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Reviews > Electronic Devices > Chargers > BioLite SolarPanel 5 > Test Report by Kurt Papke

BioLite SolarPanel 5

Test Series by Kurt Papke

Initial Report - September 8, 2016

Field Report - November 22, 2016

Long Term Report - January 24, 2017

Tester Information

Name: Kurt Papke
Age: 63
Gender: Male
Height: 6' 4" (193 cm)
Weight: 220 lbs (100 kg)
Email address: kwpapke at gmail dot com
City, State, Country: Tucson, Arizona USA

My backpacking venues have mostly been a combination of Minnesota, where I have lived most of my adult life, and Arizona where I moved to in 2009.  I have always been a "comfort-weight" backpacker, never counting grams, but still keeping my pack as light as easily attained.  I am a heavy user of electronics in the backcountry and always carry a battery to recharge my devices.

Initial Report

The BioLite SolarPanel 5 is a battery recharging device powered by the sun.  Unlike the BioLite SolarPanel 5+ it does not have a built-in battery for power storage.  The user must either charge the device directly, or carry a standalone battery to store power.

Product Information

bs01

Photos above include (starting in upper left and going counter-clockwise):
  • Upper left: packaging as seen from front.  In the upper-right corner is the "sundial" with no shadow, as this picture was taken indoors.
  • Middle left: set up on my patio in hazy morning sun showing the dot on the "sundial" near the middle of the crosshairs indicating the device is optimally aimed.
  • Bottom: back of packaging which includes usage instructions and specifications.
  • Middle right: charging my iPhone 5 on my patio.
  • Upper right: the little "lightning bolt" next to the battery icon indicates the iPhone is charging.

Manufacturer: BioLite Inc.
Manufacturer website: http://www.bioliteenergy.com
Model:
SolarPanel 5
Year of manufacture: 2016
Country of origin:
Designed in Brooklyn, NY
Manufactured in China
MSRP:
$59.95 USD
Color tested:
Only one color is available - as shown
Weight:
Listed: 12 oz (340 g)
Measured: 11.6 oz (329 g)
Dimensions:
Listed: 10.12 x 8.19 x 0.94 in (257 x 208 x 24 mm)
Measured: as listed, within my measurement accuracy
Warranty:
One year from purchase date
Materials:
Cells: Monocrystalline
Metal kickstand

The features listed by the manufacturer include:
  • 5W real-time power output.  Standard USB output port, no cable provided.
  • Auto reconnect when sun is obstructed.  I observed this in action immediately after setting it up by walking in front of the panel.
  • Analog sundial: dot + crosshairs to indicate when the panel is orthogonal to the sun's rays.
  • 360 degree kickstand - rotates fully around the unit to provide options for setting up or hanging the unit.
  • IPx4 weather resistance - should handle rain and dampness.
  • Corner latch points: grommeted holes in the lower corners to allow cord or carabiner attachment.
  • Charge strength LED indicator: there is a light-blue LED just above the USB port that blinks at a rate proportional to the amount of power being generated.  The more power, the faster it blinks.

Initial Inspection

After removal from the packaging I visually inspected the unit for manufacturing defects and found none.  No scratches from shipping, no plastic molding issues.  The kickstand rotates freely, but stays in place when set up.  The cover for the USB port is tethered to the unit, made of very soft plastic, and is easily removed for access.

The panel seems like it should be mechanically robust.  It is slightly flexible, not brittle, so I am optimistic it will stand up to field abuse.

I took it outside on a hazy Arizona morning, set it up and plugged it into my iPhone 5 using the USB-Lightning cable that comes with the phone.  The sundial made it very easy to aim the panel.  My iPhone immediately sensed the power and indicated it was charging.  I left it in the sun for about an hour, and the % charge of the phone did not change.  This is not encouraging.

I went to the BioLite website and downloaded the user manual for the device.  It contains some nice illustrations of the kickstand use, and how to interpret the charge strength LED indicator.

