Harbor Freight 45 Watt Solar Kit
- Charge her laptop
- Charge her cell phone
- Power her Verizon Jet Pack internet device
- Have a light to read by at night.
She already had a marine battery that she charged off her car battery, but the first thing you must do when you live on a very small budget is stop driving. For most of us, spending money on gas is our single highest expense that we can control. We can’t stop eating but when you boondock in the desert you can stop driving. The result was that she doesn’t drive enough to keep her marine battery charged. She has a source of income but it requires the internet and the internet requires electricity to charge her laptop and Jet Pack. As a result, when she found a coupon for the 45 watt Solar Panel kit for $140 she decided that she had no choice but to dip into her savings to get one and we drove to Indio to pick it up.
This was my first direct experience with the kit and I have been surprised by how well it is working. Everything seems like its reasonably good quality and there wasn’t anything I thought was junk and would break right away. Getting it out of the box and setting it up was quite simple and the wiring is all clear and easy to connect. Anybody who can read can put this system together and be producing power in an easy afternoon.
Since my friend is an older woman and lives in her car, the system could not be too big or heavy. Fortunately, it isn’t, she can handle it no problem. The PVC frame bolts together with bolts and wing nuts. There are a lot of them so it takes some time to assemble and disassemble but with some patience anyone can do it. Once it’s taken apart it’s all light and fairly small so it’s easy for her to put away into the car when she moves camp from place to place.
The frame holds the panels at a perfect 45 degree angle to the sun which gives them maximum power production. They are light enough to turn with the sun during the day, but my friend finds it easier to just point them due south and leave them alone. I was concerned that the wind (which is a constant in the desert) would catch them and send them flying, but so far that has not been a problem. And if it is she can just lay the panels flat on the ground.
I have to be honest and say up till now I have been reluctant to recommend them. The price is right at $150-$200, but the quality is not high. The panels come with a 5 year warranty and the electrical components have a 1 year warranty. That’s a very short warranty for those items. Nearly all fixed solar panels come with a 20 or 25 year warranty and all the solar controllers I know of come with a 5 year warranty. The short warranty is indicative of the lower quality of the parts. An example of the lower quality is that they use regular glass instead of safety glass to cover the solar panels. Safety glass is the same glass as in your car’s windshield and side windows and it is very tough glass. We have all seen it take a hard blow by a rock and all it does is just make a chip mark without any real damage to the glass. The glass on the Harbor Freight panels is just like the glass in your house; even the smallest blow will break it. I have a good friend with the Sunforce 60 watt kit (it’s very much like the HF kit except it has four 15 watt panels) and he dropped it and the glass broke. The panel kept working just fine and produces just as much power.
I think you are still better off buying better components. Here is the price of a simple system I can piece together right now:
- 195 watt solar panel (made in Germany)-$210
- Solar Controller (made in the USA)-$200
So for $450 I can assemble a 195 watt system with much higher quality components. The solar panel will have a 25 year warranty instead of the 1 year on the harbor freight panels. It costs a lot more money up front, but it is 4 times bigger. If you multiply the price of the Harbor Freight kit times 4 to make it the same size, it costs around $600 for 195 watts. That means it cost much more and you get lower quality components. However, you also have to factor in the cost of installation. While I think installing solar is simple enough anyone can do it, I am well aware that most people aren’t even willing to try. So you will have to add in the cost of installation when comparing the prices.
However, if all you have is $150 and no room to mount a panel, the Harbor Freight kit may be perfect for you!!
There is another option that might work and that is flexible solar panels, and we will talk about that in a later post.
Thanks for the information on the solar kit and its alternatives.
I appreciate how you keep a good balance, in the focus of your posts, between the informational and practical on the one hand…and, on the other, the motivational and inspirational.
Thanks Michael, balance is very important in life. I strive for it, and sometimes (not very often) actually achieve it!
I also want to thank you for realizing that not everyone is at the same level of commitment, ability, need or finance. The HF system would also be great for a tent dweller or someone who just isn’t sure if they are cut out for the simple life. At $150, the system is inexpensive enough (and looks to be portable enough) that if a person is just a part time or temporary van dweller, they could also just take the system back to a stick built to use occasionally on short trips.
