This review is part of my continued exploration of backup power during disruptive times. Life without electricity, even for a few hours, is unpleasant and could even be life threatening. I was reflecting about this during our last Scouting campout as I saw how many battery-operated devices were in evidence. It was mostly flashlights, but there were also two-way radios for communications, cell phones for emergencies, and the like. We are supposed to leave entertainment gadgets behind, but I admit to having a book reader on most trips, and I keep copies of first aid guides and similar materials on it as well as the book du jour I’m reading. This was only a two night trip, so there was little issue with battery life for any of this. However, if it had been a week long trip, I would have needed a way to charge stuff.
Then there is the issue of interruptions to service, whether short-term ones following thunderstorms or long-term ones after hurricanes or worse situations. Generators have their appeal and offer a lot of power for the buck, but they have major drawbacks. The biggest one is their thirst for fuel, but running a close second is the amount of noise most of them produce. Unless you put a lot of effort and money into quieting them, they can be heard for blocks and blocks, attracting highly unwanted attention. A better solution, in my mind, for as much of your grid down electrical needs as you can afford is solar. Once you pay the steep upfront costs, solar is free and quiet. It may provide a visual signature with reflections from the panels, but with effort that can be screened and reduced.
Besides the cost, there is another problem with solar, which is that it only makes power when there is sunlight. To have power after dark or on cloudy, rainy days, you have to have a way to store power, which means batteries. Ideally, we want to have batteries that can handle deep discharges and lots of recharge cycles. It is also nice if they require little maintenance. There are many battery technologies, but one of the ones with a sweet spot for capacity, life, and cost are deep cycle, sealed absorbed glass mat lead acid batteries. You often find this sort of battery in the uninterruptible power supplies that many of us use on computers and other sensitive electronics to protect them (and our data) from the fickle nature of grid power. Among the several advantages of AGM’s are that they seldom leak and don’t need to be topped off. They are often touted as being usable in any position, but I get nervous about having them upside down.
While my goal is to be able to go completely off grid with a vast array of solar panels and a huge bank of batteries, the reality is that I don’t have the means to do it. I do have the means, however, to come up with something more modest that can at least power some communications gear, lighting, and perhaps some small appliances. Quantum Harvest, a company in Athens, Maine, provides just the sort of gear that can handle these types of needs. They were kind enough to loan me one of their Quantum Harvest Model 120’s for a review. They have also been generous enough to offer one of these units as a prize in the SurvivalBlog writing contests. It goes for $340.99 with shipping.
The Model 120 is their entry level unit and provides the owner with USB and 12-volt power outputs. It is a full service kit that comes with a 27-watt, folding, solar panel and AC charger as well as a power pack that contains a 10 amp AGM deep cycle battery. They sell an array of similar but more capable products, too. The more expensive ones also include AC power inverters.
In my mind, the most important part is the folding solar panel. It weighs 2.5 pounds and only takes up 11.5x8x2 inches when folded. It unfolds to 36×8 inches for use. It provides two USB charging ports as well as a cord that can provide up to 18 volts, depending on how bright the sun it. It is the cord that plugs into the power units to keep the battery charged. In my bright, southern climate, it can charge the power unit in about 6-8 hours, though Quantum Harvest says that in Maine, it will take all day.
The solar panel itself has one limitation; it does not have a charge controller, so you can’t just connect it directly to a battery and leave it alone without risk of overcharging the battery. There is no need to worry, however, as you can plug it into the port on the back of the power pack and charge its battery since the power pack includes a 3 amp charge controller that prevents damage to the battery.
The power pack is housed in a sturdy 8.75x4x5.75 inches aluminum case. The case itself is actually a bit smaller, but I included the folding carry handle and the protrusion of the connectors as well as the rubber feet on the bottom of the case in my measurements. The handle and rubber feet are nice additions by the way, giving you a convenient way to carry it as well as protecting your furniture. It weighs about 10 pounds.
As well as the port for an external charger on the back, there is a circuit breaker to protect the unit from overloads or short circuits. The breaker is far better than having a fuse as inevitably, when things are going wrong, you won’t have the right size fuse.
Moving to the front, you will find an on-off switch that has a blue LED that indicates when it is powered up. There is a row of LEDs that, when it is turned on, indicate how much power is left in the battery. If the first LED in the row comes on, it tells you the battery is discharged, so please stop trying to use it. Another LED lets you know if you are charging it. There is also a button you can push when the unit is off to get the LEDs to show you the remaining power.
