•   
  •   
  •   
 

You Are Viewing Equipment

PowerFilm AA + USB Solar Charger Review

Posted February 25th, 2012

powerfilm AA+USB chargerNote: A few months after writing this review, we received reports of reliability issues with this solar panel. We currently can’t recommend any solar panels for bicycle touring. They seem too unreliable.

More and more cyclists are loading down their panniers with electronic gadgets, and all of these high-tech tools require one thing: power.

How to keep all those batteries full? Our top choice is a hub dynamo but that’s an expensive option.

For power on a budget you could also consider a solar panel. Recently we had a chance to test out the PowerFilm AA + USB folding panel (cost: about $80 U.S.).

In the interest of full transparency, we received it from a good friend. Her extended family manufactures these panels. Like always, however, we promised her – and all of you – an honest review.

With that out of the way, we can honestly say that first impressions were good. In a nutshell, this panel:

  • Seems robust
  • Weighs a modest 180 grams
  • Folds up to a fairly small size; just a bit larger than your wallet, at 14cm x 8cm (5.5″ x 3″).
  • Is water resistant, so a small drizzle won’t hurt but you will have to put it away if the rain persists for long
  • Has grommets (small holes) on each end, which make it easy to fasten the solar panel to the back of your bicycle, bags, etc…


PowerFilm USB + AA Charger Test

What Does It Promise?
The PowerFilm website says that this solar panel will fully charge 2 AA batteries in about 4 hours, in full sunlight. The batteries are included, and sit in a box at one end of the panel. You can either:

  • Use the panel to charge the included AA batteries and then use the stored power to recharge your gadgets later, via a USB port on the charging unit (when you’re in the tent at night, for example).
  • Charge your gadgets ‘on the go’ by plugging them into the panel as you’re cycling

Using one of these two methods, PowerFilm says you should be able to charge most micro USB devices, such as mobile phones (including the iPhone) and mp3 players. Even charging the iPad is possible, although PowerFilm recommend their stronger 10 watt foldable charger, the F15-600, if powering an iPad is a priority.

We decided to test it on a bright, sunny weekend.

This is the Alblasserwaard area of the Netherlands

How did it perform?
With the panel strapped on the back, we hit the road around lunchtime. We didn’t cycle much on Saturday, so it was on Sunday – after just under 6 hours of cycling in total – that the indicator light changed colour and told us that the AA batteries were full.

This was a bit more time than the 4 hours promised by PowerFilm but – to be fair – we weren’t in the sun during our entire riding time. Inevitably, you cycle in the shade or stop for a break occasionally.

When we returned home, we plugged our Kindle into the solar panel. The Kindle battery was nearly dead when we plugged it in, and after draining the AA batteries, it was about 1/3 full.

After returning home, we repeated this test by simply setting the solar panel on a sunny windowsill a few times and then transferring the charge to the Kindle, and each time the results were similar: a few hours to charge the AA batteries, and a charge of about 1/3 to the Kindle.

Charging the Kindle with solar power

Normally, at this point, we would have taken the PowerFilm panel out a few times, before writing this review, but on this occasion we have to apologize. A bout of terrible weather and the arrival of baby Luke put a stop to that idea.

Was our test extensive? No. But it did give us the impression that this could be a useful gadget for touring – as long as you don’t expect too much. Don’t plan to fully power a laptop with this solar panel. You could, however, happily keep a camera battery or mobile phone charged with it (weather permitting).

Day 3 - Going solar
Going solar – the Two Wheeled Wanderers used Powerfilm chargers on their trip

Other Experiences With PowerFilm Panels
Since we couldn’t test the PowerFilm charger as much as we’d have liked, we asked a couple other cyclists using PowerFilm solar panels for their opinions.

Tom Allen took a PowerFilm charger along on his bike travels:

I found the PowerFilm 4xAA charger the lightest and quickest charging solution I’ve tried, not to mention being one of the few units that actually works in practice! I found very useful the indicator LEDs to let you know when each pair of batteries is being charged and when it meets capacity. The grommets which allow the unit to be tied down to rack-top bags and the like make it particularly suitable for the cyclist. -Tom Allen

Karen, of the Two Wheeled Wanderers, also has experience with the Powerfilm AA + USB charger. In this case, the review is less positive. At first, she found it worked very well. After a few months of solid touring, however, her panel stopped working. Karen has written to Powerfilm about this experience but hasn’t received a reply.

Have you ever tried a solar panel for touring? Leave a comment and share your experience.

You may also be interested in these articles:

 

Power Your Bike Tour With The SON Dynamo Hub

Posted January 31st, 2012

SON DynamoFor a constant source of power on the road and bike lights that never run out of charge, the SON Dynamo hub should be at the top of your bicycle wish list.