I always get discouraged, as a wannabee – but not ready to take the plunge yet, when a person insists that it is only right if you do it their way. A lot of us need to “wade in” and take things a bit at a time.
Janet I agree with you totally! That is a very good point and I wish I had made it! Not everyone is going to love vandwelling and they may try it and hate it. An expensive system on the roof of the van will probably be wasted. But setting up the HF Kit in the back yard and keeping a battery charged would be a great thing in a storm or a power failure. Or taking them camping is a great idea! So buying them is not such a huge commitment or waste of money.
Some people are ready to go “all in” and change their lives totally. But others are not so just putting their toes in the waters first is a very good idea.
Janet, as a wannabee you are as valuable to me as someone going “all-in”. I am very glad you are here and want to serve you in any way I can! Who knows, maybe one of these days you will be ready to go “all-in” and even if not, you are always welcome.
Hey Bob, snows getting deep here in upstate New York. About (3) feet so far. Getting our January thaw now. Great job on keeping us aware of our electrical and all the boon docking options. Again, Thanks for all you do! Brian
Thank you, Brian, for reminding me that their are a lot of cold areas in the country. We are complaining about how cold it is here with daytime highs of around 60 and 40 at night. I’m glad I am here and not there!
You are welcome, gathering and sharing information is kind of my thing!
Another informative post. Nice you had the opportunity to objectively comment on this less expensive system. Have you had opportunity to try out those rollup systems of flexible solar panels? Those seem reasonable, as well.
Joy, yes I have installed two of the Unisloar flexible panels for friends. A person here just bought the components and we will set it up pretty soon. Another member of the group here is probably about to order them from Amazon. As you can probably tell, I am a big fan of the them and recommend them. I will write about them soon. Bob
I don’t know much about anything, but after practicing law for 40 years, I can tell you that trying to cllect on a warranty is almost impossible. It is a very rare case that a company actually accepts your claim and makes good.
So, if you buy something other than a car, warranties don’t mean much. If I buy something for a few hundred dollars and they try and sell me an extended warranty I always decline. This because I don’t trust them and more important, as technology advances and prices come down, you are frequently better off buying a new widget. Think about the cost of a 46″ plasma TV a few years ago and what you can buy them for today.
Gary you are right, warranties have lost their value. In our disposable world we just think I’ll buy a new one rather than fight over a warranty or wait for months for it be repaired and sent back.
But let me tell you a story. Kyocera is a big korean company that makes top quality solar panels, I have two of them. A fee years back they put out a bad production run of panels, 90,000 total. They stood by their warranty and replaced every one of them. Now that is not a regular occurrence but in that case the warranty made a difference.
I feel better buying from a company with a good, long warranty, even if I don’t ever use it.
Bob, I had a 75 watt Kyocera panel I bought in Scottsdale, AZ probably 12 years ago. About 6 years later it quit….took it back to the place I bought it and they gave me a new one. Great warranty. It still works BTW.
Norm(living in my RV) near Maricopa, AZ
Norm, that’s a great story, thanks for telling it! I have two Kyocera panels and they are great. They cost a little more but I think they are well worth it. It’s also good to buy from a local dealer. If you buy a panel off eBay, who are you going to call if there is a problem with it?
You aren’t very far away from here, if you get out this away, stop by and say hello!
Solar is the best. Second best is wind power especially if you’re in the windy desert. Why not purchase a seperate alternator, even a cheaply rebuilt one, attach it to a small propeller which can be made very cheaply out of a piece of 6″PVC pipe as per youtube videos, and attach to a pole. Properly tethered this can be a very sturdy power source. I worked on a windmill farm in Northern CA and we generated tons of energy. Altamont Pass anyone!!! Go Niners.
We think a lot alike Martin, I love, love, love solar power!! I am also a big fan of wind power, but as a snowbird it would only be useful to me a few months of the year, so I don’t have it.
I know there are plans for a build-it-yourself wind generator on the net. I am not a tinkerer so I haven’t really looked into it. Thanks for pointing that out!
Exactly what I need to hear. Just this weekend purchased my vehicle, an ambulance, and next step is to attach solar energy. As the ambulance top is very high I’m not sure how to attach a solar panel or if the flexible type would be better. I’m investigating right now.
Thanks for sharing all this excellent information.