The best parts, of course, are the ones that let you power stuff. There are two USB outlets along with a cigarette lighter socket for 12-volt devices. Both have covers to protect them from moisture and dirt. The USB outlets are marked as a product of Blue Sea Systems, which make marine grade gear. I didn’t see any labels on the other components, but they also looked to be moisture and dirt resistant and of high quality.
I looked inside the unit and liked what I saw. It was clearly hand assembled– the way electronics used to be made– and done with good craftsmanship. The solder joints were clean and bright with no globs of excess solder anywhere in sight, proving that I clearly was not the fabricator. Everything looked right. The wires were cut to provide room to get to serviceable components without excess wire to get tangled up. There was a sturdy bracket to keep the battery from shifting and damaging any of the components, and I found foam padding to protect the parts. Insulation was provided to prevent connectors and circuit boards from touching the conductive case.
Another feature I highly approved of is the use of a readily available 12-volt battery of the type used in computer uninterruptible power supplies. This means you can easily replace it when necessary. Quantum Harvest expects you to get several hundred charge/discharge cycles, but how you use it affects that. If you continually run it flat, it won’t last as long as it will if you take care of it. My research and pestering people who are smarter than I am indicates that never pulling out more than ½ of the power before recharging it will provide close to maximum life from this sort of battery. Certainly an occasional deeper discharge won’t be much of a problem, but do it day after day and you will be buying another battery sooner than if you can control your need for power.
So, how much power can this thing provide? Quantum Harvest provides a chart that lists 17 charges for an iPhone, 38 AA batteries, or three charges for an iPad 3. This is pretty much running the battery flat, so it would be better to cut those in half, but that’s still a good deal of power. I found the ratings to be pretty accurate as I charged Android tablets, a Kindle book reader, and a bunch of AA and D cell batteries. I didn’t have any of the Apple products to test, but since watts are watts, I would expect you to get the rated number of charges for your iDevices.
If you are charging stuff during the day, you could certainly get more by connecting it to the solar panel, which has a nice 16-foot long cord enabling you to put the panel outside and keep the electronics inside and out of the sun, heat, or an unexpected shower. While I wouldn’t want to get the panel wet either, it is better protected than the power pack and the typical cell phone or tablet.
Speaking of protection, I would probably use some low residue, electrical tape to cover the joints on the power pack, just for peace of mind. A small tool bag from one of the home stores would hold the pack and the panel and also offer some protection to both while traveling.
When storing the pack, Quantum Harvest recommends just leaving it connected to the solar panel. You can lay the panel in front of a window that gets a lot of light and it will do a good job of maintaining the battery. You could also leave it connected to the 2 amp AC charger for the unit that can charge it in six or so hours from a low state of charge.
To get the most out of the solar panel, you will need to put it outside and keep it oriented at a 90 degree angle to the sun. If you are draining the power pack at night, you will want to do that in the morning and reorient the panel several times during the day.
Quantum Harvest makes units that are expressly designed to resist EMP events, but you have to spend more money to get that protection. That said, however, they feel the 120’s aluminum case provides some protection against an EMP. They also say that there is a consensus in the industry that solar panels are fairly resistant to EMP, so the combination probably gives you a chance to get through an EMP and still have some power. There would be more concern if it is connected to grid power for charging when it happened, though.
The included instruction manual was quite clear and provided all of the information I needed to use it. The solar charge controller is covered by a three year warranty. The battery is covered by a one year warranty, while everything else is covered for five years. A nice feature of the warranty is that Quantum Harvest covers the shipping both ways. Another neat provision is that should something fail after the warranty expires, there will be no labor charge to fix it. Reasonably, none of this covers misuse or carelessness.
I am really going to regret sending this back, but I don’t have the funds at the moment to buy it. I did ponder assembling something similar myself and decided that while I might be able to beat the price, I couldn’t approach the quality. My version would look like something from Dr. Frankenstein’s castle and would probably be less reliable. I am going to have to save some money up.
My review of the Armasight Spark CORE night vision device should have run by the time this publishes. While I am still very happy with the unit, I am disappointed and perplexed with their customer service. I had hoped to borrow some of the accessories for the unit for an additional review. I also had several questions, and they have not replied to emails or phone calls. I approached them both as a reviewer for SurvivalBlog as well as a customer. I received no response whatsoever. While I can’t hold their apparent unwillingness to provide products to review against them, I can rationally be annoyed with not getting questions about the product and its use ignored. This may speak poorly of getting service, should you ever had need. I still plan to review some of the accessories for the unit, but I now have some reservations about recommending Armasight products to readers.
– SurvivalBlog Field Gear Editor, Scot Frank Eire