently. 

There are two types of solar charge controllers used today: PWM and MPPT charge controllers. 

Most solar generators use MPPT charge controllers because they provide faster and more efficient battery charging especially in cloudy and cold conditions.

Input and Output Ports

how does a solar generator work

Solar generators are self contained, in that you can connect electronics directly to them. Unlike a home solar system, you don't need to wire a solar generator to your home grid. 

Most solar generators have multiple input ports that allow you to recharge the built-in battery via solar panels, an AC outlet, or your vehicle’s 12V DC port. 

When you are at home or traveling, you can charge the solar generator via AC or DC. When you are outdoors or during an emergency, you can hook it up to solar panels using a solar charging cable. 

As for output, the number and type of outlets varies depending on the capacity and power of the solar generator. 

A vast majority of solar generators offer three types of outlets: AC, DC, and USB (e.g. USB-A, USB-C, USB-C PD etc.).  This lets you plug in different kinds of devices and appliances. 


What Are The Pros and Cons Of A Solar Generator?

Solar generators are lifesavers in certain applications and situations, but they have a few downsides you should be aware of before you buy one. 

Let’s start with the good stuff. 

Pros

  • Most solar generators are easy to carry around since they are light and compact. You can access electricity wherever you are, whether it’s at home, in your RV or when camping.
  • Solar generators don’t produce emissions, so they are better for your health as well as the environment.
  • Unlike gas generators, solar power stations are quiet. The only thing you might hear is the quiet hum of the inverter or cooling fan. This makes them ideal in sensitive environments including indoors.
  • Solar generators require no installation or wiring. So you don't need an electrician or solar professional to set it up for you.
  • Solar generators are low maintenance. They don't have components like spark plugs, valves and carburettors that may need to be replaced or repaired after some time. They also don't need fuel.

Cons

  • Solar generators are not as powerful as their gas/diesel powered cousins. There are many gas generators that produce 5,000 watts to 10,000 watts and more of power. In contrast, the most powerful solar generators peak at 2,000-3,000 watts. This limits how much power you can draw at the same time from the power station.
  • You cannot use a solar generator to power your entire home, at least not yet. Even if you have an expandable solar generator, you’ll still be limited by the inverter. For whole house backup, you’ll need either a big gas generator or a grid-tied home solar power system.
  • Solar generators take time to recharge - several hours to days depending on the amount of incoming power, longer if you are using solar panels. This is unlike a gas generator where you add fuel and get power immediately.

With or Without Solar Panels?

how does a solar generator work

Many solar generators are sold without solar panels. You can buy the solar panels separately or recharge the power station through your home outlet or your vehicle’s cigarette lighter socket. 

A solar generator kit, on the other hand, is a complete package consisting of a power station, solar panels, and accessories you need like solar charging cables.

All of the components are designed to work together, and all accessories and cables are typically provided.

A solar generator kit is ideal if you want a power station that’s ready to use outdoors or in an emergency. You can start charging the battery right away using the sun.  

When shopping for a solar generator kit, pay attention to the output of the solar panels. You want solar panels that can charge the solar generator in a reasonable amount of time.

Otherwise, you’ll have to buy additional solar panels for faster charging or wait for days for the solar generator to recharge. 

The bigger the capacity of the solar generator, the higher the output of the solar panels should be.

Say you are shopping for a 200Wh or 300Wh solar generator kit. A 50W solar panel can recharge the solar generator in a few hours. 

If you want a bigger 1000Wh solar generator, you’ll need solar panels with at least 200W of output. 

One of the best solar generator kits is the Goal Zero Yeti 1000X + Boulder 200 briefcase solar generator. It’s perfect for camping as well as backing up various electronics at home in a power outage. 

If you want a more portable kit, check out the popular Jackery Explorer 500 + Solar Saga 100 combo. 


What Is An Expandable Solar Generator?

Solar generators have become progressively more powerful over time. 

One of the most powerful solar power stations is the Goal Zero Yeti 6000X with a whopping 6,071Wh of capacity. 

But what if you want to go even bigger and store enough power to power appliances for days?

This is where an expandable solar generator is handy. 

An expandable solar generator is exactly that — a solar power station that can be expanded to store more power by attaching additional batteries. 

Most expandable systems are designed with larger charge controllers that can handle more solar panels to increase solar output and make sure you can charge all those spare batteries quickly. 

Some solar generators from brands like Goal Zero, EF ECOFLOW and Bluetti have an expansion port where you can connect additional batteries. 

You can also buy pretested kits with extra batteries already included. 

A good example is the 7,800Wh Goal Zero home backup system. Unfortunately, it’s still limited by a 2,000W inverter so you cannot power your entire home or multiple high-wattage appliances at once.

