Portable Power Systems: Providing Remote Energy, by K.R.

As we moved onto our current rural retreat some years ago, one of our first steps was to install a set of grid-tied solar panels, very similar to the system described in the Survival Blog article by St. Funogas on September 10 and September 11, 2022. Similar to the author of that essay, we figured that we would use that system, along with isolated single panels for single applications, until we goft up the nerve to build a full-scale off-grid solar system. However, since that time new products have come out and my thinking has shifted. There is a new kid on the block that has shifted the paradigm for producing electricity in remote areas: the portable power system. These are often marketed under the misnomer “solar generators”.

Why a Portable Power System?

A portable power system takes in power from various sources, stores the energy, and then provides the outlets to use that energy in a number of ways:  DC-to DC power, and DC-to-AC, with and inverter. For example, I can charge our portable power system with photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, a house 120 Volt AC outlet, or even a running car engine; and store that electrical energy in the battery. Then I can use that energy later for anything that runs on DC or AC electricity.

Portable power systems have been available for some time. Four years ago, we bought a small solar-powered battery that can recharge our cell phone remotely. It was a cool gadget, but it had limited usefulness because of its small scale. But with the advent of LiFePO4 battery technology (Lithium Iron Phosphate), portable power systems can be much larger, more efficient, and last longer. Now they can power major appliances, workshops, medical devices, office data emergency backup, you name it. Also, these batteries are good for 3,500-6,000 charging cycles, as opposed to the 500 cycles of lead-acid batteries.

Why does this change my thinking about providing power for my remote electrical needs? I used to see the solution for retreat-wide self-sustaining electrical production as simply installing the number of solar panels and batteries that I would need to cover my current electrical use. But that involves considerable cost, and at some point that would involve several hundred pounds of batteries that not only require an amount of money roughly equal to the amount invested in PV panels, but also ongoing maintenance costs. Additionally, those batteries need to be replaced because they have a limited life span.

Instead of thinking of a large-scale solution, now I am seeing the value of more portable, flexible small-scale solutions that can cover a wider range of needs–both anticipated and unanticipated. The long lifetime and portability of the LiFePO4 battery power systems mean I can use fewer solar panels, certainly no more than the ones I have already, and move that portable power system to where the power is needed.

For example, we have two freezers to store meat and other frozen food. In an emergency, I can sustain those two freezers indefinitely by operating each of them for about one hour per day. Each freezer gobbles about 80 Watts of power. That means I need 160 Watts for one hour a day to sustain the food in those two freezers. I can use a portable power system, charged from four solar panels, to plug in those two freezers each for one hour. Or I could operate our gas generator for two hours to do the same job, but then I’d have to store gasoline instead of just charging the portable power system from the sun. And then there are parts and oil for the gas-powered generator that I would have to purchase and store in order to keep it going. The portable power station has no moving parts and requires no stored fuel, spare parts, or maintenance. With our current solar panels and two hours of full sunshine, those freezers will operate indefinitely.

Or, I could put in a whole-house solar system. For our electrical use level, that would cost about $14,000 for 6,000 watts of panels, inverter, charge controller, wiring, and batteries. That price tag is with me installing it. If you don’t have the know-how to do the installation yourself, then the cost is nearly doubled. For a fraction of the cost needed to upgrade from our grid-tied system to a whole-house, battery-supported system, someone like me can meet modest power needs by just purchasing a portable power system.

In fact, if I were starting from scratch and looking for an easy entry point in covering my rural energy needs, I would no longer purchase ten panels and an inverter to create a grid-tied system. Instead, I would spend less money and purchase 2-4 panels and one or two portable power systems. It would be a more versatile system, and in an emergency, it would cover needs that my current grid-tied system can’t cover. For example, if the grid goes down, my current grid-tied system’s inverter will provide a single 20 Amp circuit, with no ability to operate our deep well submersible pump. Bingo, no water. (As a result, we put a hand pump on our well to draw water should the grid power go down.) However, with the right choice of portable power systems, I would be able to draw water from our well, as well as move the power from one critical need to another.

So my new thinking throws out the expensive, large-scale system, or generators that require parts that break and need to be pre-purchased/stored/replaced. Instead, I would invest directly in a small-scale portable power system that can operate indefinitely. While it is less convenient to cart around a battery-sized device to different applications, now I only need two-to-four solar panels and my portable power system. Not only can I save the meat in our freezer, but I have the flexibility to throw a system in my truck and take it camping, or evacuate to some new location.

