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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.