Bluetti also has a kit with a massive capacity of 6144Wh. But unlike Goal Zero, the Bluetti kit has an increased power rating of 6,000W meaning you can plug in multiple large appliances without tripping the inverter. 

Tip: You can connect an expandable solar generator directly to your home’s electrical panel to provide backup power to some of the circuits in your house. Bluetti, Goal Zero and other brands sell integration kits for their solar generators, which include a transfer switch.  

Solar Generators VS. Solar Kits

what is Solar Generator

Unlike a solar generator, a solar kit always includes solar panels but may or may not include a power station / battery bank.  

Most solar kits are designed for permanent installation to power a home, an off-grid cabin, a boat, or an RV, where the choice of battery bank is often restricted by the vehicle or totally up to the owner to decide.

Solar kits come in a wide variety of configurations and prices.  

When buying a solar kit, it is important to understand whether all of the included components have been carefully engineered/selected and tested to work with each other.  

Another critical item to look for in a solar kit is the inclusion of breakers and safety switches to protect you from accidental shock and from destroying your batteries.  

We recommend buying solar kits from engineering-staffed suppliers like ShopSolarKits.com.  They only sell fully-tested systems that include vitally important documentation and installation instructions written by solar power experts.


Solar Generator VS. Solar Battery

A solar generator is not a solar battery. That’s a common misconception. 

A solar generator is a self-contained system that contains a solar battery, an inverter, a solar charge controller and various inputs and outlets. 

A solar battery, in contrast, is just a battery without any additional components. It’s meant for use with a solar system. 

When you are setting up a wired solar system or you want to expand the one you already have, you’ll need a deep cycle solar battery or batteries. 


Solar Generator VS. Home Solar Power System 

how does a solar generator work

A home solar power system is similar to a solar generator in function, except the major components are not integrated into one plug-and-play product, and the intended use is to power a home continuously.

In a solar system, components are almost always purchased and installed separately and wired together by an electrician to enable power generation, transfer, and storage. 

Like a solar generator, a home solar system consists of solar panels, a solar charge controller, a solar battery bank, and an inverter. 

In addition, most home solar power systems are connected to the home grid, whereas most solar generators are used in off-grid applications. 

Unlike a solar generator, a home solar power system is usually not portable and requires professional installation.

On the upside, you have the option to generate a lot more power, enough to backup your entire home.  That’s because you can use more solar panels, a powerful inverter, and as many batteries as you need. 

The choice between a solar generator and solar system depends on your power requirement and application. 

Do you need a portable generator to power appliances and electronics off-grid? Get a solar generator. 

Do you need to connect your solar power system to the grid or to power your entire home? What you need is a home solar power system installed by a professional - or a home solar kit if you want to install it yourself. 

Do you have unique high-power requirements? For example, you want to charge an EV using solar power or need to supply an industrial site with all-day-long 220V AC power?  Then you’ll probably need a custom-designed solar power system - or a solar kit if one exists for your needs.


How Do I Choose The Best Solar Generator?

OK, let’s say you know you need a solar generator. 

Here are the factors to consider when choosing a solar generator.  We cover each of these in more detail in other articles on this site.

Intended Use (Application)

This is the most important input to decide which solar generator you will need. Today, many solar generators are only designed for a couple of applications.

The most common applications for off-grid solar generators include the following: 

  • Home backup/standby power
  • Camping & outdoor activities
  • Powering RVs or boats w/ solar
  • Power for off-grid cabins, water pumps, et al
  • Keeping electronics & smartphones charged
  • Backup power for medical devices like CPAP
  • Off-grid work sites: power tools

Power rating (Watts)

How much peak and sustained output power in watts can the solar generator deliver through all of its output ports? 

Check the wattage of the biggest appliance or tool you plan to plug into the power station and get a solar generated with a higher output than that. 

If you plan to plug in multiple appliances at the same time, add their wattage to see which solar generator will meet your needs. 

Keep in mind that some appliances have brief peak power draws that must also be handled by your solar generator. 

Many solar generators can provide a burst of additional power for a few seconds to deal with this, but read the specifications closely before buying.

Capacity (Watt-hours)

how does a solar generator work

What is the maximum amount of usable energy in Watt-hours stored in the battery bank? 

You’ll need to make some quick calculations to determine how much power your appliances and electronics will consume in a day. 

Then get a solar generator with a capacity higher than the total consumption of your devices and appliances (depending on the battery type, you’ll need to add a 15%-50% margin because solar generator batteries don’t discharge to zero).  

Recharging options & speed

Check the different ways you can recharge the solar generator. Make sure there’s a solar option as well as DC and AC. 