The reason I bought the ambulance is mostly because of the motor. It is a 1993, ford 350L,7.3, with only 68,000 miles on it. The box is large, insulated, has lots of storage inside and outside. As soon as I get a bed rigged in it I will be ready to go. It is a hoot to drive and beeps when you back up.
Diane, it sounds like you made a great choice. I agree, the Ford 7.3 diesel is a great engine and with just 68,000 miles it’s barely broken in. Plus, ambulances get very good maintenance–you can’t have one break down in the middle of a call!! It should serve you extremely well for many, many years!
Flexible panels work really well and have lots of advantages. However, just the fact that the roof is high does not mean you can’t attach solar panels. It can be done if you want to. The main advantage of flexible panels is that you can park the van in the shade in the heat and move the panels out into the sun.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask.
Thanks for the information on less-expensive solar. “All-in” or not, I will surely be running on an extreme budget. This kind of information is what I need. I look forward to the post on flexible panels.
I like to see all the alternatives to achieve something. Showing the cheap route is great because it allows one to test the waters without going to deep. Solar is getting a very devoted following from its users. So I guess there’s something to it.
Are you still going on daily hikes with Homer even though you’re not in the forest at this time?
CAE, solar is a time tested and proven commodity, I can’t recommend it enough!
Yes, we still walk morning and night 365 days a year. It is a fixed and total habit by now. The desert is hard on Homers paws so I am careful on where we walk. I try to stick to roads for his sake. Also, he is getting older and the walks have gotten shorter for his sake. I shoot for 45 minutes in the morning and 45 minutes in the evening. That’s where I get my sunset pictures!
Lot’s of people joining me on my walks here at the RTR! Probably 8-10 morning and night!
Some stores may still have the old version in stock, the one with the PVC frame is lighter and probably better. If you don’t have a stack of HF coupons it might be worth buying a sunday paper for them, they usually let you combine the 20% off with the other coupon dispite what it says.
Blars, good tip. My guess is that it varies by store how strict they are enforce the policy, but the store we were at would not allow us to use the 20% off coupon with the $139 coupon. I think that would have brought it down to such a cheap price they didn’t like it.
I have an old one of those on my `70 Ford E300. I had a frame made of 1″ angle that holds all three panels. That frame has two tabs on one side. Those tabs line up with the two bicycle front fork skewers that are on my roof rack for carrying our mtn bikes. The other end rests on the second rail (and I have a rigged up clamp to hold it still while driving). I then wired the wiring into a trailer plug and mounted the receiving part in the wall of my van, just below the rain gutter, with wires running to the charge controller.
If I feel like parking in the shade I can remove the panels (all in one frame) from the rack just by pulling the skewers and disconnecting the trailer plug. It could then be set out in the sun and be still wired to the van with an extension cord made up with matching trailer plugs.
Is that confusing enough? 😉
Hi LowTech yes, I think I got it and it sounds great!! ! Looks like a very good system to allow you to mount them permanently to the roof and yet take them off when you need. I also like the trailer plug idea as a quick disconnect.
Thanks for the tip!
Happy New Year! I purchased this same HF solar kit on a $145 coupon two years ago. I use the system in my backyard shed. The price was right for a primer in a solar kit. I mated the pieces to a “repurposed” lawn mower battery. Although I use the included lights only rarely, so far after 2 years, the electronics have maintained that older battery, providing me with almost 20 minutes of light. BTW-I do find that cleaning makes a BIG difference in the panels’ capabilities, as my shed sits partially under a tree.
IL Dan, I hear your story over and over, people buy the HF kit and it exceeds their expectations. It’s a very good value for the money. I’m glad you got it for such a good deal and is meeting your needs!
Great read, has anyone tried the security film used on household door and window glass, on pv systems. Not sure of cost on such a small project.
Charles, I am not familiar with security film. But it has to be clear, it can’t impede light flow in any way. Plexiglass might work, but again, it must not impede the flow of light. The bottom line is I don’t really know the science of light to know what would work or not. Sorry!
I need answer on that question as well.
Anyone have experiences with this ?
I used security film on the windows of my house with very good results. The 8 mill is self sticking and I thought easy to install. Think of super thick automotive window tinting, except it is clear. I’m not sure that it would prevent the glass from breaking but it will keep it in place after it is broken. It doesn’t strengthen the glass at all but is uv resistant. After 5 years it haasn’t yellowed at all and I can barely tell it is there. I use one of he HD kits mounted on top of my garage to maintain my class A batteries in the garage, I’ve had it for 3 years and it still seems to be working fine. They are cheap but very light weight compared to regular panels that must meet building codes.
