It is surprisingly easy.
Nine days ago, I arrived home to find a big cardboard box waiting on my desk. Inside was a woven nylon folder that opened to reveal four page-sized solar panels. Also in the box was a battery with a USB slot and an inverter with an international plug. In other words, a Sherpa 50 solar power kit from Goal Zero.
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A lot of solar charging equipment suffers from a marked lack of durability. Goal Zero brags that the Nomad 13.5 watt solar panels can survive -40 F Arctic mornings and the ocean's ice-cold backwash. The battery can hold 50 Watt-hours of juice and charges in eight hours. I knew at once that this was the right opportunity to take my smartphone...off the grid. I've always felt bad about how much power my various electronic gew-gaws draw. If the sun can defray some of that cost and environmental impact, I'm willing to put up with a little extra hassle.
For the last eight days, I've taken my new solar panels out every morning and used the stored Sun Mojo to juice up my smartphone at night. I use the hell out of an HTC Evo with a 3500 mAh li-polymer battery, so we're not talking about an inconsequential power drain.
The first three days were relatively sunny, for January in Texas. I charged the battery up to 60% twice and 80% once. Sliding it onto the roof worked best. Laying it out flat on the ground left it at the mercy of trees.
The fourth day was overcast, and freezing sleet started to rain down late in the afternoon. I barely got the battery up to 40%, but that was enough to keep my Evo humming along to the next (snowy) day.
With everything covered in ice, I couldn't get the panels to stay up on the roof any longer. So I stuck them up on the barbecue grill. Despite below-freezing temperatures and all-day snow flurries, there was enough sunlight to juice me up to 40%. I didn't have issues until the second day of the snow storm.
Heavy use lead me to drain my battery, and most of the stored solar juice. So I made it almost a full week on solar energy alone- and I've gone back to panels for the last two days with no issues.
Final Impressions: This 13.5 watt panel is perfect for keeping an exceptionally greedy smartphone fed. If you live in a particularly overcast region, I'd suggest one of these 18 watt Coleman panels. Three sell for $365, which is enough power to keep your family texting and tweeting in the greenest way possible.
I haven't tried to take my laptop or a tablet off the power grid yet, but I'd imagine something like this 24 watt SolarDirect kit would work. Goal Zero also has a 27 watt folding panel that might do the trick for a larger device.
Is it Practical? I can't speak for people in Seattle, but in this chunk of the American south a kit like the Sherpa is a perfectly practical way to keep your smartphone running. It'll add a minute or two to your daily routine, but your smartphone will be safe from brown-outs and you'll have the satisfaction of doing mother nature a solid.
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