Why I didn't buy an EcoFlow solar power station

Is a solar power station a worthwhile investment as a prepper who's very budget conscious? We'll consider the question in this article.

Why I didn't buy an EcoFlow solar power station
Photo by Jeremy Bezanger / Unsplash

I've written before about the problems of setting up a correctly sized solar installation. To summarize, if you want a reasonable power output then you need a large inverter, the large inverter requires a large battery, and the large battery requires plenty of solar panels.

In my rental house in Germany, I have no solar panels on the roof, although we do have solar water heating. That means that the sun warms up the water and then the water for the shower does not need heating by gas, except in the winter.

So I have two 100W panels that I can temporarily hang out of the window or could place rather awkwardly in the garden. I had been contemplating buying some LiFePo4 batteries and a large inverter to go with them except I couldn't quite find the ideal configuration.  Then I came across the EcoFlow.

The EcoFlow, which comes in various models, calls itself a portable power station. And it packs a whole bunch of features into an all-in-one package. It includes a battery which is rather large but is not too dissimilar to the battery packs you carry around for topping up your mobile phone. Rather than being charged from a 5V USB outlet like the formerly mentioned battery pack, this can be charged either from a wall socket, or directly from solar panels. Finally, it can charge mobile phones and laptops and has a built-in inverter to power more hungry devices such as low-power kettles or hair-dryers.

This device and others like it are firmly targeted at camping enthusiasts. The advertising demonstrates this. A group of people sitting beside a tent charging their phones and laptops, or drying their hair. When you consider that the alternative is a gas or petrol generator then it's easy to see the appeal of having one for a reasonably long camping trip. You will either need to take it along fully charged and hope it lasts, or take some solar panels along also. For which you may need a larger car.

Now given that most camping grounds I have ever been to in Europe can provide an electrical hook up for just a few Euros extra than the price of the pitch, I can't imagine ever needing such a device on a camping trip.

Preppers

Enter the prepper community, which seems to be pretty taken by this concept, with many prepping influencers adding them to their portfolio of preparedness goodies. Or taking advantage of generous affiliate schemes...

I too looked at these devices closely and thought "that could be just what I need to put my solar panels to good use". However, I decided against it, and here's why:

What are you prepping for?

I thought closely about what I'm prepping for. It would be wise for you to do the same. For me, I'm considering a reasonably long-term power outage in Winter. I don't know what "reasonably long-term" is, but something like two months.

There is absolutely no reason that I would be wanting to charge or really use any electronic equipment during this time, and if I do find a need then I can always hook up the solar panels to my motorbike battery for a makeshift solution.

In Winter what I really want is a way to boil water and cook food, and a way to heat the house. Electricity is not ideal for this, at least not powered by solar in the winter months. Gas, however, is ideal. Whilst cooking food, excess heat will warm up the room as a byproduct. Although not ideal for use indoors, within a large enough room and with a window ajar, it should be safe enough. A carbon monoxide monitor can also be had for under €30.

European Gas Shortages

By now you'll probably be aware of the forecast gas shortages for this coming winter. The most likely country to be affected is Germany which is dependent on Russian gas for up to eighty per cent of its energy needs.

If the supply of Russian gas is cut off due either to European sanctions or in retaliation for EU support of Ukraine, then things could get rather uncomfortable in Europe's largest economy.

Given that it's the height of summer here right now and every other day one of the neighbours is found in the garden using their Weber gas barbecue, it could be surprising that most stores have no so-called grill-gas in stock. There is, however, one store in the surrounding towns where I have tracked down some gas, and I plan on going there to get an extra bottle in the next few days.

This may be an indication of things to come, as gas shortages spread, or consumer access to gas is limited in order to stock up the national storage facilities.

Expectations

Our missionary friend just paid us a visit and said that in Africa they often have solar panels but they only use them to run lightbulbs and maybe charge the laptop. All cooking and water heating is done using gas. I'm not saying this is ideal, but given the large resource in the skies above Africa, I'd have thought more could be done without resorting to gas, but maybe the cost-benefit just isn't there.

Solar for the Africans, is a way to continue working despite the frequent power cuts, and not a way to completely replace a broken infrastructure with a new alternative.

So getting back to the solar power station. Most of these camping-style power stations do not use LiFePo4 batteries but instead Lithium Ion. Lithium Ion batteries are the same as those found in mobile phones and laptops. They are not the cheapest but they are cheaper than LiFePo4. They also do not last as long, providing only 80% of their advertised capacity after about 1000 cycles. So if you're using it every day then it could need replacing within three years.

LiFePo4 on the other hand is more expensive, bigger and heavier. These types of batteries you can find in some of the large models of Power Stations. The larger models can provide over 1000 Watts of electricity for more than an hour and some can provide 3000 Watts for short periods of time. With daily usage this power output can be expected to last for ten years. That sort of power and longevity is certainly appealing but it all comes at a price of well over €1000. The question is how could you use this power effectively for that price?

A slow cooker would be the way to go here, these are typically under 200W and after 8 hours you'd have a well-cooked meal. Some other electrical cooking devices may also function but look at the power requirements to ensure they match the continuous output of the power station. The Thermomix™ for example is 2000W, and a typical induction hob is also around 2000W. To run such a device for an hour each day may require ten 100W panels and in winter, or with extended cloud cover, even this would be uncertain.

The Long Term

The advantage of the Power Station is, that if the electricity never gets turned back on again, then you will be at a distinct advantage. However, if it really never comes back on, then there will be a lot of large car batteries sitting around and unusable. Having a few solar panels on hand allows you to put them to good use as soon as you have weathered the worst of the Winter using a couple of gas bottles.

The 11kg bottles when used together with a small camping stove should provide enough hot meals for a family of 5 to see through six to eight weeks. The use of a gas barbecue should be avoided as these use a lot more gas.

In terms of heating, we are fortunate to have a house that requires very little heating because of using the very latest thermal insulation and good quality German windows. Our plan here is to all move into one room and use blankets and extra layers of clothing for warmth.

We may investigate a tee-light and terracotta plant pot heating system, or a gas camping heater could be used if necessary. The gas heating system will, however, drain precious cooking gas.

My plan will be to survive the first Winter and then use the following 8 months to prepare by collecting and chopping wood and fashioning a DIY wood stove. Hopefully, we'll never get to that point, or before we do, maybe we'll have had a chance to find a more suitable location where proper preparedness can take place.

Outro

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