If I’m building a new cabin/fortress in a remote location, I can more quietly operate AC power tools, rather than carting in gasoline to operate a noisy generator. If I’m on a CPAP machine or oxygen concentrator, or other electrically-powered medical device, I can quietly provide the electricity for that device overnight, at home, camping, or at a remote location. If I decide to live out of my truck, then I can use my cell phone, run lights, and write a blog from any location. Portable power systems are a strong choice if I want any level of self-sufficiency without identifying my location with a lot of noise, while maintaining versatility and flexibility in my location.

Which Portable Power System Did I Purchase?

After reading several reviews, I purchased the Bluetti AC200P for $1,599 directly from Bluetti. I was attracted to the reliability ratings, and the amount of power that I could store with Lithium-Iron-Phosphate batteries for the amount I paid. This model stores and delivers 2,000 Watt-Hours (2000 watts for one hour). It can be charged from my solar panels or from my 120 Volt AC wall outlet.

The AC200P can be charged from either AC or DC inputs. For example, you can charge the power station from solar panels, a 120 Volt AC wall outlet, your car’s cigarette lighter outlet, a generator, or a lead-acid car battery. The most efficient way to charge the unit is from a 700-watt combination of solar panels, which is much faster than the 450 watts the unit draws from a wall outlet. To charge from a wall outlet, Bluetti provides a fan-cooled AC power supply. Bluetti provides the cords and plugs to connect solar panels, as well.

There are a diverse array of outputs on the AC200Pto provide both AC and DC voltages. For DC, there is a 12 Volt 10 Amp cigarette lighter style outlet, a 12 V/ 25 Amp outlet, and a phone power jack. Additionally, there are four 3-Amp USB outlets. All of these outlets are covered by hinged, soft silicone dust covers. There are also two wireless phone charging pads on the top of the unit.

The Bluetti AC200P has a fairly capable AC inverter. On the AC side, there six 120 VAC 2,000 watt outlets. So I can briefly run our two freezers at the same time with no problem.

To run a 30-amp AC power outlet for an RV, you would have to step up and purchase the AC200MAX for about $2,100. To operate 240 Volt AC circuits, you need to purchase two AC300 units for about $3,200 each. The unit that I bought is not able to cover those applications by itself. There is a newly released AC500P that can provide 5,100 Watt-Hours without any added battery expansion units. The AC500P has Wi-Fi connectivity and a mobile app, which allows you to charge the unit during off-peak hours at cheaper rates, then use that energy to run connected appliances during peak hours, which in some locations could save a lot of money. You control your outputs with an easy-to-read touch screen. The menu for the touch screen also can direct you to further information about the device, or information about any faults or alerts.

Things I liked:

1. The Bluetti AC200P is the best value for money in terms of the amount of charge stored and effectively delivered to meet your electrical needs.
2. It has pass-through technology, so you can charge with multiple sources, as well as use both AC and DC circuits — all simultaneously.
3. It can deliver lots of power for whatever you might need.
4. The Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries are durable. They can have between 3,500 and 6,000 charging cycles, depending on how you use your power station. That is a big advantage over the 500 cycles provided by traditional lead-acid batteries.
5. It has a large number of outlets–14 total ports, AC and DC, and two wireless charging pads–so it is very versatile.
6. It is expandable. You can combine the AC200P with other Bluetti products for more power. For example, purchasing the Bluetti B300 is an add-on battery that increases storage by 3072 Watt-Hours. Having an expandable system means that you can begin equipping yourself, and add further components as your situation changes.
7. The User Manual says that the AC300P can cover 3X peak surge demands. That is about 6000 watts–which is a terrific ability if that is true. So far, I haven’t tested that out.
8. While most portable power units just stop when they are overwhelmed, the AC200P identifies and documents any fault/interuptions so you can see what happened and seek help if needed.
9. While it is heavy, it is the most portable way I have found to carry this amount of power to a wide range of appliances. As I mentioned earlier, I can decentralize my emergency power production to cover my most critical need; and I don’t need to invest in a whole-house solar array at a much greater cost.