Summary

I am looking forward to getting the charger into the backcountry and seeing how it performs under field conditions.  It adds a fair bit of weight to my already heavy load of electronics gear, but if it can keep me going indefinitely it will be well worth it.

Things I Like So Far:

  • Lightweight.
  • Nice size: large enough that it should have significant power output, small enough to fit on the back or top of a pack.
  • Flexible and easy setup with the kickstand and sundial.
  • Sturdy - doesn't seem like it will be easy to break.

Things That Concern Me Upfront:

  • Power output.  I have never met a backpacker that has used a solar panel with success in the backcountry, and my initial test on my patio was not encouraging.  I live and do most of my hiking in southern Arizona, a locale that should be optimal for solar power generation, though we are heading into the Fall and Winter months where the sun will be lower in the sky.
  • How to piggyback my battery or phone while they are connected to the solar panel and strapped to my backpack.  I am going to have to ponder how to do this and not have things fall off.

Field Report

Field Usage

Date
Location
Trail
Distance
Altitude
Weather
Devices
Charged
October 4-6, 2016
Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness
Aravaipa Canyon
21 miles
(34 km)
2550-3400 ft
(840-1115 m)
43-80 F
(6-27 C)
sunny
iPhone 5,
headlamp
October 15-16, 2016
Mogollon Rim north of Payson, Arizona
none - car camp
0
7400 ft
(2260 m)
45-75 F
(7-24 C)
iPhone 5
November 10-11, 2016
Coronado National Forest, Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson, AZ
Romero Canyon
12 miles
(19 km)
2600-4800 ft
(790-1460 m)
40-75 F
(4-24 C)
Sunny with a light breeze

iPhone 5

Aravaipa Canyon

bs02This 3-day backpack trip was my first attempt to use the solar panel in the field.  The photo at left shows the panel attached to the back of my pack.  The weather was bright and sunny, but the canyon walls and occasional tree cover limited the amount of direct sunlight.

My first use was at lunch on day one.  I stopped for about an hour, placed the panel in direct sun, lined up the sundial for maximum exposure, and plugged in my iPhone 5 which was in Airplane and Low Power mode.  Over the course of the hour the charge gained on the 1440 mAh battery was about 4%.  This would imply roughly a 60 mA output, just over 1% of the rated amount.

My next use was on the hike out, when the sun was at my back.  I was hiking West during the morning hours, so I figured I'd get maximum exposure.  My headlamp had started indicating it was <50% charged, by means of a yellow LED indicator.  My thought process was the headlamp could take the beating riding in the front of my pack while being hooked up to the panel.  I left it plugged in all morning, and the 1800mAh battery gave no sign of rising over the 50% charge threshold.

This was fairly typical conditions for me, and I was quite disappointed that the solar panel provided so little power.

Mogollon Rim

This weekend outing was a "hammock hang", where hammock campers congregate to compare gear, drink beer and talk around a campfire.  The site was a camp area up on the Mogollon Rim, the edge of the Colorado Plateau in northern Arizona.  The campsite I chose was in an area of tall Ponderosa pines, but the spot where I stashed my pack on top of a picnic table was in the sun, so I thought I'd plug in my iPhone 5 to the solar panel for charging.  The following photos show the solar panel in the sun, and a screen capture of my phone before and after charging.

bs03

This was very disappointing.  After over an hour in the sun, in Airplane Mode (see the little airplane icon in the upper left corner), my phone LOST 6% of its charge!  How could this be?  I believe that as the panel went in and out of the sun from its movement across the tree canopy that the action the iPhone was taking to report that it was/was not charging actually consumed more power than what was generated by the panel.

Backyard Test

I was getting a bit frustrated with the device, so I thought it might be good to do a little more extensive backyard testing.  Plugged my iPhone 5 into the solar panel in my backyard, set to Airplane AND Low Power mode (see the yellow battery indicator in the photo below) and achieved a 16% charge in about 50 minutes.  Not bad.  My takeaway is the device needs to be in a consistently sunny spot and well-aimed for the duration of the charge to attain the listed performance:

bs04

Romero Canyon

This was a one-night backpacking trip located near my home.  It's a short hike, but a tough one.  I had my iPhone 5 plugged into the solar panel all the time I was on the trail, in Airplane Mode.