Roy, sounds like that is working out well for you. The regular glass in those panels is their only real weak link and that sounds like a good solution. Thanks for sharing it!
I’ve been following your website for a few years & gained a wealth of info for my travels. “Boondocking” has saved me a small fortune! So now checking out the blog to expand my knowledge (<:
Solar is one of my next projects & one of the things I know least about. So, wondering what brands you would recommend? I'm on a budget, but want good quality, of course.
Also, need to figure out the wattage I need. I mostly just use my laptop, smartphone, & portable fan. However, I would like to decrease reliance on batteries & expand my capability with items such as a teapot, battery charger, some small lighting, & maybe a little auto/tent heater. I also need a small portable unit to keep my smartphone/gps charged when hiking.
Complicating matters is the fact that I travel, for now, in a small hatchback car & space is at a premium. Plan to utilize the roof for a carrier.
Thanks for any advise you can give!
Roozter, living in a car is limiting for solar, but it can be done. I just did a post on the Harbor Freight 45 watt kit which can be used in a car. Another choice is the Unisolar flexible solar panels which can roll up and be stored for transport. There is now a folding 90 watt system that is outstanding but expensive at $400 but it includes panel, controller and wiring and is entirely plug-n-play.
Those all work great but are not practical if you are in a city because there are very few places you can set out a solar panel. Somethings that might work better are:
1) Energizer solar LED light (which has a link to Amazon on the blog). It’s a really great light and you can leave it on the dashboard to charge.
2) Another thing to get is a solar battery charger for AA or AAA rechargeable batteries. Then use those for your flashlight, radio, fan, etc. Do a search on Amazon for one. Do a search on amazon for “solar battery charger”.
3) Goal Zero is a company that specializes in small, portable solar chargers for phones, iPads and electronics. Search Amazon for “goal zero solar.”
4) Another option is an emergency battery jumper pack that charges from both 12 volt and 110 outlets. Charge it while you drive and take it into MacDonalds, Barnes and Nobles or the library, etc. in a back pack and plug it into their 110 outlet while you eat or read. Take all your electronic devices in with you in the backpack and plug them all into a power-strip and charge the power-strip into the 110 outlet.
Cooking and heating are generally not practical from solar. Propane is much, much better for that!
I bought two of the old HF 45 watt kits, installed them on my roof rack with hinges, screws and a wood frame. The second year I painted the wood frame and just bolted it down to the roof rack flat. It seemed to power a coolmatic chest refrigerator, Phone charger, LED interior lights, and lap top (The lap top would run the battery down in about 4 hours if I used the 110 volt power supply and a 300 Watt inverter, But with the straight 12 volt lap top power supply I never had any troubles.)
Mine are the aluminium framed panels, The ones like mine that I have seen broken were two sheets of glass. The top glass sheet is sheet tempered (breaks in little pieces and the back panel had the solar media deposited between the glass). All six panels have survived nickel sized hail storms.
I have both Chrystaline and amorphous panels. Where the chrystaline panels produce more power for the same area.
The Amorphous (HF) panels aren’t shut down as drastically in partial shade.
LaMarr, I’m glad it is working out so good for you. Are those the same panels you had at the first RTR? That was a long time ago, they’ve served you very well!
I just came across a reference to a hand-crank generator today and wondered if anyone here has had experience with such a thing. I saw this on Twitter, so I have no idea if it is reliable or has drawbacks. Here’s the link to the company’s site: http://www.emergencyhandcrankgenerator.com/
Thanks for any feedback.
WriterMs, first time I have ever seen that so I don’t have any feedback. It is a scientifically valid idea, the electricity that runs our home is created essentially the same way; the power source to turn the turbine is just different. Whether it works or is actually practical you would have to actually use one to know, or read reviews from someone you trust to know. If I ever hear of someone using it I will pass their verdict along.
I have never been all that impressed with harbor freight. Im with you. Piecing it out is the way to go if you can afford it.
I agree totally, but for some people on a very tight budget or unable to do their own work, nothing else will do.