Also, check how much solar panel power input (in Watts, Amps and Voltage) the unit can accept. This will tell you how many solar panels you can connect to it and how fast it’ll charge.

Power outlets

Even small 200-500Wh solar generators these days have all three types of outlets: AC, DC and USB. 

Check the number of each type of outlet so you know how many electronics you can plug in simultaneously. 

Note: most mid-priced solar generators are useful for powering 115V appliances, but struggle with 220V appliances that tend to consume far higher amounts of energy. 

So even if a model has a 220V outlet, it doesn’t mean it can handle your application.

Size & weight

If you plan to use the solar generator outdoors or to move it around a lot, make sure it’s not too bulky and heavy.  Even mid-range models can weigh 70lbs.

If lightness is really important to you, then look for models that use traditional Lithium-Ion batteries.

These are the lightest power sources available.  Avoid lead-acid and Lithium Phosphate Iron (LiPO4Fe) batteries, as these are much heavier per Watt-Hour.

For a home backup solar generator, you can get a bigger and heavier unit. 

Tip: You can get a cart with many larger models to help with mobility.

Weather/Water Resistance 

If you plan to use your generator outside, make sure it is IP rated for that.  Many solar generators are not designed for prolonged outdoor use.


Use Our Buying Guides To Narrow Your Search

For a quick shortlist of proven/tested solar generators for a wide range of applications, check out our buying guides.  

We’ve been reviewing the best solar generators sold in the US/Canada since 2016. We only recommend units that work as promised. 

In our guides, we select top picks for each major need/application - and we don’t candy-coat the truth, so you’ll learn about each model’s limitations and issues.

In our more general guides we cover the best portable solar generators, the best solar generators for home backup, and the best solar generators for camping, boating and RVs.  

We also provide more specific guides for adding solar power to an RV, camping, CPAP backup, powering refrigerators and more.


Frequently Asked Questions About Solar Generators

Can I use a solar generator to power my home?

You can use a solar generator to power your home, but probably not your entire home. 

Most solar generators are perfectly useful for powering a few 115V appliances for a few hours a day and keeping all of your lights and electronics working. 

On the other hand, most integrated solar generators come with a 2,000-3,000 watt inverter that cannot handle the combined power draw of all the electronics in your home.  

All but a few expensive models will struggle to power high-wattage 220V appliances like water heaters, ovens, & HVAC systems.

If this is what you need, then choose an expandable high-capacity solar generator that can be connected to your home grid. 

We also recommend buying a pre-tested, fully warranted solar power kit like the kinds sold by ShopSolarKits.com.  Those guys really know their stuff.

That said, the market continues to evolve to support more and more applications. 

Leafing manufacturers like Bluetti are creating solar generator kits that have a higher power rating like the 6000W kit we mentioned earlier.

At some point in the next few years, we expect to see more full-home solar generators sold as integrated products.

How do you charge a solar generator?

All solar generators can also be charged using solar panels. You can also recharge most solar generators using a standard 115V household outlet. Many solar generators also accept DC charging from a 12V car socket. 

Do you need a charge controller for a solar generator? 

You don't need to purchase a separate charge controller for most solar generators because they already include one in the unit. You also normally don't need a separate inverter as there’s already one in the generator. 

Is it worth getting a solar generator? 

It depends on your needs. If you live in an area that gets frequent power outages or you anticipate an emergency like a hurricane or wildfire that cuts off power, then a solar generator is def. worth it. 

A solar generator is also a good source of off-grid power when you are away from home - camping, on road trips, powering a boat or RV, long fishing trips, and so on. The totally silent operation is a bonus.

Are solar generators safe?

Yes. Solar generators are considerably safer than diesel and gas generators since they don't consume flammable fuel nor produce noxious emissions.

In addition, most solar generators have built-in protections to prevent short circuiting, shock, and overheating. You can use a solar generator inside, too.

Can a solar generator power a refrigerator?

Yes. Most off-the-shelf solar generators of 500Wh or more can easily power an average sized home refrigerator.

This is because modern refrigerators are extremely well insulated and typically draw less than 250 watts of power.

This means that even a small 300-500 Wh solar generator can run a kitchen fridge or mini fridge for an hour to several hours - plenty enough to keep your food cold for a day.

Larger solar generators can run a refrigerator for days. 

Do solar generators work at night?

Yes. As long as there’s some charge left in the battery, a solar generator can work even when there is no sun. When the sun comes up, you can then recharge the battery. 

You can also recharge a solar generator from an AC or DC outlet, meaning you can still use a solar generator even on cloudy days as long as you periodically have access to an outlet.

About the Author David Roberts

I'm a Mechanical Engineer who's obsessed with solar energy and sustainable living.

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