On the way up the canyon, I could hear my phone constantly "bonging" as the phone went in and out of charge state.  The net effect after five hours of hiking on a brilliant sunny Arizona day was a 2% charge of my iPhone.  I was pretty discouraged.

Before I set off on the way down I decided to set my phone on "Silent" and "Vibrate off".  It was the lowest power consumption mode I could think of.  I'd have no way of knowing if the phone was charging or not, but it wasn't important to me.  I checked the power level before and after my hike, and the net was a 21% charge over roughly five hours.  Woohoo!

Summary

The Good:

  1. The BioLite SolarPanel has been mechanically robust - no cracks, dents, broken stand, etc.
  2. It has been easy to mount to the front of my backpack, and easy to set up on a flat surface when stationary.
  3. Charging performance when stationary and perfectly aligned with the sun is acceptable.

The Bad:

  1. A smartphone connected to the panel will constantly go in/out of charge mode.  This means an iPhone cannot remain powered off (it will power up on the first charge it sees), and it can be quite a task to learn how to minimize phone power consumption resulting from the power cycling.  To maximize charging, the phone must be in: Airplane mode, Low Power mode, Silent with Vibration disabled.  This is a LOT to remember to do every time I want to charge my phone.
  2. The SolarPanel is very picky about sun alignment.  I was able to get some fractional charge of my phone when the panel was mounted to my backpack, but nothing remotely close to what the device achieves when stationary and perfectly aligned with the sun.

My bottom line from what I have seen in the first two months of use: the SolarPanel is most appropriate for basecamp use, not hung from the front of a backpack while hiking.

Long Term Report

Field Usage

Date
Location
Trail
Distance
Altitude
Weather
Devices
Charged
December 1-6, 2016
Grand Canyon National Park
Escalante Route
52 miles
(84 km)
256-7400 ft
(780-2260 m)
5-55 F
(-15-13 C)
sunny
iPhone 5

Escalante Route

The Escalante Route is one of the tougher hikes of the Grand Canyon, running along the Colorado River from the Tanner to the New Hance Trail.  We decided that wasn't difficult enough, so we tacked on several days of the Tonto Trail and exited the South Kaibab.

In principle this should have been a good hike to use a solar charger: there are few trees to block the sun, and our route on the Escalante and Tonto is pretty much East to West, so mornings should have a fair sun exposure.  The reality was quite different.  I plugged in my iPhone 5 several times in the morning before setting off, and saw a charge of 5-10% during the morning hike.  There were some days with a bit of a haze, but also the trails are rarely due West.  They meander North and South to follow the cut of the canyons.  Also, we were probably in shade about 50% of the time due to the buttes and other formations in conjunction with the low winter sun angle.  The following photo shows the panel attached to my backpack near the intersection of the Tonto and South Kaibab trails.

bs05

This was an arduous hike with some serious scrambling.  The panel sustained a few scratches, but managed to make the entire journey and keep on kicking, which is no mean feat.

Summary

bs06My experience during the second two months reinforced my conclusion from the Field Report: this solar panel is great for a basecamp application where it can be kept well-aligned with the sun.  It is not appropriate for attaching to the back of one's pack during a hike and expecting to get a serious amount of device charging.

The device itself is quite mechanically robust and reliable.  I didn't baby it at all, and it really took a lot of punishment on the Escalante.  The front of my pack  suffered some tears along the front close to where the solar panel was strapped to it, yet the charger continues to function.  The photo at left shows what the surface looked like at the end of the test, just a few minor scratches.  It looks much better than my pack does!



Thanks to BackpackGearTest.org and BioLite for the opportunity to contribute to this test.



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Reviews > Electronic Devices > Chargers > BioLite SolarPanel 5 > Test Report by Kurt Papke



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