Things that need improvement:

1. The Bluetti AC200P is about 60 lbs. If you want to move it, you need some strength, or a cart of some sort. I am dealing with this by intending to leave it in one location. If I have to move it more than a few dozen feet, I’ll use our hand-truck.
2. The AC power supply is a separate device that plugs into the Bluetti AC200P. When it is plugged in, a noisy fan operates. Also, when the AC200P is fully charged, the AC power supply doesn’t shut off and the fan continues to run. Everything else about the Bluetti AC200P is silent; it’s too bad they couldn’t make the AC adapter equally quiet, or at least turn off when it is finished charging the battery.
3. The User Manual is sparsely written, with numerous typos and some awkward English. Reading it will not give you the full scope of how you can use the AC200P. Don’t equate the quality of the product with the quality of the User Manual; there is no relationship between the two. However, you should read online reviews and videos to see how to get the full benefit from your portable power system.
4. To charge efficiently, Bluetti says that you need 35-150 volts of input from solar panels. You need to pay attention to the characteristics of the solar panels you use (see below.) If you just plug the power system into a small to medium-sized panel, it will probably not have the current needed to charge the AC200P.
5. I’d like to see the unit be able to run my 240 VAC well pump. There is a Bluetti combination of products that can accomplish this, but it takes multiple components that are about three times the cost of the AC200P. Perhaps that will be my next step.

Where is the Bluetti AC200P Made?

Full disclosure time: Bluetti was founded by Wondar Law and James Ray, in California in 2019, and they soon established their headquarters in Las Vegas. Currently, Bluetti is the brand name for the company, Maxoak, which is a subsidiary of Shenzhen Poweroak Newener, out of mainland China. The Nevada group designs the products and acts as project managers, the batteries come from a company in South Korean giant, LG Chem. The Bluetti units undergo final assembly at a number of places, including China and South Korea. But this is not just a western name slapped on a Chinese product. It is designed and directed by the original owners and then produced in South Korea and/or China. For some buyers, this might be a problem. It is certainly not ideal.

Which PV Panels to Use

The real advantage of using a AC200P for backup or rural power comes down to charging it with solar panels. The key to effectively charging the power station with panels is using the right panels. You could buy the Bluetti brand panels that go with the AC200P, but you would be spending about two and a half times the money per watt on the Bluetti panels than you would on standard panels from less-expensive vendors like Readymade Resources or Unbound Solar. Just make sure that the power coming to the power station from the panels has the following characteristics:

  • Voltage: between 35-150 DC Volts
  • Current: Less than 12 Amps
  • Power: Less than 700 watts

Look for a series of panels that delivers a maximum wattage as close to 700 watts as possible, with a total voltage between 35 and 150 volts, and a current under 12 amps.

You would think that the power station would charge most efficiently from the panels that Bluetti sells with it, but that is not necessarily the case. If you were to purchase a bundle of panels from Bluetti, they would most likely sell you three folding panels, each delivering 200 watts, or 600 watts, for about $1,500. However, I think the best value for quality panels, ease of use, and charging speed would be to purchase two Mission Solar 350-watt panels. They will deliver a total of 700 watts (the maximum AC200P input) at nearly 11 amps and a total of 82 volts. You can get two Mission Solar panels, delivering 700 watts, from Unbound Solar for less than $750. That’s 16% more power, 16% faster charging, for about half the cost of the Bluetti panels. Just keep your eyes open when it comes to purchasing the panels to charge your power station. Be sure to match the watts, voltage, and current ratings of the panels with the ideal range of the power station mentioned above.

A more portable strategy is to purchase four 100-Watt panels. It takes nearly twice as long as the aforementioned 700-Watt example, but they weigh half as much. Practically speaking, the four 100 W panels are a more reasonable load for me to cart to different places with a hand truck.

Other Portable Power Systems Available

I have not reviewed or tested other portable power systems. I simply did online research and purchased what objectively appeared to be the best value for the reliability and amount of power that I was seeking. I do not receive any free materials or kickbacks from Bluetti, so I’m calling it as I see it. However, others in the prepping community have gone on record regarding other portable power systems. Here are a few folks I’ve checked out, along with their respective recommendations for portable power systems:
1. Sean James, who produces the myselfreliance.com video blog, discusses the reasons why he likes the Goal Zero Yeti 3000 Here.
2. David Kobler, who produces the southernprepper1.com video blog, discusses the reasons why he likes the Oupes power system Here.
3. Mike Adams of naturalnews.com discusses the reasons why he likes the Ecoflow models Here.
4. SurvivalBlog writing contest prize donor Quantum Harvest produces larger permanent systems and portable power systems, some of which are trailerable. They also offer tracking options for solar panels.
5. SurvivalBlog’s Michael Z. Williamson posted an article on February 2, 2022 that reviewed the Jackery Explorer 1500. You can find that article Here.

Just remember, this essay isn’t really about promoting a single brand of power station, although I’ve tried to be as helpful as I know how about the details of getting starting and being successful. It is about changing the paradigm of how we think of solar energy in remote locations. My thinking has gone from large-scale, to small-scale, flexible, and more targeted design and plans for use. Using a portable power station in combination with a couple solar panels allows greater flexibility and portability to meet a wide range of power needs for the remote retreat.