We’ve been testing our SON hubs (with Supernova E3 Pro front lights) for about a year. With some 5,000km of riding under our wheels, it’s fair to say that we’re more than pleased. Our love of the SON hub can be summed up in two main points:

1. Power On Demand - You can now run bike lights and charge your mobile phones, GPS systems and other small gadgets, purely through the power of your legs. It is wonderfully freeing to know that you don’t have to worry about batteries any more.

2. Reliable - These hubs are known to be almost worry-free. They come with a 5 year guarantee and should easily see you through a long bike tour. So far, we haven’t had any issues at all to report.

Keep reading our review of the SON dynamo hub.

Power To Go: The SON Dynamo Hub

Posted January 31st, 2012

SON DynamoFor a constant source of power on the road and bike lights that never run out of charge, the SON Dynamo hub should be at the top of your bicycle wish list.

We’ve been testing our SON hubs (with Supernova E3 Pro front lights) for about a year. That amounts to some 5,000km of riding. So far, we’re more than pleased. Our love of the SON hub can be summed up in two main points:

1. Power On Demand - You can now run bike lights and charge your mobile phones, GPS systems and other small gadgets, purely through the power of your legs. It is wonderfully freeing to know that you don’t have to worry about batteries any more.

2. Reliable - These hubs are known to be almost worry-free. They come with a 5 year guarantee and should easily see you through a long bike tour. So far, we haven’t had any issues at all to report.

Any disadvantages?

Nothing is perfect. Here are some potential downsides to consider. They’re not dealbreakers for us but you should be aware of them.

1. The Price – We paid €175 per hub. If you want to charge gadgets such as a mobile phone you’ll also need a separate adaptor. Ours is a prototype from Oddbikes (we’ve been told that the full production version will be on the market in March 2012 for about €85). Solutions currently on the market such as the E-Werk, PedalPower and ReeCharge cost about €100.

2. The Weight - Some people note that the hub is a bit heavy (580g) and generates extra resistance. We think the weight and drag is negligible when compared to the overall load of a heavy touring bike – not to mention all the extra batteries and chargers you’d be carrying around if you didn’t have the hub to provide power!

3. Not Field Serviceable - The SON hub is not meant to be repaired in the field. In the unlikely event that you do have problems with it, you’ll have to send it back to a dealer or the factory for repair.

How are we going to navigate this?A SON dynamo hub paired with a Supernova E3 Pro light.

What might go wrong?

We asked Marten Gerritsen, a dealer for SON hubs in the Netherlands, for some opinions on SON hubs and their reliability. He outlined the two most likely ‘worst-case’ scenarios as:

  • Electrical failure – This won’t stop you but will be annoying. Trying to ‘adjust the bearings’ is the main cause of this. A bad solder connection can also happen and to fix this you need special tools.
  • Bearing trouble - This usually happens because water got in the hub. The hub isn’t waterproof and shouldn’t be submerged, for example by crossing floods that are axle deep. Also do not grease the quick release as this blocks the vent hole. Bearing trouble starts as play at the rim, but if you ignore it eventually the bearing cage will collapse and leave you stranded. If you see rust water stains around the axle and detect a lot of play at the rim you’re living on borrowed time

Marten added that he’d never seen problems with broken flanges or with broken or bent axles.

In terms of preventative maintenance, he recommended checking the hub when the rim is replaced. Any play in the hub or irregular noises would be a sign that you should send the hub back to be rebuilt. The cost for this is around €50.

Marten added:

SON hubs come with a five year guarantee, based on experience. As far as the hub is concerned, a bike tour isn’t as bad as occasional use with long periods for corrosion in between. On a typical touring bike, chances are that a Rohloff hub will give trouble before the SON.

Another dealer, Peter White Cycles, says the hub is:

…designed to give at least 50,000 kilometers of trouble free riding between servicing…

That’s more than enough for most world bike tours. Bad luck can always happen but in general we’d be comfortable taking this hub on a long tour. And from the comments on our Facebook group, it seems a few other bike tourists love the SON hub as much as we do!

Dry Bags: The Way To Carry A Tent On Tour?

Posted January 15th, 2012

Dry BagsDry Bags are waterproof bags (often used by kayakers) with a roll-top closure at one end, which folds over itself a few times to form a totally waterproof seal.

We’ve always used a dry bag for bike touring. It’s a large Ortlieb bag that holds much of our camping gear: our tent (a Hilleberg Nallo 3GT), the poles, groundsheet and tarp.

The dry bag is big enough that sometimes we also stuff other things inside, such as extra food or our rain gear (if the rain gear is at the top, it’s really easy to reach when the sky goes grey). All of this goes in one big bundle on the back of the bike, between the panniers.

Dry Bag Between Our Panniers

See the red bag? It’s made by Ortlieb – a 22 liter dry bag (£16.50 from Wiggle). Ours is currently 6 years old and still going strong.

