Note: 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…
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.
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.
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).
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: