Portable power stations can be a lifesaver in many situations. Whether you find yourself in a blackout with no backups or need to charge up some electronics while camping, this is an essential item for camping and home. We look at how portable power stations work and how to pick the best one fit for purpose.
A portable power station’s main component is a rechargeable battery. This battery stores charge and release it in DC form or AC form via its outputs. The outputs can include AC, USB, or Cigarette lighter plugs. A power station can be charged with either an AC charger or using solar panels. They are also referred to as solar generators.
To understand how it works we need to look at these components.
Components of a Power Station
A power station is made up of different components. The main component is the battery with all the other components supporting functions either to charge the battery or power devices from the battery.
As stated before the main component of the power station is the rechargeable battery. Portable power stations were first created for miners who work in deep trenches and were made from Lead-acid batteries. Lead-acid batteries are cheaper but heavier and do not last as long. Modern power stations consist mainly of lithium-ion batteries which are more stable, lighter, and can be recharged quicker and easier.
Power in the battery is stored in the form of DC power. In order to use power from to power AC appliances which is most of the appliances in our homes like TVs, laptops or blenders you need to convert the power to AC power.
A power station will need an Inverters to convert DC power from a battery to AC current for household use. Inverters come in many different sizes and shapes, as well as with different features to suit their specific use. So the type and size of inverter in the power station will determine what devices it can power.
There are basically two main types of inverters, pure sine wave and modified sine wave . Pure sine wave inverters produce power that is very close, if not exactly the same as the power an electric company delivers to your home. This is the type of inverter that you’ll find in most portable power stations.
Since most power stations can be charged using a solar panel a Charge controller is a must. A charge controller is a device that regulates the input power from the solar panels into the battery to prevent overcharging.
It does this by checking the voltage of the battery and disconnecting the solar panels once the battery is fully charged. It is a critical component of a stand-alone solar system. Again there are two main types of charge controllers; PWM and MPPT charge controllers.
The two basically perform the same function but MPPT controllers (Maximum Power Point Tracking) enable better performance from the solar panel to drive as many amps to the battery.
Battery Management System
A Battery Management System is vital in Lithium batteries. It’s a system that monitors things such as battery voltage, regulating when power is coming from the battery and when to charge it. Not to be confused with the charge controller the BMS is part of the battery and most lithium-ion batteries cannot function without it.
Inputs and Outputs
The inputs allow you to charge the battery and the outputs to charge or power your device. The inputs can include DC and AC inputs that allow you to charge the power station from a wall socket or solar panel. The outputs can include AC, USB or Cigarette lighter plugs to charge your phone, laptops and power your appliances.
What are the important factors when choosing a portable power station?
There are several factors that should be considered before purchasing a power station. But the main ones are from the component quality that we just discussed. These will determine the type of use, portability, and efficiency.
Battery capacity determines the amount of power you can get from a power station. The bigger the battery capacity the more energy it stores and that means longer run times for devices.
Battery Capacity is measured in Kilowatt-hours. This gives the total storage capacity derived from Voltage and amp-hours. Capacity (Watt-hours) = Voltage x Ah
The inverter converts DC to AC power. As stated before a pure sine inverter will release the power that is similar to what is supplied in a home but that’s not to say you can power everything. An inverter will be rated for running wattage and surge capacity. The surge capacity is the initial oomph that is required to start an appliance while running wattage is maintaining the power to run the device continuously.
Some devices require more starting power and even if the power station can run it if it doesn’t have the surge capacity to start the device the appliance won’t run. These devices include blenders, coffee makers and electric kettles that have an average surge capacity of around 1500 watts. The bigger surge and running watts will also require a bigger battery hence if you need to power more devices that are pulling more power you will need a big power station.
The outlets will determine the devices you can power. Of course, the outlets must include both DC and AC outputs. Some power stations have two-pronged or three-pronged AC power, 5v USB or USB-C ports, car chargers and DC ports. Some recent power stations also have wireless charging pads for phones and iPads.
Once you have considered the size and capacity of the battery pack in the power station, as well as its wattage output, here are some other factors that should be taken into consideration: weight and price. You do not want to carry around a heavy power station that cannot hold its own weight, especially if you may need to walk with it at some point! Also, you should always choose the most affordable option unless you know exactly what features are important to you and why.
We have listed some of the best portable power stations in another article.
How long will a Portable Power Station Run a Device?
If you are considering a portable power station the most important thing to determine first is the total amount of power you will require in order to run everything you intend to. Every electrical device requires a certain amount of watts in order to run.
As you might imagine, the more watts a device requires, the shorter it will run on battery. If we take a 300 watt-hour power station with a inverter rating of 300 watts. Then this power station can power station could run a 30-watt table lamp for about 10 hours if it was the only thing drawing energy from the battery.
Likewise, a 700 watt-hour power station with an inverter rating of 1000 watts can run a 200 watt mini fridge for about 3 hours. And remember, that’s just by itself, with nothing else drawing from the battery. So of course this must also be taken into consideration when comparing generators.