We thought the benefits were obvious but recently a reader wrote to ask what was so special about this dry bag:

Why would you need a dry bag for your tent which is designed to keep rain off you? If you arrive at a camp site and it looks like rain, you take your tent out of your expensive ‘dry bag’. It will remain lovely and dry… until it rains. When you put the wet tent into your ‘dry bag’ in the morning, after it has kept the rain off you all night, it will remain nicely wet in the ‘dry bag’ because ‘dry bags’ presumably do not let water in nor out. Please explain??!! -Bob.

That’s a fair question. Now that you mention it, maybe it is a bit confusing.

Here are the detailed reasons why we use a dry bag. (click to read more)

Dry Bags For Bike Touring: Do You Need One?

Posted January 14th, 2012

Dry BagsDry Bags are waterproof bags (often used by kayakers) with a roll-top closure at one end, which folds over itself a few times to form a totally waterproof seal.

We’ve always used a dry bag for bike touring. It’s a large Ortlieb bag that holds much of our camping gear: our tent (a Hilleberg Nallo 3GT), the poles, groundsheet and tarp.

The dry bag is big enough that sometimes we also stuff other things inside, such as extra food or our rain gear (if the rain gear is at the top, it’s really easy to reach when the sky goes grey). All of this goes in one big bundle on the back of the bike, between the panniers.

Dry Bag Between Our Panniers

See the red bag? It’s made by Ortlieb – a 22 liter dry bag (we bought it (from Wiggle). Ours is currently 6 years old and still going strong.

We thought the benefits of a dry bag were obvious but recently a reader wrote to ask for more information:

Why would you need a dry bag for your tent which is designed to keep rain off you? If you arrive at a camp site and it looks like rain, you take your tent out of your expensive ‘dry bag’. It will remain lovely and dry… until it rains. When you put the wet tent into your ‘dry bag’ in the morning, after it has kept the rain off you all night, it will remain nicely wet in the ‘dry bag’ because ‘dry bags’ presumably do not let water in nor out. Please explain??!! -Bob.

That’s a fair question. Now that you mention it, maybe it is a bit confusing. Here’s why we use a dry bag:
Ortlieb Dry Bag

  • Versatility. A dry bag can be used for many things, not just the tent. For example, ours usually held our tent + groundsheet + rain gear and other assorted bits and bobs.
  • Protects from rain during the day. One of Bob’s points was that a tent is “designed to keep rain off you” but that’s only true when it’s properly set up. If the tent is simply folded up on the back of your bike and it’s a rainy day on the road, a tent can be quite wet by the time you get to your campsite. A dry bag keeps a tent dry until you get into camp, where you can hopefully set it up quickly before it gets too wet.
  • Protects from the elements. Tent fabrics can be delicate (especially on ultralight tents) so a dry bag is an extra layer of protection from dust, debris, rough surfaces and UV rays.
  • Keeps the wet tent away from our other stuff. We don’t want our wet tent rubbing up against any of our gear, or making our panniers dirty. The dry bag keeps it contained, away from all our other equipment.
  • Durablity. Our dry bag is 6 years old. It’s been on a 3-year world tour plus numerous shorter trips. We expect it to last several more years, and would have no hesitation taking it on another world tour.

As for the question about putting a wet tent in a dry bag, we try to avoid this situation. If there is any dew on the tent, we pack everything else up first and do the tent last. Hopefully by that time the morning sun has dried away most of the moisture. We deal with any lingering wetness around mid-morning or at lunchtime, when we stop for a break and spread the tent out to dry.

On truly rainy days, and a few other odd occasions, the tent will have to be packed away wet but that will be a problem no matter how you’re storing your tent. Bike tour long enough and the time will come when you have to deal with several days of rain in a row, with no chance to dry out. That’s just life.

The good news is that in the short term, it’s no problem to carry a wet tent. The only thing that will suffer is your comfort (and that’s best solved by getting a hotel room, turning up the heat and hanging everything up to dry overnight). Problems with mold and mildew normally only start after a wet tent is stored in a relatively warm place for at least a couple of days.

What About You? 

That’s what we do. What about other bike tourists?

We asked our Facebook and Twitter followers to comment and we had over 50 replies! Of those, the vast majority (about 75%) also used a dry bag. If you’re looking for alternatives, however, there are many to choose from.

Perhaps the most popular reader tip came from Wade, who puts his tent in the rear pannier and then uses Gear Ties to secure the poles and stakes to his bike’s top tube.

Gear Ties!

Richard Welch also puts his tent in a pannier:

In A Pannier

Other options suggested by readers include:

1. In A Rucksack

Tent in a rucksack

2. In A Garbage Bag

In A Garbage Bag

3. Strapped On The Rear Rack

Strapped On The Rear Rack

Twitter - Dry Bag

4. Wrapped In Its Own Rain Fly

Twitter - Dry Bag

Do you use a dry bag? Leave a comment to share your experience.